Fielder’s choice

Forest City grants FC-Dunbar fields to Little League
Dec. 08, 2013 @ 11:40 AM
Last Monday, Dec. 2, Forest City Town Council voted to allow the Forest City Little League to use the baseball/softabll fields at Forest City-Dunbar for the summer season as opposed to the upstart Babe Ruth League that used the fields during the fall after the Little League decided not to have a fall season.
 
The 3-2 decision by the council represents the fact that, like a play at the plate, it wasn’t an easy call.
 
The Forest City Little League has been in question ever since former president Marion Mayes, who headed the local league for nearly a decade, was arrested in June and charged with embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense.
 
His arrest was the result of financial inaccuracies discovered by Forest City Finance Director Julie Scherer when the Little League submitted a financial compilation in order to receive the fiscal year 2013-14 Little League funds budgeted by the town.
 
In early November, Mayes plead guilty to two counts of misdemeanor conversion in District Court. He was sentenced to pay $7,696.81 in restitution to the Little League following his plea and was also sentenced to 90 days suspended sentence with supervision.
 
Now after Monday’s vote, one league is given a chance to prove that they’ve righted the ship while another is left searching for a place to play.
 
Time for a change?
 
With the questions surrounding the Forest City Little League, the Babe Ruth League was formed in hopes of offering youth baseball players another option. Forest City Councilman David Aker, who voted in favor of the Babe Ruth League at Monday’s meeting, felt the time was right to try something new.
 
“I thought the timing was right to try something like this,” Aker said. “If it went well, that’s great. I thought if Forest City tried the Babe Ruth it wasn’t anything we couldn’t change the next year and give (players and parents) a chance and see the differences in the leagues.
 
“From what I was gathering, I thought it might be a positive for the county to have two options. If someone had a stronger allegiance to Little League they could play in another district the way I understand it ... I don’t think we’re hurting ourselves by staying with the Little League, I just feel that option should be there.”
 
Little League District 1 manager Terry Cobb confirmed that districting boundaries would be redrawn to accommodate Forest City players who still wanted to play Little League baseball in the event that Babe Ruth baseball was granted the Forest City facilities.
 
In early August, Thomas Jefferson head baseball coach Chris White went to the Forest City Town Council for permission to use the Forest City-Dunbar fields for the fall season and said the council gave the impression that it was in search of an alternative to the Little League system.
 
“I thought with the trouble they had in Forest City they were looking for something else. And I think they led me to believe that, the first time I met with them, that they were looking for another option,” White said. “I guess time heals wounds and they looked at the tradition of Little League and decided to stick with that tradition.”
 
When Monday’s ruling came down, White was surprised that his league wasn’t granted the fields for play.
 
“I thought our chances (of getting the fields for the spring) were pretty good,” White said. “I was a little confused. I really did feel like it was something they wanted in the beginning.”
 
Councilman Steve Holland, who voted in favor of the Little League, said that the council made no promises to either league during the August meeting.
 
“We knew that the Little League was not going to have a fall season. Chris [White] came to the council and asked if they could have a fall season so the kids could have a season. We agreed with that and told him that we would look at the possibility at allowing them, along with the Little League, to see who would have the field in the spring. We made no guarantees whatsoever.”
 
One man’s mistake
 
A common theme amongst those in favor of the Forest City Little League was that the entire organization shouldn’t be punished for the mistakes made by Mayes, the league’s former president.
 
“We all wish that hadn’t happened,” Holland said of the Mayes debacle. “Everything is organized for the kids and for one person’s mistake I’d hate to change the whole organization. With that said, if something happens in the future that could be totally different and so would my opinion. But for one person’s mistake I wasn’t willing to throw everything away.”
 
“Little League has a lot of history and it’s been in Forest City for many, many years. I didn’t want to see the kids and the program punished over the failures of someone in the past,” American Legion Post 423 Athletic Director Curtis Snethen added.
 
In hopes of avoiding a similar situation in the future, the Forest City Little League formed a new board, appointed new officers and enacted new bylaws and checks and balances. However, that wasn’t enough to convince Aker.
 
“I hope that they are reorganizing and they do a good job, but I wasn’t totally convinced from the presentation that they had a lot of fresh faces involved. I saw a lot of people still involved with the leadership that were involved last year,” Aker said. “That didn’t give me the comfort level I would like to have.”
 
Now for the Forest City Little League, 2014 is about recovery and perseverance.
 
“It’s unfortunate that we had to go through that, but it’s nothing different than the town’s been through in the past with other mismanagement,” Snethen said.
 
You can’t just quit after one mistake, you just make the changes and adjustments you need to make and press on.”
 
“The ball is in Little League’s court right now and they have to step up to the plate and show everybody that it was just one person’s mistake,” Councilman Chris Lee said. “They need to rebound and serve these kids at the same high level or even higher. They need to ride through the challenge and move forward.”
 
 Tradition vs. Competition
 
The supporters of the Babe Ruth League hang their hats on the more advanced rules of the league, such as allowing runners to take leads at an earlier age, as a way to develop players more quickly.
 
But for Lee, he didn’t see the advanced gameplay the Babe Ruth was trying to sell.
 
