RELAX! RELAX! Relax!"
The child's grip tightens around the aluminum bat with every word, his feet dig deeper into the dirt with every command.
The irony of a parent tensely screaming at a batter to relax is lost on a boy who wishes he could disappear.
"Just have fun! Just have fun!"
The child steps off the mound and squeezes the ball and peers sadly into home plate as though it's a stack of homework.
The irony of a parent angrily screaming at a pitcher to have fun is lost on a boy who just wants to play catch.
It's another Wednesday night at the neat collection of fields housing the Palmdale (Calif.) Pony League, a place like any other youth baseball center, a place forever different.
This is where a 13-year-old boy, reportedly enraged with being teased after a loss, allegedly beat 15-year-old Jeremy Rourke to death with an aluminum bat.
The tragedy occurred April 12. Play resumed last week. It was as though nothing had ever happened.
Kids were still kids. Parents were still parents. The most painful of youth sports still diluted ounces of triumph with large drops of failure and embarrassment.
The Angels and Padres were playing. It was the seventh and final inning. The Angels' pitcher was laboring. The Padres' players were chiding him.
The field umpire threw up his hands, ran to the Padres' dugout, issued a warning.
This time, the irony was as chilled as the breeze that blew in from the darkened mountains beyond.
The boy who had allegedly been teased two weeks earlier and snapped from the pressure and hit Rourke in the head with the bat? He also had played for the Angels.
Had nothing been learned?
"They were shouting out the pitcher's number. It was bush league; I told them to stop," said umpire Wayne Beuhring. "We don't want to do that here. Especially now."
Yet they do it everywhere, kids razzing kids, parents bullying children, youth baseball being engulfed in an epidemic far worse than steroids.
It's about juiced egos. It's about anabolic expectations. It's a nightly insertion of a different sort of needle into the most tender of flesh.
"The kids stress themselves out a lot," said Nelson Acosta, a veteran umpire of 27 years who was working in Palmdale that night. "And it's gotten worse."
Think about it.
Youth baseball is the only activity of any sort where a child can suffer a singular failure in front of parents and peers.
It's called the strikeout.
And what do most parents do when a player on their team strikes out? Nothing. Silence. Can any spanking hurt so much? Youth baseball is also the only activity of any sort where the child can control the entire game in one hand, everyone staring, everyone shouting, the pressure of a hundred history tests in a few short hours.
It's called pitching.
And what do most parents do to calm down their team's pitcher? They shout, "Relax!"
"What gets me is when the parent doesn't know what he is talking about, yet stands behind home plate yelling at his kid about how to stand, how to swing, how to pitch," Acosta said. "I want to turn around and yell, 'Shut the hell up and let the kid play!' "
Youth players, of course, then swallow the shouting from the parents and coaches and turn it on each other.
How we long for the good old days of "Hey batter, batter, batter ... swing!"
The simple chants have been replaced by trash talk. Witnesses say it was that sort of talk that led to the Palmdale tragedy.
It's not that Palmdale folks aren't trying. Since long before the recent incident, they have held annual parent and manager meetings stressing good conduct and even awarded an annual sportsmanship trophy.
"It's something we discuss constantly," said league president Ken Curtis. "It's a major focus."
"It's the children's God-given right to have fun, and we can't get in the way of that," said Robert Lopez, a father of two young players. "They're always talking about that here."
Lopez looked toward the field occupied by the teenagers, the official Pony Leaguers, and sighed.
"But as they get older, it gets harder," he said.
Jeff Bevington, the father of one of the Pony League Angels, said, "I don't see the problem. These kids are doing what they're supposed to be doing; they're not out joyriding at 2 a.m."
He shook his head and added, "And the parents, we are where we're supposed to be, out supporting our kids."
He's right. Youth baseball can be a wonderful place for learning and growth. But sometimes you have to be a little bold.
Why not clap and shout "Nice try" when a player strikes out, applauding their courage to fail? Why not cheer for good plays by both teams? Why not ignore the underpaid umpire, unless you want to do his job, or thank him for doing it?
Why not reward the coaches for their countless volunteer hours by, well, shutting up and letting them coach? Founded more than 50 years ago, Pony League is actually an acronym. It was supposed to be an inspiration. It is, instead, just another sad irony.
Protect Our Nation's Youth.
Bill Plaschke is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.