Honest mistake results in Little League's death penalty

You are about to read a story about an innocent mistake, misapplied rules, a dad's heartbreak and administrative narrow-mindedness that ought to have state Little League officials embarrassed at their callousness.

Many readers of The Day know Casey O'Neill quite well. O'Neill was a standout baseball player at New London High and for New London American Legion, a talented improv artist and lately, the play-by-play voice of GameDay, our foray into live-streaming high school sports on theday.com.

This summer, O'Neill has been a coach and a dad, leading the Colchester Little Leaguers (11-12) to a district championship and into a recent state sectional tournament. This is the story of how O'Neill, who has spent a lifetime creating and honing a good name, was given Little League's version of the death penalty, after committing an honest mistake.

Colchester's first game in the sectional, July 20, was against Brooklyn/Pomfret in Norwich.

"Our pitcher entered the fifth inning having thrown 69 pitches," O'Neill said. "The limit, per Little League rules, is 85. No batter can be started if the pitcher has reached 85. All official pitch counts go through the official scorer. My assistant coach and I were trying to keep track of pitches."

O'Neill and his assistant had the pitcher at 83 pitches two outs into the fifth inning. Just to be sure, they inquired to the press box about the official number.

"We should have called time. That's on us," O'Neill said. "While the scorer was doing the tally, our kid threw a pitch. The next pitch was a ground ball and the inning was over. We ended up losing the game anyway and nobody gave it a second thought."

Almost nobody.

"The Brooklyn coach says, 'I had your kid at 85 entering that batter,'" O'Neill said. "We had him at 83. The district commissioner (Everett Demers) calls me over and says there's a problem. The count was 85 when the kid started the batter. I said, 'that's why we asked.'

"Everett calls Bristol (home of state Little League headquarters). All they wanted to know was whether the kid began the hitter on the 84th or 85th pitch. Everett explained the situation. It didn't matter. He was told the pitcher automatically becomes an ineligible player and the coach is suspended for two games (the remainder of the tournament) and with no replacement."

Hence, O'Neill could not be on premises for the rest of the tournament. He couldn't even watch his son, A.J., play. Colchester played the remainder of the tournament with one coach, who had to be in the dugout. Meanwhile, kids were coaching bases because O'Neill couldn't be replaced.

A tad punitive, perhaps?

Is there room for some context here? (Not in Bristol, clearly).

Can we invoke a Little League rule where once a kid gets to 80 pitches the official scorer makes the announcement to both coaches for purposes of clarity?

Why can't coaches be replaced? Because let me say this: If my kid gets injured by a batted ball coaching third base because of some misapplied, byzantine rule, Little League will be paying his medical bills until he's 40.

"Nobody accused me of cheating. We just missed a pitch," O'Neill said. "But it's the same punishment as if I forged 16 birth certificates and brought in a bunch of Dominican kids to play. We talk about protecting kids and doing what's in their best interest. An official scorer saying something would actually do that."

It got worse for O'Neill and Colchester, too.

The next day, Colchester defeated Suffield to reach the championship game on Monday, July 22, a rematch with Brooklyn/Pomfret. As Colchester got to the field Monday, skies looked ominous.

"Our No. 3 pitcher finished the Suffield game by throwing 10 pitches," O'Neill said. "He's our starter Monday. We asked this: If he starts the game Monday and it gets rained out, can he come back the next day, because Little League rules say you can't pitch on three consecutive days. They told us because of a rainout, yes, he could come back to pitch."

Except he couldn't.

"People are calling us from a mile away telling us there's thunder and lightning, but they decided to start the game 20 minutes early," O'Neill said.

They played one inning before a downpour. A suspended game. And then O'Neill's phone rang Tuesday, the day the game would resume.

"Everett calls and apologizes and says our kid can't pitch because it would be three straight days," O'Neill said. "The exact question we asked. He felt terrible. He called Bristol and got 'rules are rules.'

"So, our No. 3 pitcher, having thrown 25 pitches last two days, couldn't pitch. But Little League has something called 'minimum play requirements.' Every kid must play six consecutive outs and get one at bat before he's taken out of the game. We needed our No. 4 pitcher to be able to pitch later in the game. If we started him, he would have had to come out in the third or fourth inning so the other kid could get his minimum play. It effectively denied is our three and four starters."

Confused yet?

Remember when this used to be just, you know, Little League?

Do our tax codes have these many rules nobody else can understand, too?

Colchester lost in extra innings, but not before it had a kid thrown out at the plate, another fails to tag from third on a fly ball and multiple baserunners going station to station because kids — not coaches — were coaching the bases. (Remember: O'Neill could not be replaced).

"It's not a great idea to put a 12-year-old in the third base coaching box while other kids are hitting," O'Neill said. "I'm sure he's laser focused on the hitter."

Note to all you Little League people: If you think absolutely any of this is acceptable, you need to go do something else. You do not belong around the games our kids play.

O'Neill phrased it better.

"If you enforce rules with no common sense, discretion or no ability to look at the totality of circumstance," he said, "then these rules no longer serve the purpose they were created for."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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