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National Little League removes Mertz from board

February 19, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The president of Hagerstown's National Little League has resigned and has been removed from the board of directors amid disputes over how to run a league that received harsh treatment in an ABC television special last summer.

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Donnie Mertz said a few coaches and managers blocked his attempts to run National more like Little League was designed to be run.

"They blamed things we were trying to accomplish on personal vendettas," said Mertz, the father of five sons who have been involved with youth baseball. "Little League was not intended to be run by the coaches and managers."

Mertz resigned as board president on Jan. 10 and was removed as a member of the board last Sunday.

He said it is because some managers and coaches resisted changes he thought would improve the league, preferring to pursue a win-at-all-costs philosophy that is bad for children.

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But Mertz's adversaries said the dispute arose from personal problems he had with them and a management style that did not take opposing views into consideration. It is the same attitude that got him kicked off the board two years ago, they said.

"He had his own personal agenda," said Steve Cromer, who has coached in the league for nine years. "He ran this league like a kingdom."

Said manager Jay Sutherland: "It was his contempt of the board. He approached the board as a dictator."

The dispute has divided a league that has had its share of troubles recently. ABC anchor Peter Jennings presented a sometimes unflattering look at the league to a national television audience last summer.

Mertz said it was the program that made parents take a hard look at themselves and persuaded some to invite him back onto the board last September.

"That's the only way I was going to be president this year," he said.

Mertz said he hoped to alter some of National's practices and improve the way it was run. His proposals included:




- Creating a program to train managers and coaches.

- Appointing a committee to review the conduct of managers and coaches and investigate complaints.

- Writing job descriptions for volunteers.

- Giving children input in the selection of all-star teams rather than letting managers simply pick the players.

- Adding a "coach pitch" division between T-ball and the minor leagues.

- Keeping all parents and members better informed.

Mertz said his opponents resisted the ideas, which he said are drawn from Little League guidelines in Williamsport, Pa.

"They didn't even want to meet to discuss them," he said. "All we did was open the books up and see how Little League thinks it should be run."

But Sutherland said it was Mertz's style and approach that caused problems, not his ideas.

"None of that had anything to do with it," he said. "Everybody I know was in full support of training coaches and managers."

Cromer said Little League headquarters has two sets of rules. One set consists of "must-follow" rules that all chapters must incorporate in order to maintain their charters.

An entire book contains recommendations that leagues have the option of adopting or not. Mertz's proposals fell under this heading, Cromer said.

Mertz said all went well in the beginning. More than two-thirds of the league's board of directors backed his ideas and he felt like he was "preaching to the choir."

But then Cromer, Sutherland and a few others vigorously fought against change, Mertz said. About nine board members resigned after they became disillusioned, he said.

One of them, Dwight Hoffman, was the league's umpiring chief.

"Rules must be followed. That just is not important to those people in power," he said.

Hoffman said many of the board members left because they feared the managers would retaliate against their children.

"They used intimidation. They used the fact that they could exclude children," he said.

Cromer and Sutherland flatly denied those charges.

'Philosophical difference'

In a nutshell, Mertz said he was thwarted by those who believe the only goal of Little League is creating winners.

"It's more of a philosophical difference," he said. "For the last 15 years, the emphasis has been to get a winning team out there."

Cromer and Sutherland both denied that winning is the most important thing. They noted that the league is considering making the first half of the minor league season instructional and not keeping records.

And while winning in the all-star tournament and trying to reach the Little League World Series is important, Cromer and Sutherland said sportsmanship and values are equally so.

"We teach kids to win," Sutherland said. "But we teach them how to lose, too."

Kelly Stebbins, who succeeded Mertz as league president, said Mertz would not have turned off the other board members if it were merely a disagreement over his proposals.

"That all sounds wonderful. If that was truly the case, the whole board wouldn't have asked for him to resign," said Stebbins, who is Cromer's fiancee. "He was undermining the board."

Mertz said the dispute has spilled over to his kids. Cromer said he will not coach Mertz's 10-year-old son next year. Cromer said he placed the boy back into the draft because the dispute between the adults would be unfair to the child.

Mertz said he does not know whether he should fight for his son to be reinstated or let him play for another team.

"Patrick's going to be hurt either way," he said.

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