14 Sep 2014
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A Case of Mistaken Identity at an American Legion Baseball Game

Callum Borchers writes about how the coach of a local legion baseball team attempted to dupe the league – and Wellesley Patch – by using a ringer.

A Case of Mistaken Identity at an American Legion Baseball Game

The kid wearing jersey No. 2 stepped to the plate with the game tied, 5-5. One on, one out in the top of the sixth inning. Pitch. Swing. Gone. A two-run blast over the left-center field fence. A home run that gave Weston’s American Legion baseball team an insurmountable lead in a 13-7 road win over Medford on July 2.

The dinger highlighted a superb game by No. 2: He doubled, scored twice, knocked in three runs, and played a sterling center field. He was, quite simply, the best player on the field.

He was also, it turns out, an ineligible athlete playing under the name of someone four years younger, at the direction of the team’s head coach, Justin Miller. Later, after self-reporting the violation to Zone 5 Commissioner Len Noce, Miller, also an assistant baseball coach at , was suspended for the remainder of the season. Weston forfeited the victory and was placed on probation.

The young man who starred for the Wildcats that summer morning was Paul Nelson, a sophomore at Allegheny College in Meadville, Penn. and a member of the Gator baseball team. He was 59 days shy of his 20th birthday and nine months too old to play American Legion baseball.

But according to the official lineup card handed to the plate umpire by Miller, he was Kevin Superko, a then 15-year-old rising junior at .

I was covering the game, assigned to focus on the trio of Wellesley players listed on the Wildcats’ roster: Dean Petzing, Chris Mele and Superko. Petzing, a 2010 Wellesley High graduate, went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI. Mele, his classmate, missed the game because of a job conflict. Superko — the real one — didn’t play an inning for Miller’s squad all summer, I learned later.

After the final out, I interviewed Miller and asked him about the Wellesley boys. “Kevin had a great game,” Miller said hurriedly. He spoke more comfortably and at greater length about Petzing and Mele. I figured he was just praising his veterans and keeping the new kid’s ego in check.

Then I asked to speak with Superko and Petzing. Miller called two players over, summoning Nelson with Superko’s name. I recall Nelson shooting his coach an uncertain glance but thought nothing of it. I’ve interviewed my share of nervous, awkward teenage athletes. Nelson shook my hand, introduced himself as Superko, and answered my questions, along with Petzing.

When our brief interview concluded, I photographed the pair and left to write my story.

In September, two months after the game, Wellesley Patch Editor Bret Silverberg received an e-mail from Superko’s father, Mark, alleging the deception. A third party familiar with Kevin Superko confirmed to me that the player in my published photograph was “100 percent not Superko.” I have spent the last few weeks investigating the claim. This is what I have found:

On the morning of July 2, with little time before his team’s 10 a.m. game at Playstead Park in Medford, Miller had a problem. Only eight of his players were available that day. He needed one more, or Weston would be forced to forfeit.

There was a contingency plan for predicaments like this: Legion rules allow programs to “double roster” three players, making them available to both the senior team and the junior team. Kevin Superko was one of Weston’s double-rostered players.

But in an interview last week, Miller said he could not call up Superko or another junior player because the junior team had an away game that weekend. A schedule posted on the team’s website shows no such contest.

Miller insists he wasn’t seeking an unfair advantage. He just wanted to play the game.

He called Nelson. The Weston High graduate, who batted .303 for Miller’s Legion club in 2010, agreed to play. In an e-mail exchange, Nelson told me he was desperate for game action. He’d gotten only four at-bats during his freshman season at Allegheny and was a backup for the Arlington Trojans of the Intercity League.

“I just wanted to play one more game with Weston more than anything because riding the bench for my other team was so frustrating and degrading,” said Nelson, who apologized to me and the Superko family. “It was established it was just a one-time thing.”

Miller said he happened to have Superko’s No. 2 jersey in his car, so he assigned the shirt and the name to Nelson. Looking back, he called the scheme “stupid.”

“I made a split-second decision, and I certainly regret it,” Miller said. “We weren’t trying to cheat or gain an advantage.”

Miller acknowledged he compounded the lie by having Nelson pose as Superko during an interview with me.

“I should have stopped it, but you make a bad decision and you don’t have time to think it through,” he said. “In the moment, I made a bad decision worse. It was stupid, and I let a bad decision get worse.”

Miller said his own guilty conscience, and the knowledge that my article would be published soon, prompted him to report the fraud to Noce. The commissioner told me Miller’s greatest sin was against his own players, like Petzing, who was forced to choose between ratting out his coach and going along with the plot.

“You’ve got to tell these other boys to keep their mouths shut and basically lie,” Noce said. “That’s why he got suspended, right there.”

Noce said he was satisfied that Nelson played only one game as Superko, and kept the matter very quiet. He suspended Miller for the remainder of the season but reinstated him at the end of the summer and will allow Miller to coach next season. The scandal has gone unreported until now.

“Justin has been a valuable part of Legion baseball,” Noce said. “What he did was make a move that he shouldn’t have made.”

Miller, too, defended his record, saying the illegal substitution “isn’t my character.”

“Throughout my time, I feel I’ve tried to instill the right morals and priorities in my players,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done a lot of good.”

Mark Superko said he learned his son’s name had been borrowed shortly after the game, when Petzing called to explain what happened. He said he didn’t notify Wellesley Patch sooner because he feared people would question his motive. Mark Superko has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to resurrect Wellesley’s Legion program, an effort that already put him at odds with Weston.

Ultimately, Mark Superko said, he chose to speak up on his son’s behalf.

“Kevin is a good player in his own right (and) does not need articles written about others playing under his name,” he said.

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