By Yvette tenBerge
In March 2001, after a heated exchange with his coach during the fifth inning of a game, Isaias "Ziggy" Luna was kicked off Vista High School's junior-varsity baseball team. Unlike most families who find themselves in this situation, the Luna's fought back.
Elizabeth and Toby Luna are a lot like many other parents
in the Vista area. Both graduated from Vista High, and both
work hard to support their two sons. As their boys grew, Mr.
and Ms. Luna spent their weekends attending Little League
baseball games, and their nights helping with homework.
Over the years, America's national pastime came to be a labor
of love for their family.
When their elder son, Ziggy, began playing baseball at Vista High, though, the Luna's realized that they were in the middle of a system that revolved less around a simple love for the game and more around politics. After a year-long battle, their complaint has resulted in the Vista Unified School District's (VUSD) creation of a still unnamed committee whose job it will be to "clarify codes of conduct and procedures of discipline" for both students-athletes and coaches.
At a February 28 meeting, almost one year after Ziggy, now 17, was ousted from the team, the VUSD board voted to establish this committee, which will be made up of athletic directors, coaches and parents. Its job will be to ensure that the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) rules are followed. These rules are based on the premise that "the essential elements of character-building are embodied in the concept of sportsmanship and its six core ethical values: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship." The district hopes to have it up and running by the fall of 2002.
Although her son, Ziggy, was unable to benefit from the counsel of such a committee, Ms. Luna, 38, calls it's founding "promising." "It's something that will help to be a mediator between students and coaches. I don't want to go ahead and say that a coach's job should be scrutinized, but coaches do have to follow the CIF codes of conduct, and there needs to be an open line of communication," says Ms. Luna, who admits that her son has suffered since his run-in with a district policy that seems to "protect" coaches. "Changes were made because of his sacrifice."
March 22 Incident
A May 28, 2001 letter from Ziggy's parents to the Superintendent of VUSD, David Cowles, outlines an incident that occurred on March 22 during a baseball game between Vista and Orange Glen High Schools. Ziggy attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt - a common strategy that allows a runner to be advanced into a scoring position - but struck out in the process.
The letter states that the coach, Paul Frey, "went completely out of control," yelling, "Jesus Christ, can't you even execute a bunt?" The letter continues, saying that the coach was "waiving his hands in the air ... kicking the dirt ... and stomp[ing] around the third base box." Ziggy proceeded to "toss his helmet into the dug out" and say, "That's not the way you play baseball." At that point, the letter alleges that the coach left the third base box to scream at Ziggy while standing only inches from his face. Parents and players from both teams witnessed the outburst.
At the parent's request, a meeting was held on March 23 with Varsity Baseball Coach Rick Lepire, Vice Principal Dan Paquette and Athletic Director Pat Moramarco. According to Ms. Luna, she and her husband informed these men that they would be filing a complaint against Paul Frey for "verbal abuse perpetrated to their son during a school sponsored activity." The vice principal agreed to get Ziggy's "point of view," and stated that he would call the parents later. Within four days of the March 22 incident, Ziggy Luna, an 11th grader who had played baseball since he was five years old, was kicked off of the team.
"I love baseball; it was life to me, and it made me happy. They took this all away from me," says Ziggy, who admits that it "really hurt" when the coaches and administrators did not believe his version of the incident. "It seemed that they wanted to help out their staff, rather than listen to a student. That's not the way you treat kids."
Ziggy, a high school senior who plans to continue with baseball and study architecture, gets to the root of what he feels is really wrong with coaching at the high school level. "Baseball is supposed to be about developing the kids and about having fun. With Coach Frey, it felt like a job," says Ziggy. "These coaches are taking it overboard."
Mr. Frey, now a teacher at Lake Elsinore High School, left Vista High after the 2001 school year to accept a "better position to teach and coach another sport." He is hesitant to discuss the complaint, but points to the "thorough investigation done by both site and district administration," which resulted in the punishment of only the player.
According to a February 2002 Union-Tribune article, though, the Luna complaint did not reach the school board until July 2001. Since Mr. Frey had already left the district, the board "did not determine whether the coach was at fault."
Four months after the original incident, the Human Resource Department mailed a letter to the family. In it, they state that the school's principal at the time, Robert Graeff, "acknowledged that coach Frey used poor judgment in his response to Isaias's failure to complete the bunt," but they stand by their decision to remove him from the team based on interviews with five other players. The principal felt that the statements of the players "indicated that [Coach Frey] was trying to get Isaias to sit down and stop the comments/gestures directed at him by Isaias."
