I cringe every time I hear about one of these over-the-top Little League coaches getting arrested.
Not just because I’m upset for their families and the kids they coach, but also because I’m embarrassed for myself.
It was not that long ago that I, too, was a meathead youth sports coach.
Now let’s get a few things straight: I never followed a kid from the other team to his bus stop and sent photos along with a threatening text to his parents, as Robert Sanfilippo of Huntington is alleged to have done, charges that helped earn him national headlines and possible jail time.
No, my bad behavior was much more mild, but I definitely took things too seriously.
For the three years I coached youth softball — yes, girls ages 9 to 12. I kept meticulous stats, lost sleep at night over lineup decisions and even occasionally was tough on players.
And yes, there was even one time when a game I was managing had to be stopped briefly due to a war of words between yours truly and another coach.
I remember the details vividly (like I said, I used to lose sleep over this stuff).
My team was tied, 1-1, with our opponents, it was fairly late in the game and we were up at the plate. With a runner on first, one of my girls hit a single to left field. Coaching third base at the time, I began waving the runner on first to round second and head to third.
First to third on a single, nothing too aggressive about that base-running move, right? Except, I never stopped waving my arm.
When I looked out to see the left fielder catch the ground ball, I noticed she had no idea what to do. I could have been the nice guy and held my runners at first and third … but I didn’t.
When I saw the left fielder picking daisies with the ball in her mitt, I sent my base runner home with the go-ahead run. The other coach flipped.
In the past dozen years since it happened, I’ve always justified the move in my head as the right thing to do. My players, most every one of them, were prepared. They all knew where to throw the ball and to get it in quickly. They were also well aware of how to run the bases; when to hold, when to stop.
It wasn’t my fault the other coach’s team never practiced, I’d tell myself.
I told him that, too. He went bonkers and so did the left fielder’s mom, who started screaming expletives at me. The parents on my team fired back in my defense. Saturday morning youth softball suddenly sounded like Sunday night HBO.
The umpire, a kid who couldn’t have been a day older than 17, stopped the game. After 15 minutes of the coaches begging him to let us finish the final inning, he obliged. We won the pitcher’s duel, 2-1.
I was never proud of how I acted that day. While I’m still not convinced I did the wrong thing on the field, I certainly didn’t handle myself well after the action stopped.
I certainly hope the now infamous Mr. Sanfilippo isn’t trying to justify his recent actions. He was just plain wrong. Police said he went so far as to text the boy’s father that he’d “pick [the boy] at the bus stop for [the dad] next week” and he sent the dad pictures of the boy’s mom shopping.
The boy’s father told Newsday he didn’t recognize where the text messages were coming from at first.
“It was nerve-racking,” he told Newsday. “I couldn’t sleep. When he suddenly started mentioning my son by name, it just hit me that it was this guy.”
Police then showed up at Mr. Sanfilippo’s next game and arrested him. The Half Hollow Hills Little League has temporarily banned him from coaching and from their facilities, pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
The sad thing is that Mr. Sanfilippo isn’t the only youth coach going way too far.
Google the words “Little League coach arrested.” The first page of results turns up multiple stories of coaches molesting kids, a coach who urinated in the outfield during a game, a coach who got busted buying cocaine at a game and a coach arrested for an assault that took place during a game. Every single one of these incidents occurred in the past three years, including several that happened in the past few months.
The first search result was a story about Mr. Sanfilippo, the new poster boy for competitive youth coaches taking things way too far.
Youth sports are supposed to be fun. It’s all about encouraging our kids to be active and to teach them about the importance of teamwork.
It’s not about us.
A few years back, I was out covering a basketball game when I ran into the coach with whom I’d mixed it up a decade earlier. His two kids, who were excellent athletes, were now playing high school sports. We exchanged a few brief but friendly words and moved on.
A few months later I ran into him at a pub and when I went to pay my tab, the bartender told me it was taken care of. The other coach, who was at the opposite end of the bar, raised his glass to me.
Grant Parpan is the executive editor for Times/Review Newsgroup. He has a career winning percentage of .786 as a youth softball coach. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8046.