In the aftermath of the largest Little League eligibility scandal since Danny Almonte’s involvement in 2001, Little League President and CEO Stephen Keener continued to affirm that stripping Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League of its U.S. crown was an unfortunate but necessary step to protect the core integrity of Little League International’s annual tournament.
“We have 7,000 leagues in 80 countries who look to Little League International to uphold the integrity of this institution. As difficult as this decision was to make it was one we had to make. What we hope, if there’s anything to be gained from this, is that people recognize that we can’t tolerate blatant violations of rules and regulations,” Kenner told USA TODAY in a telephone interview. “The Charter Committee here at Little League International, which is responsible for governing over regulations of local leagues, spent a considerable amount of time discussing all the options on how to handle this. One was to take all the actions we’ve taken with respect to the adults and not vacate the championship. However, what message is sent there? We’re saying there was wrongdoing and people with intent to deceive to work it’s way through the international tournament, but we’re saying it’s ok that the kids won a championship that way?
“In many ways the forfeiture is symbolic, I heard the manager in Las Vegas (Mountain Ridge Little League coach Ashton Cave) say that they don’t want the championship, they just want the right thing done. That’s what we tried to do. But we have to remember that these are kids, they did nothing wrong and they are the victims.”
Keener and the Little League International Charter Committee officially revoked the United States title won by Jackie Robinson West at the 2014 Little League World Series on Wednesday morning, in the process forcing the league’s all-star to vacate all of their wins from the regional level on. Those vacated wins automatically elevated Nevada’s Mountain Ridge to the U.S. crown and also led to new champions at subsidiary levels.
All of this would have been avoided had Jackie Robinson West’s eligibility issues been uncovered when the league’s team registered for the Great Lakes regional championships. Now the reason why the league was not caught using ineligible players has become clear: It was using a falsified map showing areas it did not represent. When Little League asked about the maps later, Jackie Robinson West officials reached out to other area leagues in an effort to persuade them to lie about the backdated maps that represented territory the league was granted jurisdiction over by the manager of District 4, yet never received approval from Little League International.
“We already have a pretty good check and balance system in place,” Kenner said. “There are extensive verifications done before the tournaments get started. What’s different here is that you had adults, like the district administrator who has to sign off on this, who was complicit in falsifying the district map to make the kids eligible. … We send our professional staff to each regional tournament to do the eligibility checks at each regional tournament. In this case, what they were working with was a falsified league boundary map. There’s no way getting around that. Had the district had effective leadership running it, this probably would not have happened.
“We became aware of the falsified and backdated maps on January 31, when we conducted private interviews with each league in that Chicago district. That confirmed the backdated maps and that the district administrator and Jackie Robinson West officials had made an attempt in November and December to legitimize the maps.”
Those maps weren’t legitimized by the other leagues, which set the stage for the broader Little League International investigation that followed.
Now that punishment has been meted out, Keener insists that Little League’s focus is on helping the Chicago district — Illinois District 4 — move forward, with a plan to install a well-respected district director in the offing and a reform process agreed upon. The goal will be to help Jackie Robinson West and all its neighboring leagues, though that is unlikely to replace the excitement and enthusiasm that came with Jackie Robinson West’s U.S. title. The hope is that, in turn will help drive increased participation as much or more than the momentary buzz from Jackie Robinson West’s title did in summer 2014.
“My heart is broken today. The most important thing about our program is the kids we serve and benefit from playing Little League baseball,” Keener said. “My heart is broken for the kids on the Jackie Robinson team. I truly believe the kids had no knowledge of what was going on here. I think we’re all struggling here a little bit with the decisions we’ve had to make and the consequences they have had on them. … My concern is upholding the standards and integrity of the program, not just growing participation. Obviously doing that in urban environments is important to a lot of people and we will continue to work toward that end. Clearly this is a setback and a great disappointment.”