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Sportsmanship lost on Dixie League parents

Fifteen months ago, Mallory Holtman, a collegiate softball player in the state of Washington, earned national acclaim for partnering with a teammate to carry an injured opponent around the bases to complete a home run trot. The run put Holtman's team behind during a game in which a loss meant elimination from consideration for a national postseason tournament bid.

They could use some of Holtman's sensibilities and sportsmanship in the Dixie League Baseball that governs a league in Spring Hill and other locales around the Southern United States.

This week, the parents of the Spring Hill Nationals, a group of 11- and 12-year-old All Stars, turned to the court after a brouhaha on the diamond. Hernando County Judge Kurt Hitzemann correctly declined to intercede, ruling Dixie League Baseball's national commissioner is the final arbiter of league conflicts.

The national commissioner attempted to reverse what he and others perceived as a call known colloquially as homering. Not a home run, but rather an outrageous ruling from a supposedly neutral umpire that favors the home team.

Were things handled properly? Absolutely not. Why else did the mess end up in a court of law with children in their blue and gold jerseys wondering if their season, indeed, was over?

It is. And should be. Not because the judge said so, or the national commissioner said so or even a commentary writer said so. The Spring Hill children's season should be over because an opponent hit a home run in the top of the last inning to give his team a 6-5 lead in the district tournament. Spring Hill failed to score in the bottom of the inning. Game over.

But not when adults get involved in a game that is supposed to be all about the kids.

The opponent's slugger, a child named Hunter Cowers from South Lake, broke the 5-5 tie with his over-the-fence home run in a June 30 game at Spring Hill, the tournament host. He rounded the bases and as he came down the third base line toward his teammates waiting at the plate Hunter leaped into the air and landed past home plate. The celebratory mob took him toward the visitors' dug-out where his manager told him to return and touch home. With his teammates pushing him, he did just that.

The exuberance and sheer joy of Hunter's teammates cost the team the go-ahead run, the umpire ruled. The rule book states a player may not be assisted on the base paths. Once his teammates touched him, the umpire called the player out.

I wonder if the umpire ever heard of Mallory Holtman.

Spring Hill's parents and coaches contend this was the umpire's call and did not come as a result of an appeal from their team. They shouldn't be so sanctimonious. The team's assistant coach, Rob Gomez, testified in court that the Nationals' manager was en route from the dugout to do just that when the umpire beat him to the punch.

The fallout brought an immediate protest from South Lake; a 90-minute delay of the game while a protest committee conferred with administrators higher up the Dixie League management chain, and the ejection of South Lake's first base coach for abusive and unsportsmanlike behavior.

The umpire's ruling did not change. Spring Hill won the game two innings later and went on to win another game July 2 later to secure a spot in the state tournament that begins this weekend in Winter Haven.

Until the national commissioner intervened July 3. He reversed the umpire's call and substituted South Lake for Spring Hill for the rest of the district tournament. South Lake lost its next game to San Antonio.

Spring Hill's adults took the matter to court, arguing Commissioner Wes Skelton didn't follow the league's own rule book governing protests when he overturned the outcome.

Doesn't matter, Judge Hitzemann said, after listening to 70 minutes of arguments and testimony Wednesday afternoon. Dixie League Baseball is a private organization that people join voluntarily. The commissioner is the final authority. He has ruled and you're stuck with it.

"What happened here is unfortunate and sad,'' Hitzemann told those in the courtroom.

There is no doubt about that. The umpire showed poor judgment, as did South Lake's first base coach, league administrators who were tardy in acting and the Spring Hill adults who turned to the court system for a ruling about baseball.

One parent said they tried to teach their children about character and following the rules. Perhaps, but lessons about sportsmanship and accepting defeat graciously seemed to be overshadowed.

It's okay to feel bad for the children. From both teams. They were robbed of the pleasure of playing baseball by the adults running the game.

Sportsmanship lost on Dixie League parents 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 6:57pm]
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