A couple weeks ago, CN’s Kenny Morse wrote a superb column on the decline of fun in youth sports (which you can read here if you haven’t yet). Kenny hit the nail in the head in that article when he suggested a reason for the drop-off: Look at some of the adults involved in these leagues.
Over the last few years especially, I’ve seen the increase in some pathetic trends. The one that stands out is the “everybody-wins-and-gets-a-trophy-because-losing-is-fine” mentality, which goes hand-in-hand with the “don’t-do-anything-that-might-make-my-child-feel-badly” train of thought.
Kenny was spot-on when he said some parents are afraid their kids will be “scarred for life” if they’re cut from a team or a coach yells at them. Yeah, because the kid’s never going to ever feel badly about himself when he gets older, so why let him start now?
I was on the board of directors of the Robert A. Cole Baseball League for three years, but I immediately disassociated myself with the league when Little League overtook the old Fathers’ League in 2009 because I foresaw such problems as are happening now.
Coaches always knew their roles when I was involved in the league and valued sportsmanship while trying to win, as evidenced by some of the past players in the league, including Hourigans, Kingsleys, Skibeks, and the rest.
There never used to be problems with umpires—who always were volunteers or scantly paid kids from town.
“Back when I was running the league we had volunteers,” former president and current certified umpire Steve Zsiga said. “They did an excellent job. You’re paying a guy a little now to do a job and he’s going to do the best job he possibly can.”
Apparently, now some of the coaches—like their kids—don’t want their feelings to be hurt and have to get things their way, even if it takes some whining and complaining. So was the case this spring in the RACBL and the Beacon Falls Girls’ Softball League when two umpires—completely within their rights—ejected two coaches. Those coaches took exception, leading to each league’s board disciplining the umpires worse than the coaches.
There are so many problems with this situation that it’s difficult to know where to start. Let’s start with the fact that if the umpire is not given respect and authority, how exactly is a game supposed to function?
Rule 9 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball states, “The umpires shall be responsible for the conduct of the game in accordance with these official rules and for maintaining discipline and order on the playing field during the game. … Each umpire is the representative of the league … and has authority to disqualify any player, coach, manager or substitute for objecting to decisions or for unsportsmanlike conduct or language, and to eject such disqualified person from the playing field.”
Seems pretty clear to me, but keep that passage in mind when we see how the umpires were treated after each incident.
Beacon Falls resident Anthony DelMoro—who has been umpiring in town almost as long as I have—umpired a game in May between a Derby team and a Beacon Falls team, coached by Tony Grillo. Late in the game (which Beacon Falls was lopsidedly losing), Grillo brought in a new pitcher with the bases loaded and two outs to face Derby’s best hitter, who had already hit a triple and a home run.
“His warm-up pitches were all right down the plate and I knew he could hit his target nine out of 10 times,” DelMoro says of the new pitcher. “I saw that the Beacon Falls team was frustrated and they decided to pitch way inside. I stepped out and said, ‘Pitcher, don’t throw inside and hit him on purpose.’”
Grillo objected to the warning and left the dugout to ask DelMoro about the call.
“All I did was come out of the dugout and asked him why,” Grillo says. “If he can throw a strike every time, God bless him.”
DelMoro says he told Grillo what he told the pitcher, then DelMoro and field umpire Bob Egan told Grillo to retreat to the dugout. DelMoro says things got out of control after the next pitch.
“They started flipping out in the dugout,” DelMoro says. “I saw hats flying. I saw the head coach storm out of the dugout at me, then I heard swear words, and at that point in time I threw the coach out of the game. I felt like I was in charge and I had the right thing to do.”
Grillo denies swearing during the incident.
“Right hand to God, I never said a word,” Grillo says. “He said, ‘You’re outta here,” and I walked out. Never said another word. One of the parents must have said that. I don’t swear at these kids, I don’t swear in this dugout. As far as I’m concerned, I’m good for the kids.”
RACBL president Dave Bodnar says the board of directors did not believe Grillo swore.
“I’m sure somebody swore,” Bodnar says. “I don’t believe it was Grillo. [DelMoro] is the only person who thought he heard Grillo swear. He did the right thing if that’s the case.”
I have officiated baseball and basketball for about eight years, and I know for a fact that I am the only one in the gym or at the field who can hear some coaches say things, including swears. I cannot be sure whether Grillo was or was not the man who swore, but there are two bottom lines here.
First, whoever is swearing—whether it was a coach or a parent—needs to remove himself from youth sports. There is no room for foul language around 10- and 12-year-old boys at a baseball game, and that person should be ashamed.
Second, no matter if a coach agrees or disagrees with a decision by the umpire, it must stand. If the umpire doesn’t have authority over a game, who does? A number of sources, both former league officials and umpires, have told me there is no way coaches can dictate who can or cannot umpire their games.
