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Lessons in Little League  
Isn’t yelling from the stands part of what sports is all about? Perhaps new conduct codes have left parents a little too timid.  

    June 11 —  During my career as a top international journalist, I’ve visited sites of indescribable terror, places of anger and brutality and worlds of psychological torment where one tiny mistake could mean 20 years of self-doubt.  

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  YET NOTHING PREPARED ME for the horror of Little League baseball.
        Reports coming out of America’s heartland increasingly sound like Beirut in the ’70s. Every day, we read about some Little League parent beating up the umpire, beating up an opposing player, beating up another parent or beating up his own kid.
        Rather than address the central issue—that we’re horrible, horrible people—our response has been to pass laws. Some Little Leagues are now requiring parents to attend anger-management classes (apparently, yelling “Kill him, Billy!” is out of vogue), and last month, one tony New York suburb went so far as to pass a law banning negative sideline commentary—even in the form of gentle booing—and arresting parents who can’t play nice.
        Last week, even Dear Abby, that august chronicler of American mores, weighed in, publishing a 17-point Code of Conduct that asks parents to “be positive role models,” “not engage in any unsportsmanlike conduct such as booing or taunting,” “teach [children] to resolve conflicts without hostility or violence,” and “emphasize skill-development over winning.”
        As someone who recalls Little League as a profound—that is to say profoundly negative—experience, I should have been the first person cheering these calls for decorum.
        I mean, I was lousy at Little League. In an unheralded four-year career, I racked up one hit, two walks, four weak ground balls to the pitcher and 25 strikeouts—a mark of ineptitude that has not been broken in my hometown.
        My futility made me feel bad at the time, but today I can see that it made me a better man.
        Indeed, because I was so lame, society segregated me from the athletes, who spent their childhoods being groomed for a life of country club dances and Chamber of Commerce lunches. Meanwhile, the rest of us learned that we’d have to work hard and develop other talents (what was my talent, you ask? Well, you’re still reading this, aren’t you? Wait, don’t go!).
        Codes of Conduct requiring polite parenting are part of a larger effort to make childhood a pleasant time instead of what it is: a violent nightmare in which kids terrorize each other to the point of lasting psychological damage. Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “What does not kill you, makes you stronger” no longer applies to modern children.
        That’s why today’s self-appointed guardians of childhood have targeted games like dodge ball, which is threatened with extinction because its very premise—throw a ball at another kid with the goal of hitting him—rewards strong kids while punishing those with lesser abilities (excuse me, but isn’t that the charm?).
        Other schools are even rethinking Duck Duck Goose (because it supposedly promotes cliques) and tag (because players are eliminated based on their abilities rather than by some random process that could avoid hurting anyone’s feelings).
        It was in this context that I headed for my local park in Brooklyn, New York (a somewhat aggressive place where the standard greeting is a salute with the middle finger of the right hand) to catch some Little League.
        Here in Brooklyn, Little League baseball is the game I remember from my youth: Everyone screams, parents are hostile and kids leave the game feeling humiliated. Admittedly, there’s nothing more embarrassing (to parents, to players and to any linguists who happen to be sitting within earshot) than hearing a loudmouth Brooklynite screaming at his kid, “What da hell is going on out dere? Pay attention, you frickin’ panzy!”
        But is strict adherence to the Code of Conduct the answer? Would today’s pint-sized ballplayers learn the same life lessons that I learned on the playing field if the experience was stripped of disappointment and pain? Were pro-Code parents sending a message to kids that it’s never OK to voice a negative opinion? And, more important, have Americans forsaken their God-given right to scream, “Kill the umpire!”?
        To find out, I journeyed to Stamford, Connecticut, a New York City suburb that was forced last week to distribute copies of the Code after an incident involving two abusive parents, three sobbing kids, one visually-impaired umpire and two local policemen.
        What I found was something that was even worse than what I’d witnessed in Brooklyn. The good news was the Code-cowed parents weren’t hurling epithets at the opposing pitcher, but the bad news was that they were so nervous about saying the “wrong” thing that they wouldn’t say ANYTHING.
        Case in point: When one kid didn’t run out a ground ball and was thrown out by inches, all the parents yelled, “Good effort!” Good effort?! In the pre-Code world, this kid would have been running a few extra laps after the game!
        With the game tied at 2, it was impossible for me to keep my mouth shut. This was EagleVision vs. Handyman Hardware! I felt morally obligated (as a baseball fan and, more important, as an American) to hoot and holler.
        When the heat-throwing Handyman hurler had difficulty finding the plate, I yelled, “Wait him out! This kid’s wild!” only to be angrily shushed by the cowardly EagleVision parents. But was I saying anything different than “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher”—a bit of trash-talking that was once encouraged?
        My efforts to remain decorous were certainly not aided by an umpire who disgraced his uniform. I mean, I’m no Big John McSherry, but if a ball flies over the catcher’s head and the runner goes all the way from first to third, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be a called strike.
        “It only makes it worse to yell,” said one timid parent (worse for the batter, perhaps, but better for my ulcer!). She disagreed with the call, too, so wasn’t her silence teaching her kid to remain mute in the face of injustice?
        Granted, most of the commandments that comprise the “Code of Conduct” are inarguable, but as a future parent, I’m eagerly anticipating breaking several rules, such as the one requiring me to “make my child feel like a winner every time.” I will console, I will encourage, I will teach, but I will not tell my kid, “Great job, slugger. You’re a winner” if his team loses because he didn’t run out a ground ball.
        Kids (not even mine) are not THAT dumb. They know when they’re being lied to. And they don’t like it any more than you do when your boss tells you how valuable you are to the company even while he’s telling the Personnel Department that your desk will soon be available.
        Hey, even top child shrinks agree with me. “If you say, ‘Great job’ no matter what your child does, he will lose motivation,” said Alan Hilfer, a Brooklyn child psychologist. “You can’t be afraid to point out when the kid does something wrong. But you have to do it with positives, like ‘Hey, nice hit, but remember to run it out next time,’ not negatives.”
        Sounds fair. But does that mean, “Run, you freakin’ panzy, run!” is out of the question?

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). Visit him at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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