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With These Guys in Charge, This Is a Legion of Doom

July 29, 1998|TRIS WYKES

If American Legion operators in the region were running a business, their company might be bankrupt.

Once a cornerstone in a summertime array of athletic choices for teenage boys, Legion in this region has become a laughingstock these days. Deception, incompetence, utter confusion; they have all been on display this season.

"[The season] just left a bad taste with me and my coaching staff," Van Nuys Notre Dame Coach Jody Breeden said. "It looks like I'm going to lose a couple of [assistants] because of all the [junk] that happened. It irks me to no end."

Breeden was angered most by Legion's botched handling of the six-team, double-elimination Area 6 tournament. Van Nuys Notre Dame played four games to reach the championship round and lost to a Santa Susana team that had not played in 48 hours and needed only to win two games to reach the final.

During the season there was plenty of other fodder upon which players, parents and coaches could chew.

"A lot of teams are not excited about playing Legion because of problems that arise every season," West Hills Chaminade Coach Scott Drootin said. "It's a great concept but half the time we're totally confused and upset about what's going on."

Some lowlights from the last two months:

* In a classic conflict-of-interest case which has been allowed to drag on for years, District 20 Chairman Mel Swerdling served as a coach for North Hollywood Poly, a District 20 team. This didn't cause any obvious problems until . . . .

* . . . . Swerdling awarded North Hollywood Poly a forfeit victory over Van Nuys Birmingham because Birmingham used an ineligible player. Since North Hollywood Poly was on the verge of qualifying for the district tournament, some opposing coaches construed the move as Swerdling the chairman aiding Swerdling the coach.

* Van Nuys Birmingham Coach Rick Weber, incensed by the forfeit, initially refused to allow the district to use the Birmingham High field for the playoffs. Weber relented when. . . .

* . . . . Swerdling was fired by District 20 Commander William Davis, a move that was botched because Davis failed to inform Swerdling in a timely manner. The veteran chairman was told of his dismissal by a newspaper reporter.

* District 16 Chairman Marty Garcia admitted to approving a blank roster for Ojai.

Showing restraint, Ojai Coach Bob Hill did not suit up Ken Griffey Jr. However, he did add several illegal players who were removed from the team by Legion officials on the eve of the Area 6 tournament.

"That was my mistake," Garcia said. "[Hill] could have put anybody at all on that team. I feel bad for the team that should have gone [to the area tournament] in Ojai's place."

* Also at the area tournament, Brentwood was allowed to use several freshmen who should have been declared ineligible for the same reasons players from Van Nuys Birmingham and three other Valley teams were declared ineligible earlier in the season.

Area 6 co-Commissioner Charlie Hatfield said he discovered the illegal Brentwood players and mentioned them to co-Commissioner Julio Yniguez. Hatfield said Yniguez dismissed the players' status by saying they had been cleared to play by State Commissioner Harold Hall.

On Monday, Hall said he had not been notified of any illegal players in the Area 6 tournament.

On Tuesday, Yniguez admitted he wrongly allowed the illegal Brentwood players to take the field.

"I violated the rule," Yniguez said. "I told [Ojai, Brentwood's opponent] they could file a protest with Harold and they never did."

The fee to file a protest with the state commissioner is $250. Consequently, no protest was filed and Brentwood used the illegal players.

Cleaning up such a mess won't be easy. Finding administrators who can clearly interpret the rules and enforce them is a good start.

A man of that caliber--Hatfield--is already in place. He is honorable, rational and offers clear explanations of Legion's complex rules. But he's fed up with the annual headaches and he plans to retire after next season.

Another positive step would be breaking up District 20, which with 33 teams is among the largest in the nation. That way, administrators can watch more closely for violations.

Finally, Legion organizers shouldn't allow administrators to coach a team. Any appearance of a conflict of interest weakens the organization.

Hall, the state commissioner, said late-season forfeitures are a rarity elsewhere in the state.

"If you get a good district [chairman] he's going to take care of all the illegal players before they ever get into the district tournament," Hall said.

Legion bylaws state that baseball administrators must be members of a Legion post. To belong to a post, members must have an honorable discharge from a branch of the U.S. military.

Finding a qualified veteran is understandably a goal. But finding a qualified administrator should take top priority.

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