MIDDLETOWN >> The scene has been repeated a thousand times, a zillion times.
The winning players throw their gloves and hats in the air and jump all over themselves in wild celebration. The losing team hangs their heads and walks off the field in sadness. Such is life at championship games and it was played out four times before huge crowds in the high school playoffs at Palmer Field this weekend.
It happened at the end of the Haddam-Killingworth vs. Rocky Hill game when Rocky Hill’s Josh Zawisa walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh to force in the tiebreaking run in the Terriers’ dramatic 4-3 win.
But this was different.
The game was marred – and that’s the word correctly used on air by Hersam-Acorn radio – by, to be nice, questionable umpiring by plate umpire Craig Funaro.
By any measure, Funaro had a tough night. He struggled on balls and strikes all game. Hey, that happens. Pitchers have bad days, hitters have bad days, umpires have bad days. Teams have to live with that.
But what saves umpires is that when they are having a tough night calling pitches, they get rules right, they get interpretations right, they get the very big safe/out calls right and, here’s a huge key, are in position to make those big calls.
But Funaro’s tough night was contagious; it affected everything he did and sadly, he would end up being a big part of the story, when Rocky Hill’s kids should be the story.
No one comes to see an umpire work. People come to see kids play. The blockbuster crowd of 1,800 roared all night long. But some of what they roared at was the ump.
They had reason.
First, the umps are instructed to inform the press box of on-field changes. Funaro did not. Fans need to know when changes are made. We can’t tell them things we don’t know.
Second, in one case, he refused to grant a Rocky Hill player, Brandon Grover, a request for a time out and instead banged him out on a called third strike as the kid was backing out of the batter’s box. It was a huge call as there were two outs with a runner on third and Rocky Hill trailed 2-1. Rocky Hill coach Chris Farrell argued long and loud.
Then, incredibly, in the next inning, in exactly the same situation, he granted an H-K player a timeout while the Rocky Hill pitcher was in his windup. Farrell came running out of the dugout, I assume to politely ask, ‘What the hay is going on here?’
But No. 3 and the worst came in the sixth.
Long story short. Two out, runners on second and third, H-K leading 3-1. Griffin Bremer uncorked a wild pitch. It took a crazy bounce toward the Rocky Hill dugout. Seeing that, Farrell, who coaches third, sent the second runner in an attempt to tie the game.
Catcher Tyler Popp got to the ball just before it got to the dugout. That was too bad for H-K. Had it gone to the dugout, the ball would have been dead and the second runner would have been sent back to third.
Popp threw a strike to the plate. Bremer caught the ball, and appeared to tag the sliding Nick Bogus out. At least he looked out. It appeared to be an easy call. He appeared clearly out. Everyone thought he was out from here to the Bronx. Except Funaro. Who called him safe.
— Ben Talbott (@BirdsEyeSports) June 15, 2014
Problem: Funaro was 45 feet from the plate, in front of the dugout and was surrounded by Rocky Hill players who were, understandably, jumping all over the place with excitement. He had gone there to see that the ball stayed out of the dugout. But you can’t call a play at the plate from there. Just can’t.
Funaro got no help from his base umps. In a play like that, when home plate is abandoned by the ump, Umpiring 101 says the first base ump John Basso – four umpires worked the game – who had no other responsibility in this situation, has to cover home plate. Instead, he remained a statue, 100 feet from the plate.
Even if Funaro’s call was right, the failure of Basso to cover the plate is inexcusable. Somebody has to be there. Guys are going to miss calls. But somebody has to be in position. When you’re not, ask for help.
Mark Brookes, the H-K coach said, “The ump refused to ask anyone else. He told me he had a perfectly clear view of the play and that he was absolutely certain he got the call right. I tried to explain to him that it was a great throw and a great tag and that he was way out of position.
“He wouldn’t listen, and wouldn’t ask anyone. At that point, what could I have done?”
It happens. Sometimes games are badly officiated. It happens at every level. What makes this tough is that it not only makes the H-K loss harder for the H-K kids to take, it actually has tainted the Rocky Hill win and that’s terrible.
Heck, Rocky Hill might well have won the title anyway. It’s unfair to deny the kids what they won on the field. Those kids were not responsible for the umpiring. Farrell is a great guy and coach, I have known him for years, and I’m very happy for him. Ditto Brookes, who is as classy a guy as they come.
I had no dog in this fight.
But whenever this game is talked about, it will always come with an asterisk.
For both schools, that’s the real shame.