LUMBERTON — North Carolina’s high school baseball and softball coaches will be forced to act differently when they step on the field this spring. That is, if they want to stay on the diamond.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association recently enacted a zero tolerance discipline policy ahead of the 2017 season, causing a stir among baseball and softball coaches in Robeson County.
Neil Buie, the regional supervisor for the Southeastern N.C. Sports Officials, LLC., was on hand Tuesday at Robeson County’s Emergency Operations Center to inform coaches about the rule changes and how they could have a dramatic impact on the upcoming season.
The most notable change?
Head coaches will no longer be allowed to have discussions with an umpire at home plate or between the foul lines. To make a request or protest, the coach must meet the crew chief at the respective foul line in front of their dugout, midway between home plate and first or third base.
“I started officiating baseball in the spring of 1967,” Buie said. “For me, this is probably the biggest change in the way the game is played. It takes away from what those of us remember as being part of the game, where a coach would come out and argue.”
Buie called the new rule the “biggest change in over 50 years.”
“What’s happened over the years, if a coach becomes upset it has bled over to the fans,” he said. “The belief is, with coaches being more calm, fans will become more calm. This is radically different than what we’ve done in the past.”
Buie said 61 percent of ejections during the 2015-16 school year came from baseball and softball.
“It’s going to be a learned process for the officials and coaches,” he said. “Things that we’ve done forever, you can’t do this year.”
He likened the disciplinary changes to a close call at the plate, saying “this is not a black and white thing.”
“This is another area where the official will have to make a subjective call. I do expect some tweaking to happen. There will be adjusments made (in the future), I believe.”
In addition, any player or coach that uses inappropriate language or profanity will be ejected. Also, assistant coaches that argue calls while on the field coaching bases will be ejected. If an assistant coach is in the dugout contesting a call, the coach will be restricted to the dugout. A second offense will result in ejection. If the appealing coach questions a call or is unsporting in his conference, a team defensive conference will be charged. If no defensive conferences are available — each head coach is granted three conferences — and a coach comes out to confer, that coach will be ejected.
Mackie Register, Lumberton’s director of athletics and softball coach, said the rules are “too severe.”
“Emotions will run high in a game and you’ll react to stuff,” Register said. “It’s been like this for 100 years and now you expect us to go out with zero tolerance. It will be a learning curve for everybody. I think zero tolerance is a little extreme for the first year. But I also think the officials do a great job and they’ll work with us and let us get used to it.”
The new rules also state that players displaying verbal or physical dissent to an umpire will be disqualified from the game and restricted to the dugout, with a second offense resulting in ejection.
Purnell Swett baseball coach Bryan McDonald said the NCHSAA’s “intentions are good, but the process is flawed.”
“What they’re after is good, but the way they’re approaching it I don’t agree with,” McDonald said. “It will be a work in progress.”
Fairmont baseball coach Sandy Thorndyke agreed with McDonald, saying the new rule will be tough to enforce based on different umpires for different games.
“You really don’t know how this policy is going to go because every umpire is different,” Thorndyke said. “I feel like there will be ejections early and not necessarily from a coach doing anything wrong. It will be interesting to see who in the county gets ejected first.”
Thorndyke added that coaches will need time to adjust to the removal of a part of the game that has been in place for years.
“It’s going to be hard on everybody; it’s going to be different,” he said. “I don’t know if there will be more problems or not. It’s the first time in my lifetime that this has happened. It kind of takes the fun out of it.”
While discussion of the zero tolerance policy took centerstage at the meeting, coaches also asked about the newly implemented pitch count.
The new rules are:
▪ The maximum pitches allowed per day is 105, but pitchers are allowed to finish facing the batter in which they reach that number.
▪ If a pitcher throws more than 76 pitches in a day, four days of rest are required before pitching again.
▪ If a pitcher throws 61-75, three days of rest are required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 46-60, two days of rest are required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 31-45, one day of rest is required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 1-30 pitches, no days of rest are required.
▪ The state championships – a best-of-three series that plays once on a Friday and twice, if necessary, on a Saturday – are exempt from the days of rest requirements. Pitchers are limited to 120 pitches for the series.
A primary concern from the coaches was how the pitch counts for each team would be tallied. Buie said “umpires will not be involved with pitch counts.”
“Pitch counts and umpires are miles apart,” he said. “The home team book is the official book for scoring and pitch counts.”
If the numbers are different and no resolution can be reached, the home team’s scorebook will be the official number. For McDonald, that is a concerning factor.
“The thing that concerns me is that umpires will not be involved at all,” McDonald said. “If we have a discrepancy, the home book always rules and it may not be right. One pitch can change whether a kid can go to the mound again — especially a closer; I don’t like that.”
“It was a lot better when we were doing innings; It was less to keep up with. Human error can make a big difference and we don’t have a major league staff counting pitches. One pitch shouldn’t change whether or not a kid pitches the next day. It can be funny right now, but if it costs me a championship or a win, it won’t be funny then.”
Buie advised coaches to tell team scorekeepers, or whomever is counting pitches, to meet frequently during games — no fewer than once per inning — to make sure the counts are correct.
Following games, teams must upload their pitch counts to MaxPreps, a website that tracks high school statistics.
Buie also recommends that teams use GameChanger, a free app for phones and tablets that is capable of syncing to MaxPreps.
Though he is hopeful teams will be able to manage pitch counts accordingly, Register said he expects problems will arise this season.
“There could be an incident with coaches getting into it because of the pitch count,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
In addition to the zero tolerance policy and pitch count, Buie also said coaches won’t be allowed to sit outside of the dugout.
“We have found that some coaches are sitting outside the dugout on a bucket, calling pitches or giving signs,” Buie said. “Coaches must be in dead-ball territory this season. This is a point of emphasis from the state to our supervisors.”
The changes are a lot to take in for McDonald, an old-school coach with an old-school approach.
“The game of baseball, in my opinion, has certain unwritten rules that got erased with the zero tolerance and pitch count (policies), ” he said.
When asked if he sees more problems than solutions with the new rules, Buie said “no for the long term.”
“I think it will have some growing pains, but it will be a good plan for the game. Once we get the kinks worked out, it will be good for the game of baseball and softball. It’s going to take everyone’s cooperation.”
Purnell Swett’s Cal Hunt (2) slides into home plate during a game against St. Pauls at the 2016 Slugfest tournament. This season, head coaches will be forced to argue calls in a different manner.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.