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One year later, youth baseball plays it safe

A year has passed since West Hernando's largest youth baseball and softball organization was dismantled.

In June 1994, the association that owns the sports complex on Deltona Boulevard refused to renew the West Hernando Little League's lease.

That decision was preceded by years of infighting and disputes, and was followed by lawsuits and petitions. The saga was punctuated by arguments over the ownership of assets, accountability for poorly maintained fields and the question of whether girls deserved new uniforms like boys received.

In the end, the league was unalterably fractured and its parent body exiled to Pasco County. The owner created a new league in its place, while the old one struggled to survive on foreign ground.

Now both leagues are in the post season, after what their officials call successful regular seasons, all things considered. And both agree the discord is over.

"We've moved on, and we're doing fine, and we like it," said Barb Szabo, vice president of West Hernando Little League. "You can't hold hard feelings your whole life."

"I wish them lots of luck," said Andy Ventaloro, president of West Hernando Youth Athletic Club, which owns the Deltona fields and ran the new Babe Ruth baseball league there. "We don't wish any ill feelings against these people."

Those who have followed the two groups might consider that an astonishing show of rapprochement _ and perhaps only a public one _ after the vehemence of their previous battles.

But there may be reason for the warm fuzzies emanating from both camps. Though their combined enrollment this year did not equal that of 1994's Little League, both contend they were pleased with how the season ran and intend to return next year.

Little League, in fact, is hoping to follow this transitional year with a return to playing fields in Hernando County in 1996.

How did the separation occur?

Some of those involved with the squabble denied that previous infighting factored into the Little League's expulsion from the Deltona fields, but problems inside the league and between the league and the Youth Athletic Club certainly had precedent.

They point to a fault line running through the league that separated those with an allegiance both to the Babe Ruth form of baseball and to the athletic club, and those who preferred to retain the traditional Little League form of youth baseball and softball.

The catalyst for the athletic club's refusal to renew Little League's lease was Little League'sfailure to maintain the Deltona fields and their surroundings, a responsibility Little League contended was that of the athletic club, a non-profit corporation. The fields clearly were in poor shape, and differences over the accountability for the fields had broken out before.

Though that particular debate did not become public until April 1994 _ when the athletic club sent out a letter claiming that the Little League had not fulfilled 12 of 20 lease conditions, most regarding maintenance _ it was preceded by friction within the league over alleged sexism and an unsuccessful attempt by some league members to force a switch to Babe Ruth.

In June 1993, Szabo, then coach of an all-star girls softball team, was removed from her position after arguing publicly with then-Little League president John Grice over his decision to purchase new uniforms for the boys all-star baseball team, but not for the girls.

In an emergency meeting in December 1993, a board composed of Little League members voted 27-7 to dissolve itself in favor of affiliation with Babe Ruth baseball. The decision, Grice claimed, was prompted by district Little League officials' insistence that some players would have to join the Shady Hills league to fulfill previously ignored boundary requirements.

Grice said he disagreed with district officials dictating what the league could do and preferred the autonomy that Babe Ruth provided. But many Little League members, including Szabo, claimed the Babe Ruth supporters stacked the deck by getting their advocates to register early, a claim the athletic club denied.

A new West Hernando Little League quickly emerged, and in January 1994 Szabo and the league's newly elected president, Don Whiting, argued with Grice and the Babe Ruth contingent over who would receive the assets collected by the old league.

That became moot days later when Babe Ruth advocates, under threat of litigation, abdicated control of the program to Little League. Of the decision, Grice said then: "It just seems ridiculous for adults to be acting in this matter. For a child's game, it got way out of hand."

The note of closure was false. It was far from over.

Heading to court

Little League and the athletic club had quarreled for years about field conditions and money. On March 31, 1994, they debated the maintenance matter in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, but no resolution was reached, leading to the April letter threatening eviction.

Another meeting April 12 proved similarly futile.

Though the athletic club originally threatened eviction, it later backed off: "To evict them would hurt the children," Billie Liparito, then the athletic club president, said in April.

However, in June, the athletic club decided not to renew the Little League's lease, which would expire Aug. 1, "because of the constant non-compliance of the lease and stuff," Liparito said. Little League organizers claimed the decision was another attempt by the athletic club to replace it with Babe Ruth baseball, which the athletic club denied.

In July, the Little League sued the athletic club, claiming it had a lease that in fact would not expire until the following year. However, the Little League's copy of that lease had been misplaced, it contended in its lawsuit.

In December, a circuit court jury ruled the Little League did not have a right to the Deltona complex. The Little League went to Shady Hills, just south of the county line, and the athletic club decided to begin a Babe Ruth program with Grice, formerly the Little League president, as commissioner of baseball.

West Hernando Little League didn't just lose its home when it left the county. It lost, not surprisingly, most of its players. It had nearly 200 registrants, down from about 550 in 1994 and more than 700 in 1993.

This year, the league did not field any tee-ball teams. It fielded three seniors baseball teams (down from six), three majors baseball (down from 10), one minors baseball (down from three) and one majors softball (down from four). There were two seniors softball teams, the one division in which Little League actually gained a team. Szabo attributed that to the majors girls getting older and moving into the seniors division.

Babe Ruth, on the other hand, did not field any softball teams this year. Its softball program did not receive enough interest, said Ventaloro, president of the Youth Athletic Club.

