Why did this happen?
Publication Date: Friday Jul 29, 1994

Why did this happen?

Life used to be so simple, or so it seemed. There was a time when youngsters actually did respect their elders, when ballplayers didn't talk back to their coaches, didn't curse, or needed severe attitude adjustments. And there was a time when coaches did have control over their players, not necessarily having to rule with an iron fist but through respect. There were rules and they were expected to be followed. Simple as that.

And there was a time when athletics provided an outlet from depression and all the bad things that had built up inside young athletes. Frustrations were taken out on the field. There was always a solution without resorting to something as drastic as taking one's own life.

But times do change. And people change. And life isn't so simple anymore. Sometimes we wonder why our children talk the way they do. Or why they don't talk at all. Is it society? A lack of guidance that we once had? Where is the discipline? The love?

Two very different incidents have taken place during the past week, both involving athletes. Jeff McGregor was kicked off his baseball team and was to be the subject of this column until the death of ice skater Stith Letsinger. While both are as different as night and day--life and death--both seem linked, if for no other reason than neither should ever have happened.

McGregor was a member of Palo Alto's 15-year-old Babe Ruth all-star team that competed in the state tournament last week at Baylands Athletic Center. Following a game in which he was removed as pitcher, McGregor was shifted to the outfield and then later taken out of the game. He responded by angrily taking off his jersey, throwing it on the ground and leaving the dugout.

McGregor later apologized to his team and his coaches--John Jurgens, Doug Schmucker and Don Peglow--and was allowed to rejoin the team. In the next game, after McGregor had brought in the winning run by grounding out, he let loose with an expletive as his way to celebrate the victory.

That expression, however, sent Schmucker into a rage. According to numerous eye witnesses, Palo Alto's first base coach grabbed McGregor's jersey with one hand and shoved him with the other--cursing the 15-year-old while pushing him back to the dugout. Schmucker said he was restraining McGregor from tangling with the first baseman.

Jurgens and Schmucker had a lunch meeting the next day, during which time Schmucker told Jurgens that "either Jeff goes or I go." Jurgens sided with his coach, citing numerous incidents with McGregor that Jurgens had deemed tiresome.

So McGregor became the victim in a situation that was allowed to boil over, but may have been prevented if the Palo Alto coaches had set down rules from the beginning--especially curtailing the all-too-familiar trash-talking that seems to much too prevalent among today's youth ballplayers.

Ideally, McGregor should have remained off the team once he removed his jersey and left the dugout. Schmucker, likewise, should have been booted for his behavior involving McGregor.

Either way, Palo Alto lost more than just the championship game. And we ask why, why did this happen?

The same can be said for the tragic death this week of Letsinger, a 1992 Gunn High graduate and Palo Alto resident. The talented, 20-year-old ice skater seemingly had the world at his feet.

Letsinger took his own life during the early hours of Tuesday morning. Again--why, why did this happen?

Letsinger and partner Tami Tyler, a junior this fall at Gunn, were to spend one final season in ice dancing's junior division, then make the big leap to seniors in 1995 in preparation for the 1995 and '96 World Championships, the latter being held at the San Jose Arena.

"All we have to do is skate, practice and work hard," Letsinger said of the duo's immediate future during an interview with the Weekly for a story in February. "You get rewarded by your progress."

While there were signs of progress in his career, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary during a fund-raiser for the skaters on Sunday in Palo Alto. The support from the community was good and the mood very upbeat.

Letsinger enjoyed his friends that day and night, when he attended a birthday party. Life just couldn't be any better, it appeared. He had his job as a disc jockey at Foothill's radio station KFJC, a family, and close friend and skating partner in Tyler, and a future that presented the challenge of making the U.S. Olympic team.

But something went tragically wrong for Letsinger, an expressive and talented young man who found success in the spotlight but apparently was overcome by something so dark that no light could get in. Or so he thought. If only reason had prevailed.

So we are left with the fact that Stith Letsinger was a good son, brother and person. That he liked music and loved his skating. And that we may never know why he decided to leave it all behind.

And again we ask why, why did this happen?

Keith Peters is sports editor of the Weekly 

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