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Team forced to listen to umpire's call

Youth baseball team told to speak English

Mark Fisher of Methuen West (left) warmed up with coach Domingo Infante (right) before a game last night. During Tuesday's game, Infante's directions in Spanish led to a controversial ruling.
Mark Fisher of Methuen West (left) warmed up with coach Domingo Infante (right) before a game last night. During Tuesday's game, Infante's directions in Spanish led to a controversial ruling. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

AUBURN -- The Methuen West Junior League team had jumped to a 3-1 lead in the third inning Tuesday night when its assistant coach gave a simple command to his pitcher, ''Tira lo bien!"

But that prompted an umpiring call, which unhinged the teenagers on the field, enveloping these boys of summer in a very adult controversy about ethnicity and discrimination.

Hearing this cry in Spanish to deliver a good pick-off throw to second base, the umpire halted the game and ruled: English only on the diamond. The unprecedented ruling was quickly condemned by national Little League officials, who yesterday instructed state officials to ban the umpire for the rest of the 2005 tournament.

With the area growing ever more diverse -- the foreign-born population in Massachusetts has doubled in the last two decades -- the incident illustrates the collision of new cultures with old traditions that occurs in sometimes small and subtle ways, in this instance on a baseball field on a hot summer night. In Methuen, nearly 10 percent of the population was Latino or Hispanic in the 2000 Census.

The Methuen team of 13- and 14-year-olds, with three Spanish speakers among its dozen players, was dismayed. Like their beloved Red Sox, the players use both Spanish and English during and after their games. After seven straight wins, Methuen lost, 10-6, Tuesday night to Seekonk. ''The kids didn't know how to react," said Methuen West coach Chris Mosher, 20.

''On a Little League team, you shouldn't have to deal with these issues. You should be having a good time."

Little League International spokesman Lance Van Auken, whose organization also runs Junior League, said yesterday there is no rule forbidding Spanish or any other language on the field, and said it was believed to be the first time an umpire tried to ban a language from being spoken.

He said the umpire was concerned that Spanish gave the Methuen team an unfair advantage, allowing the coaches to freely give orders without the other team understanding, though it's usual to give signs so the opposing team doesn't know the play.

''He simply overstepped his authority," Van Auken said. ''Mistakes happen a lot in baseball. We recognize that umpires are humans, just like all of us, and make mistakes like we all do."

Little League officials would not name the umpire or the district administrator who upheld the English-only call after Mosher protested from the dugout, demanding to see the prohibition in the rulebook.

The umpire and district administrator could not find anything, Mosher said, but the administrator told him he had to uphold the call in order to back the umpire. The umpire said that anyone caught speaking Spanish would be thrown out of the game. At that point Mosher relented, not wanting to hurt his team's chances.

After the game, Mosher filed a formal protest with national Little League officials.

Mosher said he has been trying to shield his team from the controversy, so the players can focus on baseball. ''They are a great bunch of kids, the best group I've ever coached," he said.

Before last evening's game against Auburn, the Methuen players seemed in good spirits, tossing balls around, slapping palms, and speaking Spanish.

Methuen lost, 6-5, knocking the team out of the tournament and ending its chances to advance to the regional tournament in New Jersey.

The players would not comment on the controversy, but their parents were still fuming. ''I thought it was an act of discrimination," said Cecilia Infante, 36, wife of the Methuen assistant coach Domingo Infante and mother of Darren, the team's bilingual shortstop. ''It was very depressing for all of us."

She said she told her son after the game, ''You have to understand this happens and this is going to happen more as you get older."

Another mother, Donna Wolfendale, 46, who wouldn't give her son's name, said she found the team's diversity educational. ''This is so horrible," she said. ''Everybody is upset about this, the parents, the kids, the coaches."

Some local baseball officials were also aghast. ''This is absolutely ridiculous," said John Carroll, vice president of Methuen Little League. ''Everyone in Little League, from the bottom . . . to the national level, should be ashamed. To treat kids this way, in this day and age, is outrageous."

Colombian-born Red Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria agreed.

''They cannot tell the kids not to speak Spanish or whatever. To me, it's no good," he said yesterday at Fenway Park. ''Nobody can tell me not to speak in Spanish. . . . No matter how you speak -- English, Spanish, Japanese, whatever -- as long as you go on the field, work hard, and play hard, that's it."

Globe correspondent Kelsie Smith contributed to this story.

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