Item: Officials of the El Centro, Calif., youth baseball program canceled the rest of the season after umpire Carl Ott was threatened with a knife by a fan during a game between two teams of 8-year-olds.

The mind recoils. Baseball . . . umpire . . . knife . . . 8-year-olds. The game was on the line, and so was Ott's life. Out at the plate suddenly has a new -- and scary -- meaning.

You can imagine recess talk among the kids the next few days, while scraping peanut butter and jelly out of their braces:

"Hear 'bout what happened?"


"Ump makes this call and a guy comes at him with a knife . . . It was awful . . . Now we can't play any more."

Probably, earlier incidents less traumatic helped cause league officials to throw up their hands in frustration and declare: season called on account of grownups.

The kids suffered twice. The first time because some bozo went bananas; the second time because nobody had enough nerve to make sure it wouldn't happen again. The solution doesn't seem all that hard. Keep the games; ban the troublemakers.

Of all the dangers, year-round, in America few are more sad than out-of-control adults watching little kids at play. You can't see the wounds these wicked animals inflict.

Nobody has steered a child through youth sport without experiencing some degree of bafflement about the matter. Or been startled and concerned at their own sudden misbehavior. Normally rational men and women go bonkers over the most unintended slight to little Johnny.

The car door slams shut at the field and so does the brain. Art Linkletter could have had a marvelous spinoff to his kiddie-talk show: at games, parents do the darndest things.

Mostly, they bait the poor soul who has volunteered his time to officiate, although some umps and referees admittedly are incompetent enough to drive a saint to swearing.

In my own youth, I once had the ball on a runner's foot at third base and the umpire went mute. We looked at him without changing position, the other kid still flat on his back and me in a semi-squat.


Safe or out?

"I'd rather not say."

He eventually decided the runner was safe. The bum. There was a mild argument but, unlike Ott, the ump was not quickly in need of a flak jacket.

Officials go into each game expecting a reasonable amount of fairly loud sass. What no one is prepared for is the amount of abuse too many parents give their youngsters.

The way some fathers act, you would think their 12-year-old had sold his mother into slavery instead of missing the tough tackle that cost his team a touchdown.

It's bad enough to miss the last-second foul shot that could have tied the game; it'll get worse at home.

Just guessing, I imagine the kidsport that generates the most embarrassment is soccer. Swimming seems the snootiest. But for sustained parental ugliness, nothing seems quite able to match soccer.

Around the world, soccer has a unique ability to stir great passion, regardless of age. It was a soccer match, in Brussels last year, in which rioting led to 42 deaths and 300 injuries. It was before a World Cup match in the 1970s when somebody called the El Salvador team "a lemon" and was shot dead on the spot.

So why shouldn't such emotion be evident at the entry level?

"The greatest anger," said Post colleague Paul Hodge, who coached soccer in Northern Virginia for 10 years, "came from the sideline instead of the field.

"There rarely were fights among the kids. In fact, it was the kids 11- and 12-year-olds who often would tell their parents to cool it."

Soccer incidents frequently make the papers. A referee was charged with punching a parent during a game in Potomac four years ago; several times, players and parents have been accused of assaulting referees.

A Northern Virginia man recently was charged with simple assault when, apparently fearing for the safety of his 14-year-old son, he allegedly struck the face of a player on the opposing team.

A picture of two New Jersey mothers kicking each other during a kids' match a few years ago made the national wires.

"Most of the incidents involve parents not wanting to see their kids hurt," Hodge said.

A good deal of the other trouble comes from parents not understanding the game their youngsters are playing. They know the rules and accepted behavior of baseball, basketball, hockey and football, but not this basically foreign sport.

Also, the proximity of parents to the soccer field makes bottling anger even harder. A parent sees what seems to be a cheap shot an official clearly missed; that official shortly will be no more than a step or so away.

Several years ago, a coach approached a man sitting on a sideline stool taking notes during a game and asked what he was doing. The man said he was organizing a select team and wanted to recruit some of the coach's players.

Livid, the coach said, "Recruit this," and slapped the man off the stool.

Policing kidsport is delicate, for parental support ought to be encouraged. So banning all parents would be counterproductive, the same as calling a halt to a season after one horrific incident.

Maybe all fields should have a small area built several dozen yards from the action. Nothing fancy, but a place where pushy people can be banished.

Call it a Parent's Playpen, in acknowledgement that most of the time those acting childish are not the children.