“For me personally, there’s no difference between the two leagues in the style of play, the level of play or the coaches,” Lee, who has children that have played in both leagues, said.
 
White, however, said that fall Babe Ruth baseball isn’t a a fair measuring stick of what the league truly offers despite having 247 players participate.
 
“In the fall we focus on more instruction and water down the rules some,” he said. “We really didn’t play full-fleged Babe Ruth this fall.”
 
“The fall league just didn’t seem like enough I guess,” Aker added. “It’s not baseball season and there isn’t as much interest of it so I felt that it wasn’t a true measure of how well Babe Ruth ball would be accepted.”
 
But the word that echoed throughout the opinions of everyone was “tradition.” And that tradition wasn’t prepared to be tossed to the side.
 
“I wouldn’t say the Little League offers more, but Babe Ruth didn’t offer enough for me to throw away nearly 40 years of partnership with Forest City and Little League,” Lee said. “Little League over that time has served countless amounts of kids.”
 
Holland, who played Little League as a child and coached as an adult, spoke to the dreams that come with Little League in the minds of young baseball and softball players across the country.
 
“I know that 99.9 percent of these kids will never make it, but if you talk to any kid they’ll tell you that they want to play in Williamsport, Pa. at the Little League World Series,” Holland said. “It’s what they’ve grown up with and what they know. This isn’t as much about the organization as it is the kids.”
 
On a much smaller level, the abscense of a Forest City Little League removes one-third of the all-star competition that Rutherford County celebrates every summer.
 
“With Rutherfordton, Forest City and Chase all being to play against each other during all-stars, it’s a big issue when you lose a league like that because it doesn’t just affect Forest City but it affects the surrounding kids that play those teams,” Snethen said.
 
Snethen, a father of four boys that range from 11 to 27 years old, has had a front-row seat for countless all-star match-ups in Rutherford County and understands the value of those games to the community.
 
“I can remember the big games between Rutherfordton and Forest City and the write-ups in the newspaper and how exciting it was. Those were such exciting times and great memories,” Snethen said. “The moment that league becomes something other than Forest City Little League, that would no longer be possible.
 
“I felt that would be lost. And even if the Babe Ruth League did a good job the chances of getting that back would be slim.”
 
For White, the Babe Ruth League is about making Rutherford County baseball more competitive and prominent across the state and beyond by bringing players from all over the county to a central league.
 
“What we wanted to do was run a county-wide program and use the Forest City facilities,” White said. “We figured having a whole Rutherford County program would help make it more competitive among the states. It could be that the Little League needs to go back and rethink that.”
 
Nearly 40 years of tradition and support from generations that played Little League baseball in Forest City was tough to ignore, especially when leadership of successful Little League operations backed the Forest City operation as Cobb was in attendance for Monday’s meeting.
 
“Terry Cobb as the District 1 manager has been around a long time and really backed the Forest City Little League,” White said. “Terry and his wife, Donna, have really done a good job with the Little League over the years and I think that support, along with the tradition, was the deciding factor.”
 
 Where to go from here
 
The most immediate impact of the council’s decision falls on the Babe Ruth League. They are left without a place to play. However, according to White, there is still substantial interest in the league. The league plans to meet on Tuesday, Dec. 10 to discuss the possibility of playing outside of the county while using local church fields for practice.
 
“It’s going to be tough and we may not be able to pull it off,” White said. “The best case scenario right now is that we could possibly play on fields nearby.”
 
Despite the council’s decision to go with the Little League in 2014, this same discussion is likely to be had for 2015.
 
“We may go back in the summer and see how it went,” White said. “I really feel that there is room for both in this county.”
 
Town Council fully expects to revisit the Babe Ruth argument next season. The argument could be even stronger if the Forest City Little League fails to rebound from last season’s mishap.
 
“After the spring season we really need to sit down with the Little League and really see what kind of year they had and if they had any problems,” Holland said. “If they don’t have any problems then I would think we would give them another year after that. But if there are any problems financially or if their audit has any problems then we’ll have to revisit The Babe Ruth option.”
 
And according to Holland, Forest City being pushed to improve isn’t a bad thing.
 
“I think we’re fortunate to have Babe Ruth wanting to be here because it’s a great option for us if Little League doesn’t work out,” Holland said. “I think Babe Ruth did everything they could do at this point. They had an outstanding board but we felt we wanted to give the Little League one more chance. Honestly, I wish we had room for both of them.”
 
If the Little League upholds its traditionally high standards in 2014, the Babe Ruth league may still have a chance if the public proves they want a change of direction.
 
“If its up to the council then we would have to see a groundswell of support from the community that they want to play Babe Ruth to convince the council,” Aker said. “We’re elected to serve the public and the best interest of the town. If the majority of the county wants to show support then I’m sure that would be listened to.”
 
As it stands, the 1,200 young baseball and softball players expected to play next summer in Rutherford County will play Little League while Babe Ruth will try again next year.
 
“I think one large county organization is a lot better than two trying to compete for the same numbers,” Snethen said. “You’ll have the two leagues trying to recruit players and coaches and then it becomes competing programs instead of everybody pulling together for the same cause. In this case, that same cause was the Little League.”