In Forest Park even Little League softball is controversial.
Two neighbors who both wanted to coach their daughters in softball this year will not be coaching this year. And neither is happy about it.
Two years ago Bill Kirchner and his neighbor and friend Connie Custardo began coaching together. It seemed natural. Their daughters were friends and wanted to play softball together.
But along the way things went wrong. Custardo says that Kirchner was verbally abusive to the players and often made girls cry. Kirchner says that Custardo wanted to be the manager and was out to get him.
Last year, Kirchner was the manager and Custardo began the season as his assistant for the minor league (girls aged 8 to 10) softball team. But Custardo said she had misgivings about Kirchner’s coaching from their experience the year before. After a private practice that Custardo said she was not informed about, she stopped coaching. But she still came to games as a spectator and helped out when needed.
In May there was an ugly confrontation. A pitcher couldn’t throw the ball over the plate. Everyone was frustrated.
Kirchner, who also serves on the village’s plan commission, was shouting instructions. Custardo was in the stands merely offering encouragement, she says. Kirchner remembers it differently.
“She was usurping my authority,” said Kirchner, who felt that Custardo was merely making things worse for the young pitcher.
Custardo says she told Kirchner “Bill, don’t make the girls cry.”
Finally, she said, Kirchner walked up into the stands right up to Custardo leaned down and whispered “(expletive) you” in Custardo’s ear. Custardo said it right back to him.
And things have gone downhill from there.
Custardo and some other parents have complained to Forest Park Little League board members about Kirchner’s style of coaching.
“He was oppressive and bullying,” said Custardo
In a latter sent to Little League officials and the Forest Park Review Custardo wrote “[O]ne girl or another would be crying and upset every game and practice. It was an embarrassment.”
Five other parents also sent letters detailing their complaints. They allege that Kirchner called girls fat or out of shape and generally was overly critical and made their children not want to play softball any more. They say that his behavior upset their daughters.
“By halfway through last season girls were crying every day because of the way they were talked to, the way they were treated,” said Michelle Barnes one of the letter writers. “I’m not going to pay $70 to have my kid yelled at. I can do that at home for free.”
These parents felt they were given assurances last season from Dan O’Connor, the president of the Forest Park Little League, that Kirchner would not be coaching softball this year. Upon signing up for this season they say they learned that Kirchner was going to assist newcomer Rick Marchetti as the coach of the minor league girl’s softball team this season, prompting the recent spate of letters.
The group also involved long time long time Little League equipment manager George Martin. After meeting with the women Martin said he found them credible. He talked to Kirchner who told him he did not plan to step down. Finally, Martin told the board that if Kirchner remained as coach he would quit. Then the board acted.
The board told Kirchner not to coach this year and Kirchner reluctantly agreed. The board also rebuffed Custardo’s request to coach the minor league girls this year.
“We’ve taken all necessary steps to rectify the situation,” said Little League president Dan O’Connor. “That’s basically all I can say.”
Kirchner is not happy about the board’s decision and feels the allegations leveled at him are unfounded.
“The board has come up to me and asked me not to coach this year,” says Kirchner. “I’m disappointed in the board’s decision in me not coaching, but I have a lot of other things to do.”
Custardo, who played and coached in Oak Park adult softball leagues for 25 years, is also not happy about being relegated to the bleachers. She says she wants to coach and feels the board is retaliating against her for criticizing Kirchner.
Kirchner says that this all stems from the incident in the stands with Custardo last May.
“From that point on she was trying to get me out of softball,” said Kirchner. “I can lose it only occasionally. It happens maybe once or twice a year. I’ve never called a girl fat. I never said that…It’s just difficult to teach nine-year-old girls.”
Kirchner said he hired a lawyer who is drafting a cease and desist letter to those whom Kirchner said are damaging his reputation.
Kirchner said that he recently saw the letters written about him. “Except for the thing about whispering something in her ear everything else is all lies,” said Kirchner. “Do I yell instructions? Yes. Am I mean spirited? Absolutely not.”
Everyone agrees that last year’s team was not very good, winning only two games.
In one game last year Kirchner yelled at a player who started to advance home from third base when a batter walked. But because the bases were not loaded, the player could not advance. Kirchner yelled at her to get back to the base and pay attention to him and not to think on her own. She broke down in tears.
To Kirchner’s critics that was yet another example of emotionally abusive coaching. But to Scott Mitchell, the girl’s dad and Kirchner’s assistant last year, it was no big deal.
“My daughter cries at the drop of a hat,” said Mitchell. “She cries if I tell her to clean her room.”
All agree that it’s not easy coaching young girls, some of whom have never played softball or baseball before.
“I think at this age bracket they are more interested in 15 other things than playing,” said Mitchell.
Bonnie Doolin’s daughter played on the team last year and said that she didn’t see major problems. In fact, Kirchner seemed almost laid back to her.
“I’ve been to (Little League) baseball games where I saw coaches yell a lot more,” she said. Doolin says she sensed tension between Kirchner and Custardo and a few other parents from the start of the season.
“They really hated him,” she said. “They just did not like him from the start.”
As this year’s Little League season is about to start, both Kirchner and Custardo will be relegated to the stands as parents. Perhaps there they can restore the friendship that their daughters still share.
“This was not a personal problem for me with Bill Kirchner,” says Custardo. “It was a problem that he was abusive to children. I lost him as a friend. If we needed something he was there. We were friends. He was very helpful. He’s very kind in many ways. This is a terrible thing that has happened.”