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Little League Makes Sure Everyone Plays by the Rules : Sports: Long Beach squad vies for another title. But cheating scandals by foreign teams tarnish game’s image.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I love my country and will respect its laws.

I will play fair and strive to win.

--Part of the Little League pledge

A year of cheating scandals has rocked its squeaky-clean, middle-class image and Little League baseball has been doing a lot of soul-searching this week.

The state of the international organization with the largest number of volunteer workers in the world is on the minds of residents here and the thousands of followers who have flocked to this central Pennsylvania town for the annual Little League World Series.

“We talked about what happened here all last winter,” said Nick Cioffi, a resident and World Series volunteer for 24 years. “We wanted to know if Little League was going to clean up this thing or let (the cheaters) walk away free.”

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Little League Baseball Inc., steeped in tradition, born of hard-working, small-town American values that some international members apparently do not share, suffered the most embarrassing moment in its history last September when it reluctantly stripped Zamboanga City of the Philippines of its world title.

The team from the Philippines used players as old as 15 in its 15-4 victory over Long Beach in the organization’s premier event, the Major Division World Series final. Little League rules say a Major Division player cannot turn 13 before Aug. 1.

It did not stop there. This spring, the Philippines Little League caught Zamboanga City cheating again. And about two weeks ago, three Far East teams were found to have violated district boundary regulations. Further, the always formidable Dominican Republic was caught using ringers in the Latin American playoffs. All, including frequent champion Taiwan, were banned from this year’s series.

The Long Beach team returned this year and will face Panama for the championship today (12:30 p.m., Channel 7).

Little League fans credit officials for stepping up what they say is long overdue enforcement of its rules. Still, many here are worried that the organization has received a black eye.

Creighton Hale, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball Inc., acknowledged that the last year has been difficult, but said the organization is still on solid ground.

“It was a fiasco and we regret what happened a great deal,” he said. “But we have received tremendous support (from our members) throughout.”

Little League is operated with fewer than 100 paid employees worldwide, according to spokesman Dennis Sullivan. Its decisions are made by a small inner circle of administrators headquartered in a three-story building in a 42-acre complex in South Williamsport.

One criticism is that the officials at Little League headquarters do a poor job of communicating their decisions to the thousands of volunteers who staff more than 18,000 leagues worldwide.

Bill Barry, a district administrator from Toronto, said he learned of what had transpired with the Dominican Republic and the Far East teams by reading a story about it in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

“I think the people involved with Little League and with this tournament should tell us why those teams aren’t here,” he said.

When the decision to strip the Philippines of its 1992 title was made by a small committee of high-ranking officials in the late afternoon, no statement was released and even the staff at Little League headquarters was not informed. Secretaries answering the phones told reporters that no decision had been reached hours after Long Beach had been informed that it was being awarded the world title.

Loyalty plays a large role in the organization’s inner workings. Little League was founded here in 1939, an era in which nationalism was the order of the day. The organization’s motto is “Character, Courage, Loyalty.”

In 1951, Little League expanded outside the United States for the first time, establishing a league in British Columbia. In 1964, it received a charter of federal incorporation by the U.S. Congress.

Williamsport, a town of 31,000 that swells to three times that size during the World Series, has also played a role in the development of the organization. The American flag flies seemingly everywhere and townspeople are proud, hard-working, friendly folk raised to love their country.

Nonprofit Little League Baseball Inc. has prospered financially through hard work and conservative monetary policies. In 1991, it had assets of nearly $20 million. Membership in 1993 includes leagues in 75 countries, including eight in the former Eastern Bloc.

Because the management circle is small, the organization is better able to keep its decisions close to the vest. But its history suggests that the process lags because it has expanded so rapidly worldwide in the last several years.

“They’re very slow to act on anything,” said Bob McKittrick, the district administrator in charge of Long Beach.

Rumors that some foreign competitors have fudged on players’ ages have surfaced every year.

McKittrick said that he obtained written verification last year that several of the Dominican Republic players were overage. He said he made the information available to Little League officials during last year’s World Series and was prepared to go public with it if the Dominican Republic made it into the championship game. But despite going 3-0 in pool play, the Dominicans were defeated by Zamboanga City in the semifinals.

McKittrick said he also suspected that the Filipino team was using ringers. He urged the Little League to look into it, but officials were reluctant, so it was up to McKittrick to do the legwork that led to the team’s disqualification.

Until this year, verification of birth certificates and eligibility requirements were left up to the volunteer authorities in the areas where the competing teams reside. The checks were not completed until after the competing teams arrived in Williamsport for the World Series. That meant taking each district administrator at his or her word and allowing the teams to play regardless of the potential for cheating.

Panamanian Coach Luis Carlos Terrado, whose team replaced the Dominican Republic, praised Little League officials for taking a stronger stand. But he said that it has been known in Latin America for some time that some teams have cheated on players’ ages. He wondered why it has taken so long to catch them.

In 1992, Little League also changed its rule that allowed school district boundaries to be used to form regional leagues. In the past, foreign teams such as Taiwan had a larger pool of players to draw from because regional school districts in foreign countries are generally larger than those in the United States. Today, the rule specifies that each league must have a certain number of teams for each 1,000 students.

Hale said he expects that the recent changes will even out the competition worldwide. He said he has no evidence to suggest that any cheating had gone on before the Filipino fiasco, particularly in Taiwan, which has won 15 titles since 1969. Many district administrators in the United States have suspected Taiwan of cheating for years. Hale dismissed that as speculation. He said everyone is entitled to an opinion, but that he is satisfied.

“We checked Taiwan out several times,” he said.

Hale has been associated with Little League baseball for decades. He was instrumental in developing protective helmets and took charge of the organization in 1983. He sees the mission of Little League as spreading the American way around the world.

“We want them to play by the American rules and American traditions,” he said.

But even Hale noted that it sounds better than it often works.

“We think the American way is the right way, but we may not be right,” he said. “Some things that we do in other countries may not be good for their traditions. We are often too quick to criticize and that may not be right.”


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