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Sometimes a human hand is needed to make a ruling on the rules

June 01, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Even such a rebel and virtual anarchist as George Carlin recognized the need for rules - like his dad's rule against sticking your head out of a high-speed railroad train window:

"Say, dad, good rule. He doesn't want our heads chopped off. Fantastic, dad."

So yes, rules have their place. But where rules run into trouble is when they are used as bureaucratic safety net to save anyone the bother of, heaven forbid, thinking.

Failure to think gives rules a bad name, and when rules get a bad name it diminishes the effectiveness and the meaning of good rules.

It speaks well of South High that its leaders have been so gracious about a rule violation that cost the school a crack at the state baseball championship last weekend. They acknowledge and accept responsibility for an oversight that turned a victory on the playing field into a defeat in a meeting room.

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South can take the high ground if it wants, but, sadly, that's never been my style. I believe the school, and especially the kids, were punished too severely.

The rule in question is probably a good one. It helps prevent the overuse of young pitchers by limiting them to 14 innings a week. Pitching too many innings and snapping off breaking balls at a young age can damage growing ligaments, tendons and bones. For a coach feverishly focused in on a win today, there was always the temptation of leaving his star on the mound just a little longer at the risk of arm problems tomorrow.

In reality, though, the rule was specifically designed with a very, very small fraction of high school pitchers in mind - those with potential Major League talent. For those handful of kids nationwide, the rule has purpose.

But even good rules have gray areas. What happens when rainouts condense a two-week playoff period into one? Do we go by a calendar week, or a seven-consecutive-days week? What happens if the pitcher crosses the International Dateline?

After a South pitcher recorded 15 innings (one inning of relief work and two seven-inning starts) in a week of playoff action, another school blew the whistle and the Maryland state athletic association stepped in.

This has put South's coaches in a much-unwanted spotlight. Certainly no one familiar with baseball could help but raise an eyebrow over lofty pitch counts racked up by young pitchers - 156 in one case. In the Majors, 100 pitches is considered to be on the upper end of a day's work.

And yes, the coaches know the rules, although in the heat of the playoffs, I'm not sure how much they can be expected to be reading spreadsheets. I don't believe any coach thought to himself, "I'll slip the kid an extra inning and no one will ever know." Although if Little League has taught us anything, it's that stranger things have happened.

Even the state was sympathetic and appeared to believe this was a simple oversight. But, as they say, rules are rules and this was a clear violation. And yes, to the letter of the law, it was. But sometimes there's a difference between what the rules say is right and what is, well, right.

Think of the kids on the South High baseball team. What will they take from this experience? An optimist might say they will have gained a healthy respect for the importance of playing by the rules.

A realist might suppose they will come out of this thinking, "rules are stupid, rules cheat us."

Confronted with a rule at some future point in their lives, are they likely to have more or less respect for that rule seeing as how, at a formative point in their lives, an inflexible rule did them dirty?

We want kids to grow up respecting rules, not despising them. So in this case, it seems to me that someone, somewhere should have had authority to stand up and say, "This rule is a good rule, but when it was written it did not anticipate rainouts in a playoff situation." Give the team a warning, but let it play on.

Understandable arguments have been made that if you make one exception you have to make more. That rules exist for the exact reason of eliminating ambiguity. But that's why we have judges - reasonable people capable of making reasonable decisions as circumstances warrant. Rules are like machines; most of the time they perform well, but when they fail a human presence is required to tidy up.

In 2004, Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer wanted to wear a No. 40 decal on his helmet in honor of his close friend and former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan.

The NFL threatened to fine Plummer $20,000 because it has a rule against personal messages on uniforms or helmets.

It's a nice-enough rule. You don't want some linemen writing "Hi Mom" or "Wide Load" on their tuchuses with a Sharpie. But in Plummer's case, the message dwarfed and superseded the rule. It made the rule and the league look petty and despicable.

Bending the rules isn't always the answer; as we know, one bend can lead to another until the rule is no longer recognizable. But absolute rigidity, at least in the cases of South High and the Titanic, can be worse than a little judiciously applied give and take.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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