June 5, 2008 -- When Cody Martin took the mound Saturday for a state championship baseball game, he probably didn't imagine his high school would be fined and disciplined because of one of his pitches. But that's what happened.
A single play from Georgia's 3A high school state championship game became the subject of national media speculation this week after it appeared that Martin and Stephens County High School catcher Matt Hill conspired to hit the home-plate umpire with a pitch.
In a video posted on YouTube and making the rounds on various local media sites, Stephens County catcher Hill is seen apparently set up to catch Martin's pitch, only to move his glove downward just before the pitch reaches the plate, missing the ball completely and causing it to hit home plate umpire Jeff Scott squarely in the facemask.
The incident occurred in the third and final game of the championship series between Stephens County and Cartersville, with Cartersville leading 8-1 at the time of the beaning, on the way to a championship-clinching 13-1 victory.
The Georgia High School Association examined the video evidence and ruled yesterday that the players did have intent to hit the umpire with the pitch. According to Stephens County principal David Friend, the GHSA has leveled sanctions against Stephens County High baseball that include a $1,000 fine, a behavior warning that could result in postseason bans if violated and a mandatory sportsmanship workshop for all baseball players and coaches prior to next season.
Neither Stephens County player could be reached for comment, and coach Mark Gosnell did not immediately return messages left at his office.
Friend said he could not fathom any of his players intentionally hitting an umpire but acknowledged that it was difficult to dispute the players' intent from the video.
"The kid behind the plate is one of the most mild-mannered kids I know. In school he's an outstanding student, and behavior-wise he sets a standard for everyone around him, so it's very much out of character if he did mean to do it," Friend said. "At the same time, I've seen the video like everybody else has, and on tape it looks real bad. I can see why people would come to that conclusion."
Though the players reportedly maintain that the incident was a mix-up in signals and not an intentional act, Friend conceded that the school will abide by the GHSA's decision.
"We're going to honor what has been ruled by the GHSA, and I think it's the right ruling," he said. "There has been a lot of focus and publicity on this one kid and one pitch, but in high school sports today, there is a need to stress sportsmanship and class, and I don't think these kids, among others, represented our school and our community the way we expect at all times."
Championship Rout Leads to Ugly Incident
Cartersville Coach Stuart Chester believes Hill could have accidentally missed the pitch.
"I've seen the video. It looked to me like he thought it was in the dirt. We had a guy on second, and it looked like he was concerned about blocking a ball and keeping our guy there," Chester said said.
The pitch in question came after Chester's team recorded its ninth consecutive strikeout and Stephens County players became increasingly frustrated with Scott's calls.
"Their pitcher was hitting his spots so well, and our guys were striking out a lot more than they typically do," Friend said. "They became frustrated and started questioning calls, and I think it was contagious."
Chester said he thought the umpiring was fair.
"We've had that umpiring crew in championships in years past, and in the first two games of this series as well, and I thought they did an excellent job," Chester said. "But I can understand the level of frustration — there was a couple calls that went against us that I wanted to hit the umpire over."
Jesse Smith, a representative of the Multi-County Umpires Association, which worked the game, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the GHSA asked his group not to comment on the incident.
"The decision on what happened is strictly 100 percent in the hands of Dr. Ralph Swearngin and Dennis Payne [GHSA coordinator of officials]," Smith told the AJC. "They have told me they will handle it. It is up to the GHSA."
A Simple Mix-Up
In the video, Hill is seen inexplicably dropping to his knees with his mitt in the dirt as the ball reaches the plate, which could lend some credence to the idea that pitch was supposed to be a curveball.
"They say it was a cross-up in sign — the pitcher was throwing a fastball that the catcher believes he signaled a curveball for," said Friend. "I do know for our pitcher to have intentionally hit the umpire on that pitch, it was the best spot he had hit all day. He sure wasn't hitting his spots against the batters."
Chester said he'd never seen mix-up with such dire consequences for an umpire.
"I've seen catchers get crossed-up and stuff like that before, but never where it was a square lick on the umpire like that," he said.
The single pitch has overshadowed a historic season for Stephens County High baseball. The team set a record for wins in a season and advanced to the state championship game for the first time in 35 years.
That, Friend said, is the most disconcerting fallout of the incident.
"It's sad that one pitch is determining the perception of who our kids are. We had a record-setting season, and instead of being able to celebrate that, all of a sudden we have to talk about this one pitch," he lamented. "The publicity has been a lot more than I ever anticipated, but today it doesn't take much but a split second of bad judgment to have your situation all over the world."