Former Yankees righthander Will Oliver was the best pitcher on Evansville Otters staff this year. No one disputes that.
There's no debate that when Oliver took the mound, Evansville has an excellent chance to win. Of the 13 games he started this year, the Otters won 10 of them.
As a 28-year-old in a league limited to players 27-year-old or younger, Oliver should have never been eligible to make an appearance for the Otters this year. No one disagrees with that. But who should pay the price for that mistake led to one of the bigger controversies in the Frontier League in years? That's where you get a lot of disagreements. One that ended up being the difference between a team making the playoffs and going home.
Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee ruled that the Evansville Otters had to forfeit the 10 games they won when Oliver took the mound. The Otters appealed that decision but Lee's ruling was upheld by the league's executive committee.
So what was the controversy? It all comes down to three words: “willfully or knowingly."
Article X, Section 30 of the Frontier League's rules describes penalties if a team “willfully or knowingly allowed an ineligible player to participate in a league game." If not for the words “willfully or knowingly" there could be a simple ruling–forfeiture for playing an ineligible player. No one disagrees that Oliver was ineligible. But since the league approved his contract and no one argued that the Otters were trying to deliberately cheat the league the issue became much more complicated.
When Oliver joined the Otters in 2014 he was eligible. His contract correctly reported his date of birth as July 4, 1987. As a 27-year-old he would not be eligible to play in 2015 since he would turn 28 during the season.
But at this point a comedy of errors led to a cascade of issues. Oliver's contract sent to the league had the correct date but his birthdate on the team's roster originally listed him as three years younger. When Oliver himself told a team official that the birthdate was wrong that official changed the date but still got it wrong, listing him as being born in 1988. So league officials looking at the league Website and not the contract believed he was eligible.
By the time the league noticed the error in researching a press release announcing that Oliver was the league's pitcher of the week nearly two thirds of the season was complete.
The Otters don't dispute that they played an ineligible player. But they argued that since his contract was approved by the league and they stopped using Oliver as soon as they learned of the error, they shouldn't have to forfeit the games–they didn't “willfully or knowingly" violate the rule.
The Frontier League viewed it differently. In the league's eyes the team is the also responsible for checking and ensuring its players are eligible. And since Oliver has accurately reported his birthday on his contract, that meant they “knowingly" played an ineligible player even if it wasn't a willful violation.
Oliver was traded to the Atlantic League's Somerset Patriots where he's gone 4-1, 2.91 in six starts. The league forced the Otters to forfeit those 10 games.
Those 10 games ended up being the difference between the Otters making the playoffs and not as the Otters finished one game behind Florence for the final wild card spot in the East Division.
“It was an inadvertent mistake. The people who get hurt are the 23 guys who had nothing to do with this," Evansville manager Andy McCauley said. “As soon as we found out Will didn't pitch again."