I'm going to borrow the title of Keith (I'm an idiot) Olbermann's nightly award to discuss a softball coach named Jean Musgjerd of Rochester Community College.
Musgjerd's team was facing Central Lakes College of Brainerd last weekend in the Minnesota Junior College state tournament. CLC and RCC were having a great game that was scoreless going into the seventh inning. In fact, CLC's pitcher was throwing a no-hitter. She retired the Rochester team in the top of the seventh, and CLC came to bat in the bottom of the inning.
CLC's Ashly Erickson homered to give CLC an apparent 1-0 win. She rounded the bases, and several of her teammates lined up along the 3rd-base line to exchange high fives as she trotted home.
Then things got weird. Musgjerd complained to the umpires about Erickson's teammates congratulating her before she had touched home plate, which is a violation of NCAA rules. The umpires conferred, and declared Erickson out. The game went into extra innings, and RCC ended up winning 4-0 in nine innings.
Now, I have no problem with a coach using the rulebook to gain every possible advantage. It's a wise coach - or player - that knows the rules well and understands the finer points of the game. But what happened here is a travesty, and the blame can be shared by:
#1 Musgjerd, whose behavior is reprehensible.
#2 The umpires for not knowing the rule and then making a ridiculous decision
But Coach Musgjerd takes about 95% of the responsibility.
(As many of you know, I've been an NCAA and Minnesota State High School League baseball umpire for almost 30 years. That doesn't make me the ultimate authority, but I do have the perspective that one gets from working about 1,200 games over the years.)
It's true that the NCAA has a rule against touching a runner before the runner reaches home plate. But the rule also says "For a first offense, the umpire shall issue a warning to the offending team."
Musgjerd gave a very smug quote to a reporter, saying "I always have a rule book in my bag. You don't want to win in that way, but you have to play by the rules. You get schooled on the rulebook, and you find out really fast that you need to know it."
Except she either didn't really know the rule, or she quoted only part of it to gain an unfair advantage. She left out the part about issuing a warning, in an effort to try to take away the fairly-earned victory of her opponent. That's contemptible.
And while I hate to second-guess fellow umpires, their reaction seems totally indefensible. First, they didn't know the rule, and they allowed a coach to bully them into making the wrong call. The first part of that doesn't bother me so much, since it's impossible to know every obscure NCAA rule. That's why umpires are supposed to carry rulebooks, so that when one of these once-in-a-decade situations arise, you can refer to it. It doesn't appear these guys had a rulebook, or they would have been able to read the part about issuing a warning, and they would have told Musgjerd the game was over.
If they DIDN'T have a rulebook, they should have let common sense prevail, and allowed the home run to stand. A large part of becoming a successful umpire is learning when to use common sense in applying the rules. The classic example is the way umpires at every level allow 2nd basemen or shortstops to sometimes be slightly off the 2nd-base bag when turning a double play. We let it go (within reason) because we know it prevents injuries.
There are thousands of little violations that take place over the course of a season, and umpires let them go because they don't impact the outcome of the game. For example, did you know that a 3rd-base coach is supposed stay in his designated coach's box? But when a big right-handed power hitter is at the plate, coaches often move 10 or 15 feet towards the outfield, and we let them do that, because it reduces the chance of them getting killed by a foul line drive.
In the same way, these umpires - if they didn't know the rule or have a rulebook - should have said "A high-five on the 3rd-base line doesn't impact the outcome of the game. You lose, go home."
But regardless of the umpires' malfeasance, it's Musgjerd who is the real villain here. Coaches aren't just there to win games. (Especially in junior college softball. This isn't the NFL.) They are in their jobs to teach the skills of their sport, teach teamwork, cooperation and a sense of sportsmanship. Musgjerd failed as a coach, as a person and as a representative of her sport.