Youth leagues just aren’t the same: Problems make games hard on umps, parents, kids

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 24, 2004

Spent a day at the Demopolis SportsPlex? It’s hardly a pastime.

Once considered a bastion for all good things America, baseball – at its most primitive level – doesn’t necessarily depict kids with muddy faces and untied cleats. Sure, there are the good days when one team rallies in the bottom of the fifth to pull off the upset. And sure, there are parents who clap even when their 11-year-old son gets thrown out at first.

But there are problems, too. Real ones. Ask Mark Pettus, Luke Hallmark, Nancy Tyson or Eddie Polk.

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Just like the growing selfishness of Major League Baseball, youth sports in Demopolis and across America have far too many problems. In fact, these leagues are a clear reflection of every negative aspect slowly dissolving our love for the game. On any given day, the opportunity exists for explosions between parents, coaches and umpires. Spend enough time strolling along the chained fences of the SportsPlex, and the ugly problem of controversy rears its ugly head far too many times.

It would be one thing if the kids made a million bucks. But they don’t. They’re just kids.

“As a whole, I think the league is good,” Polk said. “But I have seen the ugly side of it and it does concern me.”

In fact, just last week Polk personally witnessed the ugly face of the game at an 11-&12-year old girls softball game where a coach was tossed from the game after a heated argument with an umpire.

According to Pettus, the incident left the umpire feeling threatened enough to call the police after the coach tried to bully his way out of a call the umpire had made. Pettus said the coach was tossed from the game, but the situation had escalated to a point where the umpire felt threatened and intimidated enough by the coach that protection was needed to keep the situation from escalating beyond the playing field.

Pettus also said he had reports turned in to him on another incident last week as well. After a Demopolis Dixie Youth 7-&8-year old girls softball game there were reported incidents of enough yelling, arguing and even cussing between parents, umpires and coaches after a call on the field to make one team forfeit the game, Pettus said.

“We are taking all the fun out of the game with all this screaming and hollering at each other,” Pettus said. “And when you take away the fun, then it’s only a matter of time before you take away the kids.”

Pettus’ thought may sum up the brewing controversy that has resulted in a loss of volunteers, umpires and players for the recreation department’s program, traditionally aimed at teaching game fundamentals and good sportsmanship.

Umpires have quit because of it. Demopolis Umpire Association Director Luke Hallmark has seen many good umpires come and go because of it.

“I’ve seen plenty of my umpires, who did this only for the love of the game, quit. They told me that it’s just not worth it. Many found themselves belittled, embarrassed and harassed by parents that at one time or another they considered their friends,” Hallmark said.

The most important aspect of the youth leagues – the youth themselves – have the most to lose in the growing atmosphere of negativity. Young people witness poor sportsmanship and behavior and thus begin emulating the adults around them.

“These kids are not learning the game of baseball, they’re learning how to argue, cuss, fight and scream when things don’t go their way,” Pettus said. “We see a far greater emphasis being placed on winning and less emphasis on sportsmanship.”

Demopolis Parks and Recreation has seen what this ugly face is capable of. Church-league softball is now dead, coed softball is gone, and the soccer league hit rock bottom and had to be resuscitated.

These are just a few Demopolis recreation leagues that have been destroyed by the ugly face of the game.

“Church League Softball was the worst,” Pettus said. “There was a fight or situation every night. It got so bad that we had to give the police a schedule of the games each week.”

We are fortunate enough to have a good league in Demopolis, but can we keep it?