For North Medford baseball coach Brett Wolfe and his peers, they may have taken a hit last week but they're hardly done pursuing better protection for their pitchers.
In a 7-3 decision last Monday, the Oregon School Activities Association's executive board voted down a proposal by the state's baseball and softball coaches to amend the practice limitation rule in order to promote safety for their pitchers by allowing coaches to instruct pitchers and catchers two weeks prior to the March 3 starting date.
The practice limitation rule, generally referred to as the Rule of 2, states that coaches are not allowed to practice with more than two of their athletes outside their season during the OSAA calendar year.
While Wolfe said the Rule of 2 certainly has merits, it also could stand to be amended when it comes to the baseball season, which plays its first games on March 17.
"You can't get kids ready in two weeks, it's not possible," Wolfe said Monday as he manned the picket lines with his fellow Medford teachers on strike. "That's why major league baseball brings those (pitchers and catchers) in months ahead of time."
Wolfe said the baseball and softball coaches have written prior proposals to the OSAA before in hopes of amending the practice limitation rule.
"They've looked at it and considered it but have always turned it down," said Wolfe, entering his 20th season as head coach of the Black Tornado.
But this year, there appears to be a little more optimism with the executive board's denial. Even though the board voted down the proposal, it also encouraged the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association and the OSAA staff to look further into the issue and return with a modified proposal next year.
"My understanding is the reason they didn't want to go with the proposal this time was for fear of upsetting the balance of things this year," said Wolfe, whose team is the reigning Southern Oregon Hybrid champion and an annual fixture in the state's top-10 rankings.
"I think it will change," he added. "We have some pretty good people helping us and I believe they're doing research and looking to provide more documentation on how to keep more kids healthy in this sport, especially the pitchers. The OSAA doesn't want people hurt either. What they're trying to do is guard and protect the integrity of the coaches in all seasons. They're trying to be cautious and I think that's why they denied it this time, so they can figure out how to address it better for the next time."
The issue is one that has overwhelming support throughout the state, according to a survey of baseball and softball coaches. Rob Younger, an associate director of the OACA, presented the executive board with survey results last Monday that showed a change is overwhelmingly supported by baseball coaches (134-3), softball coaches (90-8) and by more than 80 percent of responding athletic directors.
"This year we're just going to keep it on the forefront and continue to talk about it," said Wolfe. "The main reason is, obviously, we're talking about kids who are growing and developing and you're dealing with soft tissue and the rotator cuff and elbow. You have to be careful, and you can't really get a pitcher ready to compete health-wise in two weeks. It's just not physically possible. They don't have enough foundation and arm strength, and you have to make mechanical changes to make sure they're on top of it all."
As Wolfe puts it, there is a tremendous difference between throwing and pitching. The latter is more of a skill that takes purposeful practice and a knowledgeable eye to oversee workouts.
"You have to be able to teach mechanics but also develop a strength foundation in order for them to be able to perform that skill," he said. "If you don't have that foundation, you may be mechanically correct but not functionally strong enough and something's going to give, either in the elbow or the shoulder, and you can really hurt a kid for a long time if you're not taking everything into account."
It's this repeated act of putting an arm through considerable wear and tear while pitching on a downward plane that Wolfe said separates baseball from other sports.
In making their final decision last week, the board expressed concern over setting a precedent for other sports to request an amendment to the Rule of 2 based on their own perceived safety concerns.
"If you look at football, for example, you can run your camps all summer with no OSAA restrictions and kids can get not only physically strong but prepared for a season with contact," said Wolfe. "For the dangers in that sport you kind of have a preseason to do that, and then you roll into the season with kids well-conditioned and contact ready. Basketball doesn't really have much contact and really doesn't have a skill that they have to operate that would cause injury like for baseball, where the shoulder is rotating over the top for pitching."
The OSAA executive board also had concerns regarding how such a change for baseball and softball would affect athletes participating in winter sports, and whether they would be more inclined to abandon those teams for a jump-start on the spring season.
Wolfe said he's always advocated athletes playing more than one sport, and the main avenue around that concern is simple.
"The key is communication with the other coaches because obviously they have a passion with their sport and you don't want to interfere with their sport," he said. "That's where you have to have a staff that's well-connected and communicates. It's part of the athletic director and coaches all working together."
When former Black Tornado standout Matt Maurer, for example, was at the high school, Wolfe worked out an arrangement where Maurer would come in at 6 a.m. two or three times per week on non-game days for his baseball workouts. That prevented interference with whatever practice plans boys basketball coach Scott Plankenhorn had, and the two coaches cooperated with one another.
"For a guy like me, you just had to get up earlier and get (to school), and so does the kid," said Wolfe, "but in return what you're trying to get out of it is for them to be able to compete with the knowledge that they'll be able to go through their season and be as healthy as possible."
The coaches want to ensure that more than just a handful of athletes get an opportunity to build a solid foundation before they're asked to perform on the diamond.
Wolfe said he's always operated within the guidelines of the Rule of 2 but had to lean on his players following through on a program he puts in place for them well before the season begins.
"It's my responsibility to make sure they're healthy," he said. "If the system doesn't allow for something better, then I've got to come up with a way to work within the system to make sure kids can come out of this thing healthy."
Beginning in September, Wolfe will work with two pitchers on a Monday and give them a proper training routine as well as necessary mechanics to focus on while honing their pitching skills. Two different players will come in on a Tuesday, and so on until no more than two players are seen in a given day but 14 total players can be given guidance in the span of a week.
After the foundation is set, other pitchers replace their peers so Wolfe's can spend at least some time with all the pitchers in his program, right down to the freshman level. With all given the same direction, then it comes down to the players policing themselves when Wolfe cannot be around.
"That way they all work through the same system and they can get into partners and go through their throwing programs and they can mechanically make adjustments with each other," he said. "My pitchers are able to look at the other and maybe say your head's flying out or your glove is not in the same place or your elbow is too low. They self-correct, and if there's something more going on then they can pick a day and a time and we can make adjustments with two who need it."
It's a means to an end, but certainly a logistical nightmare Wolfe would rather not have to deal with.
"What I appreciate is that (the OSAA executive board) is considering it," he said. "Do I want our proposal passed, absolutely, but I certainly understand why they didn't this time and hopefully they're willing to make an adjustment in the future."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry