MCC baseball

MCC head coach Mitch Thompson saw his team’s season come to a sour conclusion after the Highlanders’ double-forfeit in the Region V tournament title game against Cisco ended a 44-win campaign.

Mitch Thompson spent a portion of Wednesday conducting exit interviews with his players. It’s always a bittersweet moment for the McLennan Community College baseball coach, as he puts the wraps on another season and bids farewell to his departing sophomores.

Given the way this season ended, it was a tougher assignment than ever.

“It was heartbreaking,” Thompson admitted.

Whenever someone does something wrong — whether it’s disobeying an order from a superior, ignoring a rule, or breaking a law — we expect punishment. It’s human nature to demand justice, to want the perpetrator or perpetrators to pay.

But what about when the punishment doesn’t suit the offense?

On Tuesday, the NJCAA declared that neither MCC nor Cisco would represent Region V at the Junior College World Series because of a bench-clearing incident that ended Monday’s game at the regional tournament. In doing so, they offered up a miscarriage of justice.

What exactly is the message the NJCAA is trying to send? That life isn’t fair? OK, true enough. But guess what? Life may not be fair, but sports are certainly supposed to be.

You’ve probably read the stories or perhaps watched the video by now, but if not, allow me to present the Reader’s Digest version of what unfolded. In the sixth inning of the regional final, MCC was hanging on to an 11-8 lead when Cisco’s William Hollis slid into score the Wranglers’ ninth run on a teammate’s single.

As Hollis walked past MCC catcher Nick Thornquist back to the dugout, the Cisco player allegedly said something to Thornquist. The MCC player reacted with anger and got in Hollis’ face, bumping into him, which prompted both sets of players to run toward the confrontation. Coaches from both sides quickly separated the players and sent them back to their respective dugouts. Nobody threw a punch.

The entire incident, from the time that Thornquist and Hollis made brief contact, to the moment that the players started heading back to their benches, took less than 20 seconds. I know, because I watched the video multiple times and timed it.

The fact that officials suspended the game at that point is ludicrous enough. But to prevent either team from resuming it from that point the next day, to effectively wipe out two deserving teams’ chances at reaching the pinnacle of juco baseball, is a short-sighted decision by the NJCAA.

OK, let’s acknowledge this: Both teams broke NJCAA rules by leaving their benches. Specifically Article XVIII, rule A1C of the bylaws, which prohibits teams from engaging in “violent behavior” for an “act in which any bench personnel other than the head coach (or acting head coach) leave the bench or designated warm-up area when a fight may break out or has broken out.”

The penalty is mandatory ejection for everyone who breaks the rule, players and assistant coaches alike.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of bad rules in my day, but this one takes the cake. Nothing about the dust-up between the Highlanders and Wranglers was “violent.” Again: nobody threw a punch. No player grabbed another player. One could argue (and Thompson has) that the most “violent” act in the whole exchange – undoubtedly the most physical encounter – was home-plate umpire Demond Thomas pushing Thornquist away from Hollis and back toward the MCC dugout.

“So, we’re penalized for a ‘fight.’ It makes me wonder how severe the penalty would have been if there actually had been a fight,” Thompson said.

After the benches cleared and the players were separated, the game should have moved forward. Period. I could understand the umpires ejecting Thornquist, and possibly Hollis, depending on what the Cisco player may have said to provoke a reaction. But to basically eject two entire teams? Including the assistant coaches, whose only objective was to break things up and play peacemaker? I don’t care what the rule says. That’s one where you look the other way. That’s where you acknowledge that the rule is broken, not the “rulebreakers.”

Even cops give out warnings sometimes, you know.

Ultimately, it stinks for both teams. MCC had 44 wins and had made an impressive run through the loser’s bracket of the regional tournament to put itself in position for a third trip to Grand Junction in the past four years. Cisco had 52 wins and boasted the fourth-ranked team in the country, and deserved a shot to try to keep its rally in the title game alive.

