Before the end of her elementary school fundraiser at Chuck E. Cheese's in suburban Chicago on Monday afternoon, 9-year-old softball player Marie Marcum had one goal: to play an MLB-licensed throwing game and show off her skills. But after she started chucking the red rubber balls at the target, Marcum heard something that infuriated her.
"Hey," the game chirped, "there's always softball!"
Marcum, who has played softball since she was 4, was furious. She started throwing harder and harder. Her mom looked over, wondering what was going on. "Did you hear that?" Marcum asked her mom. "I missed one throw and the game said I should try softball."
Marcum swiped her card again. And again, included among the variety of taunts during gameplay was the suggestion that she should try softball.
"I was really mad," she told ESPN. "It made me feel like they think softball is a bad sport and girls shouldn't play softball. I just started throwing balls at the game as hard as I could. I thought it was rude."
Marcum and her mother spoke to an employee at the arcade, but that didn't numb the girl's frustration. On the ride home, she couldn't stop thinking -- or talking -- about how irritated she was. Her mom, a high school teacher, suggested she write a letter to the game manufacturer, Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE), based in upstate New York. But her uncle pointed out the game was called "Major League Baseball" and was covered in MLB logos. Her parents are big baseball fans -- her dad cheers for the White Sox and her mom the Cubs. "I like the Cubs a little better," she said. So she asked if she could write a letter to Major League Baseball.
On Monday night, she sat at her kitchen table and did just that.
"I wanted to tell someone how mad and upset I was and let them know what they could do to fix the game and make it better," she said.
Marcum thought of her 4-year-old cousin, who this summer will start playing sports for the first time and is deciding between basketball, soccer and softball.
"I'm trying to encourage her to play softball," she said. "But if I brought her to that game she might not want to play softball. I just don't think that's right."
Added Lisa Marcum, Marie's mom: "Here we are at Chuck E. Cheese, a place with so many impressionable little kids and we're saying you throw like a girl or hit like a girl or whatever. I thought we had moved past that."
Innovative Concepts in Entertainment, founded in 1982, says on its website it is an industry leader in the production of sports games for the home, arcade and office. The Major League Baseball name and logos were used through a licensing agreement that expired in 2011. In a statement released Wednesday, an MLB spokesperson said, "MLB does not support the message conveyed in the game and we are reaching out to the company to share our concerns about it."
ICE president Joe Coppola said Wednesday his company manufactured the game for two years, beginning in 2009, and this is the first complaint it has received.
"I completely understand where she is coming from," Coppola said. "I get it. There is probably a greater sensitivity today than there was 10 or 15 years ago. It's something we all need to pay attention to."
Coppola said there are "thousands" of games in the marketplace today and said it wouldn't be a problem to remove the offending audio clip from the game if requested to do so.
A Chuck E. Cheese representative said the company did just that on Wednesday -- asked ICE to remove the taunt "to support everyone's love of play." Until that happens, the representative said all Chuck E. Cheese stores will mute the sound on the game.
"We're thankful to Marie for bringing this to our attention and agree -- play and sports are for everyone."
As of Wednesday, Major League Baseball had not yet received Marcum's letter, but said it planned to reach out to her family with a few ideas to celebrate her love of softball.
"We love Marie's passion for softball and her view that softball is just as great as baseball," the statement read. "Through our PLAY BALL program, growing youth softball has remained a priority for MLB, equally as important as growing youth baseball."
The Marcums, meanwhile, are thrilled their objections are being heard after Lisa posted a photo of her daughter's letter on Facebook Monday night.
"I'm just so proud of her," Lisa said. "She did this all on her own. The one thing I hope she remembers from this is if there is something she feels strongly about in the future, she will remember that people want to hear her. If nothing else, this will encourage her to speak up."
As for Marie, while waiting for the brutal Chicago winter to thaw so she can start her 10U season with the Plainfield Twisters, she has a new idea on how to kill the time.
"I'm starting to wonder if there are other games like this that are rude or upsetting," she said. "I might need to write some more letters."