For N.H. Little League, sometimes the big game is secondary to playing time

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/14/2017 12:08:30 AM

Brendon McGahan, the president of Concord Little League, said he wasn’t surprised by what happened Friday in Bristol, Conn.

He’d already seen Jeff O’Connell’s voracious appetite for winning. Just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, during the Little League State Tournament, when O’Connell’s out-of-control fire burned hard in a best-of-3 series against Concord. He blasted the umpires and a District I administrator in that one, McGahan noted, then blamed the umps for his team’s loss, according to the Union Leader.

“I’ve been familiar with this particular coach leading up to this incident,” McGahan told me Sunday.

The incident, shown nationally on ESPN, brought back an issue that never seems very far away. The one about 11- and 12-year-old boys playing baseball for a world championship, while the world itself looks on.

In the New England Regional semifinals, just one step from the Little League World Series, O’Connell chose not to bat one of his players in the fourth inning of Goffstown’s 7-6 loss to the Maine state champs.

That ended Goffstown’s season, but O’Connell’s decision had legs through the weekend and undoubtedly is being discussed near water coolers around the state and beyond.

O’Connell, you see, violated a national Little League Baseball rule, the one that says each player must get at least one at-bat each game, postseason or not.

It’s about not placing too much emphasis on winning. Not at this age. It’s about participation and team, team, team. It’s about learning the skills and loving the game.

Save the cutthroat stuff for Babe Ruth Baseball, Legion and high school.

“If it was in our league, he would not be coaching,” McGahan insisted. “It’s doing the right thing. There’s something morally wrong with what he did.”

McGahan got his first taste of this win-at-all-costs mentality on July 29 in Pelham, where he was in the stands during Concord’s bid to advance to New England Regional play in a best-of-3 series.

Concord won Game 1, 10-9, when Ryan Philbrick scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning. That left Goffstown needing two straight wins to advance to Bristol, Conn.

It also left O’Connell fuming, following a few close calls by the umpires. One in particular left a bad taste, when it was ruled that a Goffstown player had left third base too early on a fly out. Concord appealed the play, the Goffstown player was ruled out after initially scoring a run, and the horse hide hit the fan.

The Union Leader then reported that O’Connell had said the umpires “ruined the game.” The newspaper also said the coach was talking to the umpires in the parking lot after the game.

McGahan had a different take. He remembered O’Connell barking at the umpires at various times during and after the game.

“He was being held back by coaches,” according to McGahan. “He left the dugout and was screaming at the district administrator. He was irate.”

As president of the league that fielded the losing team, I had to ask McGahan if his comments were an example of sour grapes, after Concord got smoked in the next two games by a combined score of 30-3.

“Absolutely not,” McGahan, predictably, told me. “That was the fact out there. That’s what I witnessed in the tournament game. They won, they were the better team by far.”

Tom Philbrick, who coached the Concord all-stars along with Nate Craigue, told me, “I don’t need to pile on. What Karl Ravech said on ESPN and what the president of Little League said says it all.”

Ravech, one of the network’s top baseball analysts, noted that in the last inning O’Connell was told that one of his players had yet to bat. The player remained on the bench, which meant a two-game suspension for the coach if Goffstown had advanced.

“So he’s accepting the penalty in an effort to help his team win,” Ravech told his audience.

And in a statement posted on Facebook, the governing body of the sport said, “Little League International is extremely disappointed in the intentional mandatory play violation by New Hampshire manager Jeff O’Connell ... Little League International strongly encourages Goffstown Little League officials to take this incident into consideration when appointing coaches and manager for the 2018 Little League season.”

Translation: Don’t bring O’Connell back.

I called a number listed for an O’Connell in Goffstown and was asked to insert an access code. In a published report after the Maine game, O’Connell claimed the player didn’t want to bat when initially offered an opportunity. O’Connell, according to the story, wondered if the “player wasn’t feeling good.”

O’Connell never said a word about it at the time.

Tom Sartorelli, a longtime official and coach in Concord Little League, said he thought it was strange that O’Connell alerted no one as soon as he learned the player said he didn’t want to bat.

“It looks a little suspect after the fact,” Sartorelli said. “You want to get that on the record at that very moment.”

Meanwhile, a woman named Keely Noyes, who identified herself as the player’s mother, posted on Facebook that “This child never refused to play.”

I reached out to Noyes, but she said, “I have nothing to say nor do I wish for my minor child to be exploited further by the media.”

A valid point, for sure, which is why we’re leaving out the player’s name. But the broader issues – the ones connected to wins and losses and playing time for players whose bedtime is 8 p.m. – are worth discussing.

“This was blatant,” McGahan said. “The coach was saying, ‘I’m not playing this kid.’ He put winning above all else.”

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