Pitcher, 11, told he's out of his league

This Just In...

May 24, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

SATURDAY MORNING, in brilliant sunshine, I heard the familiar smack of a fastball into a catcher's mitt. I love that sound. Next to the crack of the bat, the smack of a fastball hitting leather is the most distinctive sound in baseball, and the faster the pitch, the louder the smack. The one I heard Saturday morning actually echoed a little across a back yard in Joppa, Harford County.

The kid throwing the ball was Troy Neville, a tall and lean left-hander, with long arms and a nice bend in his back when he winds up. He has a smooth delivery and, in the dozen or so pitches I saw him throw, an eye for the target.

Pretty good for a lad not yet 12.

Too bad he's not playing baseball.

A boy with such natural gifts -- he looks like one of the pitchers you see in the Little League World Series -- should play as often as he can, and grown-ups should be encouraging him to work hard to develop his talents. Instead, they're telling him he's too good -- too big, too fast -- and suggesting that he's too dangerous to pitch against his peers.

A star during the regular season of Fallston Baseball's 11-12 age group, Troy was told last week that he could only continue to play if he moved up to the 13-14 level. When his parents complained that it was unfair to yank the boy from his team just as the 11-12 playoffs began, the league compromised: Troy was told he could continue to play with his team, the Indians, on condition that he not pitch and that he use a wooden bat, instead of the usual aluminum model. (Troy is quite the slugger, too.)

The boy opted not to play at all.

"He's embarrassed, he's very self-conscious," says his father, David Neville. "His heart isn't in it."

"I don't want to quit playing baseball," says Troy, "but I don't feel welcome [in Fallston] anymore."

"I'm very upset about it," says his mother, Anne Neville.

"Troy is an excellent pitcher," says his coach, Charlie Bethke. "He pitches very well, throws very hard."

Too hard, apparently.

One of his pitches hit a batter in the head during a tournament game May 13. The boy, wearing a helmet, started for first base, then was called off the field and taken to a hospital to be checked for injury, according to Bethke. The boy, he said, was not injured.

Four days later, the Indians coach received a call from a league official telling him that his best player, Troy Neville, could no longer compete at the 11-12 level.

Questions:

Before the season started April 13, had anyone from the league warned Troy's parents that their son would be better suited for play at the 13-14 level?

No, they say.

Had Troy's pitching power been an issue before May 13? Was he wild? Did he hit a lot of kids with pitches?

No, says Bethke. Troy hit one other batter with a pitch, striking him on the leg, before the May 13 beaning.

"He's been made to feel terrible about it," says David Neville. "Parents [of the opposing team] yelled things: 'He doesn't belong in this league,' and 'I want that boy out of this league.' The brother of the boy he hit saw Troy in school and said, 'You almost killed my brother.'

"Troy strikes a lot of kids out. The men who run the league knew what kind of a player Troy was. If they felt he was going to be dominant, they should have said something about it."

Troy pitched three innings of each six-inning game he played with the Indians, walked few batters and notched many strikeouts. As a batter, he hit one, sometimes two, home runs a game. "The outfielders go back, way, way back, when Troy comes up to bat," says his mother.

"Troy is probably the best player in the league," says his coach.

So the boy has a strong bat, a strong arm and a mature pitching delivery. He's 5-foot-11. No question about it: Troy Neville is a stunning 11-year-old -- he turns 12 next month -- and he's probably intimidating to his peers.

Does that mean he shouldn't play against them?

When I played Little League more than 30 years ago -- egads! -- this would not have been an issue. (I have vivid memories of batting against big-for-their-age kids with monster fastballs.) These days, there's a greater consciousness about kids' safety and, without a doubt, our society-wide proclivity for litigation.

Fallston league officials, who did not return my calls over the weekend, presumably were concerned about the safety of kids who would bat against Troy. Troy's parents acknowledge that, but say their son is not a danger, just a big, talented kid who's been ostracized.

"Some of the kids on other teams joke before a game, 'Hey, Troy, I'll give you $20 to go home,'" says his dad. "But none of the kids that I know of complained that they didn't want Troy in the league. A lot of them probably felt they were being challenged by him. If they got a hit off him, it was a big deal. ... The thing for me is this: Baseball is an opportunity for Troy to bond with his friends. It's more than baseball. They'll remember these experiences when they get to be our age. And they're taking that away from him. That's what bothers me."

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