Were Twins wrong? Yes. Cheaters? No.

Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2002

First, a clarification. There are two sides to every story, and sometimes what's said isn't what's heard.

Following Monday's game between the Kenai American Legion Post 20 Twins and the Homer Post 16 Mariners, Homer coach Larry Kuhns claimed that Kenai assistant coach Jim Newby had suggested violence as a means of working out frustrations over the protest Kuhns filed regarding the eligibility of three Post 20 players from Juneau.

Newby did make a remark to Kuhns that, if they were both 17 years, 11 months old -- a reference to the age rules governing Legion baseball -- he'd love to be a part of the competition.

Newby emphasized that he never used the word fighting, nor did he imply any violent intent, a statement backed up by the head umpire, in front of whom Newby made the comment.

All of which leads to the reason emotions were high on Monday -- Kuhns' protest.

The black and white of the situation is, according to Legion baseball guidelines, the Twins broke the rules. Legion rules dictate that if a player's hometown does not field a team, the player has the option of playing for the team in the next closest town.

As it turns out, Wasilla is closer than Kenai to Juneau by about 15 miles, and the three players from Juneau should have had the option of playing for Wasilla, not for Kenai or Homer.

Obviously, Twins manager Lance Coz did not knowingly break those rules. He made no secret that he had players from Juneau on his team, and never attempted to cook the books to hide their hometown. Coz worked with the state director when figuring out where players from Juneau should end up, and everything seemed to be on the up and up.

The players were told they had a choice to play in Homer or Kenai, and with one of the players having family on the central peninsula, it made the choice easy.

But Legion eligibility rules, which are stricter than Alaska's open transfer high school rules, are in place for a reason -- to prevent teams from recruiting players from outside their district and loading a team. The rules protect the integrity of the competition both within the state and, if a team is good enough to advance to regional and national competition, Outside. Everyone in the country is playing by the same set of rules.

While the Twins didn't violate the intent of the law -- certainly a team that has had to work hard just to finish with a .500 record should not be considered loaded -- they did violate the letter of the law, and there shouldn't be any exceptions made for such cases.

Kuhns' protest is right, but the timing of it stinks -- one day into the district tournament with Kuhns' Homer squad as the Twins' next opponent.

Coz said that Kuhns told him the first time he had seen a roster with hometowns listed was at the tournament. With the number of times the teams have met this season, it seems like any coach that was paying attention would have figured it out before then.

But what's worse than his timing is Kuhns' righteousness. Following Monday's game, Kuhns' said his team, coaches and fans were held to a higher standard than those in Kenai. He repeatedly mentioned Fairbanks and Wasilla as classy programs, but repeatedly did not put Kenai in that category -- all this after he had made an obscene gesture toward fans that had heckled him during the game.

He went so far as to say that Homer would play as a Connie Mack team next year against teams in the Pacific Northwest, just so "we don't have to put up with teams like Kenai."

Kuhns complained that the Kenai team draws from multiple high schools, as does Wasilla and Fairbanks, while Homer draws from just one -- omitting the fact that there was some interest in joining the Homer team from players in Kodiak and Ketchikan.

And he called Lance Coz a cheater.

In three decades of coaching Legion baseball, I'm sure Coz has been called lots of things, but cheater shouldn't be one of them. There's a big difference between malicious intent and an innocent mistake.

Coz has gone out of his way to make sure the Twins exhibit nothing but class, from tucking in their shirts while they're at the ballpark, even if they're just working on the field, to making sure every visiting team is well-fed before they head home.

This isn't the first time Kuhns has misconstrued actions by the Twins. In past seasons, Kuhns has accused the Twins of running up the score, despite the fact that one of the district's tiebreakers, when there were more than four teams in the district vying for tournament seeding, was runs scored.

For whatever reason, Kuhns feels wronged by the Twins program. In some respects, he has a point. Post 20's use of ineligible players did give the Twins a competitive advantage, if for no other reason than it bolstered their roster from 11 to 14.

Kuhns is right when he said that derisive heckling from the crowd only fuels animosity, and he's right to insist on playing by the rules.

But there's a statistical category in baseball for errors, and eventually, everyone makes one. It's part of the game, and it's part of life.

Let's not misconstrue an honest mistake as anything more than that.

This column is the opinion of Clarion reporter Will Morrow. Comments can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.

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