With his team leading 2-1 with two outs in the top of the seventh inning and runners on first and third, coach Barry Veal wanted to call time to go onto the field and talk to his catcher, pitcher and infielders about what to do. He did not want to change pitchers, however, so he first asked the home plate umpire how many trips he had made to the mound already in the game.
High school rules allow the coach to visit the mound only three times total in the game before having to make a pitching change. And on every visit to the mound after three, he must change pitchers.
Veal thought he had made only two trips, and none that inning, and the umpire confirmed that. But when the coach stepped onto the field, the umpire told him he would have to change pitchers. Veal told the umpire he was wrong, but he insisted Veal must make the change on the third visit. The plate umpire talked to the other two umpires working the game. One agreed with Veal, but the crew chief agreed with the home plate umpire, and Veal was forced to make a pitching change.
Senior Brandon Spivey, the team's top pitcher who had held the Knights to one run through 6 2/3 innings, had to leave the mound.
"I didn't want to change pitchers. We had a freshman catching, and I wanted to be sure he and everyone else knew what to do with a man on third," Veal said. "We would have had someone warming up if we wanted to change pitchers. Brandon was pitching great and had only thrown 70 or 75 pitches. We wanted to keep him in there."
Instead, sophomore Jacob Walden had to take over with only eight warm-up throws. He walked the first man he faced to load the bases and then gave up a hit that scored two runs before getting the final out. Jones County, which was the home team for that second game in the best of three series even though it was being played at Evans, was unable to score in the bottom of the inning, allowing Evans to finish the game with a 3-2 lead. The Knights had won the first game of the double-header 5-1.
Veal could not play the game under protest because the Georgia High School Association decided several years ago to not allow that.
After the game, Veal said the umpires called their association president, and he informed them that they had made an error regarding the rule, that Veal had been right. They should not have forced the pitching change. Veal said the umpires apologized to him.
"I commend them for staying around and finding out they were wrong and apologizing, but by then it was too late. They should have known the rules," the coach said.
Jones County officials, meanwhile, contacted GHSA officials to see if they would correct the mistake by telling the umpires to restart the game as it was before the pitching change. But Veal said those they talked to instructed them to file a report in writing and a ruling would be made Friday.
Veal said he was finally informed by GHSA associate director Dennis Payne, who is in charge of baseball for the association, on Friday afternoon that the GHSA had no mechanism for correcting the mistake, so the game would stand as finished.
"He said the umpires would be severely punished for the mistake, but that's not what we want. We want the kids to be able to decide the game themselves on the field according to the rules, and now they can't," Veal said.
GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin was out of state Thursday and Friday and was unavailable for comment. Assistant executive director Gary Phillips said all he knew of the matter was that Jones County principal and athletic director Chuck Gibson had sent the GHSA a letter protesting the error and seeking a correction.
"We haven't received a report from the umpires yet, so we can't make a ruling until we do," Phillips said.
Informed that Payne had already told Veal that the error could not be corrected, Phillips said he did not know Payne had ruled on the matter and that he would be the one to talk to for an explanation. Payne was not in the office, however, and he did not return a message left on his cell phone Friday afternoon.
So if the ruling stands as it is now, Jones County's season is over, leaving the Greyhounds with an 11-12 record and out of the state playoffs for the first time in several years, and with what is believed to be their first losing season under Veal.
The coach said he was not concerned with the final record, however.
"As I've gotten older, that doesn't matter as much. I'm more concerned with developing the players, and I'm more proud of different things than our record, like the way the kids acted last night when this was all happening and today when I told them we wouldn't get to go back and finish the game. They reacted with class and didn't act out. We weren't fussing and arguing a lot last night. And today they were disappointed but still showed a lot of class. Get it in the back the way we did and show class, that's what makes me proud."
Veal said he still wants to follow up with GHSA officials next week about the situation.
"I'm not trying to bad mouth anyone, but the GHSA is always telling us to get it right and that they want to get it right, so they need to change procedures so they can get it right if an error on the rules is made. I'm not talking about judgement calls, whether someone is out or safe or it's a ball or strike. That's part of the game. But if someone gets a rule wrong, there should be some way to correct that. Hopefully this can bring about a change so we can get it right the next time."