DEPTFORD, N.J. — Back in Mudville, when mighty Casey took an unheeded pitch for a strike, there went up a muffled roar: “`Kill him! Kill the umpire!’ shouted someone on the stand.”
Even in 1888, well before pitch clocks, $17 beers and instant replay, a common thread for the fans in baseball’s most epic poem was how much they loved to threaten umpires.
These days, 135 or so years after writer Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s renowned verse, one Little League in New Jersey is taking a hands-on approach. Its target: those watching 10- and 11-year-olds play baseball who curse at the volunteers behind the plate.
You want some of this? they’re saying. Well, come get some. In Deptford, the umpire recruiting slogan sign may as well read: If you can’t berate them, join them.
The April Facebook post hardly seemed like national news at the time for league president Don Bozzuffi. He’d lost patience when two umpires resigned after persistent spectator abuse. So he wrote an updated code of conduct.
It specified: Any spectator deemed in violation would be banned from the complex until three umpiring assignments were completed. If not, the person would be barred from any Deptford youth sports facilities for a year.
In G-rated terms (unlike the ones that will get you tossed), the mandate just wants helicopter parents to calm the heck down. No 9-year-old will remember, as an adult, being safe or out on a bang-bang play at first. But how deep would be the cut of watching dad get tossed out of the game and banished for bad behavior?
The league doesn’t want to find out. “So far, it’s working like I’d hoped and just been a deterrent,” the 68-year-old Bozzuffi said.
The problem, though, isn’t limited to Deptford and its handful of unruly parents.
Outbursts of bad behavior at sporting events for young people have had frightening consequences for officials at all youth levels. Pick a town, any town, and there are adults assaulting referees or chasing umpires into parking lots looking for a fight, all available on the social feed of your choice.
The videos pop up almost weekly: inane instances of aggressive behavior toward officials. Like in January, when a Florida basketball referee was punched in the face after one game. Or last month, when an enraged youth baseball coach stormed a baseball field in Alabama and wrestled an umpire to the ground. Other adults and kids tried to break up the melee that took place in a game — at an 11-and-under tournament.
Jim McDevitt has worked as a volunteer Deptford umpire for 20 years. But he turns 66 this month and won’t call games much longer. He wonders where the next generation of officials will come from, especially when the job description includes little pay and lots of crap.
Youth officiating is in crisis. According to a 2017 survey of by the National Association of Sports Officials, nearly 17,500 referees surveyed said parents caused the most problems with sportsmanship at 39%. Coaches came in at 29% and fans at 18%.
Barry Mano founded the association four decades ago to advocate for youth officials. Mano, whose brother Mark was an NBA referee, has watched fan conduct become “far worse” than he could have imagined.
“Sports is simply life with the volume turned up,” Mano says. “We’ve become louder and brasher. We always want a second opinion on things. That’s where the culture has gone. I don’t think we’re as civil as we used to be toward each other, and it plays out in the sporting venues.”
In Deptford, things seem to be working — at least in attracting non-mandatory umps. Bozzuffi says that since his rule grabbed national headlines, three umpires have joined the league. More volunteers want to be trained.
And those who might get sentenced to umping? McDevitt puts it less delicately. “We’ll see how their sphincter feels when they have to make a tight call and the parents are all screaming and hollering at them.”
The Deptford Little League playoffs, a time when tensions rise, are under way, and Bozzuffi has urged his umps to show restraint. Bozzuffi, who has served as league president for 14 years and been connected to the league for 40, doesn’t want any fan to get ejected. He just wants to get them thinking.
Because in a culture where violence visits schools, churches, movie theaters, clubs and many social gathering spots, the irate fan pressed against the fence spewing four-lettered tirades at the ump could easily escalate.
“People are just a little bit more sensitive to it,” said Sherrie Spencer, a lifelong Deptford resident who had two sons and grandsons play. She has noticed an uptick in abusive language to umpires through the years. “Now,” she says, “you have things that are going on in our world that people are more fearful when you see someone getting upset like that.”
Part of the problem is this: Thanks to technological advances, perfection in baseball can sometimes seem more attainable than ever.
In the major leagues, computers and their precision have become a vital part of baseball’s fabric. Gone are the days when a manager like Billy Martin or Earl Weaver would burst out of the dugout and kick up a cloud of dirt, curse a blue streak and maybe even walk away with a base or chuck one into the outfield over a missed call.
Blow one now? The manager barely reacts, asking for a replay review while a command center makes the dispassionate final call. Oh, and robo umps are coming. They’re already calling the shots in the minor leagues, with computerized strike zones that leave no room for argument. Where’s the messiness, the fallibility, the human emotion steeped in baseball tradition? Where’s the fun of baseball in umpire perfection?
That’s not the way some parents see it. For many, every “safe!” when the tag is missed, every called strike on a pitch below the knees is another reason to blow a fuse in a youth sports culture full of hefty fees and travel teams that have already heightened financial and emotional attachment and encouraged a sense of parents as constituents who have a right to be heeded.
That’s why Deptford is experimenting with its attempt at preventative medicine. This is interdicting the parents before the kids get older. This is, at its core, potential assault prevention.
It’s getting attention all the way up the youth baseball chain. Little League President Stephen D. Keener had this to say: “We applaud the volunteers at Deptford Township Little League for coming up with a creative, fun solution to shine a light on the importance of treating everyone with respect, on and off the Little League field.”
OK. But here’s the fine print.
Beyond the headlines that suggest Fuming Father No. 1 is going to get the call from the bleachers and suddenly start ringing up strike three, there’s this: It’s too much effort. The risks! The potential safety problems! The insurance!
Bozzuffi and the town’s mayor teach a three-hour safety certification class each offender must complete before receiving an assignment. Rookie umps must pass a background check and complete an online concussion course. After all that, a qualified umpire would be stationed next to the replacement ump to ensure accuracy and fairness.
It hasn’t happened — yet.
“The first person that we have to do this to, nobody is else is going to challenge this,” Bozzuffi said. “Nobody wants to go through all this.”
So for now, at least on a recent weeknight in Deptford, parents, grandparents and friends, were on their best behavior. They cheered. They clapped. They caught up with neighbors.
They groused a bit, too. While other Little League officials across America reached out to Bozzuffi for input into their own policies, some fans in Deptford are sick of the perception that’s it’s a town full of baseball bullies.
One fan waved off an interview request because he “didn’t want to hear anymore about how bad we all are.” Parent Dawn Nacke found it unfair that the town was labeled as “obnoxious parents when we’re just caring about our kids.”
“We know that they ump for free,” she said, “but sometimes bad calls are made and they cost us the game.”
Has she ever been guilty of popping off too much?
“Mouthy, yes. But we all have to bite our tongues over here because of the new rule,” she said. “I just have to keep my mouth shut more. Scared me straight. I’m more angry that they call us obnoxious parents. That really upset me when I read it in the news. But this is their rule and I’m going to follow it.”
Just the way Deptford drew it up.