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Little Leaguers could use a lesson on sportsmanship

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Tex. -- Like millions of other television viewers around the world on Aug. 21, I watched as 12-year-old Andrew Diaz dug in his heels, crouched slightly, swung his bat and blasted the baseball over the left-field fence for a two-run homer. I watched as the ball sailed skyward.

And I watched, with mild disgust, as Diaz raised his arms and waved a ceremonial bye-bye to the ball.

But hold on.

The triumphant Diaz, a member of the Harlem Little League team, was not through with TV viewers, fans in the bleachers, or his opponents from Aptos, Calif. Shortly after the homer touched down, Diaz high-stepped for home and bunny-hopped to the plate. The other Harlem sluggers mobbed Diaz.

Harlem went on to win 5-2, and earned a spot in the semifinals at the U.S. Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.

I am glad to see the Harlem team in the semifinals -- no small achievement. But I am disappointed with the team's ugly showboating and shucking-and-jiving.

Yes, I know that hot-dogging is the Harlem team's style, its signature, its identity. That style is fine in its place, in Harlem and other venues where the victory or a single exceptional act is expected to be capped off with a cocky celebration at the opponent's expense.

In some environments, even derision of the loser is expected. Such performances are part of the unspoken, accepted way of showing dominance. Winning is not enough in these places. The victor must dominate. The acts that many fans find offensive are the essential symbols of domination.

In an earlier game that Harlem played in the Mid-Atlantic Region Championship series, for example, 12-year-old Fernando Frias came up to bat, pointed to centerfield and guess what? He popped the ball off the centerfield wall, inches shy of being a homerun. Frias' act -- pointing to where he would send the ball -- is the ultimate dissing of the opponent.

He was saying this to the pitcher and the pitcher's teammates: "I'm so good, you can't do anything to stop me. I can put your pitch where I want to put it. Now, shut up and watch my dust!"

Little Leaguers can do whatever their coaches will let them get away with. That is their and their coaches' business.

From where I sit, however, Little League players -- 12-year-olds -- should stop the hot-dogging. It is unsportsmanlike conduct if anything is. It is taunting. It is offensive.

It takes the fun out of the game by introducing an element of thug menace that does not belong in Little League Baseball.

Umpires and many fans hate such behavior, and their feelings and opinions count for something. Let me explain. The Harlem team's players are black and Hispanic kids from the neighborhood. Most come from families with low incomes. Too many Americans already harbor negative feelings, if not deep hostility, for this population. Hotdogging confirms a host of stereotypes about these kids, and it plays into the hands of those who do not want these kids in Little League to begin with.

Sure, Harlem kids have the right to do what they please. But they and their coaches should remember that such behavior comes with a heavy price. It creates more contempt for black and Hispanic inner-city kids, giving the kids even more obstacles -- unnecessary ones -- to scale.

I was glad to see Morris McWilliams, the Harlem team's manager, jump all over Diaz and his teammates for their homeplate antics. He is now giving all of his players tongue-lashings for their unsportsmanlike conduct. McWilliams is mindful that many fans are booing his players' cheap behavior, not their superior athleticism.

What I find especially troubling is that "understanding" men, such as Brent Musburger of ABC Sports, accept this behavior. "I chuckled when I saw it," Musburger intoned.

Fine.

The problem is that Musburger, a privileged white man, does not have the responsibility -- the burden -- of safely shepherding a black or Hispanic son or grandson through the maze of American racism. Showboating like that of the Harlem team creates ugly images that straight-thinking blacks and Hispanics are trying to put behind them.

Members of the Harlem team, like other Little Leaguers, are 12 years old. Instead of encouraging in-your-face behavior, adults should be teaching these boys sportsmanlike conduct. They are young, and they will listen. Now is the time for well-meaning adults to step up to the plate.

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