SJericho Scott was the 9-year-old who briefly became a media sensation when he was deemed "too good" to pitch in his youth league. A year later, Craig Fehrman checks in on Jericho and finds that everyone got the story wrong.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Dom Aitro Field sits in a dense, hilly neighborhood, right behind a battered K-4 school where the "Free" in the "Drug Free Zone" sign has been spray-painted over. Still, when the weather's just right, the sunlight and the thick trees circling the field create a shadow that splits the diamond in half, from home to second to center field. The dugouts' peeling aluminum roofs and the wet laundry hanging 15 feet away seem to disappear. Dom Aitro Field becomes the perfect place for baseball.
On Saturday, Aug. 1, the weather's just right, and Mark Gambardella's New Haven All-Stars are playing in the PONY Baseball North Zone Tournament. It's a double-elimination affair, with the winner going to the Mustang (10 and under) World Series. And, in the bottom of the fourth inning of the tournament's first game, Jericho Scott nods at his catcher, takes a deep breath, and winds up.
You remember Jericho, right? Last year, he became a national sensation — the 9-year-old pitcher banned by his league for being "too good." He also became, in what is always a competitive category, the worst-covered sports story of the year.
The New Haven Register inaugurated the Jericho Scott era on Aug. 22, 2008, with a story on the controversy surrounding the Liga Juvenil de Baseball de New Haven. The LJB, an independent inner-city league, had told Wilfred Vidro, Jericho's coach, to stop pitching him because he threw too hard and presented "a danger to other kids in the league." When, two games later, Vidro sent Jericho back to mound, the LJB ruled it a forfeit.
Jericho didn't go viral until a few days later, when the sports blogosphere's major players latched on to a Register follow-up about Jericho's parents protesting the LJB decision. Old media and new media — both followed the same pattern, praising Jericho, mocking the LJB, and lamenting the everyone-gets-a-trophy contagion.
But there was always more to this story. At that non-game, the parents and players of Jericho's team allegedly chanted "losers" and caused enough commotion that the LJB had to escort the other team off the field. Several people heard Jericho's mother curse and threaten league officials. The LJB claims she said: "This will be the last year. Once the lawyer is done they're gonna eat shit and there ain't gonna be a league next year."
It's important to keep those words in mind when you learn the history of the LJB. Formed four years ago, the league and its volunteer staff give about 100 inner-city boys and girls — some fresh from T-ball, others who've never even played sports — the chance to learn, exercise and have fun. Look at what Jericho wore in all those sympathy-inducing pictures: sweatpants, mismatched shoes, an adorably oversized hat — this is not the uniform of cutthroat baseball. Or consider the LJB's response. While the league ended up disbanding Jericho's team, they offered to refund players' $50 registration fees, to put them on different teams, to keep Jericho as a non-pitching player, even to help him find a more competitive league. Most of these details came from Peter Noble, who emerged as the LJB's reluctant spokesman. While reporting this story, I became quite familiar with Noble's voicemail message, which, first in Spanish, then in English, offers daily updates for the after-school tennis program he also runs. He seems like a pretty stand-up guy, even if he never returned my calls.
All this to say that, when LJB officials acted to prevent Jericho from pitching, they acted intelligently and responsibly. They did exactly what a developmental league with a wide range of players should do — ensure that everyone gets a chance, not to win, but to improve. If an athlete becomes too good for his age group, he should move up. Youth sports leagues do this all the time.
Nevertheless, the media sided with Jericho, waving around "too good" as if it were an indictment of the league's actions and letting Jericho's camp get away with outrageous statements like: "It spoil[s] their summer and their childhood"; "He's trying to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders"; and "I'd rather have him in the midst of this controversy on the field than dealing drugs on a street corner," as if those were the only two options. Moreover, the media uncritically aired the Scotts' ever-evolving reasons for refusing the LJB's compromises — the Scotts wanted Jericho to remain with his friends; they wanted this particularly close-knit team to stay together; they wanted (this is my favorite) Jericho "to stay grounded"; or, in what became their final answer, they wanted to stand up to a full-blown conspiracy centering on the league's second-place team, which was sponsored by the LJB president's barber shop. (The kernel of truth: the LJB president was renting a chair in said barber shop while his own business was rehabilitated after a fire.)
This one-sided coverage was bad enough. But the media also overlooked crucial information. Not long ago, I talked to Gambardella, a local legend who's coached PONY baseball for the past 30 years — and Jericho for the past five. "The only reason Jericho went to that other league," Gambardella says, "was, well, I gotta take a vacation sometime."
