Who's on First? Who Wants to Know, and Why?

Bryan Hilferty, with 8-year-old son Sam, is frustrated with Little League's culture of secrecy.
Bryan Hilferty, with 8-year-old son Sam, is frustrated with Little League's culture of secrecy. (By Ali Hilferty)
By Ted Gup
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 29, 2007

This summer Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty of Alexandria got a glimpse of secrecy where he least expected it -- not at the Pentagon but on a baseball diamond where his 8-year-old son, Sam, played Little League.

A ball struck third base and rolled wide, and Hilferty, as acting umpire, was unsure what call to make. He declared it foul, then reversed himself when challenged by another dad. That's when he decided he'd better get a copy of the official Little League rule book.

That evening he turned to the league's Web site. To his surprise, the rules were not to be found there. More surprising still, he learned that the official rule books were no longer made available to bookstores or sporting-goods stores.

So the dogged lieutenant colonel contacted the league's regional office and asked for a copy of the rules. But a league official informed him that due to past litigation the league no longer makes the rules available to just anyone.

It seems that some years ago parents of players who were injured in non-league games where league rules were used had taken to suing Little League. So the league decided to restrict the circulation of its rules on a need-to-know basis, a concept with which Hilferty was intimately familiar. "I have a secret clearance," he mused, "I work in the E-ring of the Pentagon, but I don't have clearance for the Little League rules."

Hilferty's experience offers but one more window on how deeply embedded secrecy is, and indeed, how it affects virtually every facet of American life. Nothing is more open than a summer game of baseball played by young boys and girls, but even here, with so many eyes upon the game, elements of secrecy insinuate themselves unseen. But back to our beleaguered lieutenant colonel.

Little League told him that its rules were not secret, just restricted to those authorized to see them -- not the first time he'd heard that argument. Among other things, the league frets that unlimited access to its rules would allow competing leagues to dupe parents into thinking their children were playing for the one true Little League. So only two copies of the rule book go out to each sanctioned team and others are provided upon a showing of genuine affiliation and need.

An irritated Hilferty wrote a league official, "I am an Army officer stationed at the Pentagon and the Army has some secrets, but our 'rules' are published for the world to see."

An equally exasperated league official fired back: "What we could use are better judges, juries and a less litigious society."

In the end, the league relented, offering to provide Hilferty with a rule book (at a fee of $1.50), but Hilferty declined. "They did offer me a copy, but I said no. It's bigger than me. It's about the 50,000 dads across America who want to know the rules and about the dads on my team and the kids on my team who didn't know the rules."

But Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken seemed unmoved by Hilferty's frustrations. "There is no way we can give special treatment to someone just because they are in the Pentagon," he said. "We don't give preferential treatment. Everybody has to abide by the same rules. The books are available through the proper channels -- someone in the military should know that."

If the Little League is inculcating America's young with the virtues of sportsmanship and competition, it is also introducing them to wider notions of secrecy, and not just the hand signs between catcher and pitcher. Across the country, various permutations of secrecy are at work in Little League, nearly all of them with the blessings of league headquarters.

In Corpus Christi, Tex., the Laguna Little League rules related to selection for the All-Star Team note: "All personnel involved in the selection process shall be sworn to secrecy of all All-star announcements until given dates authorized by the board." The East Tonka Little League, in Minnetonka, Minn., provides that "at the start of the selection meeting, coaches will receive a copy of player evaluations for their use that evening. These evaluations will be collected and destroyed at the end of the meeting." (There was no reference to burn bags.) Arizona's Tempe South Little League in its 2007 playoff calendar notes that the location of the "Major Division Draft" and "Minor Division Draft" were to be considered "Top Secret." The Pacific Little League, in Lynnwood, Wash., has a section titled "Secrecy," which states that "players and parents are never told of the round in which candidates were drafted. All coaches' and managers' scoring sheets and draft notes are collected and destroyed at the end of the draft by the Player Agent."

That last provision is designed to protect young players from their peers who might be prone to prey upon them or badger them if selected in the latter rounds. But more than a few parents have come to view that same rule as inviting nepotism and favoritism, particularly where they see the children of assistant coaches routinely making the team and the All-Star list.

And if all this were not enough to prepare Little Leaguers for a world of secrecy, there's this early glimpse of the clearance process: Every prospective coach must first undergo a thorough nationwide background check. That includes not only the sex offenders' registry but any and all criminal convictions.

In a society steeped in secrecy, Little League might just be the perfect training ground for any number of careers. In August 2001 the Little League Hall of Excellence inducted a former catcher for the Cubs of the Midlands, Tex., Central Little League. His name: George W. Bush. He is the first Little Leaguer to become president. The venue and stakes may have changed, but arguments over secrecy persist, whether to call fair or foul.

Ted Gup is the author of "Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life" (Doubleday) and is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University. His e-mail istedgup@att.net.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company