Szabo said she was not disheartened by the numbers, considering that despite its name, the league played only one game the entire year in West Hernando.

"For a transitional year, we did very well," she said. "We were very surprised by the amount of people who traveled to Shady Hills and stayed with it and now are helping us."

Szabo did not know how many players Little League lost to Babe Ruth, but she said she was certain that many of the players who did not return did not necessarily join Babe Ruth.

"We lost several hundred registrants," Szabo said, "but a lot of them didn't play ball at all." She learned that, she said, by polling many of those who did not follow the Little League to Shady Hills.

"A lot of people just said "No, we're going to take the year off,' " she said. "A lot of people didn't want to travel to Shady Hills, but they didn't want to go to Deltona."

Beth Tottle-Quick was one of the parents who followed. Her son, K. J. Tottle, played for a seniors team, and next year, another son, Kyle Jones, will play tee-ball with the Little League, she said. She said she preferred the field conditions and the league to those at Deltona.

Little League has been very satisfied at the Shady Hills complex, which is owned and operated by Pasco County, Szabo said. Shady Hills let the West Hernando baseball teams play on the fields for the same $10 fee it charges its own players.

The softball program has had a rougher go of it, having to travel quite a bit, Szabo said. They played in Hudson, Port Richey and Kennedy Park, on the southeast side of Brooksville. A sole softball game was played at Veterans Memorial Park in Spring Hill.

The Babe Ruth option

Meanwhile, youth baseball has continued on the Deltona fields, under the Babe Ruth format. Ventaloro said the season has been successful, that the league accomplished its objectives on the field and has been a good option for kids looking to play ball.

"The league went great," he said. "Our concern was for the kids to have a place to play, and our objective was to supply a program. This county has a lot of kids who need a place to play, and Babe Ruth happens to be a vehicle we use to do that."

Last year's Little League had about 550 entrants, down from more than 700 in 1993 _ a drop-off attributed by many to the problems the league was going through in early 1994.

The inaugural Babe Ruth program had almost 300 players, Ventaloro said. It did not have softball, but in baseball it fielded five seniors, six majors, four minors and four tee-ball teams. He said he expects Base Ruth baseball will continue at the Deltona sports complex next year.

One of the main problems Little League supporters had with Babe Ruth was that rules did not mandate that every available player play in every game. Little League specifies that each player play at least two innings in the field and bat at least once. However, Ventaloro said, the athletic club's Babe Ruth league has a rule mandating that each player play at least three innings.

The Deltona complex is not in considerably better repair than it was during the rancor. Ventaloro said the athletic club now has to make do with even less than it had. Previously, the county volunteered to mow the grass and donate clay for the infields, but now it has stopped those services, he said.

"We've never asked them for anything. But now they've taken away the only thing they gave us," he said. "We've alleviated tremendous expense and political pressure to them, and we never asked for a dime to provide for the fields. Everything we do is done by volunteers."

A home of its own

Though the West Hernando Little League is pleased with the Shady Hills fields, what it wants are fields of its own _ in Spring Hill. Little League is planning to ask the Hernando County Commission to lease it land for a new complex.

It would develop and manage the new complex just west of Mariner and Northcliffe boulevards, on a site bordered by Landover Boulevard, Jason Road, Portillo Road and Sandlor Street. Little League plans to present its proposal to the commission in August.

The challenge for the Little League is considerable. Even if commissioners agree to lease the land at a nominal fee, as expected, the league would have to develop the area and build the complex, without county money, by the spring. Szabo estimated the cost at between $60,000 and $100,000.

If the West Hernando Little League does not get its complex by the spring, she said, it will continue wherever it can.

"We are going to build the fields," Szabo said. "If they aren't completed in time, we might be faced with starting out somewhere else. But we really hope to get the support from the community and the businesses to help us out."

The area, which has been designated for recreation use, probably would be leased cheaply if the commission agrees to the proposal, County Commissioner June Ester said.

"We cannot just give it to them, but we could just lease it to them for a dollar a year," Ester said. "If they want to take on the responsibility to develop it, I think it's admirable. With the experience I've had, we'd (agree to) it unless it's in a heavily populated area, and then we probably wouldn't have a problem with it unless the residents come in and ask us not to do it." .

Szabo said the complex will include three fields, one for seniors baseball, one for majors baseball and one to double for minors baseball and softball. There will also be a tee-ball area and a large concession stand, she said.

The final cost, she said, "depends on how much we can get donated. Some people have agreed to donate things such as the cement blocks and concrete, some donate clearing the land, and others said they would do things at cost or below cost. They could save you a fortune."

Bottom line: a lot of kids have no place to play, Szabo said. There is only one diamond in a county park in Spring Hill _ a softball field at Veterans Memorial Park.

Szabo said the Little League would look into sharing some of its fields with other organizations.

"More fields are needed in Spring Hill," she said. "Even the three we're building aren't enough. We know the (County Commission) wants more fields, so we think this is (an attractive proposal)."

Little League is planning fund-raisers, ranging from a golf tournament and bingo to something perhaps better described than named.

It involves placing a cow in a lot marked off into squares. People make a donation to reserve a square, and the square's owner takes home a large cash prize _ if the cow does its business there.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.