Board Member Gets Involved
In most instances, complaints such as the one filed by the Luna's die out when parents try to navigate district channels. Due to the efforts of board member Dr. Stephen Guffanti, though, the principal of Vista High at the time was briefed of the "parent's side" and a certificate, the JV equivalent of a varsity letter, was awarded to Ziggy. In an E-mail, Dr. Guffanti states that he became involved in the situation because he had a "high index of suspicion that something was wrong with this case. It was my hope that, if the right people got together and discussed the problem, a spirit of cooperation would develop."
Over the course of the year, Dr. Guffanti met with the principal four times to discuss the Luna family's complaint, and he personally took the certificate around campus to have it signed by the appropriate administrators. Although Ziggy could not play ball, he had something to show for his efforts, and the Luna family felt that they had someone who was willing to hear their side.
At the February 28 board meeting, though, the politics involved in the VUSD system made itself glaringly obvious. The Vista Teacher's Association claimed that Dr. Guffanti pressured then Principal Graeff, who now works for the Ramona Unified School District, to fire the varsity coach. The teacher's union also alleged that Dr. Guffanti overstepped his bounds by procuring an "un-earned" certificate for an athlete.
Although neither ex-principal Robert Graeff, Varsity Coach Rick Lepire nor ex-Vista High JV Coach Paul Frey were present, the board discussed the issue for hours. The result: Ziggy Luna voluntarily marched up to the podium to return his certificate, which had been awarded to him for the two years he served as a JV player and for the 30 games that he had played. The district also agreed to form the CIF oversight committee.
Dana Schoonover, 47, is a parent volunteer who has lived in the Vista area all of her life. From her four-year stint as a Booster Club president, treasurer and secretary, she knows the politics of VUSD athletics well. During the years that her son played baseball and football, the Booster Club - a parent-run club that raises money for athletics raised over $400,000 for the teams.
"The district thinks that parents are whining about playing time, but that's not it. Our kids have played since they were five years-old, and by this time we all know there are no guarantees," says Ms. Schoonover, who states that many parents of high school athletes "keep their mouths shut" when it comes to problems they see for fear of endangering their child's chances of playing. "If codes of conduct are not being followed, there should be predictable consequences for both students and coaches."
Mr. Lepire is in the midst of coaching his sixth season of baseball at Vista High. He believes that this year-long ordeal is "not about Ziggy," at all. "Any time you take a leadership position, you will find people who do not agree with you. Ziggy's complaint was investigated through the proper channels, and it was supported on all levels," says Mr. Lepire, who states that teachers are less eager to sign on as coaches because of a "lack of funding," and because of the skyrocketing level of "parental expectations."
"When somebody says `I can do that job,' I would tell them to stand in my shoes for a year. Let them try and make decisions to cut kids, to always have a humanistic approach and to try and organize parents," says Mr. Lepire. "A strong majority of the parents are outstanding, and a couple take all of your energy."
Problem with Coaching
Jerry Miles has been the Executive Director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association for the past 11 years. The association provides "services and recognition" for baseball coaches and helps to "promote and represent" high school baseball. Their current membership is nearly 1600, and it includes coaches from every state in the United States and Canada.
He explains that the Association typically does not get involved with issues such as the Luna complaint and that they believe that these incidents should be handled on a local level. He does admit that complaints such as these are "very unusual" in baseball.
"Most coaches will tell their players, `We don't want you to embarrass yourself, your team or your school,' and the same would hold true for the coach. He's got to be the example, but unfortunately there are isolated cases in which coaches lose control," says Mr. Miles, who emphasizes that he does not know "if this was the case in this incident."
Mr. Miles goes on to report the changing dynamics of the high school coaching profession, in general. "We are living in an era now where it's very easy to start throwing darts. More and more in sports, the parents get involved when they shouldn't, and they blow things out of proportion. We are seeing young coaches step out of coaching very quickly now," says Mr. Miles. He states that in the past, coaches stayed in the profession for up to 40 years. Today, he estimates that coaches stay between five to 10 years. "The young coaches are saying that it's not worth it financially, but mostly it's because of the pressure that coaches are facing with the parents."
Pete McHugh, Associate Superintendent for VUSD, confirms that coaches receive a modest stipend for their efforts. "Typically, varsity coaches are probably going to get in the range of $2,400 per year for hundreds and hundreds of hours of work. Anyone who coaches is not doing it for the money," says Mr. McHugh. He states that it is impossible to track the number of students cut from teams. "A lot of kids go out for teams and are cut for ability or attitude, and many self-select themselves out."
Although Mr. Miles stands by his statement that the National High School Baseball Coaches Association does not comment on individual complaints, he does have plenty to say about what constitutes a good coach.
"You hope that the coach is giving the right leadership in all ways. There are going to be some ups and downs. A coach shouldn't chew out a young man in front of everyone else. He should handle it one on one, not in front of teammates," says Mr. Miles. "The bottom line is that you should help the young players to be better young people, and you have got to show them the leadership that you expect in sports."