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Hundreds of Little League players were back swinging their bats and fielding fly balls Monday after a four-day suspension that shocked and infuriated parents, but that a district official said was the result of weeks of noncompliance with national rules.
The Newport Beach Little League, made up of about 700 players from across the city, was given multiple opportunities in recent weeks to comply with the international baseball organization's rules and procedural requirements, said Tamara Alexander, administrator for Little League's California District 55. The issues were not fully resolved until Sunday night, four days into the league's suspension, Alexander said.
"I'd been asking the league for compliance on several issues for quite some time, and the deadlines passed and compliance wasn't performed," said Alexander, a former Little League mom who's served in the volunteer administrative position for nine years.
"Additional deadlines were given, and compliance still was not performed. It got to the point of saying, 'You can no longer operate your league because you're not in compliance.' "
In the world of Little League baseball, halting all of a league's games and practices to address adult-centered issues is not common. Brian McClintock, a spokesman for the Williamsport, Pa.-based Little League organization, said only one or two leagues out of about 7,000 worldwide typically are "on a hold" at any given time.
The Newport league's suspension was authorized March 12 by Williamsport officials, based on recommendations from Alexander and the Little League Western Region office in San Bernardino. It went into effect Thursday morning and was lifted Sunday night.
Gary Borquez, president of the Newport Beach league, denied Little League's assertion that his group had been given adequate opportunity to address reported problems. Borquez said Monday that he thought his league had been having productive talks with administrators in the days before the suspension.
"We were a little shocked not only for the severity of the penalty, but because there was no written notice," Borquez said. "The kids' safety wasn't ever at risk - they are playing on clean, beautiful fields."
On Monday afternoon at Newport Beach's Bonita Canyon Sports Park, the mood was upbeat as the familiar clink of an aluminum bat echoed through the stands. Parents reported their children were unusually excited and energized after the four-day lapse.
"I don't understand it," 12-year-old baseball player Austin Acevedo said as he leaned on his bat during practice. "I just wish it wouldn't have happened."
Alexander, whose district encompasses nine leagues across seven Orange County cities, declined to elaborate on the specific problems the district identified with the Newport Beach league, citing league privacy rights.
But Alexander said Monday that she had increasingly "stern" email exchanges with Borquez in recent weeks, in which she repeatedly outlined expectations for coming into compliance. Strictly enforcing national policies and requirements is how officials ensure fairness and prevent one team from gaining a competitive advantage, Alexander said.
"When you have individuals who are involved with setting policy, and those individuals have a mentality of 'win at all cost' - rather than 'We need to model good leadership' - you have a disparity, and that's what leads to this situation," Alexander said.
Borquez said he believed the biggest issue was about the composition of the Newport league's 24-member board of directors, the volunteer group tasked with overseeing management and finances.
Little League rules allow no more than half of the board to be constituted by team managers and coaches, an effort to ensure the board isn't dominated by parents too close to the game.
The Newport league on Thursday dismissed five of its 14 directors who also were working as team managers and coaches, leaving nine coaches and managers on the board of now 19, officials said.
"It should have been corrected prior to the spring season starting," Borquez said. "But people don't realize how much work we do - the league cannot run without volunteers."
Newport league board member Gregg Olson, who played professional baseball for 14 years, said the events of the past week never would have happened in Major League Baseball.
"I'm thoroughly disappointed," said Olson, who retired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. "It would be the equivalent of suspending a player based on a rumor that he tested positive" for illicit drugs. "A rumor."
During the four-day suspension, players and their parents staged a protest at Newport Beach's Bonita Canyon Sports Park, holding up signs calling on league officials to "Let us play!" and "Play ball! Please!"
On Monday, parents continued to question why their kids had lost valuable playing time, including Saturday's games.
"It's a game and obviously you need rules," said Nancy Thompson, whose 10-year-old son is in the Newport league. "But to the kids, it's throwing the ball and laughing with their friends."
Roger Holton, who was with his 10-year-old son at Bonita Canyon Sports Park Monday, tried to look at the situation optimistically.
"If you're a good parent and a good coach, you'll turn it into a lesson," Holton said. "If you don't play by the rules, you need to play by the rules."