But that’s exactly what happened. Bodnar says the board voted, 5-1, in favor of not allowing DelMoro to umpire any more of Grillo’s games. Bodnar was the only member of the board to disagree with the decision.
“The reason behind that was they felt they wanted to avoid any other situations,” Bodnar says. “I disagreed with that because I thought the umpire acted accordingly and he did the right thing.”
Following this decision, DelMoro and I drafted a letter to the league informing the board that we would no longer umpire. Egan—an umpire of 40-plus years—resigned as well. According to Bodnar, “He wouldn’t work for a board that wouldn’t support his umpires.”
What else were we supposed to do? The umpires—who worked for less money than certified officials—were completely disrespected by the league and all those who supported the decision. The most ironic thing about the situation was that DelMoro and I were practically begged before the season to umpire again. Hypocrisy at its finest.
“I thought that it was a very unfair process,” DelMoro says. “I saw the coaches could pick who they wanted or didn’t want to umpire their games and that is just not fair. I don’t see that happening in any other form of baseball.”
Grillo says he didn’t necessarily want to ban umpires from his games, but he thinks the decision is best.
“It’s a small town,” Grillo says. “Everybody knows each other. It’s better getting paid umpires so there’s not a conflict. I don’t think we’re really choosing. We don’t need in-town people doing our games. You guys know kids on the teams. Just end all the nonsense and get paid umpires. I wouldn’t want to do a game knowing all these people.”
I don’t believe it for a second. For many years this was never a problem. I knew almost every kid and coach and never once was there an incident where I had to eject anybody. In fact, when I would show up to do games, kids would often come up to me and tell me they were glad I was umpiring their game.
An extremely similar incident occurred in the BFGSL just weeks later in which longtime umpire Lori Masters ejected coach Joe Rodorigo for swearing. Masters was later demoted to umpiring the league’s minor division and will not umpire in the future, according to several sources.
BFGSL president Chris Doiron says the incident had little to do with the league’s decision to stop using Masters as an umpire.
“We just had an issue the whole year with only being able to get one umpire [Masters],” Doiron says. “We thought in the best interest of the league was to try to get something more consistent. They were two separate issues.”
I don’t think so. If they were completely separate, the decision to demote and then remove Masters as an umpire wouldn’t have come right after the incident in which she ejected Rodorigo. Kevin Burke, both a former president and former umpire in the league, says the situation should have been handled much differently.
“The way to go would have been to vote at a league meeting after the season and tell her they decided to go in a new direction,” Burke says. “I was shocked to hear she was removed and not given at least the end of the year. She’s never been late, any time I ever asked her to ump. All the girls always loved Lori Masters. I don’t know how it could deteriorate so fast after so many years. If anything, she should get an award.”
Instead, both incidents were handled with haste and disrespect. Forget the fact that both leagues just took the final step to remove in-town umpires, who have come free or at a discount for decades; what kind of example does this set for the kids in these leagues? Children can now see that instead of owning up to the consequences of one’s actions, complaining and whining are more viable options to dealing with bad situations.
I sit back and think about all this and only one question comes to my mind: What in the hell are this town’s sports leagues coming to? For years and years—back before my father’s days—things worked without a hitch. Now, new folks come in, take control, and these kinds of incidents happen within just a couple of years.
I don’t mean to say every coach and board member contributes to this problem, because I know many of them are great volunteers. But kicking out other volunteers and semi-volunteers? Unbelievable.
“I think it’s ridiculous if they say you can’t go ahead and do these games because if they get paid less than a patch umpire, the league’s kicking itself and kicking volunteers out,” Zsiga says. “These guys are there to help the kids. I’d love them to keep the volunteer umpires because they have kids interested in the sport. I would love them to keep it the way it was. But unfortunately we lost that battle and now it’s just a byproduct of the coaches and the league wanting to go this way.”
I know some of you are thinking this is just some rant or sour grapes. Absolutely not. Everybody I’ve talked to feels the same way about how far things have fallen. I know I did things the right way when I was involved. People tell me all the time that “it’s not the same” without me at the Beacon Falls Rec announcing, umpiring, coaching, and keeping the league organized.
I’ve had many of the players I’ve coached tell me I’m one of—if not—the best coaches they’ve ever played for, and others tell me I’m one of the best umpires they ever had. But never did I forget what my job was—teaching baseball to children and giving them the chance to have fun, and I’m proud to say I’ve always done that.
Baseball and softball in Beacon Falls and this area never used to be about the guy standing in the third base coach’s box. Now, the game has become more about them than the kids.
“The sports have changed,” Burke says.
Yes, they have—and for the worse.