An appeal by the Medford Mustangs to the American Legion Baseball National Appeals Board was upheld Friday morning with the finding that the Mid-Valley Southpaws fielded an ineligible player in Oregon’s department championship game this past Wednesday.
With the official ruling, Mid-Valley therefore forfeits the championship and its opponent, Medford, has been named the state champion for the fifth straight year and will advance to the Northwest Regional tournament set to begin next week.
As of press time, however, Mid-Valley manager Troy Babbitt was in discussions with state and national Legion officials to appeal the latest ruling.
The basis for his appeal Friday morning is that Babbitt said he was assured by state and national officials prior to the game that the player in question, starting pitcher and leadoff hitter Briley Knight, would be eligible to play because he was on the team’s June roster.
A prevailing issue there, however, is that there is some question whether all officials who authorized Knight’s presence in the lineup were aware at that time that Knight had been playing for the West Coast League’s Corvallis Knights during this past week’s American Legion AAA state tournament at Legion Field in Roseburg. They were aware of his dual participation during the regular season, but Legion rules officially state that a player is not allowed dual participation during an official postseason Legion tournament.
In all, Knight has played in 44 games for the WCL club this summer, batting .229 with 18 runs and 21 RBIs. The recent Crescent Valley graduate has one save in three pitching appearances with a 3.00 ERA in the collegiate wood-bat league.
Knight, a Utah-bound standout and Class 5A player of the year, went a combined 5-for-11 with two runs and four RBIs for the Knights as Mid-Valley made its way through the tournament and ultimately into the state final, where Knight pitched four scoreless innings and was 1-for-2 with two runs scored in the leadoff position during the Southpaws’ 6-2 win.
Medford Mustangs manager Nate Mayben said he was pleased with the ruling by the National Appeals Board, which was deemed final in the ruling release by the American Legion.
“That’s a big decision to make and obviously I have mixed feelings,” said Mayben. “I’m a little bit torn because I feel for the kids that were part of that team all summer on Mid-Valley and the work that they put in and the fact that they thought they were going to represent Oregon, and they would’ve done a fine job at that. But the decision of some adults have made that not possible for them.”
In making his appeal, Mayben said he was merely doing what was right for his players and for the integrity of American Legion baseball.
“We were standing up for the integrity of American Legion baseball and the rules itself,” he added. “The reason why we do what we do with American Legion baseball and not just travel teams is we want to teach kids it’s about to being committed to a team and a community and putting in the work together and being able to hopefully accomplish something great at the end with the guys that have been with you the whole time. There’s a commitment factor in that. I feel like our guys did that and they had 17 guys on their team that did that, but for some reason one guy had to be brought in to get them to the next level. Obviously I wish that whole thing hadn’t happened.”
Babbitt has said that keeping a roster spot open for Knight in case he chose to play for Mid-Valley instead of the Corvallis Knights was his plan all along in leaving one roster spot open. Legion teams are allowed to carry 18 players (the Mustangs have 15 on their roster). He called the addition of Knight for the final game — he wasn’t in the lineup for an earlier 4-3 win over Corvallis to reach the championship final — a “strategical move.” The tournament tracks pitch counts to determine eligibility and the Southpaws had used a host of pitchers to make it into the final game.
“The fact that he played for the Knights during that state tournament, it was a clear violation of the rules and that’s what people didn’t know before the game started,” said Mayben. “They definitely found out once the game started though.”
Rule 6.D in the American Legion rule book regarding dual participation cleary discusses how important loyalty is to the organization and that “once department championship tournament play has begun, the department baseball chairman cannot grant permission to participate in other baseball events, baseball tournaments, exhibition games, showcases or combines.
In implementing Protest Rule 5.C titled forfeitures, it explains that “if a player is ruled ineligible, he shall be disqualified immediately and all games in which the disqualified player participated shall be forfeited.”
The appeals process since Mayben initially lodged his protest has been “tiresome,” said the coach, and one he went through with mixed emotions before ultimately deciding he needed to step forward.
“I knew I needed to fight for our guys,” he said. “I knew they needed somebody in their corner, but you look at it from the other point of view and I just don’t know why decisions were made. I have a lot of respect for Troy Babbitt and the Mid-Valley Southpaws, I really do. He’s done a phenomenal job with the program and that’s what so hard about this because you respect somebody and yet they made a decision to do something that I just don’t know why they felt the need to do something like that.”
Mayben and the Mustangs will ramp up their workouts heading into the regional tournament and plan to leave Tuesday morning for Missoula, Montana.
Babbitt’s appeal of Friday morning’s ruling was unknown as of press time, and the Southpaws have also been preparing and likely will continue to prepare for the regional tournament until they get final word. He has said he would not have inserted Knight into the lineup had he known he was ineligible.
In a Friday afternoon conversation with Knight’s father, Brooke, who is head coach of the Corvallis Knights, he said Oregon commissioner Ronnie Long was fully aware of his son’s status with the WCL team in the weeks and days leading up to the state final, including as late as Wednesday afternoon when Babbitt was told it was OK to have him in the lineup.
Had he known there would be a rules violation stemming from his presence, Knight said his son would have never wanted to get involved and the family would have happily watched the game from the stands.
In this unfortunate situation, Knight said he hopes there will be some final accountability. He also said Mayben likely hasn’t been given all the background information in this saga but understands why an appeal was initially lodged.