Kelly Bognanno’s family has been involved with Braintree National for 30 years. She grew up at Watson Park, and her brothers and oldest son played baseball there.
But this year, ahead of her 12-year-old son's last Little League season, Bognanno refused to register.
As hundreds of young athletes and their families prepare for the 2014 season, Braintree National Youth League (BNYL) has been rocked by a split between the organization's top officials and a group of parents who petitioned Little League to step in over leadership tactics they describe as secretive and bullying.
“Over the years there’s never been this much discontent,” Bognanno said.
Little League officials, responding to the parent's request last year, have been in negotiations with the leadership of BNYL, and on Monday told the league's members that they will hold an election by the end of next month to establish a Braintree National Little League Board of Directors.
The new board will be separate from the BNYL and will serve to "make sure that the charter remains in good standing with Little League Baseball."
An annual meeting by March will provide enough time for new leadership to organize teams, coaches and other details by mid-April, said Richard Furlong, a representative for Massachusetts District 8, which has been coordinating with Little League Baseball’s East Region Headquarters in Bristol, CT.
"We're hoping to move forward," Furlong said.
The weeks ahead could prove difficult, however, as the current BNYL leadership said they may seek a different league insurer, such as Cal Ripken Baseball, and in that case would seek permission from the town to continue using Watson Park.
Of most significance in the dispute is protecting the interests of softball players, who would be given second-class status under the structure Little League is pushing on Braintree National, BNYL President Nicole Fitzgerald said.
"If we can't resolve the softball issue with Little League, we will move on," Fitzgerald said.
Under Little League rules, an organization such as Braintree National, with Little League baseball players and Amateur Softball Association players, may have a joint board to run separate boards for each league, but the top official must come from the baseball side.
Fitzgerald and former BNYL President Mark Donovan contend that means softball would lose power, essentially a form of gender discrimination. Donovan said he has already spoken with state equal opportunity officials about the matter.
"There’s no way to tell someone we’re set up equal, but the president always has to come from baseball side," Donovan said.
Furlong said that to the contrary, Little League has not changed its stance on softball and that two years ago the league hired a softball representative to promote the sport.
"Little league is actually on a big softball push," Furlong said.
Parents who sought Little League's help with the current board leaders claim softball is only a distraction from what's at the heart of the divide.
"Their message is that it’s all about the kids, but in reality it’s all about them staying in power," John Hume said.
Hume was a board member until he was removed last year, dropped at a meeting in which he was not in attendance. Fitzgerald informed him he was kicked out, Hume said, because he had been telling other people when the board's meeting were being held.
Several parents said they grew concerned and petitioned Little League last year due to such behavior.
BNYL Vice President Bill Fitzgerald is known among league parents as a bully, said Stacey Morelli, who along with her husband John Morelli were among those pushing for Little League to intercede.
Along with yelling at coaches and kids during games, Fitzgerald has changed rules unilaterally and in one case last summer he upset a young ballplayer when he refused to move him down to a B team after getting limited playing time on the more difficult A level, Morelli said.
In another incident, Morelli said Bill Fitzgerald threatened to take away a coach's team because he was late to two games and couldn't prep the field. Fitzgerald backed down, Morelli said, when none of the other parents on the team agreed to replace the coach.
"It's definitely a power issue," Stacey Morelli said. "William Fitzgerald was the bully."
Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment.
Hume said his conflict with the Fitzgeralds forced him to tell his 10-year-old son, who he has coached since T-Ball, that he would not be able to coach him this year.
"To me, now they’re screwing with my family," Hume said.
After Kelly Bognanno's oldest son finished playing Braintree National three years ago, "little by little this newer group started to take over," she said.
"Every league has issues, but they just seemed to get bigger
and bigger," Bognanno said. "You just started to hear ‘Johnny doesn’t want to play this year.’”
The parents also claim that board moves, including the establishment of Nicole Fitzgerald as the new president last fall, have been done either in secret or with only limited participation by other directors.
"We need a clear vote because no one has ever voted," Bognanno said. "They’ve just been moving their own people around."
Nicole Fitzgerald declined to talk about Hume's situation in particular, other than to say she has invited him to follow up with her, and that not all BNYL meetings are public by law.
She added, in response to the accusations about her husband Bill Fitzgerald: "In any league, you always hear grumblings about personality conflicts here and personality conflicts there. Not everyone always gets along.”
Fitzgerald also said that the board has always followed BNYL's own bylaws and there has been fair voting on teams and other decisions.
"There’s a lot of positives that have come with the administration there now," she said.
Both sides have their arguments, Furlong said, and both sides have made accusations against the other, but it is not Little League's role "to start pointing fingers."
However, if Fitzgerald and the BNYL moves forward with Cal Ripken, it could be a concern because of scheduling, Furlong said. "That’s all on them.”
Donovan said that it is a small group of parents who are trying to push out the leadership, that the Fitzgeralds and other top officials have been civil in their dealings, and that he can't blame all the league parents for the disruption because "they don't know what they're being told."
"We’ve been trying to work with Little League. We’ve been trying to work with the town," Donovan said. "You can't defend yourself against a lie."
As parents and volunteers ready for next month's election and the board leadership decides how to proceed, the town sits at the crossroads because it owns the fields where Braintree National plays.
Recreation Director Nelson Chin, District 3 Councilor Tom Bowes and Mayor Joseph Sullivan have been involved in the negotiations, and there has been "a lot of emotion on both sides," Sullivan said.
"We attempted to be umpires and call it straight," Sullivan said. "Little League seems to be the best arbitrator for this situation."
However the situation is finally resolved, Chin is ready to issue permits for Watson Park, and would like to do so as soon as possible, Sullivan said.
"I hope this gets resolved," Sullivan said. "This is all about kids having fun playing baseball. That's what it should be."
And that's how Braintree National has operated for decades, under the leadership of Kevin Kane and others, said John Carvello, a past league president.
Carvello said as president he brought everything to the board's attention and acted as an advocate for the fields at Watson Park, rather than trying to be an owner.
"We didn't do it for ourselves," he said. "I think we ran it very efficiently and we did it for the kids."