Categories: Feature Story
      Date: Apr 25, 2008
     Title: Grace Under Pressure

CNY Little League Upholds high standards for sportsmanship

By Josh Blair

Forget the stories you might have seen on the nightly news about parents involved in bleacher brawls—Little League in Central New York is a class act sport.

Forget the stories you might have seen on the nightly news about parents involved in bleacher brawls—Little League in Central New York is a class act sport.

The thousands of boys and girls who play in Little League’s District Eight, which encompasses 28 leagues in Syracuse and parts of Cortland and Oswego, can focus on the game without worrying about Mom or Dad getting into a scuffle after seeing their little one strike out.

Nearly all District Eight leagues require parents to sign a code of conduct, which includes such guidelines as exhibiting exceptionally good behavior, applauding all efforts or remaining silent, encouraging children despite the outcome of games and forgoing any negative pressure on their children. Coaches also must sign a code of conduct to ensure a positive learning environment for the children.

James Frank, president of the Jamesville Little League, says these codes of conduct are in place because it’s important that “the first thing we do is instill sportsmanship values in coaches and parents. It’s up to the parents and coaches to set an example.”

Frank says there are severe penalties if the rules outlined in the code of conduct are not adhered to because “usually kids will follow examples.”
Lenny Seymour, president of Camden Little League, thinks parents sometimes forget what the game is all about. “There’s a lot of competition, but you have to leave the competition to the kids,” he says.

For a few years, Camden’s minor league, consisting of 8 to 11 year olds, stopped keeping score because of some parents’ unruly behavior, some of which led to fist fights. Five years ago, the league instituted a code of conduct that parents, and even some grandparents, must sign. A first violation warrants a warning, a second violation could cause their child to sit out a game and after a third violation, the parent must come before the board of directors and the child could face expulsion from the league.

“We had to install some rules because it got out of hand,” Seymour says.

However, since enforcing a code of conduct, parent behavior has improved, and the league once again keeps score. “Kids are going to remember this for a long time,” Seymour says, “and you don’t want the only thing they remember about Little League to be parents fighting in the bleachers.”

van mason opening day

Tim Irwin, a coach for the Seneca River North Little League, says he tells all of the parents that they also have to monitor their behavior after games, including what they say around their kids. Parents might talk about one of the players in the car after the game and then their son or daughter could take what was said to the next game.

“First off, they shouldn’t criticize,” he says, but “I’ve seen it happen. Kids have said things that I know they got from a conversation in the car or at home.”

Irwin stresses with the parents that although everyone performs at a different level, “every hit is a good hit, every catch is a good catch, every throw is a good throw.”

Nick Gashi, president of Central Square Little League, says parents need to remember that “we’re not watching big leaguers here, we’re watching kids.” He heard one parent cheer his son, a pitcher, by saying, “He’s a nothing, strike him out.”

Gashi says it’s confusing to the kids when they make a mistake and people from the other team are cheering. “They have a hard time differentiating between positive and negative,” he says.

Frank understands how some parents become upset during a game. “Little League is a powerful term,” he says. “It’s a difficult, individual sport. If your child is at the plate, all you see is him or her upset about striking out. You want to protect your kid by lashing out at the umpire.”

Like most people involved in Little League, including coaches, presidents and board members, umpires are volunteers and they’re usually parents of Little Leaguers. Yet back talking an umpire can have serious consequences. Parents and coaches could be ejected from a game, and players could lose playing time.

“Players are never allowed to question an umpire’s call,” says Rich Sisto, president of Liverpool Little League. “You live by the call.”

Little League rules dictate that if a coach is thrown out of a game, there’s a one-game suspension. A coach can be thrown out of the game, Frank says, for disrespecting an umpire. It’s O.K. for coaches to question a call, but “if the umpire says it’s over, then it’s over and if you continue to argue, you could be ejected,” he says. “Basically if you don’t act professional or like an adult, you could be ejected.”

Four years ago, Frank suspended a coach for half the season. The coach also coached a local basketball team and during one of the games, he became irate toward a referee and was thrown out. This was a few weeks before the start of the Little League season. Frank heard about the situation and suspended him. “It was a tough decision because you’re taking away someone’s passion,” Frank says. “He was hurting.” But in the end, “he’s dealing with the same kids.”

The situation worked out for the best, however, because the coach came back and never had another problem. “It set an example because I meant business,” Frank says. “You see coaches go crazy and nothing happens. If kids see a penalty with teeth, they’re going to behave better.”

And behave they do. Few, if any, problems arise from Little Leaguers in the area. “When you’re working with the kids three to five days a week, you get to know them. You know how to handle and how to address them,” says Vet Mason, president of the Seneca River North Little League. If a kid is having a problem, “I usually catch it,” he says.

Dan Prietti, president of the Valley Little League, has been involved with his league for 21 years and says that the kids “have always gotten along.” Many of the children in his league are friends, schoolmates or neighbors, and those who don’t know anyone else mesh with their teammates through practice.

“It’s like a fun rivalry to them,” he says. Plus, players are well aware of the consequences for unsportsmanlike conduct. “They know if they swear or throw a bat, they’re not going to play,” he says.

Players are taught not to cheer against another player or team. For instance, instead of cheering against the other team’s batter, they cheer positively for their pitcher. Or instead of criticizing a teammate for an error, Sisto says, players might instead say, “We’ll get that run back.”

“Someone might already feel terrible for a mistake,” he says, “but it feels 10 times worse when 10 players are getting on him about it.”

Little League, Sisto believes, is more than just a sport. “It’s not about baseball, it’s about teaching teamwork and sportsmanship,” he says.
“Winning is secondary, sportsmanship is primary.”

In Little League, kids learn some important life skills. “We’re not trying to win at all costs,” Mason says, “it comes down to effort, rotating players, improving players and instilling a sense of team. We like the kids to be competitive, but there’s a fine balance. It’s all about fair play.”

This can be difficult, considering baseball is a tough sport. It’s imperative to explain to players that baseball is a negative statistic sport. “Hitting a ball three out of 10 times is good,” Frank says, “but you still missed seven times. In the major leagues, guys are making millions of dollars hitting only 3 out of 10 times.”

Gashi puts this statistic into perspective by noting that “A .300 average anywhere else is losing.”

Players must also realize that they are going to strike out, but they should still put in their best effort. “Everyone is going to strike out,” Frank says, “but let’s go down swinging.”

When batters strike out, coaches preempt the kids from sulking by encouraging them before they step out of the batter’s box. “You have to make a negative a positive,” Frank says.

Compared to other sports, there is also more time for players to brood about mistakes. “You don’t bat for nine times or you might not have a chance to catch a fly ball for two innings,” Frank says. “In basketball or soccer, someone else can pick up your slack.”

That’s why coaches encourage players to be supportive when one of their teammates makes a mistake. “If you make an error, it’s easier if someone helps you out,” Gashi says.

And in the end, only one team can win. “You’ve got to teach them how to win and lose,” Seymour says.

But it seems as if Central New York’s Little Leaguers can handle every facet of the game well. During the Liverpool Little League’s Opening Day parade, they give out an award for Little Leaguer of the year. Sisto says the award is not based upon skill level, it’s about sportsmanship and following the Little League motto: character, courage and loyalty. With the help of parents, coaches, umpires and other volunteers, thousands of children in the area are learning these are values that outlast winning alone.