The idea seems innocuous enough, even wholesome: young boys racing around a small-town baseball diamond, their dirt-smudged uniforms bearing the name of the local business that sponsors their team.
When the sponsor is a video store that rents X-rated tapes, however, it causes more controversy than a myopic umpire - and, in this case, meant the end of the Lillian Barracudas.
“Standing up for what you believe is pretty hard, but sometimes it’s worth it,” said 11-year-old pitcher Nathaniel Bartl.
The team, for boys under age 12, was dissolved Wednesday to settle a legal fight between the Lillian Sports Association and parents who didn’t want their sons acting as “human billboards” for C & J Video.
“A 10-year-old can’t buy an X-rated video. Why should a 10-year-old advertise an X-rated video?” says Calvin Bartl, who is Nathaniel’s uncle, the Barracudas’ manager and youth pastor at the evangelical Alliance Church in nearby Elberta.
The sponsor, David Bryan, who like Bartl has a son on the Dixie Youth Baseball team and has sponsored it for four years, says his rights to free enterprise have been trampled.
The dispute began when the parents of four players, including Bartl, filed a civil rights lawsuit defending their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” They said those rights include refusing to let their sons wear jerseys identifying C & J Video or its owner.
The store has been operating for about four years on a busy corner along U.S. Highway 98, the main route through this unincorporated community near Pensacola, Fla. It’s the only video rental store in Lillian.
On Tuesday afternoon, a half-dozen cars were parked outside the store in a converted house. Inside, a standard assortment of rental tapes of all types lines the walls.
The X-rated tapes are kept in a house trailer attached to the rear of the building. Customers must show identification to a clerk before passing through a doorway to the hall that connects the two structures.
The town boasts seven churches. A giant fireworks stand and a few stores are its major businesses. The farming, fishing and resort area snuggling the Florida line at Perdido Cove has a population of about 5,000.
Even though it has sponsored the team in the past, Bartl and other protesting parents said they didn’t realize the video store was the sponsor this year until after the team played its first game in early April. The players’ jerseys weren’t ready until a couple of games into the season.
The benches cleared after the Lillian Sports Association refused to allow the four boys whose parents objected to wear jerseys without any sponsor name. Dixie League rules say all team members must wear identical uniforms.
“The protesting parents were offered the opportunity to move their children to other teams so that this conflict with their stated religious views would not destroy the team, and they declined,” association attorney Larry Sutley said.
As publicity grew, boys whose parents didn’t object to the C & J sponsorship stopped coming to games anyway, scared away by the publicity. Bartl had taken the few remaining boys to recent games, but usually lacked enough players to field a team.
At the hearing Wednesday in circuit court in Bay Minette, lawyers worked out an agreement to disband the Barracudas and send the 16 players to the five other teams.
“Play ball,” said Circuit Judge Lyn Stuart.