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Unruly spectators mar Ward Melville-Commack playoff game

Matthew Franco of Ward Melville and catcher Vinny

Matthew Franco of Ward Melville and catcher Vinny Pagano of Commack watch the flight of the ball on Franco's three run home run in the bottom of the sixth to put Ward Melville ahead at Ward Melville on May 25. Credit: Daniel De Mato

Unruly spectators marred a recent high school baseball playoff game between Ward Melville and Commack, underscoring the difficulty umpires face when dealing with crowd behavior.

Umpires Vin Scicchitano and Tom Magier said they received an escort to their cars from security guards after last Saturday’s Ward Melville-Commack varsity game in East Setauket. The umpires ejected at least five spectators and had to stop the game twice to address the crowd’s behavior. At one point, the umpires had security move about a dozen disruptive fans from behind home plate in an attempt to ease tensions.

A Ward Melville school spokeswoman said the school added three security guards during the game to the two already on hand to support the umpires. Ward Melville fans also were instructed by school staff to stay at the field until after the Commack fans had left to avoid the potential of tempers flaring further, according to Lee Nielsen, whose son, Max, is a senior pitcher for Ward Melville.

“I think the umps handled it well, they jumped on it as fast as they could, had the kids moved, tried to move on,” said Nielsen. “It’s a big game. They want the teams to play the game without interruption.”

The umpires said they are accustomed to being on the receiving end of verbal abuse from spectators, but the tipping point last Saturday came when fans started to direct remarks at players.

“Ejecting fans is a not a common practice,” said Scicchitano, who was the home plate umpire. “It could be if we wanted to, with what we hear, but we try to stay out of the way. There were comments made all throughout the game. . . . But when it shifts to becoming personal about the players, that’s when we have to step in and get security involved.”

The spectators’ behavior came as Newsday reported this week on the rise in verbal abuse of high school sports officials by coaches, parents and spectators that has led to a stark decline in their ranks. Nassau and Suffolk officials said the lack of available officials is reaching “crisis” levels in some sports and causing problems scheduling high school and middle school games.

Commack spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said the behavior of the students involved was addressed by the school.

“We always investigate when we hear of something like this, and this has been dealt with,” she said. “This type of behavior is not tolerated, it’s not who we are as a school district.”

She said all student athletes and a parent must attend a code of conduct meeting before each season in which they are spoken to about acceptable behavior on and off the field. “We hope it gets through to the parents, how we expect everyone to represent us,” she said. “We are about good sportsmanship.”

Ward Melville Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich confirmed the ejections. “Several visiting spectators became disruptive and were asked to leave the game ... at the request of the umpire not the district,” she said in a statement.

Scicchitano and Magier said the unruly behavior in last Saturday’s game began almost immediately.

Magier, who was positioned by first base, said a group of five or six high school-aged boys began yelling insults at the Ward Melville players. Magier said he approached the group between innings in an attempt to defuse the situation.

“It wasn’t very long after that when one of the kids popped off — it may have been a derogatory comment directed at me — and at that point the security member told them they had to leave,” he said. “Then the parents voiced displeasure that the kids had to leave.”

Magier said the crowd then focused their verbal abuse on him.

Later in the game, the umpires said the comments from spectators were getting too personal again. Scicchitano said he stopped the game during an at-bat and asked security to clear the area behind home plate to move people away from the players and each other.

Commack coach Bryan Bonin said, “I didn’t hear what they said. I don’t know what happened to get them thrown out. But it was a bit of a crazy environment there.”

The playoff game ended in dramatic fashion, with Ward Melville hitting a go-ahead, three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning for an 8-6 victory.

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