National Little League's charter threatened

March 10, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Hagerstown's National Little League, the oldest chapter in Maryland, could lose its charter if league officials do not correct rules violations, according to a letter written by the sports organization's regional director.

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The letter, which was obtained by The Herald-Mail, was sent last week to current and former members of National's board of directors.

It lists a number of concerns, including reports that the league enrolls children who live outside the league's boundaries and complaints that team managers have held illegal practices during the off-season in a warehouse on Antietam Street.

The letter asks National Little League president Kelly Stebbins for a written reply by today.

"Failure to do so will place tournament participation in jeopardy and privilege may be revoked for 1999," wrote Eastern Regional Director Donald R. Soucy.


Stebbins said Wednesday she has received an extension from the regional office in Bristol, Conn.

"That wasn't something that could be done overnight," she said.

Stebbins and several board members predicted National will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

"We have followed every single rule and plan on continuing following the rules," Stebbins said.

But Donnie Mertz, who resigned as National president in January and was expelled from the league by a new board that took office, said Soucy's letter validates the concerns he tried to raise during the last year.

"It's definitely the strongest correspondence I've ever heard from Bristol. They are definitely taking this thing seriously and we're definitely in danger of losing the league," he said.

Mertz said he met resistance from a few managers and board members when he tried to run the league closer to the ideals of Little League.

"All of this is the same reasons we had argued all along," he said. "These people will do anything to get out of following the rules."

Current board members, however, blamed the bad publicity on Mertz and his supporters, who they say have waged a vicious letter-writing campaign in the newspaper.

"This league is being destroyed by letters that are only one-sided," said board member Sue Webber. "(Soucy) heard only one side of the story."

Tourneys threatened

Soucy's letter casts a pall over the league less than 10 days before tryouts begin. Losing the charter would mean an uncertain season for about 300 children and would make the league ineligible to compete in the tournaments leading up to the Little League World Series.

A woman in the regional office said Soucy would not comment until he had heard from National officials.

Lance Van Auken, a spokesman at Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., said the alleged violations are serious.

"It they are true, it could result in the league having its charter revoked or suspended," he said. "We would say they should not be conducting practices, tryouts or games under the auspices of Little League Baseball."

If Soucy finds that rules have been violated, he could petition Little League's Charter Committee to suspend National's charter, Van Auken said. The committee, which meets weekly, would rely heavily on the regional office's recommendation, he said.

Van Auken said Little League rarely suspends league charters - maybe four or five a year out of 7,500 leagues in 99 countries. In nearly every case, leagues that have had charters suspended correct the violations quickly.

"In this case, it sounds like it's easy to correct," he said.

The rules

National officials, though, said they have nothing to correct.

Board member Angie Sutherland, who is the league's player agent, said the league took extraordinary steps to ensure that only eligible children signed up last month.

Newspaper advertisements announcing Little League registration said children who live out of the district could not sign up, Sutherland said. She said National required three proofs of address.

Children who played on major league teams in previous years and had moved to other districts were allowed to register in National with a waiver.

"We've been very strict this year following the rules," Sutherland said.

In his letter, Soucy expressed concern that National Little League managers were using a warehouse during the winter to hold practices in preparation for the season.

"I can only assume that certain 'special' players were involved. " he wrote.

National officials denied the allegation.

Stebbins, Sutherland and Webber said the building was offered as a place for children to play during the winter. They said the children ranged in age from 4 to 18 and activities included football, catch, softball and jump rope, among other games.

"It was not Little League-sanctioned," Webber said. "A lot of kids got together. They were friends having fun. That's all it was. It was not done to make us a better league."

Stebbins said parents had to sign a waiver acknowledging that National and Little League were not involved with the warehouse and that the organization's insurance did not cover them.

In addition, she said that no National Little League equipment was used.

In the letter, Soucy urges Kelly to reach out to former board members who have quit during the last several months.

Stebbins said league officials have no hard feelings toward the former members, except for Mertz.

She said the controversy he has caused has cost the league sponsors and has distracted the volunteers from work needed to open the season.

"It's taking away from stuff we should be doing," she said. "He's only hurting the kids."

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