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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Three Strikes for the National Pastime
By Chris Jensen

Professional athletes have always played an influential role in kids' lives. That's why Little League fields are filled with kids imitating Gary Sheffield's batting stance and Dice-K's pitching motion.

Of course, the kids also pick up on the not-so-pleasant habits of big leaguers. They see their heroes charging the mound, jawing with umpires, rudely refusing fans' autograph requests, and complaining about playing time.

They've also noticed that no matter what a baseball player does, there's always somebody on their side—the Baseball Players Association. Now there's a concept.

Youth baseball officials never saw it coming. All across America this summer, Little League players announced they were on strike and would not return to games until a collective bargaining agreement was reached.

"We're fed up," said one kid in North Carolina. "I refuse to sell any more raffle tickets until I get a better deal."

"I want to be drafted by a major league team when I'm eighteen. What happens if I throw my arm out now? I've got to look out for my future," pointed out another boy in Ohio.

The strike was merely a work slowdown at first, at least in most towns. Some youngsters refused to run out groundballs, a handful intentionally threw to the wrong base, while others did little more than shoot spit wads at the base coaches. But the battle lines were beginning to be drawn.

Word spread over the Internet, and kids in towns and cities of all sizes started taking up the cause. The situation reached a head when a boy in Austin, Texas was booted off his team for building sand castles in the infield. Fellow Little Leaguers were outraged at this indiscriminate banishment, and boys nationwide began burning their baseball card collections.

The possibility of striking seems to have cropped up first in Omaha, Nebraska, where two ten-year-olds are credited with staging a sit-down strike.

One of the lads, Billy Thurston, told reporters he was tired of picking up candy wrappers and soda cans after the games. He noted that the coach's son seemed to escape the thankless task. The second boy, Joey Henderson, went along with Billy to avoid being beaten up at recess and really had no complaints against the system.

Their peers in other cities soon joined the cause, refusing to pick up the bases after games unless they got new uniforms—with their names on the back.

Some labor analysts believe the strike was instigated by a coalition of parents whose kids were always stuck batting last and playing right field. Most observers, however, believe the boys were merely following the example of their big league role models.

"I'm the best player on the team," noted a boy in Idaho. "Why don't I have a shoe contract?"

At first, coaches handled the situation by benching players for their union activities, but a lack of available bodies soon forced more drastic measures—eliminating the free soda after practice.

"We had to get tough with the little buggers. They tend to forget how much we do for them," said one irate coach. For replacement players, he recommended bringing in kids who normally spend their summers in music camp.

The Little Leaguers were not so easily intimidated, however. Buddy Miller, a husky catcher from Tucson, became the unofficial leader of the Little League Players Association. He balked at all proposals unless officials guaranteed he would make his league's all-star travel team.

Newspapers ran inflammatory remarks from both sides, but the boys were not swayed by public opinion, which was running against them. They refused to drop their demand for increased sharing of concession revenues and unrestricted free agency. And they promised things would really get ugly unless there were no more league-wide spending caps for trophies.

"We give them a pizza party at the end of the year and try to make sure everyone plays," commented one coach. "But we shouldn't have to keep giving trophies to the kids whose teams end up in last place. Some of these kids really stink."

As the impasse continued, the fallout was surprising. While many of the boys resorted to other activities—swimming, biking, chasing tadpoles—their parents seemed to have the most trouble adjusting.

Without the opportunity to vent their frustration during games, some parents say they feel cheated. "Isn't it our inalienable right to yell at the umpire or scold the coach for not having our son pitch?" asked a dejected father in Oregon.

More unrest seems to be on the horizon. Several mothers have stated publicly that they've grown tired of scrubbing out grass stains in their kids' uniforms. Even if the Little Leaguers end their strike, don't be surprised if the mothers organize next.

—EFQ

CHRIS JENSEN grew up a tape-measure home run from Cooperstown, New York, and brings his family back to the "Home of Baseball" at least once a year. Cut from his high school baseball team, he has spent twenty years as an editor for a trade publication in Indianapolis. He helps coach his son's Little League team, but may hold out for more money next season.

© 2008 Chris Jensen

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