Telling little leaguers to keep the action clean

Dale Murphy has set up the I Won't Cheat Foundation to encourage the next generation of baseball players not to take steroids.

Little Leaguers like to walk, talk, pitch and hit like big leaguers. Dale Murphy, a former major leaguer, just wants to make sure there is one way impressionable pint-sized sluggers do not imitate their heroes. In an era when steroids and drug testing make sports headlines, the two-time National League MVP is on a mission to encourage young players to avoid shortcuts through his "I Won't Cheat Foundation".

Founded by Murphy five years ago, the organisation's message reaches its biggest audience during nationally televised games of the Little League World Series, where players wear patches on their sleeves with "I WON'T CHEAT" in bold letters. The annual 10-day tournament begins on Friday in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. "The main point I thought to make to the kids is that I know what you're thinking is that most of these guys are taking it," Murphy said. "But a lot of them aren't. Most of them aren't and you can still be a successful baseball player if you want to pursue it without taking this stuff."

Though he's been out of baseball for 17 years, Murphy may be the perfect voice to spread such a message given the clean-cut image he developed as one of the game's most feared hitters in the 1980s. He hit 398 home runs over 18 seasons, most of them with the Atlanta Braves. Murphy, who now lives in Alpine, Utah, started the organisation in 2005 when performance-enhancing drugs were making news. It was in March of that year, for instance, when Mark McGwire, the former St Louis Cardinals slugger, refused to answer questions before Congress about steroid use during his playing career.

"It really started with the steroids issue in baseball. We were just sitting around, some of our friends ... we just started talking, maybe we should just send another message out there because the perception of the kids is that everybody is taking this," Murphy said. Little League added the patch to World Series uniforms two years ago, giving the message more visibility. Little League does not drug test tournament players, though there are no regulations that stipulate whether local leagues can or cannot test.

"I have never heard of a local league that tests, and would be very surprised to hear about it," Lance Van Auken, the Little League vice-president, wrote in an e-mail. "Using steroids equals cheating," reads the title of Little League's position statement to parents on the drug issue. For the most part, Little Leaguers are not directly confronted with the possibility of taking performance-enhancing drugs, especially in the younger age brackets, Murphy said. The Little League World Series, for example, is for 11 to 13-year-olds.

They may, however, be exposed to other questions that have more to do with decisions their parents and coaches make, like allowing a player to use a heavier or unregulated bat, or allowing a player from outside a league's boundaries to join a team. It is in those instances that adults must realise they are setting a bad example, Murphy said. He also wants to educate young players to speak up as much as possible when uncomfortable.

"It takes courage, and we encourage kids to speak up," Murphy said. "One of the more challenging things in life is not being the guy who does the cheating, but not saying anything about it and going along with it." The foundation has since expanded its message beyond the diamond to other sports, as well as to classroom and extracurricular activities. His foundation has "I Won't Cheat" pledges for students and young athletes to sign.

The goal, he said, is to add another voice and make youngsters see the long-term consequences of their decisions. "Kids especially, they need as many people as possible to say, 'You don't want to do that. You want to do it the right way to be successful'," Murphy said. "Kids see the short-term gain, that's kind of the challenge with all of us at any age - you see the short-term gain, you don't see the long-term consequences."

At a recent game of the Double-A Altoona Curve, Martin Perz, a fan from of Pittsburgh, said he had not heard of Murphy's foundation but called the idea a good concept. Perz, who was at the game with his 14-year-old son, Curtis, said he does not often talk about the performance-enhancing drugs with his son except by telling him: "If people use it, they're cheaters. You can acquire some long-term physical ailments."

The subject of steroids at the major league level rarely comes up on his youth team, said Curtis's 13-year-old friend, Vinnie Shoff, who plays second base. "You have people who work hard to get strong, and then you have people that cheat, and inject steroids to get strong, so I associate it with cheating," he said. Stephen Elder, at the game with his 10-year-old son, Stephen Jr, is not overly concerned with how stories about steroids and cheating may affect his son to the point where they need to talk about the issue. "Not yet," Elder said, "but we will be."

* Associated Press