Swerdling Last to Get News He’s Out
For years, coaches under Mel Swerdling’s rule have described the District 20 chairman as ineffective and confused. At the end of his 24-year tenure, he didn’t even know he had been relieved of his duties.
Swerdling, who in recent seasons was criticized for contributing to confusion over rules implementation and conflict of interest, was relieved of his duties Tuesday by William Davis, the American Legion District 20 commander.
The move caught Swerdling, who helps coach North Hollywood Poly, unaware and ended a tumultuous two days as district officials scrambled to deal with the latest controversy, which included player eligibility, game forfeitures and the resulting uncertainty over a site for the District 20 tournament and which teams qualified to play.
No replacement for Swerdling has been named but the tournament, which runs today through Sunday, will be overseen by Terry Stoller, the district’s umpire in chief, and Charlie Hatfield, Area 6 co-chairman.
In a letter mailed to Swerdling and dated Tuesday, Davis wrote: “We had these sorts of controversies last year, Mel, now again this year. They are not acceptable. Therefore, I am hereby suspending you and all of your duties associated with 20th District baseball commissioner, effective immediately at 12 noon today.”
Legion officials emphasized Swerdling has, in effect, been fired from his volunteer position.
“I don’t like to see his long career ended this way but I’ve spent the whole day on the telephone trying to make a bad situation work,” Stoller said.
Said Swerdling: “Nobody told me, that’s what bothers me. They should have at least called me in advance. But I was ready to give it up last year, they just didn’t have anyone else to take it over.”
In each of the last nine seasons, District 20 teams have forfeited games for reasons other than failure to appear at games. The repeated wrangling, along with an obvious conflict of interest created by Swerdling’s coaching a team in the district he oversaw, led to his dismissal.
Last season, Swerdling denied knowledge of paperwork bearing his initials, tried to conceal forfeits by Agoura Oaks and approved the entry of Studio City South, a team of acknowledged illegal players who forfeited every game and did not play every other district team.
The controversy this season came about Monday with the announcement that Van Nuys Birmingham, West Hills Chaminade, Granada Hills Kennedy and Granada Hills were forfeiting an unspecified number of games because they used illegal players.
The teams, Swerdling said, violated a national Legion rule prohibiting ninth-graders from playing for teams outside the attendance area in which their parent or legal guardian resides.
Rick Weber, coach of Van Nuys Birmingham, said Monday he would not let the district tournament take place on the Birmingham High field.
Weber, who relented once Swerdling was removed, said the chairman told him earlier in the season catcher Brendan Bartholomew, who lives in the Sylmar attendance area but attends Birmingham under open enrollment, could play for Birmingham’s Legion team.
Sunday, Van Nuys Birmingham defeated North Hollywood Poly, which protested Bartholomew’s participation in the game. Swerdling awarded his own team, which was fighting for a tournament berth, a forfeit victory. Weber was livid.
"[Swerdling] called me last month and said [Bartholomew] was illegal but not to worry about it,” Weber said, adding he was never informed that playing the freshman could result in forfeits.
Swerdling denied telling Weber Bartholomew could play. He and Hatfield said each district team’s representative was given a copy of the freshman eligibility rule at an organizational meeting in February.
Hatfield and Swerdling said letters were sent last month to the teams using ineligible freshmen, saying if teams persisted in using those players, the team would be ineligible for postseason participation and subject to forfeit protests by opponents.
Weber and other district coaches oppose the freshman eligibility rule because they want freshman who play for them during the high school season to be able to continue to do so during the summer.
If a freshman player’s local Legion coach does not allow him to play, the player cannot play for another Legion team. Freshmen, unlike older players, cannot file transfer waivers to move to another team.
Upon ruling that forfeits were due, Swerdling encountered another problem when he was unable to determine exactly how many should be awarded. Nor could he accurately say how the forfeits would affect the race to qualify for the eight-team district tournament.
To solve that tangle, Legion officials have increased to 10 the number of teams in the tournament, boosting Lancaster and Canyon into the postseason.
“The [guess] was that without the forfeits, Lancaster would have been in and [North Hollywood] Poly would have been out [of the tournament],” Stoller said.
Swerdling is unrepentant and unbowed. He insisted Tuesday his reign might not be over.
“When all the facts come out, I’ll be back in this thing again,” he said.
District 20 Playoff Pairings
OPENING GAMES IN DOUBLE-ELIMINATION FORMAT
Today, 4 p.m. (unless noted)
* Encino Crespi (19-7) vs. Lancaster (18-8) at Valley College
* Central Valley Cleveland (19-6-1) vs. Van Nuys Notre Dame (22-4) at Birmingham High
* Valley Chatsworth (21-5) vs. North Hollywood Poly (20-6) at Burroughs High
* Tri Cities Highland (19-7) vs. Canyon Country Canyon (18-8) at Burroughs High (7 p.m.)
* Newhall Saugus Hart (23-3) vs. winner of Crespi-Lancaster at Birmingham High, 4 p.m.
* Woodland Hills El Camino Real (24-2) vs. Canyon-Highland winner at Burroughs High, 7:30 p.m.