So, while Gambardella took two weeks off, Jericho and a friend joined the LJB's season in progress, signing with a team that was already 4-0. Over the next five days, Jericho pitched 13 innings in three games, but the LJB was never his primary gig — that was the PONY league and Gambardella's All-Star team, both of which were a cut above the LJB. Yet the Register's viral hit mentions "another league" only in passing, and the AP story that ran on ESPN.com's front page doesn't mention it at all.
Neither did Jericho's parents, of course, since it undermines pretty much everything they've put on the record. Instead, with the entire media as their mouthpiece, the Scotts played the role of aggrieved parents and captured the national imagination. When CBS's Early Show did a short feature on Jericho, it made no attempt to explore the league's side of the story. When the Scotts told the New York Daily News that "five of the [LJB team's] victories were no-hitters that Jericho hurled," the paper fit it into its glowing profile — even though, again, Jericho pitched in only three LJB games.
Which brings us back to Jericho on the mound in New Haven, pitching for a spot in the PONY World Series. Despite the stakes, it's a youth baseball tournament like any other — camping chairs, distracted siblings, maybe 100 spectators in all, with a slight majority for New Haven's opponent, CBC. From a woman who kindly shares her bug spray, I learn that they came from Chesterfield, Va., an eight-hour drive away. It's a more suburban crowd than New Haven's, a sea of khaki shorts, and they like to grumble. "This is a horrible field," says one parent. "How did they get to host this? I mean, really."
Clearly, we're in for a bit of a class war. CBC's kids boast name-brand equipment bags, Space Age batting helmets, and, back home, as another parent proudly informs me, a "baseball complex" recently remodeled for $500,000. New Haven's team, in contrast, is a tough bunch of Italian-, Hispanic-, and African-Americans, and they're representing a city whose Little League barely found enough sponsors to survive. They have . . . well, they have an impressive array of chants.
Nevertheless, by the time Gambardella pulls his ace, New Haven's winning 20-0, and the CBC coach is frothing — literally, I'm afraid — at his players. In comes Jericho. Now, I'm no Keith Law, but I can play one online. One of the more telling sins journalists committed while covering Jericho was wildly overestimating his talents. The Early Show clocked him at 47 mph, but that's actually in line with his age group's averages. (And, again, let's contextualize the hype: In Beyond Belief, Josh Hamilton remembers throwing 70 mph at about the same age.) Jericho does have a smooth, compact delivery and a nice pickoff move, but, more than anything else, he seems really polished. He's a fun-sized Orel Hershiser.
Jericho, or "J," as his teammates call him, strikes out the first CBC hitter on three straight, but then gives up a home run to left, a double to right, a loud out to center, a double to left and another fly out. His final line is one inning, three hits, two runs, one strikeout, but, thanks to the 10-run rule, the game's over. New Haven has its first win.
In its next game, New Haven plays another Connecticut team, Stratford. Gambardella goes with his second-best pitcher, a finesse lefty who quickly gives up six sloppy runs. New Haven chips away, but, in the top of the fourth, they're still down 6-3.
Up to the plate steps Jericho Scott. As in the first game, he's batting ninth and manning second base. If Jericho is one of New Haven's five best players, it's for his defense; later in this game, he'll make the Web Gem of the weekend, a beautiful, bare-handed grab-and-throw. With the bat, his best skill is a preternatural eye at the plate. Against CBC, he walked and struck out looking (it was a terrible call), and here, against Stratford, he carefully works the count.
We're all a little shocked, then, when Jericho just smokes one to center. Stratford's outfielder tracks it, but it's gone — and to the deepest part of the park. Jericho basically skips around the bases; his mom whips out her cell phone and stays on it for the rest of the inning. New Haven never looks back, winning 13-6.
CBC's brain trust sticks around to watch the game, though the parents and players head back to the hotel. As New Haven starts sing-songing through another chant, the CBC coach shakes his head. "That is such an obnoxious team."
Whatever else they said, no one from CBC (or the other teams) mentioned Jericho's past. It seems unlikely that this was out of respect. Instead, even youth baseball junkies forgot one of 2008's noisiest stories.
While that story began online, it quickly crossed over to talk radio, then TV, with the Scotts receiving overtures from Letterman, Leno, Ellen, even Dr. Phil. But Jericho's biggest impact came in sports columns and blogs, where, as always, the Youth Sports Scandal was packaged as a simple allegory for decidedly grown-up concerns.
