A STEP TOO FAR?

How a can of worms just exploded in youth sports

The Supreme Court came to a decision this week. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Since the Astros seem to be doing fine without my help and a decision on Deshaun Watson’s future is still a few days away, I’m going to touch on a different subject from a different point of view on sports.

Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme court ruled that a public school district in Washington State deprived a high school football coach of his First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression by suspending him after he refused to stop leading prayer sessions with his players on the field after games.

The ruling determined that the school board overstepped its authority, even though the coach is a government employee and the football field was public property.

I’m not going to get into separation of church and state, First Amendment rights or constitutional debate, conservative vs. liberal, secular vs. religion-affiliated, or the coach’s dedication to his faith.

I’m saying it’s not a good idea for a coach at a public school to lead players in prayers connected to one denomination of the U.S. religious community. Here’s why:

Several years ago, I was a manager in a youth baseball league. The age group for the kids was 12-13 years old. League officials discovered that one of the managers was instructing his players to kneel in the dugout while he recited a Christian prayer.

The league asked the coach to stop leading his young players in prayer. He did. After the season, the coach and I discussed the matter. He explained that his faith was so strong, he wanted to spread the comfort it brought him.

I offered my view that parents, those who wish to, send their kids to churches and temples and mosques, where qualified religion instructors guide the children spiritually. These leaders often get to know the families in their congregation and understand their needs. I didn’t believe that parents who register their kids for youth baseball expect the coach to offer religious guidance. You’re a kids’ baseball coach. You’re out of your league. We're still good. We say hello at local burger joints.

A couple of years later, I was covering the Little League World Series in South Williamsport. I attended a press conference with one of the coaches. He said he was disappointed that his team didn’t win the championship, but he was pleased that he got the chance to instill some religion in his players through prayer.

That was Little League, the most public and American of institutions. I think a Little League coach should teach kids how to catch fly balls, hit a baseball and never slide into a base head-first. And that’s pretty much it. Oh, and never tell a child “just don’t strike out” because that guarantees he’ll be back in the dugout in three pitches.

A youth sports coach is a pretty powerful person in a neighborhood. They’re volunteering their time, so thanks for that. If a player feels uncomfortable praying to an entity that isn’t part of his family’s faith, that’s unfair to the player, who may not want to upset or alienate his coach. The idea is to find commonality among a team, not divide the players.

There are few people more influential in a town than the high school football coach. Players and their parents often do not want to upset the coach or create a problem that has nothing to do with skill level. Or give the coach reason to think the kid is not a “team player,” not one of the guys. At least not one of the coach’s guys.

The Washington State public school coach did not force his players to join him on the field for prayer after games. But some parents of players on that team said their kids felt compelled to join the prayer session. At least do it in private, so fans can't see who's on the field and who's not.

It creates a situation where if a player doesn’t go on the field for prayers, and the coach later benches him – for whatever reason – it could be a problem. You know how competitive high school football can be. College scholarships are riding on a player’s on-field performance. Parents could say to the coach, you benched my kid because he didn’t pray with you and you’re a bigot.

It just creates problems that aren’t necessary.

I know, this is America and the Supreme Court is the final word on what is constitutional and what isn’t. So now public school coaches can lead their players in public prayer on public property.

Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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