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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Ricky Rivera tells the story like a fisherman recalling the time he battled the big catch and lost, chuckling without shame at the doomed mismatch.
His is the tale of the bionic 12-year-old baseball players.
Last month, local Little League All-Star teams began competing in the worldwide, two-month tournament that would determine the teams to play in the national Little League World Series, which begins August 15. For their playoff opener, Rivera's Homestead All-Stars faced the Kendall-Hammocks Optimist (KHO) league All-Stars.
Whatever hopes Rivera's 12-year-old players harbored for making it all the way to the nationally televised tournament in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, were dashed by the first inning.
The first six Kendall batters deposited the Homestead pitcher's offerings cleanly beyond the 200-foot home-run fence. The next inning, those same hitters switched to left-handed and smashed six more home runs. Kendall coach Nestor Miranda was using Rivera's ace pitcher for batting practice.
But hitting, it turns out, wasn't KHO's specialty — pitching was. At an age when most pitchers clock 40-mile-per-hour fastballs, Miranda had six starters who could easily throw 70. Rivera's players couldn't manage a foul tip. By the third inning, with Kendall winning 20-0, the scoreboard operator mercifully took the rest of the night off.
"The kids are looking at me in the dugout like, 'Hey, we're not prepared for this,'" Rivera says. "What am I supposed to tell those kids?"
But Rivera had anticipated a lopsided defeat. He had heard the ugly buzz surrounding the dominant KHO team and in fact had filed an official protest with Little League before the game.
That's because during the regular season, the Kendall team had played a different breed of baseball. They went by big-kid rules, with equipment and strategies not allowed by Little League.
And when they weren't bashing Little League competition, these same kids played as Team Miami — also coached by Miranda — an elite squad in the expensive and high-pressure "travel ball" circuit.
To Rivera, the conclusion is simple: These weren't Little Leaguers. "That's like me telling you:'Let's go to a motorcycle race.' And I bring my moped, and you show up with a Harley," he says.
But Little League, a national organization based in Williamsport, was mute on Rivera's protest. And the beatdowns went on: including Homestead, over seven games Kendall swept its opponents by a combined score of 140-3. They were destined, it seemed, for the later rounds of the World Series — the mecca of youth baseball. "This was the best team assembled in Miami in at least the 10 years I've been coaching," Miranda says.
But the stink of scandal followed. Kendall was a prepubescent version of the Yankees, its dominance breeding hate in tinny bleachers across the county. Parents don't like seeing their children trampled.
And they filled the e-mail inboxes of Little League officials with complaints.
Then, three weeks after Rivera's protest, Little League's Pennsylvania offices finally grinded to life. The night before Kendall was slated to begin a state championship tournament, Miranda received a terse e-mail from the tournament committee, addressing the team's connection to travel ball, and the fact that the league played by different rules during the regular season.
The committee claimed KHO had skirted Little League's rules in handpicking an All-Star team that already existed elsewhere — as Team Miami. The matter-of-fact memo concluded by barring KHO from the state tournament and revoking its Little League charter. Coral Springs, a team that KHO had beaten by 18 runs three days earlier, would take its place in the next day's game.
Even Homestead coach Rivera was stunned at the timing, and method of delivery, of Little League's decision. "That is so impersonal," he says. "It's like sending you a letter saying your Uncle Bob passed away, instead of having a family member come over and tell you."
In Kendall, outrage flowed. The players quickly boiled it down to this: They were punished for being too good. Says Javy Herrera, Kendall-Hammocks pitcher: "They just don't want us beating teams by 20 runs on ESPN."
Miranda and parents led their banned players on a sort of sit-in at the game they were no longer allowed to play. They wore team jerseys and hats as they wandered the pregame field, trailing local news cameras.
Despite one mother's written plea to the league, stating several children might develop "an apathetic attitude towards ... America's Favorite Past Time" and were "exhibiting signs of depression" over its decision, the committee remained unmoved. "All those violations added up to give Kendall-Hammocks an advantage that none of the 7,500 teams around the world had," explains Lance Van Auken, media relations director for the league. "These are not obscure rules. These are just the basic rules of Little League play that have been on the books since the 1940s."
Confusing matters, though, is whether Kendall-Hammocks was given permission to bend those rules. In 2005, says KHO president Al Engle, his league's board met with Little League district administrator Jeff Warner to discuss integrating KHO into the league. Engle was wary; he had already pulled out of the circuit four years earlier after a dispute over residency boundaries, and he had enjoyed the freedom. His self-contained league was smaller, but his kids could take leads, steal, play on roomy fields with heavy lumber and metal cleats — all stuff that's illegal in Little League. If he was going to re-join, Engle wanted permission to play "real baseball."
No problem, Engle says Warner told him. As long as KHO abided by league rules during tournament play, they could do whatever they wanted during the regular season.
Reached on his home phone, Warner sounds badgered on all sides. "I'm the one that's the bad guy," he says between long, wheezing coughs, "because I'm the one that said you could play however you want during the season — which is not exactly how it happened."
But, as he explains it, his advice wasn't far off: "I said I have no problems with your local rules, as long as they conform to Little League rules, basically — within reason — and come tournament time, you return to Little League rules."
A spokesman at Little League, informed of Warner's response, hedges gracefully. "I couldn't comment on that," media relations manager Chris Downs says, "because I wasn't at that board meeting."
But Warner says Little League already knows of his dubious advice. "I got yelled at," explains the unpaid volunteer. "You wanna blame somebody, blame me. I don't really give a shit anymore. I'm fed up with the crap."
Miranda counters, "If they had a rogue DA giving us permission he wasn't allowed to give, why is that our problem?"
As far as the issue of crossover between Team Miami, the travel ball players, and the KHO All-Star team, Miranda says, nearly every travel ball player moonlights on some Little League team. But league honchos maintain the problem isn't that the Kendall kids played travel ball, but that they did so together, gaining experience as a team other Little League All-Star teams didn't get.
Miranda briefly threatened legal action — until he received a letter from a local law firm retained by Little League. Densely packed with references to legal precedents, it was the type of letter that only a lawyer can read, but with a message anybody could understand: You can give up now.
For the most part, that's what Miranda and the rest of the KHO folks have done. But the coach still scans Little League results with one eye. Coral Springs, so badly beaten by Kendall-Hammocks, lost its state tourney game by only one run, assuring Miranda that his team would have advanced. And when ESPN begins airing the final rounds of the World Series, he won't be able to help but wonder how badly his team of unbeatable prepubescents might have mangled the competition.
The two organizations have taken on the roles of wounded lovers. If KHO is to regain its charter, its administrators must swear to follow the rules this time. But for now, they're in no mood to beg. Says Engle: "We feel very manipulated by the whole thing."
There's some good news, though: The kids — who have sometimes seemed an afterthought in this scandal — have so far staved off that feared apathy. On a muggy Friday evening on a diamond in Allapattah, the banned players, wearing Team Miami uniforms, played with the skill and speed of high-schoolers. They won, but by only two runs, against the South Florida Suns, a team with deep enough pockets to fly in subs from Puerto Rico and California. In travel ball, these Kendall-Hammocks kids finally get some competition.