Baseball is, at its best and worst, a well-organized heist. It’s played in a diamond world where stealing is a virtue and stealing home a glorious act of bravado. And, make no mistake, it attracts criminals. Hustlers were hustling the thing before the Black Sox scandal of 1919, before Pete Rose retired to spend more time with other peoples’ money, before Mark McGwire’s needle-poked ass got hauled in front of Congress. None of this is terribly shocking, of course; sports attract opportunists. It has always been that way. Still, few do so at the youth level. Baseball does. Little League crime is very much a thing.
To dive into crimes perpetrated by Little League coaches and managers is to enter a sad and profound human drama. Since 2009, over $2 million has been stolen from Little Leagues. And, according to Vice Sports, the rate of crime is increasing. Little League — like youth soccer and all sorts of other booster-clubs — is a vast organization that puts power (and money) in the hands of volunteers. These volunteers sometimes take the money and run. Interestingly, though, few seem to set out in that direction. Stealing from Little League coffers is almost always both a crime of opportunity and a crime of reluctance.
The preponderance of Little League crime is embezzlement, that is, the fraudulent taking of personal property by someone to whom it was entrusted. Generally what happens is the treasurer — or someone with access to a league’s bank accounts, many of which contain as much as $250,000 at any given moment — absconds with the funds (or puts them on black). Why? Because they are there and because they are generally there in a relatively non-structure, non-corporate, non-policed sort of way. And also because that treasurer is, more often than not, a parent and that’s a tough gig with no money in it.
The criminals who knock over Little League tend to have bills to pay. This makes sense. There’s something sexy about a bank robber. That’s a vocation. The guy that steals cash from kids? That dude is never forgiven.
Scrolling through the mugshots of the many Little League embezzlers one can’t help but feel a twinge of there but for the grace of God go I. Am I all that different from Kevin L. Barker, the Kent Little League treasurer who stole $200,000 from his local Little League over 20 months? The man was just trying to keep a sports bar he just bought, The Benchwarmer, afloat. To read his testimony is to realize how a man can be drawn and quartered by circumstance. “Like my attorney said, I just got out of hand,” he told the judge in 2016, “I bought a business I probably shouldn’t have. I lost everything and my dignity and the trust of people.”
The same seems true of William Jacobvitz, formerly the treasurer of New York’s youth baseball team, Gotham Giants, who in 2015 was convicted of embezzling $90,000 for repairs on his car. (Why didn’t he buy a new car? Unclear.) Or 46-year-old Deidre Mitchell of Port Huron, Massachusetts, who was convicted of embezzling $11,000 from her local Little League team. She used the funds to save her home and her car. “I was guilty of being in a bad situation,” she told the judge. She was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
When Jerry Benisch discovered funds were missing from the Wisconsin-based Kennedy Little League team, he reached out to his sad-eyed, pot-bellied friend Stephen L. Verhage. “Jerry, it’s me,” said Verhage. “Jerry, you knew it was me, didn’t you?” It turned out Verhage’s home inspection business was in the pits. What first started as a patch, a check for $1,000, became a $44,139 check made out to cash, became $63,382 to pay off Verhage’s 11 credit cards, became $200,000 stolen over seven years.
Verhage spent 11 months in jail. He never ran. He was guilty in all senses.
It’s highly unlikely that Verhage or Jacobvitz or Mitchell or any of the other Little League criminals eyed the League as a potential honey pot. In all cases, they seem to have wanted to do something with and for their children. The noble gesture of volunteering as a treasurer for Little League team quickly raked toward ruin. Greece had Oedipus; Rome had Coriolanus; Little League has middle-aged debtors with kids.
Still, there are exceptions. Not every instance of Little League embezzlement is as relatable. Sometimes the spoliated funds are too large or used for purposes too venal to engender compassion. Julie Ann Gray of Petoskey, Michigan, stole $80,000 and gambled it away. Not nice. Even so, I dare you to look at the miserable woman with her eyes cast down in the mugshot, wearing a thick green hoodie sweatshirt so frequently seen on the sidelines of youth sports, and not conclude that her situation had to be bad as well.
The heartbreak of the whole thing, the heartbreak that exerts a magnetic pull, that an act of good (volunteering) leads to an act of bad (theft). Little League bank accounts are a fly trap for the desperate even though Little League, as an idea and an enterprise, traffics in the noble. This collision, between who we want to be and who we are, is the crack heard in the bleachers. It’s why these stories get coverage. It’s why these stories should get coverage.
Generally, crime stories fall into two categories: those about monsters and those about us. One we read with fascination and a modicum of comfort. We could never chop a baby up or slay a score of victims so we read about those who do from a very comfortable seat indeed. But the latter is by far more terrifying. Little League criminals, a sad chorus of losers, are terrifyingly close to the individuals we all see in the mirror. Before they were confronted with a terrible choice, these criminals walked among us. And though it’s tempting to say I would never steal from my kids’ Little League, with a house underwater, a car that won’t start, and $250,000 sitting unattended in a bank account with my name on it… well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
According to the Department of Justice, an entrapment defense rests on two prongs. First is a “government inducement of the crime.” Secondly is “the defendant’s lack of predisposition to engage in the criminal conduct. Of the two elements. Predisposition is, the regs make clear, “by far the more important.” Certainly in the cases of Little League crime, the first element is absent. It’s not the government. It’s a bunch of dads and moms who probably should have stretched more. But the predisposition bit is. The systemic vulnerability and lack of fiduciary safeguards paired with the financial assault on the middle class that defines the modern moment push people hard in the wrong direction. It might not be entrapment, but it is close. But if baseball has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes to get home you have to steal.
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