When Your 12-Year-Old Son Faces Racism in Little League

Originally published at Chicago Now.

Please see the May 1 update at the bottom of this post.

As parents, we walk a fine line between solving our children’s problems and letting them struggle on their own.

My 12-year-old plays baseball on a travel team with a West Lawn team on Chicago’s Southwest side. This morning, we drove around Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park, the Southside neighborhood with a reputation for being exclusive. Most of the community is white.

“These houses are really nice,” my son told me. “We should move here,” he suggested.

“Well, m’ijo,” I said, and I was blunt, “this neighborhood has a reputation for being racist. I don’t know that we’d be welcomed.”

We arrived at Kennedy Park on 113th and Western. My son joined his team. They warmed up.

I noticed the Kennedy Park team warming up, too; they ran a lap along the fence. I saw them pass by my son’s team.

When my son and his team came back to the dug out, they were jumping with emotion. “They called us ‘taco boys!’ They said, ‘Ándale, taco boys!’”

I wasn’t surprised. This is near where Black Lives Matter activists and Blue Live Matter supporters clashed after an African American man was shot by an off-duty cop a couple of years ago. So I didn’t say anything to the coaches.

Honestly, I thought, “Yup. This is what I was talkin’ ‘bout in the car.”

Plus, we’re not talking about a group of quiet, humble fellas on the West Lawn travel team. Quite frankly, we got some players with cocky personalities. These kids have skills; they know it. They live good, comfortable lives it seems. So I thought this would humble them a little and make them realize what life is really like.

That’s the dad in me thinking.

Most importantly, my son or the players weren’t in danger.

I’m still trying to figure out this whole sports-parent thing. I don’t want to be one of “those” parents, those helicopter parents, who swoop in to make decisions for my son. I want him to learn from being an athlete. I’m always on the sidelines, always cheering, but I give my son his place. He’s the baseball player—not me.

Early in the game, the Beverly team got ahead by a few runs—and then our team caught up and tied the game at 5-5.

At one point, our West Lawn players’ dugout chants were getting to the pitcher. “It’s a B-B-B, it’s an A-A-A, it’s and L-L-L, it’s a ball!” I saw the pitcher’s face redden. He glared at the players on the bench. He hated.

My instinct told me our players were getting a little too aggressive. Right then, one of my son’s coaches yelled and told them to stop. He redirected them: “Cheer on your batter!” That was the right thing for them to do.

Then our team got ahead by a few runs.

With one pitch, the ball hit the Kennedy team’s batter’s elbow. The kid swung, so he didn’t get walked. A couple of the West Lawn kids on the bench laughed. And the Kennedy Park coach lost it. He started swearing up a storm. “Our kid gets hit with the ball and your kids laugh?!” His profanity-laden rant continued. Then he said it: “Not on our diamond.”

The subtext was clear: this was their home—not ours.

The West Lawn coach went over to the umpire and fuming coach. My son’s coach never lost his cool. I don’t know if I would have been as cool, as mature.

I found out later that the West Lawn players on the bench laughed not because the Kennedy batter got hit but because the batter dropped a big ol’ F-bomb at the plate.

Look, we have players on my kid’s team who drop F-bombs all the time. They’re not holy kids. So I’m not shocked the kid swore or that our kids laughed.

I was shocked at how the Kennedy Park coach lost his cool in a profanity-soaked tirade No coach should ever react like that.

Near the end of the game, when the West Lawn team got ahead, the Kennedy Park team lost their composure. At one point, the second baseman missed a play and started crying, full red face, blubbering, on the field. No one made fun of him.  I turned to a dad and asked, “Is he really crying?!” It wasn’t that serious of a bad play.

The Kennedy coach took him out and sat him on the bench where the kid cried by himself.

I looked at a couple of the West Lawn dads and we agreed: “Why is he taking him out? Let him cry at his position and finish the game.”

But I’m not a coach.

I’m a dad.

I want my son to learn to persevere, to overcome, to use his intellect and his abilities responsibly.

Today, my son witnessed racism first hand. Sadly, because of where we were in Chicago, I wasn’t surprised. I prepared him and told him exactly where we were.

Maybe I should have spoken up Maybe I should have told the coaches or the umpire about the “taco boys” comment. I didn’t.

It was one of those moments as a parent that we’re never prepared for. But I have peace of mind knowing my son and his teammates recognized racism, united, and overcame—they won fair and square.

My son says he heard the Kennedy coach talking to his players right before the game. He told them not to let our team get any hits. “We’ll build a wall around home plate,” my son says he heard one kid say. I believe him.

That’s where we where. But that’s not who my son was.

I want my son to travel with this baseball team and see other diamonds in this city. I’m not going to limit his involvement because of the risk of having his feelings hurt.

I want to be the parent who takes his athlete kid to practices and games and cheers him on, so that in difficult situations, he knows he’s not alone.

As my son and his winning team walked by, I shouted, “And you won powered by tacos!” The other team probably heard me.

I want my son to know how racism feels so in those moments when he has to make decisions about what to do or say, he’ll have the confidence to hold his head high above the ignorance and speak up.

A Sun-Times reporter saw my tweet and called me. I said, “Here, let my son tell you what happened.”

On Sundat evening, I stood back, as I do on the baseball field, and watched proudly as my son used his own words to explain to a journalist why what happened on the field today was wrong.

As I listened to him speak, I thought to myself what I shout whenever he makes a good play during a baseball game: “That’s muh boy!”

UPDATE

Addition the morning of May 1: In a statement last night, Kennedy Park Little League recognized,  “the behaviors that were confirmed do not uphold the values of our league.”

According to their statement, it sounds like the players have an opportunity to return to the field after a one-game suspension. I hope they do. At the end of the day, they’re kids. As adults, we need to help them learn from their mistakes and be athletes with integrity. Being a baseball player is about more than hitting and catching a ball.

I also hope the coach who exploded with a profanity-soaked tirade reflects on his behavior and repairs the damage he did by behaving like that in front of his team and their parents.

Finally, while we need to speak up about these issues, we must have a way to request more than the umpire’s assistance in situations like this.  Calling “balls” and “strikes” is tough enough.  Umpires should not be held responsible for addressing race relations at kids’ baseball games.

Correction: While this park is not in the Beverly community (I double checked after a reader commented), Beverly is nearby. I corrected this reference in the post and refer to all three neighborhoods surrounding the area where the park is.  This park is in the Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park areas.

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