CITRUS PARK — Much was at stake when the Little League all-stars from Palma Ceia and Citrus Park took the field July 1.
The rivals had already met in a regular-season softball game, but that had been called off. This time, a district championship was at stake. With luck, the winner might even have a shot at the Little League World Series.
Palma Ceia defeated Citrus Park, 9-3. But just like that unsettled regular-season match, the outcome of the July 1 game would not be clear cut. There would be a protest and an appeal. A lawyer and a judge got involved. So did a sheriff's deputy.
Caught in the middle were 13- and 14-year-old girls. Even after growing up in the contentious world of youth sports, they were surprised at the level of animosity.
"It's bogus that they sued for a game," said Whitney Miller, who plays third base for Citrus Park.
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To be eligible for all-star tournament play, team members must participate in at least 60 percent of regular-season games.
After the game, the Citrus Park manager alleged that Palma Ceia had not met that threshold. According to Donny Miller, a girl on the team played in only four of seven games.
The case was referred to Little League International for review. A committee ruled the girl ineligible and stripped Palma Ceia of its win and championship hardware.
Citrus Park's season was revived. The team would represent Florida's District 6, which runs from MacDill Air Force Base to northwest Hillsborough, at the July 11 sectional tournament in Crystal River.
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As proof that players meet eligibility requirements, teams maintain books listing names, times at bat and other statistics. Miller did not have Palma Ceia's book when he filed the protest immediately after the July 1 game.
The book showed the girl had met the 60 percent quota by playing five out of eight games. One of the five was that undecided regular-season contest that umpires had called because Citrus Park had too few players.
Citrus Park contended the suspended game shouldn't count. Palma Ceia argued that it should.
Officials agreed to consult the international office in Williamsport, Pa. Palma Ceia president Steve Stanford waited days for a response before contacting attorney William Schifino, who also is president of Tampa Bay Little League. Schifino had no better luck getting an answer from headquarters, so he filed for an injunction.
Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard granted it and suspended tournament play until the question of the Palma Ceia player's eligibility could be resolved.
Previously unreachable, Little League responded swiftly. Reinstate Palma Ceia.
Citrus Park learned of the reversal at 4:30 p.m. on July 11. Game time was at 8.
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Hotel rooms had been reserved. Parents had taken off work. Gas tanks had been filled for the 63-mile trip to Crystal River.
Uniforms on, Citrus Park went to the ballpark. Palma Ceia was there, too.
Only one team could take the field. Citrus Park players went to their positions and sat. Parents joined them.
"They waited until the last minute to file this injunction knowing good and well we wouldn't be able to do anything," said Greg Mills, Citrus Park's president. "It was a ploy so we wouldn't have any recourse."
For 40 minutes, girls and their parents stayed on the field in protest. A Citrus County sheriff's deputy talked to them. They left the field. They headed to their hotel rooms, then Chili's.
Palma Ceia won the game that night. This past Monday, the team earned a berth to the regional tournament, which feeds into the Little League World Series.
Meanwhile, the Citrus Park players had not returned the championship banner, medals and trophy.
"A lot of them aren't going to," said Miller, the team's manager. "Most of them want an apology.''
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.