“If we would have played it out and they would have beat us, then fine,” Thompson said. “But this way is just awful. I hate it for us, and I hate it for Cisco. It’s an absolute shame. I want the NJCAA to acknowledge that this isn’t a baseball rule, it’s a basketball rule, and it can really be used in a fraudulent manner.”

Video of MCC-Cisco incident

Indeed, the way the rule is written – and the hard-and-fast stance the NJCAA has taken with it – opens up a Pandora’s box of problems. What’s to prevent a team that is trailing in a game to intentionally hit an opposing player with a cheap shot, in an attempt to goad the other team out of the dugout and get them all ejected? Then — bam — the team that was trailing wins the game by forfeit.

Players are trained to stick together, battle together, protect one another. You can’t just ask them to flip off that protective instinct when they see a teammate in potential jeopardy. “It’s a high-stakes game, and emotions and intensity run high, no doubt,” Thompson said.

Granted, you’ve also got to keep your emotions in check. This isn’t the Wild West. But here’s the thing — with the notable exception of one or two guys, both the Highlanders and Wranglers did so. They left the bench, but they returned almost as quickly as they’d arrived.

As the players all walked back to their seats, they could have never known that they wouldn’t throw another pitch, or take another swing, again this season.

In the aftermath, the coaches weren’t given much of an explanation. Thompson said that the Region V tournament director conferred with the umpires, informing them that the game would end in a double-forfeit.

“I still haven’t met face-to-face with anyone, which is really a joke,” the MCC coach said.

The NJCAA declared that Temple College, a team that MCC had previously eliminated in the tournament on Monday afternoon, would go on to represent Region V at the Juco World Series.

I can’t blame Temple coach Craig McMurtry for accepting the invitation. I mean, what else are you going to do? But for a coach who had pitched MCC to the Juco World Series in the early 1980s and had led the Leopards to two previous trips to Grand Junction, that couldn’t have been the way he wanted to get there. “It’s an awkward situation, to be honest,” McMurtry told the Temple Daily Telegram.

It’s a situation that should never have gotten to that point. There has to be wiggle room for common sense.

Again, if the teams had actually brawled, I could understand the penalty. But this is akin to a $200 speeding ticket for driving 2 mph over the limit.

“Obviously fighting is wrong. We know that,” Thompson said. “We haven’t had the benches clear in the past five years. We haven’t had a coach kicked out of a game. We’ve had one player ejected in five years. I think I had my first ball-strike warning the other night. I mean, give me a break.”

I wanted to get the NJCAA’s take, but the organization didn’t respond to my request for an interview on Wednesday. It would be nice to get their perspective on the decision, which included a denial of an appeal by MCC.

In a letter to Thompson, MCC athletic director Shawn Trochim and others, NJCAA Chief Operations Officer Brian Beck noted that the organization had reviewed the incident, including watching “multiple pieces of video,” and found that since the teams had broken the rules that the double-forfeiture punishment was appropriate.

“As you are aware, the NJCAA has taken a firm stance on sportsmanship issues over the past few years,” the letter read.

It also intimated that any past compliance with the rules didn’t really matter.

“Regardless of the perspective you bring to this unfortunate situation, the requirement of sanctions for those individuals who left the bench area or position in the field is a long-standing requirement and must be applied in this situation,” Beck wrote.

It’s a firm stance, all right, one that defies both logic and feeling.

Thompson still has plenty of fight left in him, but given the denied appeal, he didn’t know what else to do. He floated the idea of a lawsuit, but doubted that it would lead to any type of agreeable resolution for MCC or Cisco, especially with the start of the World Series just 10 days away.

“I just hurt for the players,” he said. “These guys have been working from the moment we first gathered for practice, a lot of them have been working since August. I loved watching them compete, I loved that they were coming together at the right time, just like we had planned. It’s just disappointing.”

It’s not only disappointing, it’s flat-out wrong.

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