During a foul-weather spring in western New York when Mother Nature was often merciless, there were as many frozen toes as frozen ropes.
To many, baseball and softball games ending early because one team was clobbering the other wasn't exactly an unwelcome sight.
This is the first season in which a "run rule," or what is widely referred to as a "mercy rule," is being used statewide in high school baseball. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association voted to add it, but it was up to each of the 12 sections and then each league to decide whether they wanted to use it. Section V voted it in, but not every league locally is using it.
Softball has had a 15-run rule for more than 20 years. A spokesman for the NYSPHSAA said it was likely added in the early 1990s.
So do area players, coaches and parents like having a run rule so they don't embarrass their opponent? Or would they prefer to let games play out, giving the trailing team the chance to make a big comeback? Here's what we found out:
So what's the rule?
The NYSPHSAA's "run rule" in baseball is on a two-year trial period. Any game with a 10-run deficit after five innings ends, 4½ when the home team holds that type of lead.
Seven of the 10 area leagues are using it, including the Rochester City Athletic Conference. The Monroe County and Finger Lakes leagues, said no to it, and a handful of schools that play an independent schedule also voted against it. Athletic directors also had input on the decision. In non-league games, the home team's league rules are followed.
For softball, the rule is different in only one way. The mercy rule margin is 15 runs after five at-bats.
Meaghan Keil wishes softball used a 10-run rule like baseball. The veteran softball coach from Webster Schroeder said 15 is too much.
"It's borderline unsportsmanlike. Up 15 (runs) you're already really beating up on somebody," she said. "You might be able to come back from eight or nine runs, but 10 is fine and sometimes (coaches whose teams are ahead) really push it try to get a five-inning game."
Parent Barbara Holmacher, whose daughter is a junior captain on Greece Athena's softball team, agrees. "It's almost a cruelty thing," Holmacher said.
"Girls or boys are hard enough on themselves already and get in their own heads. Granted, (losing) is part of life and you've got to get over those tough times, but when you're down by 15 it's tough to keep going."
NCAA softball uses an eight-run rule. When Schroeder played this spring in Florida, a 10-run rule was used. "Ten is perfect," Keil said.
Josh Phillips, whose son Tyler is a first-year member of the Irondequoit baseball team, is not so sure.
“I’m a little divided by it,” Josh Phillips said. “Say you are the pitcher or the goalie, some kids can take it kind of rough, if they’ve been the focal point (of a lopsided game). There’s life lessons inside of that, but that can be an extreme.
"To a point, I don’t know how much more it makes sense to carry on past a certain inning, especially with pitch-count limits. It’s changed a lot of dynamics of the game, as far as how the game could have got to that point in the first place.”
Spring in western New York usually means a cramped schedule because so many games get postponed. That certainly has been the case this year. Having a run rule to shorten lopsided games can help save the wear and tear on a pitching staff, especially for teams that don’t have a lot of arms and the need for pitching is strong all the way up to the major leagues.
It is a good thing for East Rochester that half of its players can pitch, or at least go to the mound, according to pitching coach Darren Mack. But ER coach Patrick Walsh has only 12 players on his roster.
That's not uncommon among Section V's smaller schools. ER is Class C and plays in the Wayne County league, which is using the new run rule.
“Being one of the smaller schools and sometimes with our weather, we’ll have four or five games a week," Walsh said. "When you have 10-11 kids on a team, the mercy rule has worked out well. Definitely positive.”
Not embarrassing your opponent seems to be a key reason many are in favor of a run rule. When a good team is pounding a bad one, even as hits and walks and errors pile up, at some point it's no longer fun for the winning team.
"I’ve been on both sides of it and you don’t want to embarrass anyone and keep playing in a non-competitive game," said Scott Parsons, who coached Greece Athena for 12 seasons before taking over at Pittsford Mendon three years ago.
Section V baseball coordinator and Greece Athena coach Jason Bunting disagrees. In this case, less is not more. “We have 20 games, each seven innings. That’s 140 innings,” Bunting said. “You want to take away innings, at bats and innings from the kids? I don’t. I want to play all 140 innings.
“It’s a game, play the game. We don’t end football games early. We don’t end basketball games early. There’s certainly teams who don’t have the numbers. Those leagues voted to have it.”
Athena, of course, is in the Monroe County league. Bunting's approach is that if his team has enough pitchers available, play on. Besides, Bunting said, there is a national federation rule that two coaches can agree to end the game at any time.
“To use the pitch count as an excuse for a 10-run rule is, in my opinion, not something we should do,” Bunting said.
“I’ve never heard safety (as a concern). I’ve heard, ‘I don’t have the pitching.’ I understand that, but here is another thing. You always have the right to say ‘We’re done.’ They can stop a game at any time. Why do we need a 10-run rule?”
Mutual decision is an option
Bunting said some leagues already had an informal agreement in place about when to call a game. According to the NYSPHSAA, a "run rule" will provide consistency as to when a game can end and help with the management of pitch counts.
“We believe a run rule will improve the quality of our sport and is needed,” the NYSPHSAA’s state baseball committee wrote for a proposal in February.
Sportsmanship in those situations starts with the coaches.
