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Baseball trip to Japan back on track

Plans for a high school baseball team from Federal Way to travel to the sister city of Hachinohe, Japan, this summer are back on track this week after months of discussion over whether the trip would even take place.

The team’s two coaches and 12 of the 14 players on the original roster have agreed this week to take part in the trip, scheduled for June 18-27, 2002.

One player decided not to make the trip after it conflicted with his other summer vacation plans. Another player was removed from the team by city officials, which caused coaches and some other players to say they would not make the trip unless the player was reinstated.

This week, coaches, players and their parents decided to go through with the trip.

“Our loyalty to 13 other kids,” said coach Jeff Housman as his reason for deciding to go through with coaching the team. “Kids we’ve coached the last two or three years in high school, and (American) Legion. We felt we had a sense of loyalty to them as well. We were torn between our loyalty to (him) and the 13 other kids. Even though we had some disagreements, and we still have some disagreements, we didn’t want to ruin the trip for the 13 other kids. They’ll never get another opportunity to travel overseas and play baseball.

The baseball games in Japan are expected to draw 5,000 fans.

“I heard they’re pretty darn good,” Housman said. “They’re sound fundamentally, they’re going to play small ball and run you to death. But I think we’re going to go over there and have some success. Not many people around here give us much of a chance and I disagree with that. We put together a pretty darn good team that’s going to compete. We got the best players Federal Way has to offer.”

Problems with the baseball trip arose when City officials removed a player from the original roster approved by coaches and the Sister City Association. City officials said the player was not allowed to go on the trip after they discovered he had been previously convicted of third-degree assault.

The city was originally made aware of the player’s record when it received a phone call from the mother of the victim, who was also the mother of a player who did not make the team.

“After we did our research and looked into the court records, that’s when it became clear the man didn’t meet the criteria to represent Federal Way,” assistant city manager Derek Matheson said.

After becoming aware of the player’s record, city officials then demanded a waiver asking for criminal background information from all the players.

When the player submitted his background information, that’s when the city sent him a letter notifying him he was no longer on the team.

Matheson signed the letter of dismissal after getting support from city manager David Mosely and city council members.

After the player was cut, players and coaches of the team said they would not go on the trip if the player was not allowed to go.

Some parents of players on the team felt that not sending the player was punishing him a second time for a crime he was already punished for. Matheson disagreed.

“I think this trip is a reward for outstanding baseball players who have followed our community’s laws,” he said.

Parents met this week and decided it would be best to continue with the trip. Coaches agreed on going forward with the trip.

For more than two months, the team and the city were in a stalemate, with the trip in jeopardy of even happening.

Players who originally made the team found out in a letter dated Nov. 15, 2001. Players who did not make the team were notified in a letter dated Nov. 20, 2001.

The player removed from the team found out in a letter dated Dec. 12, 2001, almost a month after he was originally offered a spot on the roster.

No suits have been filed by the player’s parents against the city.

The letter, signed by Matheson, stated, “After extensive review, the City felt that his background does not meet the criteria and cannot offer him status as a member of the team. Had we been aware of the conviction during the tryouts, we would not have selected him as a potential team member.

“We apologize for having to make this decision, but we feel that it is in the best interests of the City and the baseball tournament.”

Matheson said that while the city did not have a specific policy that said players with criminal pasts could not participate in the trip, the player did not meet the unwritten criteria for being a good representative of Federal Way.

Parents of some of the players felt the Sister City Association — not city officials — should be the ones making the decisions about who was allowed on the team. Some felt the city changed the rules in midstream.

The Sister City Association was footing the travel bill and made the roster decisions, but the City of Federal Way was paying for liability insurance.

Some parents felt the city’s decision was politically correct decision based on business and maintaining Federal Way’s reputation with Hachinohe. Some felt the Hachinohe media would jump on the story and it could give Federal Way a black eye. That could jeopardize future relationships with Hachinohe.

Josh Eubanks, a former Federal Way resident who works for the City of Hachinohe in Japan, said he heard about the incident from family members in Federal Way.

“When I heard about it I knew that if it spread to the press here it wouldn’t go over well,” Eubanks said. “So to answer your question about this reaching the media, no it has not and will not if I have anything to do with it.”

Out of concern Hachinohe officials were already aware of the situation, the City of Federal Way resolved a letter to let them know how the situation is being handled.

The letter, addressed to Hachinohe Mayor Toshifumi Nakamura and signed by Federal Way Mayor Jeanne Burbidge and Sister City Association President Brian Picard, said,

“After performing an extensive investigation and discussing the matter with the coaches and the SIster City Association’s Baseball Subcommittee, the city felt that it would be inappropriate for this young man to travel with the team to your country. Consequently, the city informed the young man that he would not be allowed membership on the team. Although there was some disagreement over the decision, the issue has been resolved with all sides satisfied with the outcome. Of course, the young man will not be on the team to Hachinohe, as it would be inappropriate for a person with such a record to represent Federal Way.”

The team, which is composed of the best players from the three Federal Way high schools, is scheduled to make the trip after the high school season is over. One of the teams they play in Japan is coached by the man who coached Seattle Mariners pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. Sasaki still maintains contact with his former coach.

Toby Weymiller, a Decatur graduate, was selected as the trip manager. Weymiller has traveled extensively in Japan and now runs a business that acts as a bridge between Major League Baseball and its fans in Japan.

The team is now trying to raise funds to make the trip possible.

“We got a bit of rough times to put behind us, and it’s wonderful we’re moving forward with this,” said Mark Freitas, vice president of the Sister City Association. “The tournament is a great thing for the relationship between the cities. Baseball is a big thing in America and Seattle. Baseball is a big thing in Hachinohe, too. It’s going to be a heck of a deal for the kids and the coaches. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share something like this. This is the difficult part of the process, but it will be rewarding for the kids. It’s exciting to be able to get the youth of both countries sharing something they both love dearly.”

The baseball trip is the first sports exchange to take place between the cities.

“The original vision was to send a baseball team to Japan and we got sidetracked there for a couple of months when it was an uncomfortable situation,” Matheson said. “Now we hope it’s resolved and we can go back to putting together a baseball team.”

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