Baseball's splitting headache

"On one level, it's a cold redistribution of existing resources. On another, it's an hot and emotional clash of community values.One way or the other, the Bainbridge Island Little League's board of directors will have to decide in the next two weeks how best to split its majors baseball leagues - and how best to live with a decision many may not like.A lot of people are very emotional about these issues, said Mike Baggett, BILL's vice president for baseball. No matter what solution we come up with, some people are going to be unhappy.But we're going to try to come up with the best solution for the most kids - that's our guideline.The league has been ordered by its district and national administrators to split the 10-team majors level into two divisions for play beginning next spring - a mandate given to all leagues whose community populations, like Bainbridge Island's, have reached the 20,000 mark. To accomplish that, board members have agreed to add two expansion majors teams and form two six-team divisions, each of which will field postseason All-Star tournament squads.Accomplishing the mechanics of such a move has split the 25-member board into two distinct camps.Of the four options the Little League provides for expansion, about half favor Option One. It holds that the existing teams from last year essentially be dissolved, with all players - 144 total, with 12 teams - thrown back into the spring draft pool and allotted equally and evenly.Those people think that allows for the most competitive balance, and is the most neutral, BILL president Ken Guy said. They say it makes it easier for new kids in the majors to integrate.The other half, more or less, favors Option Three. It provides for existing teams to stay intact - less last year's 12-year-olds who have graduated from the program or other players who chose not to return. It allows the expansion teams a chance to competitively catch up by being allowed to draft the top 14 players eligible for the majors draft before the existing teams are allowed a single pick.Those favoring that approach say it ensures that the bonds between players, coaches and parents - built up over a year or more - on a given team will stay intact. It's also the historical way Bainbridge's Little League has handled its past expansion issues, they say.There's a strong, deep relationship there, Baggett said. It would be really wrong for all the kids in the majors to have to dissolve those relationships and destroy those bonds.Baggett believes there's room for compromise between the two camps, in the form of an agreement that would not strictly follow the Little League's guidelines. But while Guy says he's all for the spirit of compromise, he's concerned that the letter of it may not fly with Little League district or national administrators.These are well-established guidelines, he said, and it's not likely they'll approve anything that's different.Waiting for such approval, and risking rejection, could jeopardize the orderly flow of league registrations come the start of the signup period in January, Guy warned.And that could well happen, given that once a majority philosophy on the league split is in space, the mechanics of division alignment still need to be worked out among board members.Some feel it would be best to place the two expansion teams into a division with the four teams carrying last year's worst won-loss records, thus ensuring that the kids on the expansion team weren't risking an uncompetitive or even winless season of play - thereby, they say, taking all the joy out of playing the national pastime.Others, however, feel that such an alignment would lock those six teams into a second-class division, ensuring a perpetual competitive imbalance that would extend into summer All-Star play. Kids of top-tier ability locked into a second-tier league, the reasoning goes, would become discouraged by their inability to play with the other top players on the island.There are some who perceive such a 'soft-landing' system for expansion teams as setting up a caste system between stronger and weaker divisions, and that those perceptions should not be part of Little League, Guy said.Those around Little League the last time it expanded, from eight to 10 teams in 1995, said the 0-and-18 effect simply didn't happen, however. The newer teams, they say, were more competitive than anticipated.And a longheld perception that may be losing momentum is the idea that Bainbridge doesn't have enough majors-quality kids in its Little League. With 144 total positions in next spring's majors, an estimated 57 players returning to assigned teams, 87 positions are left to be filled by a pool of about 150 kids who will have reached age 10 and therefore be eligible for the draft.From that, Guy extrapolates that at least half should be graded during draft rating drills at minimal major league quality, thus possibly weakening the argument that play will be diluted, and thus polluted.The division on other issues, however, is such that when a quorum of new board members met earlier this month to vote on reconsidering the old 15-member board's recommendation for Option Three, the tally ran 8-7 yes, with two members abstaining.The board is trying to pull together a Nov. 29 meeting for a final vote, with a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 6.A lot of people find it tough to compromise their values, Guy said. The board may not reach a consensus decision.The only thing there is consensus on, he added, is the feeling that the goal is not to jeopardize the start of the 2001 season. That would be a real disservice to the kids. "

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