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SportsMondayTuesday: The Rules Were Clear

All sport has is its rules.

When disputes arise, and I had the delightful responsibility to try to adjudicate arguments about rules in a number of tricky situations when I was president of the Welles Park Parent Association youth baseball and softball leagues, you go to your rules and hope desperately that they show a clear path forward.

One example: in a potential championship-winning game as a player was headed for home with the game-winning run, he took his helmet off before he touched home plate. Neither coach noticed it and a one side celebrated as the other began to accept defeat. But the plate umpire did notice and called the runner out to send the game to extra innings.

Pandemonium ensued but the arbiter had a rule book with him and pointed to the section that stated that if a player did this, this was the appropriate penalty. After some time passed and emotions cooled (from the outside it seems completely ridiculous that people would get upset over this but in the middle of it all it seemed strangely rational), the call stood. The rule, fortunately enough, was clear. And sure, to the best of my knowledge, this call had not been made at any other point in any other game in this division during the entire season. In the end, it didn't matter.

Then there was a dispute about pitch counts. In each of our divisions, our rule book stated how many pitches a player was allowed to throw per week. We kept careful totals, with scorekeepers for either side checking each competitor's totals with each other after each half inning. As players get older, the number of pitches allowed increases.

Another thing we do in our league is allow some players to "play down," i.e., play with younger players so they can play with siblings or because we know they will have a better experience if they do so. We only do this if we are confident the overall competitive balance will not be affected.

So we get to the third round or so of the playoffs and a controversy is brewing. One coach who was allowed to have his older daughter play down has pointed out that in the rulebook, pitch counts are established based on players' ages, not their division. So his daughter, who is a very good pitcher, should be able to pitch to the limit for players her age, not the ones in the division.

I ended up ruling that she would have to abide by the limits for the younger league. But that decision was not clearly justified by the rules. I fear I did the wrong thing and I know the coach involved is still pissed at me.

If the rules aren't clear, you need to go back to work in the offseason, solicit potential changes, debate their merits and put some of the changes into play. The fix for the pitch counts was easy. Many others are not and there is always the chance they will have unintended consequences.

In the instantly infamous case of the Astros taking advantage of advances in video technology to steal signs in the 2017 and '18 seasons, baseball had rules discouraging the practice, but they were barely enforced and when they were, it was with a wink and a nod.

But after complaints were filed about the Red Sox using Apple Watches to communicate to hitters whether catchers had called for fastballs or not, baseball tightened the rules. Then Houston was caught using a different system to do the same thing. And the Astros are now facing the consequences. The punishments may seem harsh.

But the rules were clear.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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