A league of their own
Parents force ouster of Eastside Little League’s first female majors coach
On the last day in January, a Saturday, Lisa Park was at the Chico Eastside Little League field complex, where the first baseball tryouts of the new season were being held for boys 11 and 12 years old. It was a big day for her because she was making history in a small, but to her important, way: She was the first woman ever to coach in the league’s “majors,” as the division is called.
By the following Tuesday, she would be out of the position—forced to resign, she said during a recent interview, because a few parents said they objected to her coaching style. She’s convinced it was because she’s a woman.
It certainly wasn’t a matter of qualifications. At different times during the past 11 years, Park has coached at three levels of Little League baseball, from Rookie (5- and 6-year-olds who play T-ball) and Farm (7- and 8-year-olds) to Minor League (9- and 10-year-olds). Last year, she coached one of the Minor League all-star teams. She’s also coached girls’ softball at several levels, including the elite traveling Starz team.
Initially, the Chico Eastside board—of which she is a member, as is her husband, Chris—had unanimously approved her nomination to coach majors.
In a recent interview, however, board President Rich Gray said that shortly after Park was approved, he started hearing complaints about her. What concerned him most was that parents were threatening to remove their kids from the program if she was coaching.
Gray sent out an e-mail alert scheduling a board meeting following the Tuesday (Feb. 3) tryouts. The purpose, it said, was to discuss Park’s qualifications to be a manager. He also called her personally on Monday evening and told her about the parents’ concerns, he said.
Chico Eastside Little League’s complex is located off Southgate Avenue, just west of Highway 99 behind Wood Bros. Carpets. It’s an impressive set-up: five fields of different sizes, depending on level of play, including a collegiate-size field for the Junior and Senior League players ages 13 through 16.
Little League is a nonprofit, volunteer-run program, and it’s obvious that a lot of enthusiasm and hard work go into keeping an organization like Chico Eastside functioning.
There are more than a dozen members on the CELL board, and most of them were present for the Feb. 3 meeting, Park said. They met in the league’s second-story offices above the snack bar.
She characterized the meeting as “basically a bash session on me, on why I’m not a fit manager and how I’m not qualified.”
Gray showed her three letters from parents who charged she was unqualified and didn’t have good sportsmanship—charges she’d never before faced as a coach, she said. No specific instances or incidents were cited, and none of the parents’ children had played for her.
Gray said he’d also talked with as many as eight other parents who threatened to pull their sons out of the league. One family actually dropped out.
At the time, the league expected to field four majors teams, each with about 12 players. As it stood, the league would need to move several boys up from minors to fill out the rosters. Gray said he feared he would lose an entire team.
The conversation in the CELL office went on for a while, sometimes heatedly, Park said. She was asked to resign, and when she asked why, she said she was told it was because of the “perception people have of you at Eastside and we don’t want parents pulling their boys from the program because you ‘might’ draft their boy.”
One board member said she was perceived as “an aggressive, hardcore coach,” she said.
At one point, the only other female board member present, Michelle Dean, noted that, “If Lisa were a man and these accusations were being said about him, we wouldn’t be in this room tonight.” The room was quiet, Park said, and then someone—she doesn’t know who—commented, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Another coach offered to make Park his assistant coach, saying that the problem was one of perception, not reality, but she declined.
Dean did not return a phone message, but Gray confirmed Park’s account. He did dispute, however, her claim that she was asked to resign, saying she took that step voluntarily. Had she refused to resign, he said, he would have called for a motion to remove her. As president, he’s allowed to vote only in case of a tie; had there been a tie vote, he said, he’d have supported Park.
Park says the reason for her resignation was simple: She looked around and saw that only two or three board members, including her husband, supported her. So she quit. “My back was against the wall. I knew they would have voted me off,” she said.
As it turned out, the league was able to put together only three teams after all. They’ll still have a good season, Gray said, because of interleague play, but a number of the 10-year-olds who would have been called up are being kept in the minors.
Another casualty of the controversy is that two strong female players—Park’s daughter, True, and Katherine White, whom Park has coached in softball for four years—have dropped out of the league.
“I’m thoroughly disappointed,” said Gray, saying that both girls are exceptional athletes. “Katherine White would have been the dominant player in the league—she’s that good. And Lisa’s daughter is really good, too.”
Gray insists that sexism wasn’t the issue in Park’s case, but at the same time he doesn’t understand why she elicited such a negative reaction from some people. He acknowledged that there’s a “good old boys” attitude on the part of some Little League parents and coaches.
Others were more critical.
“I’m baffled how a board of men think that this is not a direct attack at Lisa because she is a woman,” Melissa Blofsky, a former CELL board member, writes in a letter to the board. As a member of the CELL board, she continues, “I witnessed the coach and manager selection process, and there were many times when a candidate had proven to not be fit and still got the spot. … You should all be ashamed of yourselves for participating in this.”
And, in an e-mail message to Gray announcing that his family had decided to withdraw from Little League this season, Katherine White’s father, Cliff, writes, “I think Lisa is a great coach. … I had the opportunity to work with Lisa when Katherine played majors [softball]. … I was at every game and every practice. I found Lisa to be firm but fair. She took an inexperienced group and made them into champions.”
Cliff White’s wife, Karen Ann, believes Park is taking a stand “for our kids. I want my daughter to see that she can stand up when something is wrong.”
For her part, Lisa Park says the reason she came forward with her story was because she wants “to be sure this never happens again to another woman.” And if she ever chooses to coach again, she doesn’t want it to happen to her, either.