MONTGOMERY: Baseball dynasty meets early end

Column: Justin Time

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   The Montgomery Baseball League spring travel baseball team won the Diamond X League.
   Though they are eligible as 13-year-olds, they won the 14-and-under league and did so convincingly to top off an unbeaten season. It was their second title of the summer — they also won the Hillsborough Memorial Day Tournament.
   Their reaction to the Diamond X title on Wednesday was a little more emotional than would be expected of a group that has gotten so accustomed to winning.
   They also had won the Diamond X league as 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds in the spring, and won their fall league once as well. And they have not lost in the previous three years of district play, won two state titles and a regional championship and made one World Series appearance.
   But for the coaches of that group as well as six of their top players, the Diamond X championship was a finale with the Montgomery Baseball League.
   They won’t be playing together as Montgomery’s entry into the Babe Ruth District One tournament that begins Saturday because they were asked to choose between playing for the town team and investing in their baseball future. All but one of the six boys will begin high school baseball next year, and they chose not to try out for the Montgomery district team and instead to play at the Jack Cust Academy.
   ”We got an email back from the administration saying they didn’t consider that a sanctioned team,” said Tom Verducci, who has managed the team since they were 10-year-olds and been a part of the Montgomery Baseball League for a dozen years. “They determined on their own it was not a team that they could play for. If we did, we’d be banned from Montgomery baseball.”
   The Montgomery Baseball League Travel Baseball Program Handbook – Babe Ruth Division states that: “Any teams formed without the permission of the MBL board will be considered non-sanctioned.”
   Jerry Walker is vice president of Babe Ruth and has been with the Montgomery Baseball League for more than a decade.
   ”It’s a rule the league has had for a very long time,” he said. “We really ask the kids to commit. They decided they were going to go in that direction.”
   The same handbook, however, continues a couple of sentences later with: “For the purposes of this section, school sponsored or school directed teams are not considered non-sanctioned.”
   Verducci’s group understood that rule, and had the answer to it.
   ”We had a letter of endorsement from the Montgomery High coach,” Verducci said. “We were going to play for the Jack Cust team on our days off. Montgomery would be our absolute priority.”
   MBL still would not accept Jack Cust as a sanctioned team. It was just as upsetting to the six and their coaches when there was no further contact from MBL.
   ”We didn’t receive a single inquiry as to why we didn’t try out and haven’t taken part,” Verducci said. “There was no inquiry at all.”
   Players from Flemington and Bridgewater regularly compete for both Jack Cust and their respective district baseball teams. MBL’s ruling won’t keep its highest level players in its program for district play.
   Said Verducci: “Better players leaving doesn’t faze them.”
   It’s understandable that MBL would want a firm commitment from its district players. But no one seems to have an answer for why MBL has the authority to determine what a player does on his off-day, whether it be diving into a swimming pool, lifting weights in preparation for football or playing travel soccer — or playing more baseball. Now, because of its best players wanted to play more baseball, a district dynasty has been split.
   ”There’s no doubt it’s different,” said Dave Kornberg, who will manage this year’s MBL 13-year-old district team. “What I think it does, it offers new opportunities for the kids remaining by certain kids leaving. The time we had together was great. Tom is a great coach. Everyone is appreciative of what he’s done. When they left, it opened up new opportunities.”
   The MBL handbook states that its program objective is to have “a travel baseball program to provide, for as many players as possible, the opportunity to play in a competitive environment.” It goes on to downplay the importance of winning.
   The only winners in this situation are the new players who have joined the five players left from Verducci’s team of a year ago. They have a district opportunity they likely wouldn’t have had, and ultimately, perhaps that gives them a push toward developing into a varsity player at Montgomery High School. The six who have left could also help as future Cougars.
   As it stands this year, MBL is asking its players — particularly some of its more serious ones — to make a tough choice between two great experiences. The Jack Cust Academy out of Flemington is a nationally recognized program. Players try out from across the state and even from outside the state. Its teams compete on a national level.
   ”They have a new facility with four all-turf fields,” Verducci said. “The facilities and instruction are as good as you’re going to find on the East Coast. It’s a tremendous opportunity to play in that environment.
   ”It would be hard to turn your back on that opportunity,” he added. “It’s part of what’s out there for the competitive baseball player. To say no to the Cust opportunity would have been denying these kids a great opportunity.”
   The district tournament is also a big opportunity. At the 13-year-old level, the Babe Ruth Division brings together for the first time former Little League and Cal Ripken players. There’s a chance to advance all the way to a World Series.
   Montgomery had dominated Cal Ripken play over the past three summers at the district level and been a consistent state contender.
   ”All along, our goal was to keep playing in Montgomery and defend our titles,” Verducci said. “That’s why everyone is so disappointed. We did everything we could to work it out. I know the kids and parents are disappointed that it didn’t work out.”
   There have been youth baseball squabbles before, and in plenty of cases, players have left programs after disagreements. The Montgomery case isn’t one where a player thought he was one of the top 12 players but wasn’t selected. Not often have six players of this caliber been forced to make such a tough call.
   The six were a part of the spring travel team that dominated its competition while they played Jack Cust baseball on the side. They went 14-0 together this summer, but that was the end of the run. It will be a new group that opens District One play on Saturday and has a chance to show the depth of talent in Montgomery.
   ”This will be a test of our skill as a team,” Kornberg said. “I like the team. It’s a different make-up. They’re all solid kids. I like our chances. There’s no guarantee we’ll win this thing, but I like our chances of doing well.”
   There are six players who also wanted that chance. Their final record together after winning the Diamond X League championship was 145-13 over four years.
   They won’t have the chance for No. 146.