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Bitter Tee

A Pennsylvania Tee-ball coach is charged with conspiring to injure a disabled child

For 20 minutes last Thursday, a tiny nine-year-old boy stood in the witness box in a crowded courtroom in Uniontown, Pa., answering questions about what happened before his Tee-ball game on June 27. He had to stand because when he sat in the witness chair, he disappeared from view. Harry Bowers was able to answer nearly every question, though he is autistic and suffers mild mental retardation. One question he struggled with was "Do you see your coach in the room?" His thick eyeglasses reflecting the fluorescent lights, Harry was unable to find Falcons coach Mark Downs (above), who sat 10 feet away, accused of going to criminal lengths to keep Harry out of a game.

According to the testimony of a player's father, when Downs, 27, told parents about the playoffs, he suggested they not relay the news to Jennifer Bowers, Harry's mother. (All players who show up must play at least three innings.) When Harry arrived, Downs allegedly approached Keith Reese, 8, the hardest thrower on the team. "Mark told me to warm up with Harry," Keith testified. "Mark told me that if I hit Harry in the face with the ball, he'd pay me $25, and then Harry would be out of the game." Keith's first toss hit Harry in the groin, sending him in tears to his mother. When she encouraged him to continue, Downs told Keith to "go out there and hit him harder." Keith's second throw hit Harry in the left side of his face and ear, drawing blood. "Mark came over and told us the balls must be after him, and he suggested that Harry take the day off," Bowers testified. (Keith's father testified that after the game, which the Falcons won, Downs admitted to making the offer, which Downs denies.)

Bowers went to the state police, who charged Downs with criminal solicitation to commit aggravated assault, corruption of minors, criminal conspiracy to commit simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. It's not Downs's first brush with the law--he faces charges for allegedly threatening and assaulting his fianceé, Sheree Miller, in May. Nonetheless, league president Eric Forsythe was surprised. "I hear complaints about coaches all the time," he says. "I had no complaints on Mark Downs." Downs, a construction worker whose twin daughters play on the Falcons, was ordered to stand trial. Downs stormed from the courtroom--he didn't testify--his tires squealing as he drove away. His lawyer, Tom Shaffer, told SI his client is innocent and that the media are trying to make a pariah out of Downs.

"Mark told me that if I hit Harry in the face with the ball, he'd pay me $25."