Law protects ump, coach abuse

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Rodger Smitherman doesn’t live in Demopolis. He’s never officiated a baseball game at the SportsPlex, and he can’t recall — in his 28 years of coaching — ever competing against a local team.

But Smitherman, maybe more than others, has a complete understanding of the ever-perilous relationships between parents, coaches and umpires in youth leagues around the state.

Smitherman happens to be an attorney and Alabama State Senator who loves to coach youth sports. In fact, he’s currently the girls’ B Team coach at Ramsay High School in Jefferson County and the assistant varsity coach for the same school. Smitherman also has spent his fair share of summer afternoons on the diamond coaching youth league baseball.

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His worst nightmare — as it relates to youth sports — came before Smitherman ever was elected to the Alabama Senate.

“I was coaching a youth baseball team, we were undefeated, and there was a questionable call at home plate,” Smitherman recalled. “My catcher, who was in ninth grade and also played middle linebacker, was blocking the plate. A player on the other team was coming from third trying to score.”

As Smitherman tells it, the play at home plate wasn’t even close. The brute catcher did more than just tag the runner out in a sweeping motion.

“He did such a good job of blocking the plate that he nearly picked the runner up when he tried to score and pushed him backwards,” Smitherman said.

Though the play at home seemed like a no-brainer, the home-plate umpire didn’t see it the same. Whether it was because of a rule that prohibited catchers from blocking the plate, or whether the umpire really thought the base runner was safe is unclear. Whatever the case, the runner was called safe.

That ump never could have imagined the ramifications.

“We had three or four bats sitting on the outside of the dugout,” Smitherman said. “One of the parents, who had climbed the fence and yelled at the ump about the call, came around the dugout, grabbed a bat, and started chasing [the umpire.]”

And the one heated parent was just the leader of this particular hit parade.

“Next thing I knew, five or six more parents came out of the stands and grabbed bats,” Smitherman said.

The umpire wasn’t about to stand around and take a beating, either.

“He started running around the field; running from these parents,” Smitherman said. “On those little league fields, usually there’s only one fence you can get out of.”

By all accounts, the umpire had run in the wrong direction.

“The parents cornered the umpire out in right field, and I had to do something,” he said.

Smitherman ran out to right field and stood between the parents and the umpire. “Either you’re going to hit me, or you’re going to put the bats down,” Smitherman told them.

The parents retreated, but the memory of that game still lingers in Smitherman’s mind.

During the 2001 Alabama Legislative Session — when another national incident of Cleveland Browns fans throwing beer bottles on a football field made headlines across the globe — Smitherman introduced a piece of legislation in the Alabama Senate increasing the punishment for fans who harass, menace or assault coaches or officials.

“A lot of the reason I introduced it was because of the same thing you’re going through in Demopolis,” he said. “And the memory of that baseball game had always stuck in my mind.”

Though it took a number of readings through the entire legislature to get the bill passed, former Gov. Don Siegelman eventually received the bill in December 2001. It was signed shortly after.

David Williams, a spokesman for the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts, could not immediately tell how many cases had been prosecuted based on the law Smitherman pushed through the legislature three years ago. In essence, the law increases the punishment for harassing, menacing or assaulting a coach or official from a misdemeanor to a felony. A person who committed a second-degree assault would normally receive a misdemeanor charge that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Under Smitherman’s legislation, the same second-degree assault to a coach or sports official would carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

In Demopolis, retired Police Chief Charles Avery could not recall ever making an arrest related to youth sports.

“We would always get a few complaints, but our officers always took care of the problem without having to make arrests,” Avery said.

In the infamous season of church league mayhem, Avery does recall having one or two problem teams that always seemed to find trouble — or a bad ball.

“We got schedules on those games, and we’d patrol the area, but we never made any real arrests,” he said.

Jeff Manuel, public safety director and acting police chief in Demopolis, said he, too, can remember no actual arrests.

“I do know that we’ve had a bunch of problems, or near problems,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s ever escalated to the point of making an arrest.”

That doesn’t mean Manuel hasn’t considered an impending safety concern at the SportsPlex.

“With the times the way they are now, we’ve looked at some possibilities,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to happen, and we do try to have an officer out there as much as possible.”

Manuel even hinted at the prospect of funding an officer who might provide security at the SportsPlex in the near future.

“It’s probably something Mark [Pettus] and I need to talk about,” he said.

For now, the angry few in Demopolis have refrained themselves from going too far. There have been no instances that required handcuffs, and continued focus on the issue may help prevent a disputed call from becoming a law-enforcement concern.

As for Smitherman, he believes citizens must keep a relentless eye on the dangers surrounding young people.

“Most times, parents are living their lives through their kids,” he said. “But it’s getting to a point where those parents are not protecting these kids, and someone’s going to get hurt.”