LUMBERTON — North Carolina’s high school baseball and softball coaches will be forced to act differently when they step on the field this spring. That is, if they want to stay on the diamond.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association recently enacted a zero tolerance discipline policy ahead of the 2017 season, causing a stir among baseball and softball coaches.
Neil Buie, the regional supervisor for the Southeastern N.C. Sports Officials, LLC., spoke last week at Robeson County’s Emergency Operations Center to inform coaches about the rule changes and how they could have a dramatic impact on the upcoming season.
The most notable change?
Head coaches will no longer be allowed to have discussions with an umpire at home plate or between the foul lines. To make a request or protest, the coach must meet the crew chief at the respective foul line in front of their dugout, midway between home plate and first or third base.
“I started officiating baseball in the spring of 1967,” Buie said. “For me, this is probably the biggest change in the way the game is played. It takes away from what those of us remember as being part of the game, where a coach would come out and argue.”
Buie called the new rule the “biggest change in over 50 years.”
“What’s happened over the years, if a coach becomes upset it has bled over to the fans,” he said. “The belief is, with coaches being more calm, fans will become more calm. This is radically different than what we’ve done in the past.”
Buie said 61 percent of ejections during the 2015-16 school year came from baseball and softball.
“It’s going to be a learned process for the officials and coaches,” he said. “Things that we’ve done forever, you can’t do this year.”
He likened the disciplinary changes to a close call at the plate, saying “this is not a black and white thing.”
“This is another area where the official will have to make a subjective call. I do expect some tweaking to happen. There will be adjustments made (in the future), I believe.”
In addition, any player or coach that uses inappropriate language or profanity will be ejected. Also, assistant coaches that argue calls while on the field coaching bases will be ejected. If an assistant coach is in the dugout contesting a call, the coach will be restricted to the dugout. A second offense will result in ejection. If the appealing coach questions a call or is unsporting in his conference, a team defensive conference will be charged. If no defensive conferences are available — each head coach is granted three conferences — and a coach comes out to confer, that coach will be ejected.
Mackie Register, Lumberton’s director of athletics and softball coach, said the rules are “too severe.”
“Emotions will run high in a game and you’ll react to stuff,” Register said. “It’s been like this for 100 years and now you expect us to go out with zero tolerance. It will be a learning curve for everybody. I think zero tolerance is a little extreme for the first year. But I also think the officials do a great job and they’ll work with us and let us get used to it.”
The new rules also state that players displaying verbal or physical dissent to an umpire will be disqualified from the game and restricted to the dugout, with a second offense resulting in ejection.
While discussion of the zero tolerance policy took center stage at the meeting, coaches also asked about the newly implemented pitch count.
The new rules are:
▪ The maximum pitches allowed per day is 105, but pitchers are allowed to finish facing the batter in which they reach that number.
▪ If a pitcher throws more than 76 pitches in a day, four days of rest are required before pitching again.
▪ If a pitcher throws 61-75, three days of rest are required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 46-60, two days of rest are required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 31-45, one day of rest is required.
▪ If a pitcher throws 1-30 pitches, no days of rest are required.
▪ The state championships – a best-of-three series that plays once on a Friday and twice, if necessary, on a Saturday – are exempt from the days of rest requirements. Pitchers are limited to 120 pitches for the series.
A primary concern from the coaches was how the pitch counts for each team would be tallied. Buie said “umpires will not be involved with pitch counts.”
“Pitch counts and umpires are miles apart,” he said. “The home team book is the official book for scoring and pitch counts.”
If the numbers are different and no resolution can be reached, the home team’s scorebook will be the official number. Buie advised coaches to tell team scorekeepers, or whomever is counting pitches, to meet frequently during games — no fewer than once per inning — to make sure the counts are correct.
Following games, teams must upload their pitch counts to MaxPreps, a website that tracks high school statistics. Buie also recommends that teams use GameChanger, a free app for phones and tablets that is capable of syncing to MaxPreps.
In addition to the zero tolerance policy and pitch count, Buie also said coaches won’t be allowed to sit outside of the dugout.
“We have found that some coaches are sitting outside the dugout on a bucket, calling pitches or giving signs,” Buie said. “Coaches must be in dead-ball territory this season. This is a point of emphasis from the state to our supervisors.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.