PHILADELPHIA – Hundreds of youngsters weren't able to play scheduled youth baseball league games Saturday because of competing rallies by groups on either side of the gun control debate in the community park that's home to the league's fields, an official said.
Dan O'Connell, president of Morrisville Little League, said five of the approximately two dozen games slated at Williamson Park in Morrisville were rescheduled -- four minor league games for 10- to 12-year-olds at a nearby elementary school and a coached-pitched transition game for six- or seven-year-olds in the morning -- but the rest had to be canceled.
Close to 500 youngsters were affected, and both the kids and their families took it "hard," O'Connell said.
"I've had people come to me and say it's the day before Mother's Day and they have their own moms coming to see their kids play, and now all that got scrambled," he said.
O'Connell said he wasn't taking a stand on the gun issue but was unhappy that the competing events prompted authorities to ask him to cancel. He said the adult subject matter "doesn't fit with youth sports," and a rally of the size proposed -- gun control organizers sought a permit for 200 people -- was likely to encroach on nearby fields in any case.
"And whenever one side appears, you know the other side will show up -- it's a hot button issue in America," O'Connell said. " ... Why would you choose to hold the event in the middle of our baseball season?"
The BuxMont Chapter of the Coalition for Peace Action billed its event as the "Pre-Mother's Day Gathering, March & Rally vs. Gun Violence" beginning in Trenton, N.J., followed by a march over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and concluding at the park. A group called Concerned Gun Owners of Bucks County then posted information on its website about a competing "Second Amendment Preservation & Gun Control Protest Rally" at which attendees were to hear from speakers then "peacefully meet and mingle with the gun control groups."
Each group blamed the other for any threat to the youth games and called on them to cancel their event.
The Rev. Robert Moore, coalition executive director, said the event had been planned for months and permit officials had expressed no concerns about the size of the event affecting the games. Moore said the only problem arose when a counter-protest was announced and there were fears that some would bring guns, and his group should not be blamed for the presence of opponents.
"We have never protested at a gun rights group. I think that's unfair," he said by phone just after the event concluded. "We have a First Amendment right, and we're the group that's nonviolent and peaceful."
O'Connell, the league's director, said he had been at the rally Saturday afternoon and saw some of the counter-protesters carrying weapons.
"They have a right to do that; it just takes you aback a second," he said, adding that police were correct not to want children in the area in such an environment, especially with passions on both sides high.
The gun owners' group also called upon the coalition to cancel or delay its Saturday event, saying on its website that "this was the wrong time and place for such a political event." They also said they chose a site far from the fields as a result.
O'Connell said officials were trying to reschedule some of the cancelled games but it would be difficult, and he's disappointed that the groups couldn't choose a different time or venue.
"We don't have a side here, and the debate should happen, it's a part of Americana -- but so is Little League baseball," he said.