By Ron Leir
John Leadbeater, a longtime Kearny Little League coach, has run afoul of the town Recreation Commission over his coaching approach, despite being backed by the league’s governing board.
Last month, the commission issued Leadbeater, the current Board of Education vice president and former Town Councilman, a written warning for the alleged violation of the Town of Kearny Recreation Volunteer Code of Conduct rules.
Specific alleged infractions listed were: engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct with a player, engaging in the use of profanity and engaging in verbal abuse aimed at players.
The commission took the action, despite the Kearny Little League executive board’s decision to stick by their coach.
Leadbeater was afforded the opportunity to appeal the commission’s finding at a public meeting last Wednesday, Oct. 16, but the commission voted not to rescind its prior action which stops short of suspension or removal.
Leadbeater, who plans to continue coaching, says he plans to sue the commission over what he characterized as a political vendetta, “trying to get me to quit, which I’m not going to do.”
What first set things in motion was a June 1 letter addressed to Little League President Tom Witt from “the parents of J&L Atwell Little League Baseball Team,” with 14 signatures attached, stating that they “have lost confidence in our head coach, John Leadbeater and feel he should no longer be able to coach our children or anyone else in the Kearny Little League.”
The letter criticized the coach for allegedly “cancelling all practices and “not showing up for games.” Among other things, it alleged:
…that the coach “humiliated our children” by having “placed one of the boys in a garbage can [during a practice] … to teach him how to hit,” …
that, after another practice, the coach told the players, “Don’t bring your bats to practice or I will shove them up your ass,” …
that on May 6, after a game, the coach announced, “We are not going to practice anymore because we only get worse,” and that the team hasn’t played since then.
Witt, however, advised the commission and the parents that, after its own investigation, the League board could find no reason to condemn Leadbeater. “We don’t feel he’s violated any coach’s code of conduct rules,” he said.
Given the closing of two fields at the Gunnell Oval and the competition for playing space, “you can’t fault coaches” for not having practices, Witt said. Morever, Witt said that Leadbeater missed only a couple of games and had assistants to fill in for him then, that using a trash can was an accepted practice to “help a child keep his feet together hitting,” and that his team has, in fact, played seven games after May 6.
Witt conceded that Leadbeater’s language, in at least one instance, was “very harsh,” but he wondered why the parent involved waited a month before registering a complaint about it.
Given “many inconsistencies” contained in the parents’ allegations, and given Leadbeater’s many years of volunteer service to the League, the board felt he should be given “the benefit of the doubt” and not be admonished, Witt said.
For his part, Leadbeater defended his garbage can hitting technique which, he said, he and others have employed for years. “It’s a method we used to stop kids from stepping ‘in the bucket,’ ’’ he said. As for the parent who griped about his son’s treatment, Leadbeater said: “That parent’s other son was put in the can by another coach,” but no complaint was filed.
Acknowledging his use of off-color language and telling kids and adults what’s on his mind, Leadbeater told the commission, “I made some mistakes this year,” such as missing three games – although he pointed out that he has two assistants to help him. Still, the coach said, the parents complaining about him “should be kissing my butt” for giving their kids more playing time.
His team’s poor performance can’t be blamed solely on him, Leadbeater said. “I call a practice and three kids showed up.” One boy quit because he preferred to devote his time to skateboarding, he said.
On March 22, Leadbeater said, two hours after he was arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud in connection with an alleged $13 million mortgage fraud scam, one of the parents called the league president to try and get him removed as coach. The case has yet to come to trial.
“I’m tired of people stabbing me in the back,” Leadbeater said.
The coach added: “I understand that [some] people hate me [because] I have my own way of doing things.” But, despite the parents’ letter urging that “our children be released” from Leadbeater’s team to play for another team next season, Leadbeater insisted: “I’m not releasing any kids.”
In a phone interview, Leadbeater told The Observer that one possible reason for the commission’s action is this: “Back in late February or early March, I asked the mayor about naming the fieldhouse [at the Oval] after me,” in recognition of his longtime volunteer service, his organizing a baseball travel team and other municipal achievements during his time on the council. This pitch, Leadbeater said, may have stirred the pot against him.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, the commission heard from two Leadbeater defenders: Chet Evanchick, a 15-year Little League coach, said he’s “never had a problem” with his fellow coach. “Maybe he’s old school,” Evanchick said, but that system works. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves.” And Kevin DeMauro, who was coached by Leadbeater as a boy and now plays baseball for New Jersey City University, said: “I’ve been stuffed in a can by coach and I’m still grateful for it.”
Reportedly, during closeddoor deliberations, Commissioners Joanne O’Malley, Lewis Battista and Colleen McClelland voted to rescind the notice against Leadbeater while Commissioners Lyla DeCastro, Amelia Rendeiro, Stephen Amadeo and Nelson Rodrigues voted to maintain it.
Rendeiro told The Observer: “I felt that Mr. Leadbeater was wrong. He admitted to having spoken inappropriately and the parents confirmed that. So I felt justified in voting that way.”
Witt said he was still waiting for the commission to inform the League board of its decision. If the vote was against Leadbeater, Witt said he would ask to “meet with the mayor and them and see if we can resolve this thing. The commission is there to help, not hurt us. They’re there for us to lean on. But I don’t think that they are supporting us with this action.”
DeCastro, who chairs the commission, was asked about the League board’s stance. “That’s their opinion,” she said. “That’s what they found and the [majority of the] commission members were not happy with that determination – and rightfully so. … There needs to be an answer to the allegations which, if true, won’t be tolerated.”