Journalists from as far afield as Idaho's Lewiston Morning-Tribune and Michigan's Grand Rapids Press weighed in. They worried about Jericho and his poor parents, raised a fist against Big Brother, linked the LJB to the subprime mortgage crisis. "Sort of makes you glad Michael Phelps didn't splash the water at the local swimming pool too hard when he was a kid, scaring the other kids," wrote one wordsmith. "Next, let's yell at him for being too good at math," opined another. (The blogosphere arguably outdid their print brethren. See this post, lovingly titled, "The Tale of Jericho Scott: Trophies For All! Let's Turn Our Kids Into Sissies! Why Not Socialism, Too?") Such reactions make it pretty clear why the story took off. It was never about Jericho. It was never even about sports. Instead, it was about one of our great national myths, an anxiety that dates back at least to the dawn of the 20th century. For a short while, Jericho Scott's story was Exhibit A in The Gradual Pussification of America.
Well into the fall — and well after the LJB season had ended — the Scotts kept their cause alive. They organized various fundraisers, from washing cars to selling memorabilia autographed by Jericho. And Jericho began lending his celebrity to other (actual) causes, attending a walk to fight sickle-cell anemia. This led to probably the low-point in the whole mess, when Gary Smart, who serves on the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America's national board of directors, told the Register, "Jericho's case is similar, in that he, too, is being set aside."
But the rest of the world had moved on. Or, more accurately, the media had moved on. Leno et al. probably lost interest after seeing the Early Show; it's hard to make compelling TV out of a cute kid who can't quite make eye contact. But the LJB held a press conference that, according to several accounts, was well attended. Even the Register's reporting improved — notably in Dave Solomon's column, which briefly quoted Gambardella. Here, then, were important updates, fresh angles, genuine news.
But if the media brought Jericho's story to life, they just as quickly left it for dead. (See the stalagmite-looking Google Trends graph.) Why? Perhaps they felt trapped by their own righteous reactions. Perhaps they needed to move on to the next big thing. Or perhaps it was never a story so much as a platform, with Jericho serving as a 58-pound human soap box.
On Sunday, Aug. 2, New Haven plays CBC again, and, this time, CBC jumps out to a big lead. Their fans, who apparently spent Saturday night cooking up their own chants, explode. "Give me a C!"/"C!!!" and so on, ending with, "What does that sound [?] like?"/"CBC!!!" In the dugout, their coach prowls. "Let's give 'em some of their own medicine."
In the top of the fifth, New Haven starts a mini-rally when Jericho steals home. (Throughout the tournament, New Haven runs the bases like the '82 Cardinals.) As he gets up, though, lightning flashes across the sky. The umps push the game to Monday.
Later that afternoon, the sun comes out, and I check back at the field. It's empty, except for four CBC parents. Three are on their hands and knees in the mud, bailing water with styrofoam cups; the fourth is taking pictures to document the now-playable field. If New Haven's fans seem like a more combustible mix — they include not only Jericho's parents, but also Vidro, his old coach and new team's rowdiest fan — it's the CBC contingent who, this weekend, at least, comes off as arrogant, entitled, paranoid and downright mean. The beauty of it is that, just like in Jericho's case, everyone claims to be "about the kids." "We just want them to play tomorrow," is how one of the muddy CBC parents puts it to me. "We don't want it to come down to a coin flip."
It's no surprise when sports parents behave badly (I won't even waste our time on the call to the cops after Saturday's game), but more than anything, more than a small youth league doing what small youth leagues always do, it was that blend of eccentricity and overcommitment that lay at the heart of Jericho's saga. The story of a 9-year-old boy who was "too good" was in fact the story of adults — parents and journalists alike — who were ultimately too childish.
On Monday, Aug. 3, the weather returns to just right, and CBC quickly finishes yesterday's business, 14-4.
One final game, then, to decide who goes to the PONY World Series. CBC turns to a short kid who throws a 12-6 changeup, if that's possible, and it's devastating. He easily strikes out Jericho, who leads off this game. In the bottom of the first, CBC scores five quick runs. Their fans are delirious.
New Haven fights back, tying it 7-7, but that's as close as they get. In the bottom of the fourth, with New Haven now trailing 14-7, Jericho comes in to pitch. It's a tough spot — two on and CBC's third baseman-slash-manchild at the plate — and Jericho struggles. A sharp single to right, a walk, a double to right-center, and it's over. CBC wins on the ten run rule, 17-7. As New Haven's fans graciously applaud, the CBC coach careens on to the field, slapping kids on the head and screaming, "That's it! That's it, right?" No fewer than fifteen parents charge down from the stands, all armed with digital cameras and camcorders. The CBC kids seem . . . relieved.
Jericho Scott pushes back his hat, keeps his composure, looks at Gambardella, then at his parents. More than anything, he seems shocked at how quickly it ended.
Craig Fehrman is a writer and grad student living in New Haven. You can find more of his work here.