By Budd Bailey
We had a big mess at a high school baseball game on Monday afternoon. The team that won on the scoreboard was eliminated from the postseason playoffs, while the team that lost on the scoreboard advanced.
Remember the phrase, “The game isn’t over until the final out”? Forget about that, at least in this case.
Iroquois was the victim and Hamburg was the beneficiary of the wacky set of circumstances that centered on a state rule surrounding the pitch count. The end result was that the Chiefs had to forfeit the game for using an ineligible player, while the Bulldogs’ season was extended for another game. It left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
One of baseball’s charms is its rules, which try to cover every situation. But inevitably, over the course of time, a perfect storm erupts where a unique set of circumstances comes along that blows up the intent of a rule. Then, we have to try again.
Let’s take a look back at this situation, but first we need to state one guiding principle when it comes to seasons ending by forfeit after the game is over.
This Can’t Happen Again.
Armed and dangerous
The pitch count rule in New York State is designed to prevent pitchers’ arms from work abuse, particularly at this time of the year. It was installed five years ago. The relevant part of the rule is that pitchers can’t go longer than 125 pitches in a game at the end of the season; they must be removed from the mound once they hit that number. (Note that a pitcher can finish the at-bat once hitting 125.) It’s a good idea by any standard.
Pitch counts were on the mind of everyone in the press box Monday, because video announcers Stu Boyar and Tom Prince were keeping track of them. It was of interest because the two starters, Cam Fuer of Iroquois and Evan Chaffee of Hamburg, were top players who will be throwing for college teams next year. Chaffee walked eight and struck out nine, piling up the number of pitches along the way, and left the game with one out in the sixth inning. That was right on schedule, according to the count we had in the press box.
When the game reached the bottom of the seventh with Iroquois leading, 5-3, Fuer already had five walks and nine strikeouts. He then had four more batters where the ball was not put in play (walk, strikeouts, hit batsman). Along the way, the press box count put him past 125 during the at-bat of the fourth hitter, Jacob Reese. I figured Fuer would be coming out at that point, just like Chaffee did.
But Fuer stayed on the mound. Iroquois believed he was still short of 125 while Hamburg’s total had him over it – and the Bulldogs were keeping the official total as the home team. The game continued. When Fuer threw the first pitch of the next at-bat, he was instantly considered an ineligible player according to the rules. While everyone else in the ballpark was hanging on the dramatic finish of the game, some people on the Hamburg bench knew that there was a good chance that the outcome had just been decided in their favor. This, of course, is less than ideal. The exact set of circumstances that were needed to blow up the game had fallen into place.
Chaffee struck out, and the celebration by Iroquois began. The actual game was over with a score of 5-3, but the result was not final yet.
Hamburg quickly pointed out the possible violation of the pitch count rule by Iroquois. I have learned since the game ended that the umpires have nothing to do with the eligibility decision, so they became curious bystanders to the discussion. (My apologies go to them for not knowing their status when I wrote my story in the newspaper.) The matter was passed on to Section VI officials. They must have read the rule like the rest of us with a certain degree of horror : “Any violation of this rule will be considered in the same light as a school using an ineligible player. The game will be forfeited.”
The Section VI officials had no choice under the circumstances but to have Hamburg win by forfeit. Word of mouth spread the news quickly around the ballpark. I was on the field by that point, and I felt a sense of a bit of danger in the park as the strong feelings spilled over into the stands. Luckily, there were no incidents to my knowledge.
My initial reaction was to feel sorry for the person who was counting the pitches for Iroquois – assuming someone was actively doing that. Since Hamburg’s total and the press box’s total were both over the limit, I’d guess that a mistake was made by someone connected with the Chiefs. If it is the case, that person has to be absolutely crushed. My second reaction was to wonder how the disparity took place. The two sides are supposed to check the numbers every half-inning. Therefore, it’s easy to question why the totals were a few digits apart. Perhaps someone was caught off-guard by all of the pitches in the bottom of the seventh.
Even so, it was pretty obvious that the punishment did not fit the crime in this set of circumstances. A game should not be decided by someone who is only tangentially involved in the contest, and probably made an honest mistake. I’m not discounting the small possibility that the mistake was made on the Hamburg side, either. Either way, something went wrong.
What happens next? Perhaps the rule has to be applied in a different way. One suggestion would be to have a neutral observer hired by Section VI to count the pitches in playoff games. (I wouldn’t think it would be necessary to do this for the regular season.) If a pitcher hits a particular limit, then the observer would tell him that he could no longer pitch in that game.
That would cost money, of course, and maybe I shouldn’t be telling people how to spend their cash. Here’s a related idea – if a pitcher from Team A hits the limit, Team B would be obligated to produce evidence that the pitcher should be removed from the mound if Team A doesn’t do it voluntarily. Someone – I’ll leave the jurisdictional decision for others – could decide if it was a valid claim and order action taken when necessary. In this case, Hamburg would have had the deciding evidence about the pitch count violation as the home team, Fuer would be forced to play elsewhere or exit, and a relief pitcher would come on to face Chaffee. From there, it’s “Play Ball.”
Then we’d have an actual outcome to the game – an improvement over what we saw on Monday. Because … This Can’t Happen Again.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)