Playing hardball over softball

Roger Chadderdon describes himself as an “old guy who wants to play softball.”

And for 25 years, the Costa Mesa resident has been doing just that beneath the lights of the TeWinkle Park Athletic Complex, a pristine facility off Arlington Drive with three softball fields, one baseball diamond, a snack bar, ample parking and tree-lined entryways.

In late January — a few days after signing up for the city’s springtime men’s softball league — Chadderdon, 53, received unexpected news: The players could no longer use TeWinkle on Friday evenings. Instead, the league was given what its members considered far less desirable options: Sunday or Monday nights.

Around the same time, Costa Mesa American Little League and Newport-Mesa Girls Softball were also told to give up Fridays at TeWinkle.

Soon enough, everybody learned that their coveted slots had been lost to make room for flag football, albeit in a complex designed for baseball and softball.

It wasn’t just any football program, but one operated by Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, an Orange County native and former NFL, USC and Mater Dei quarterback. After establishing itself in Newport Beach and Irvine, Leinart’s for-profit organization — focused on students in kindergarten through eighth grade — wanted a foothold in Costa Mesa’s busy youth sports scene, yet the city was admitting the group, Chadderdon argued, at the expense of other leagues.

To make matters worse, Chadderdon contended, the decision came down in seeming opposition to the city’s field-allocation policy, which historically has given priority to city leagues and local nonprofit teams.

“Us old guys want to get out of the house on Friday nights, unwind after the week and have the chance to sleep on [Saturday] morning to recover from whatever ailments we incurred on Friday night,” Chadderdon, a former attorney, wrote in a recent email to the City Council. “We also play on Friday nights because we have other obligations on weeknights.”

On Jan. 30, a few days after Chadderdon and the other groups heard of the schedule changes, city officials announced the resignation of recreation manager Bob Knapp. After some 19 months on the job, Knapp — a former small-business owner who was widely respected in youth sports and recreation circles before joining the city — gave notice on a Thursday and left on a Friday.

Chadderdon publicly theorized at the following week’s City Council meeting that Knapp’s departure could be related to his displeasure with the Leinart decision.

According to Knapp, it was.


Football was ‘definitely a factor’

Knapp told the Daily Pilot that the head-scratching decision to supplant longtime users with a new-to-the-city flag football program was “definitely a factor” in his resignation.

The unprecedented decree to find space in the field schedule for Leinart’s group above the others, Knapp said, came from the city’s “senior leadership.” He declined to say who gave him the directive to make room for football, but said it was not a council member.

“This was not a decision that I made based on my own professional opinion,” he said.

Organizations with “Group 1" status or equal to it, such as the city softball league and American Little League, have top priority, Knapp said of his reading of the city’s field-allocation policy.

Leinart’s flag football program is a “Group 3,” a designation that implies it may not have nonprofit status or has a membership roster made up of less than 75% Costa Mesa residents. To Knapp, giving priority to a Group 3 over a Group 1 was clearly out of sync with city guidelines.

“This situation in terms of, frankly, not following policy and creating space for a group, and then displacing both city recreation leagues and other youth groups, I think was completely inappropriate,” Knapp said. “I have a hard time when staff or myself were given directives that really went against policy.”

City officials, who have declined to discuss Knapp’s resignation, calling it a confidential personnel matter, countered the notion that municipal leagues are considered Group 1. They do not meet all the official requirements, officials said, but are a city entity subject to the city’s decisions and discretion.

Also, there was no violation of city policies or guidelines, since it is management’s purview to allocate scarce resources based on the needs of the community, the officials said.

“This understandably upset some adult softball players, and the city will work to accommodate a Friday night softball league at TeWinkle in the future,” city spokesman Bill Lobdell wrote in an email. “With a limited number of lighted fields, the city faces the constant challenge of weighing requests from a variety of worthy sports groups and making field assignments that best reflect a balanced approach to the community’s needs, while ensuring space for youth programs remains a top priority.”

The recreation staff has a tough job when it comes to allocating fields amid high demand. At one point during the Costa Mesa Youth Sports Council meeting Feb. 6, the task was compared to putting “10 pounds of flour in a 5-pound bag.”

Knapp said his position was formed by years of coaching and volunteerism, “not as a recreation manager for the city.”

Knapp also said he was told that “competition” for the field space would be a good thing. Knapp argued that competition makes sense in business but called it a “fairly nonsensical” way to allocate field space for sports groups and their volunteer leadership.

Bill Graham, a local Little League chief umpire, said selections should be based on need and merit, not competition.

“If they’re going to allow it, that means, basically, it’s going to be a bidding war [for fields,]” the Costa Mesa resident said. “That just opens the door for other organizations to say, ‘Hey, look at what Matt Leinart’s group did.’ It opens the door for somebody else to do the exact same thing.”


‘Let kids play sports’

Knapp and others had been working for the past few months to accommodate the Matt Leinart Flag Football League. After years of trying, last fall the group won permission to stage its March 7 to May 23 season in Costa Mesa.

Knapp called conversations with the outfit cordial and didn’t have a bad word to say about the people involved.

League organizer Ryan Leinart, Matt’s brother, said the issue has “really turned into a much bigger deal that we ever thought.”

“We’re just a flag football group that’s offering an outlet to play sports,” he said. “We turned in our permit request just like anybody else.”

He said the league has excellent relationships in Costa Mesa with Pop Warner, AYSO and others and never intended to displace anyone.

While his league is a profit-making venture, it benefits nonprofits, he added.

“I really feel like if these groups give us a chance, I’m a pretty easy guy to work with,” Ryan Leinart said. “It’s all about the kids. That’s kind of our motto, ‘Let kids play sports.’”

Another reason Leinart’s group was chosen, Lobdell said, is because Friday night youth football is “dramatically increasing in popularity.” After researching the Matt Leinart Flag Football League, “staff found that it was a well-run, community-oriented program that hired local adults and youth to work as coaches and referees, provided sponsorships to local nonprofits and gave funds and uniforms to school programs.”

School board Trustee Katrina Foley told the Youth Sports Council on Feb. 6 that she strongly favors Leinart’s program, which provides clothing, cleats and other supplies to Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools.

“The benefits to the two high school teams from this partnership are enormous,” Foley said.


Changes ahead

As of Friday afternoon, with the fallout of the Leinart decision settling, some issues were resolved. Costa Mesa American Little League was moved from Friday to Saturday nights.

“Yes, we might have actually found a way to make lemonade out of the lemon,” Todd Cowley, league president, wrote in an email to the city. “And [I] think Saturday could be even bigger and better for us moving forward, so let’s stay with what we got. And Field 1 on Friday can go to someone that desperately can use it: maybe men’s softball or girl’s softball.”

In the meantime, Lobdell said, the men’s softball teams have been told they’re free to use TeWinkle on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Six adult softball teams ended up moving to Mondays, Lobdell said, and four teams have dropped out of city participation since the decision.

Representatives from Newport-Mesa Girls Softball said they were caught off-guard when they lost the Friday night spot, but that city officials have since worked hard to make things right. In the end, the girls get to keep their Friday night TeWinkle slot.

Chadderdon — who also volunteers as a Little League umpire — remains unsatisfied with the city’s interpretation of its field-use policy.

“If they want to change the document, please go through the proper procedures to change the policy,” he said. “They haven’t done that.”