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Goffstown Little League coach's actions during regional game draw rebukes

By JOHN HABIB
New Hampshire Union Leader

August 16. 2017 9:15PM
Goffstown coach Jeff O'Connell voices his disagreement with the third base umpire during Game 1 of the Little League Baseball Championship in Pelham last month. O'Connell's decision not to play his last substitute in the New England Regional semifinals last Friday in Bristol, Conn., has drawn rebukes nationally and locally. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Just days after Little League International denounced Goffstown manager Jeff O’Connell’s decision not to play his last substitute in the New England Regional semifinals last Friday in Bristol, Conn., Goffstown Junior Baseball released its own statement Tuesday criticizing O’Connell.

“Coach O’Connell’s decision-making in last Friday’s regional game did not reflect the core values of our GJB Little League Program,” said the league’s board in a five-paragraph statement posted on its Facebook page. “Our thoughts go out to the family affected by this situation and the intense media coverage that followed. No child should have to be recognized nationally for being caught up in an unwarranted situation such as this.”

Goffstown Little League didn’t mention if it planned to discipline O’Connell, but did say, “Goffstown Junior Baseball would like to take a moment to reaffirm our commitment to the spirit of Little League and remind our community that GJB demands our managers, coaches, and players abide by the rules of the game...”

In ESPN’s nationally televised game last Friday, O’Connell, with his team trailing South Portland, Maine, in bottom of the sixth inning, chose on four different occasions not to abide by the rule that every player must have at least one at-bat. The penalty for not doing so is a two-game suspension for the coach.

“He’s accepting the penalty in an effort to help his team win the game,” said veteran ESPN broadcaster Karl Ravech during the game. “I think in the spirit of Little League, shouldn’t he be playing right now? Shouldn’t he have gotten his at-bat? It’s what a mandatory rule is. It’s mandatory.”

Goffstown lost the game 7-6, its second loss in the regional tournament, which eliminated the team.

Because his team was eliminated, O’Connell wasn’t suspended, but it didn’t shield O’Connell or Goffstown Junior Baseball from criticism.

That night, during ESPN’s telecast of the Mid-Atlantic championship game from Bristol, Little League national president Stephen Keener told ESPN, O’Connell’s decision was “contrary to the purpose and spirit of the Little League program. It’s unacceptable.”

On Saturday, a response from Little League International sent to District I Commissioner Sally Dreckmann read in part: “Little League International takes any violation of its Official Regulations, Playing Rules, and Operating Policies seriously, including its mandatory play regulations. Little League’s mandatory play regulations are an important part of the Little League program to ensure that all children have the opportunity to have a fun, meaningful experience.”

Little League International also addressed O’Connell’s decision.

“Little League International is extremely disappointed in the intentional mandatory play violation by New Hampshire manager, Jeff O’Connell. While the normal penalty for violating the mandatory play regulation is a two-game suspension, unfortunately the New Hampshire team’s season has concluded. Little League International strongly encourages Goffstown Little League officials to take this incident into consideration when appointing coaches and managers for the 2018 Little League season.”

This week, Keely Noyes, mother of the boy who didn’t get to play last Friday wrote on her Facebook page, “This child never refused to play.”

That statement contradicted the statement O’Connell made to the Portland Press-Herald after the game: “We gave him an opportunity in the fourth inning,” said O’Connell. “He chose not to hit. So then waiting for the right time to get him in in the sixth, and to put him in a situation where (it was) do-or-die with the game, I didn’t feel it would be very fair.”

In an interview with New England Cable News published on its website on Monday, O’Connell said “the decision we made in the fourth inning and the reasons why he did not get up to the plate are between me and him. The decision (not to play him) in the sixth inning I take full responsibility for and, in my heart, I did not want to put him in a situation I felt may be worse. That may have been the wrong decision, not saying it was a right or wrong decision, but my thought process was in the best interest of the kids.

“It has nothing to do with winning, it had nothing to do with someone not getting an at-bat so maybe I can win a game.”

On Tuesday, at a meeting at the Goffstown Little League, O’Connell refused to speak to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Noyes responded to the Union Leader’s request on Wednesday to speak to her, saying “GJB has issued a statement supporting (her son) and denouncing the decision made by Jeff O’Connell. That’s all I have to say regarding this.”

Craig Hollinrake, president of the GJB, said in an e-mail to the Union Leader “We believe the statement the GJB Board released clearly outlines how the board feels about these matters. At this point there isn’t really anything more to say.”

Dreckmann didn’t response to e-mails Wednesday or return phone calls from the New Hampshire Union Leader Tuesday.

jhabib@unionleader.com


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