- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

Baseball tryouts in Fairfax County high schools have some parents crying foul, saying coaches are improperly using the teams to promote their private baseball-tutorial clinics and travel squads.

Mike Grasso has founded Fairness in School Sports, an organization to stop “feeder” teams and other tactics that, he says, do not give students a fair opportunity during team tryouts.

The clinics and travel teams, which operate independently of public schools systems, play in the off-season and are generally for developing students for high school baseball.

The conflict of interest arises, Mr. Grasso said, when school coaches steer the students toward clinics with which they are affiliated, with the understanding that not attending all but ensures they won’t make the high school team.

Mr. Grasso calls such tactics a “shakedown” of parents willing to do anything to make sure their child makes the roster.

“The parents who don’t want to ruin their son’s chance of making the team don’t ask any questions. They just go along and write the checks,” he said. “But what happens to the kids and parents who can’t afford to pay for these clinics? It’s a case of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ ”

Mr. Grasso’s critics point out he was once president of such an operation — the South County Hawks select travel baseball program, which handpicks the best players.

They also say Mr. Grasso is still affiliated with the operation and owns Baseball Mechanics Inc., a private-instruction business, making him a business competitor of the clinics he opposes.

Mr. Grasso rejects the claim that his motives are monetary.

“I’m retired and financially stable,” he said. “I’m only doing this for the children who aren’t given a fair and ethical chance to try out, and their parents who can’t afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to send their kids to these camps.”

Similar situations have arisen across the country, particularly with basketball programs.

Mr. Grasso said he became aware of how rampant the problem is in the county when parent and former customer Lance Patterson approached him two years ago to say his son, a standout catcher, had been cut twice from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria without receiving a proper tryout.

Mr. Patterson said he watched several days of tryouts and saw several disturbing things, including the players from a travel team being the only ones identifiable by uniforms.

“None of the coaches had clipboards; nobody was taking notes,” he said. “It’d be almost impossible to keep track of all of those who tried out without writing it down, unless you knew that those in the uniforms attended a specific clinic.”

Mr. Grasso, who said he stepped down as South County president to devote more time to the issue, claims other parents have similar complaints.

In the two years since the inception of the Fairness group, he and parents from several schools have taken their grievances to the county’s superintendent, the county School Board, athletic director and the Virginia High School League.

One of their initial targets was Mike Gallagher, the founder of Dominion Baseball Academy and former head coach at Hayfield.

Mr. Gallagher, a Hayfield alumnus who returned after playing college ball in California to coach the school’s baseball team, once coached a team for Mr. Grasso’s organization, then started his own two years ago.

Mr. Gallagher said he was unfairly forced out of Hayfield after just one season, following complaints about the relationship between Hayfield and Dominion.

“No coach is promoting something over something else to profit off the kids; at least I wasn’t,” he said.

Mr. Gallagher said Fairfax County Public Schools wilted under the accusations and made him a scapegoat.

Paul Jansen, the school system’s director of student activities and athletic programs, said he could not specifically comment on personnel matters.

However, he said, Mr. Grasso “brought some issues to our attention, and I respect what he’s done.”

Mr. Jansen also said the situation is often complicated by students who aren’t good enough to make the team.

Mr. Gallagher, who led the varsity team to a 17-6 record and was named Patriot District Coach of the Year before resigning, said it was a “big deal” to him to coach at his old school.

He said Mr. Grasso could “absolutely” be spiteful enough to launch such a vendetta for business purposes.

“Honestly, I’m at a loss for words to say exactly what his motivation is,” Mr. Gallagher said. “He had himself a nice baseball monopoly, so my guess is that it’s financial gain for himself.”

One Hayfield parent whose two sons defected from Mr. Grasso’s program to Mr. Gallagher’s Dominion Baseball Academy agreed that Mr. Grasso’s actions might be business-influenced.

The parent, who asked not to be named, said she and her husband attended a handful of tryouts when their oldest son played for Hayfield’s junior varsity team four years ago. They witnessed no improper activity, and nobody was distinguishable by uniform, she said.

She surmised Mr. Grasso was creating the issue because players were spurning South County for other programs — namely, fledgling Dominion and Mr. Gallagher, who she called a “very talented” coach.

“For [Mr. Grasso] to make it seem like he’s out there doing all of this for the children’s sake is wrong,” she said. “Possible conflicts of interest and ‘feeder teams’ weren’t an issue when he was running his camp and he didn’t have any competition.”

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