Prep baseball's 'mercy' rule strikes out

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 8, 1998

Prep baseball's 'mercy' rule strikes out

by Craig Wentz

It was a day to remember when Sacred Heart Prep senior Eric James threw his first career no-hitter, at any level, in a 10-0 win over Menlo-Atherton on March 27. However, due to the new national "mercy" rule in high school baseball, James' impressive feat was accomplished in only five innings, not in the regulation seven.

Though an official no-hitter is legitimate no matter how many innings are played, James' feat might not have occurred without the new rule in effect.

The 10-run "mercy" rule states that a game is officially over when a team is ahead by 10 or more runs by either the top or bottom of the fifth inning.

With Sacred Heart leading M-A, 9-0, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Gator coach Glenn Simms played for the 10th run like the game-winning run. Sacred Heart scored the decisive run to put the new rule into effect heading to the top of the fifth--giving James the opportunity to toss his memorable no-hitter in a shortened game.

"It feels great to throw a no-hitter," said James. "But it would have been nice to finish it in seven."

Simms said that he didn't know that James had a no-hitter until the top of the fifth, but would have played the bottom of the fourth inning the same way, regardless of the situation.

"It was only the fourth inning and I would have done the same thing in any other game, because we play hard," Simms said. "But I hope people will re-think this ruling, because a bunch of kids are getting hurt by not playing in a shortened game. The game is for the kids."

The rule has some positives, but not many. And those positives tend to favor the pitchers.

"The only positives I see is that it takes stress off your pitching staff and could save a team embarrassment in a big blowout," said James, whose team has played in three "mercy" games this season and saved six innings of pitching. "But we want to play the whole game, because there are only so many innings in a season."

But coaches strongly believe that the negatives overwhelmingly outnumber the positives. And there are a lot of questions to be answered.

Who benefits from this ruling? Are seldom-used reserves getting cheated out of crucial playing time? Does this rule prepare high school players for the next level? Do teams have to alter their respective game plan just to play more innings by not scoring too many runs? What about the losing team staging a miraculous comeback? The vast majority of coaches in the Central Coast Section dislike the the "mercy" rule, including a few coaches in the local area.

Palo Alto High currently has only 10 players on its varsity roster and has had trouble bringing up its junior varsity players, because those players want to play and not watch. And the mercy rule keeps coaches from playing reserves for those extra two innings for vital experience and confidence when the game is out of hand.

"Personally, I don't like it," said Paly coach Mark Ginanni. "We want to let kids play and when you're up by 10 runs, that's the time to let them play."

The rule doesn't really benefit players or coaches, so that leaves the umpires. No umpire wants to bend over and call strikes when a team is up by 10 runs. And though the umpires have no control over the matter, they can go home 45 minutes early and not feel cheated.

"I don't know if it's a coaches' or an umpire thing, but I have a feeling it (the rule) benefits only the umpires," said M-A coach Tim Bowler. "This game is for the players."

Bowler also believes that the all-important 10th run to enact the rule is now part of the game and shouldn't be taken as "showing up" an opponent.

"I would score the 10th run because of the execution to score a run," Bowler said. "It all depends on the situation."

Miraculous comebacks do take place in high school baseball every now and then. But with the ruling, the losing team cannot mount a late-inning comeback--likely feeling the sense of being cheated by not playing the final two innings.

"The game is not over when a team is down by 10 runs," Ginanni said. "We tell the kids that the game is never over and to keep on fighting."

It wasn't too long ago that high school baserunners could literally break up a double play with a hard slide. But now, a runner is called out if he or she slides inches outside of the basepaths. And with the "mercy" rule, today's high school rules don't prepare players well for the next level of baseball.

The ruling also puts the winning team in a Catch-22 situation. Teams want to maintain consistency and stay sharp and aggressive, but when the winning team wants to play the game in its entirety, it must hold back when a 10-run lead approaches.

St. Francis High coach Chris Bradford has seen it all in his 27 years of coaching high school baseball. And and he finds the rule unnecessary.

"It's ludicrous," said Bradford. "The game is over in five innings, kids don't play, it doesn't prepare them well and the team that's ahead has to stop scoring runs if you want to keep playing. It's ludicrous."

Bradford is going to try and see what he and other coaches can do to change the "mercy" rule at the High School National Convention after the season.

Perhaps it's time to show the "mercy" rule no mercy. 

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