ENCINO — The road to Williamsport, Pa., site of the Little League World Series, took a sudden and unexpected turn Friday for a team of Woodland Hills Sunrise all-stars who might have been California's best hope for a national title.
Woodland Hills' best player, Junior Garcia, and another starter, Garrett Feig, both 12, were disqualified by Little League officials after Encino, a rival league, filed a protest claiming the players live outside the Woodland Hills league boundaries.
Merle Sanders, Little League's chief administrator in District 40, ordered the players be dropped from the squad and announced that Woodland Hills must forfeit a 7-4 victory over Encino in a district tournament game Wednesday.
Woodland Hills appealed the decision Friday evening, but Sanders said he did not expect a final determination until this afternoon, after the plea wends its way through Little League Western Regional headquarters in San Bernardino and finally to Williamsport.
By then, Woodland Hills will have played a sectional game against Thousand Oaks this morning in Lompoc. Thousand Oaks is considered another strong contender to earn a trip to Williamsport next month.
Garcia and Feig are not expected to play today on the Woodland Hills team.
The forfeiture of Wednesday's game presented the possibility of a one-game playoff Friday between Woodland Hills and Encino for the District 40 championship. However, Encino decided to concede the game on principle.
"This was not about winning," said Rob Glushon, Encino's manager and a lawyer who was recently elected to the city commission formed to rewrite the Los Angeles City Charter.
"There's no sour grapes. . . . If we can deter this kind of problem from happening in the future, then we've accomplished something."
Although nobody associated with the Encino team was present, Woodland Hills showed up Friday night at Encino ready to play. But the team members didn't even warm up. Several parents, coaches and supporters of the 11- and 12-year-olds were at the field when Sanders announced the ruling. A police officer stood by as a precaution because emotions were running high between the two leagues.
Finally, Jim Hock, the team's manager, ordered his club to move out. "Let's go to Lompoc," he declared.
Neither Garcia nor Feig made the trip to Encino. Jeff Palmatier, a Woodland Hills coach, said the players took the news of their disqualification hard.
"They cried," Palmatier said. "It was too bad. It was like knowing the hammer was going to fall and these kids are up in spirit knowing they are going to Lompoc, and all of a sudden they have to be told they're not on the team anymore.
"How do you think they would feel? They were devastated."
Feig, an infielder, has played in the Woodland Hills league for four years after moving over from the Mid-Valley Pony League in Encino. The protest, however, centered on how Garcia landed on the Woodland Hills team.
The power-hitting first baseman and pitcher switched to Woodland Hills--also from Mid-Valley--this season. The league said he was living with his father, Juan, in a Canoga Park apartment. A league official said Garcia's parents recently separated.
Throughout the youth baseball season rumors circulated that Garcia was playing illegally at Woodland Hills. But the controversy started to simmer after the team pounded Northridge, 24-0, in their first playoff game, on June 28.
Against Northridge, Garcia hit two grand slams in a 16-run first inning, kick-starting Woodland Hills' World Series dream.
Glushon said someone at Northridge discovered that Garcia and his father were still residing in Van Nuys and not at the apartment.
Prompted by requests from the Northridge officials, Glushon said Sanders paid an announced visit to the apartment and met with Juan and Junior Garcia. But Glushon contends that the Garcias showed up at the apartment just for the occasion and did not actually live there.
"The reason we know it to be true is we went to the place a week after Merle was there and there was no evidence anybody was living there," Glushon said. "We knocked on [neighbors'] doors and were told nobody lived there.
"Most of what got them disqualified came from [Woodland Hills'] own documents" to substantiate proof of residency.
Sanders said Encino officials made too much of his visit to the Garcia apartment.
"It was an announced visit from the standpoint that an appointment was made so they would be there," Sanders said. "If [Encino officials] want me to go around in a cloak-and-dagger thing and search around in trash cans, I'm not going to do that.
"It is not my responsibility to verify residence. That is the responsibility of the league president. . . . [League presidents] are charged with the duty of not lying."
For Woodland Hills, that responsibility fell on Geri Czabo, who said she studied the paperwork carefully.
"I'm still very satisfied" with the residency status, Czabo said. "Apparently, [Little League] is saying there's no formal custody arrangement for Junior and that's now a big point of contention. . . . I've spent more hours making sure Junior had legal status than I care to think about."
Czabo said she also was satisfied with the paperwork for Feig, who resides outside the district but is allowed to play at Woodland Hills because he was within the boundaries when he first joined the league. Under Little League rules, such a move is permissible.
"When he registered in the league, he had a Woodland Hills address," Czabo said. "He has been in the league since he was 9, he has been on other all-star teams, and he has never been challenged."
Times staff writer Rob Fernas contributed to this story.