"I think it’s incumbent on (us) to have the sportsmanship to know that when a game’s getting out of hand, not taking the extra base or stealing or going on a passed ball or wild pitch," Irondequoit softball coach Scott Smith said.
After all, it is called a "mercy" rule.
"Personally, I feel that we shouldn’t be crushing the team’s spirit if we’re (up) 20-1," said Irondequoit first baseman Ayana Chodak. "To end sooner is better for that (losing) team’s feeling because I don’t want to be in that position when we’re getting crushed."
The playing time benefit
Pittsford Mendon baseball coach Jeff Amoroso said lopsided games aren't all bad.
“I carry a big squad (in terms of roster size),” Amoroso said. “A game like today, I was able to have 19 of my 21 players get an at-bat. Twenty of the 21 kids all played, with the exception of a pitcher who threw the other day.
“In a ‘mercy-rule game,’ I would’ve lost a couple of innings here and I would not have been able to get all those kids at-bats. I kind of like the idea that we finish the game.”
It's no secret that parents want to see their kids play, not sit on the bench. It's also no secret that the playing-time issue can create tension with parents, coaches, players and athletic directors.
Pittsford Mendon baseball coach Jeff Amoroso says not having a 10-run rule allows him to get more players into games.
Giving up on a comeback?
Baseball is one of the team sports that does not have a clock, Amoroso said. “I gotta tell you, we had a game a few years back where we had a 10-run lead and got beat by Batavia 11-10. I’ll never forget it.”
Irondequoit trailed 15-5 after the top of the fourth inning of its home game against Churchville-Chili on Wednesday. The Eagles not only rallied, but also were winners after 6½ innings, by a score of 24-15.
“Some people have bad innings,” fifth-year East High varsity player Jordi Agosto said. “Then in the last two innings, it might be a whole different game.
“You can score 10 runs in one inning, so it really don’t matter. The downfall is seeing everyone with their heads down, a lot of players ready to give up, but you still have to have heart for the game. Anything can make it flip in baseball. One inning can change the whole game.”
That is one reason why some coaches make a point of saying to players, never quit or give up. Does the impact of that message change after two coaches agree to end a lopsided game early, or because teams must stop by rule?
How to keep scores down
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Some coaches choose to start more backup players if they feel they are playing an inferior opponent and want to keep the score reasonable. But softball and baseball are different than "possession games," like soccer, lacrosse and field hockey.
"In field hockey you can just hold onto the ball and not try to score, but in softball (batters) have to keep coming to the plate and the more a team has momentum, the tougher it seems to get outs," said Hilton softball (and former field hockey) coach Amy Centola.
Lacrosse has a method to minimize lopsided scores. When a girls team takes a 10-goal lead, the clock keeps running. It stops only for timeouts, injuries and yellow card fouls (not after common fouls or goals). In boys lacrosse, the running time margin is 12 goals.
Baseball and softball coaches shy away from telling players to intentionally strike out to keep the score down because stats are important to kids and their parents. Christal Kent, the longtime Waterloo softball head coach who is now an assistant, said some annual awards in her program are predicated on statistics.
"That plays a role," she said.
Baseball and softball coaches have strategies. They'll tell players to bunt, as East High's Kyle Crandall instructed during a game when the score was so unsightly the scoreboard operator stopped updating it.
Keil, the Schroeder softball coach, said before an inning starts she'll alert umpires that her runners who reach will intentionally leave the base early (before the pitcher releases the ball), meaning an automatic out. It happened last month.
“It was 33 degrees, snow flurries and the score was 20-3,” she said. “I know sometimes there are big comebacks, but they are few and far between.”
Irondequoit parent Paul Buckley sees both sides of the issue. His daughter, Samantha, plays for the softball team. There are good reasons for the run rule, especially when the wind is whipping.
"For the fans in April when it’s 40 degrees (or) 38 and they’re all waiting for the game to end in the sixth inning … it’s a relief," he said about ending the game early.
Irondequoit catcher Alyssa Bolcato offered another weather-related reason to shorten games. “In colder weather we can also get injured, especially if we come off the bench after a really long inning,” the senior said.
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Softball is different than baseball. Most pitchers can throw multiple games in a week, going back-to-back days, and girls aren’t regulated by a pitch count, which was implemented by NYSPHSAA for baseball players last year. But saving kids a couple innings on the back end of games also gives them more rest.
“If you’re playing six games (in a week), you’re affording your players a little more rest in between games so I think it’s a good rule,” Greece Athena coach Nicole Blackwell said.
Centola, the Hilton coach, has only 10 healthy players right now on her roster, so extra rest is always welcome. Players can lose focus in lopsided games, too, or seek retribution if they thought an opponent was running up the score.
"It becomes hard to watch them at that point," said Kelly French, a parent of former Penfield softball player Isabella French. "A lot of times the girls would get a little sloppy and there’s a risk of injury."
Centola didn't like seeing her team get knocked around last spring, but she did think it helped make her girls more resilient. It showed them something else, too. Facing better competition showed them putting in extra practice in the off-season helps.
"Last year really motivated us to work harder so we could compete this year," said Centola, whose team played elite squads Victor and Fairport tough early this spring but still lost. "It's difficult losing so many games but my kids come every day and have worked really hard."