Published November 20, 2014
Late on a school night, in a game already delayed because of lightning, Richardson Lake Highlands High School came to bat in the top of the fifth inning leading Dallas Samuell by around 30 runs.
Then they scored another 20 or so. The final score was either 53-0, like the scoreboard read, or 57-0, like the winning coach tallied it up. Worse even than the 56-7 Highlands win over Samuell in football this past season.
It was the most lopsided prep baseball game in state history.
The game has gone beyond just another blowout between a suburban program stocked with kids whose parents can afford out-of-season training and a school struggling to field a team in a low-income neighborhood.
It's already led to a change in the mercy rules in the local school district. Administrators hope it will bring attention to an often-ignored national rule that offers an easy way to end obvious mismatches.
Most of all, it reignited the discussion about sportsmanship in high school athletics, raising questions about how to handle being on either end of such a game.
Good thing, because the teams play again Friday night.
Lake Highlands coach Jay Higgins is among the dean of baseball coaches in Texas. His school opened in 1963, and he arrived in 1967, making this his 44th season. Last season, he made his 25th trip to the state playoffs, having gotten as far as regional finals twice. Also last year, he was inducted into the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame.
He showed up to the Samuell game with 783 wins. Although his Wildcats arrived at Pleasant Grove Field sitting at 0-5, having dropped three games by a single run and going down 11-1 in another, there wasn't much doubt his team would win.
Once upon a time, Samuell High was pretty good at baseball — state champs in 1965, the only such crown for a Dallas school. But these days, the school doesn't have enough players to field a junior varsity or freshman team. Samuell won only about three games a year when it played in Class 4A and this season was forced to join 5A, the biggest classification.
Still, first-year coach Mike Pena was 1-0 when he arrived for the home game against Lake Highlands. His Spartans had won 18-7 over a smaller-division school that hasn't beaten anyone this season.
Neither coach returned calls to talk about the game. However, by all accounts, Higgins tried to do the right thing. Once his team was comfortably ahead, Higgins pulled some starters and emptied his bench. He let his hitters swing away, but told them not to take more than one base. They didn't steal.
According to a community newspaper in Lake Highlands, the Wildcats had 44 hits — 38 singles, five doubles and a triple. They didn't have a single home run.
Samuell, meanwhile, didn't have a hit. Two guys reached on errors, so it wasn't a perfect game.
"We did everything possible," Higgins told The Dallas Morning News. "The national federation, which is the rule book we go by, says you have to play five innings before the game is considered official. That's what I was worried about if you stop after three innings and somebody comes back and says, 'Well, you guys didn't play an official game.'"
While Texas coaches follow the rule of ending any game when a team is up by 10 runs after five innings, or 4 1/2 if the home team is ahead, there is another provision that can apply. Rule 4, Section 2, Article 4 of the National Federation of Baseball Rule Book — used in Texas and most states — says a game can be ended early with the agreement of both coaches and the umpire.
"It's not ever been used to my knowledge," said Mark Cousins, interim athletic director for the University Interscholastic League, the organization that oversees public high schools in Texas, and a former associate director in charge of baseball. "We don't necessarily publicize the rule, but it's been in there for a number of years."
Elliot Hopkins is the baseball rules editor and national interpreter for the National Federation of State High School Associations. He said it was irresponsible that coaches wouldn't be more versed in game-ending procedures, but the umpires should've known the rule — or done something.
"We don't put common sense in the rule book, but we hope they use it. Nor do we legislate integrity, but hopefully they use that as well," Hopkins said. "With a game like this, you worry that a kid wouldn't want to continue. He might say, 'We just got smoked. I'm done.' Nobody wants any of that to happen."
It didn't. All 17 Samuell players returned for practice the next day.
The Lake Highlands campus is four miles from Covenant School, which drew headlines two years ago when its girls basketball team beat the girls from Dallas Academy 100-0. The winning coach was fired.
Darlene Wolf Moore doesn't recall that game being mentioned in the stands as Lake Highlands was routing Samuell. Her son, Ben Wolf, is a senior and the starting left fielder, and she is a staunch supporter of the Wildcats.
"It was nice to win, but that's not the way anyone wants to win," she said of the March 8 baseball game. "It was somewhat uncomfortable. We would've liked for it to end sooner."
As far as she knows, no parents or fans asked Higgins to end it. Instead, the Lake Highlands fans began cheering for the Samuell kids, she said.
"When a popped ball was going to the outfield, we were saying, 'Get it, get it,'" Moore said. "When they would miss a fly ball, we'd groan, 'Ohhhhhhhhh.' We were disappointed. ... They kept on coming out every inning. It couldn't have been easy. It sure did make you admire their gumption, their stamina, their dedication to their team."
Higgins did try to stop the bleeding by ordering his players to go one base at a time.
What else could he have done?
Some coaches let kids experiment at a new position, but that risks injury. Some coaches let kids bat from the other side of the plate or simply bunting back to the mound and not running out hits, but that's akin to giving up
Hopkins has some other ideas. Different. More constructive.
"Tell the other coach, 'We'll take the win, you take the loss. Now, you want my help? We've got 30 or 45 minutes left. Let's do some drills, let's practice some scenarios,'" he said.
"The young coach would come away with respect for the older coach and have a basis for mentoring. The kids would learn how to do a hook slide, or get rid of the hitch in his giddy-up and have more control. The umpires would get to teach, which would make them feel a whole lot better than being part of a lopsided game. Fans get to listen and watch and learn, and be part of something that is really good."
But, for a wayward program like Samuell, this might not be a one-time thing.
"So? If it's 24 games and 24 clinics, you'd like to think they're getting better, as coaches and players," Hopkins said. "Maybe they'll go tell their friends, 'This guy taught me how to throw a slider,' and a few more kids come out. Eventually, they can build a program."
Hopkins recalled how special-needs players sometimes get into a basketball game and make a layup or score a touchdown in football. There was that college softball game three years ago where two players carried an opponent around the bases after she blew out a knee during a home-run trot.
He doesn't recall any such heartwarming story in baseball.
"Playing high school sports is supposed to be a good experience. Kids have fun, play for their team, wear their school colors, learn time-management skills, respect for authority, all of that," he said. "We didn't see any of that in this contest. Everyone involved failed those kids. All the adults let those kids down. It doesn't mean they're bad people. We just need to do better and be better. And we have an opportunity do it."
Two days after losing to Lake Highlands, Samuell lost again, 11-1.
The day after that, the Spartans won.
The score was 9-5. Like their first victory, it came against a team from a smaller classification with a program even more downtrodden than theirs.
Samuell has lost all seven games since then, the closest being 8-2. The Spartans were shut out in the other six, giving up at least 13 runs each time.
It can't ever get much worse because district officials responded to the blowout by modifying their mercy rule. Games can now be called if there's a 15-run margin after three innings. And, coaches are discovering the national rule book provision to end a game by a mutual agreement.
"It's something that we as coaches need to be aware of," said Brian Jones, head of the North Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association and the coach at Dallas Jesuit, another school in the district. "We don't want anything like that to ever happen again."
As for the Lake Highlands Wildcats, they are 9-5 since the Samuell game. That makes them 10-10 on the season, needing a win Friday night to remain above .500.
"I'm not going to say that next time we are going to win, but I hope that we can play them better next time," Pena, the Samuell coach, told the Morning News. "As long as I can get kids interested in baseball, I'm doing all right."