Alex Pickett had been in a slump. When the R.A. Long senior put a perfect swing on a low, inside, 1-2 fastball from Woodland pitcher Trevor Huddleston Wednesday and ripped it towards the left-center gap, he didn't track the flight of the ball.
"I was excited that I finally hit something," Pickett said. "I just took off."
Woodland's freshman left fielder, Troy Flanagan, turned to chase the ball.
R.A. Long held a 1-0 lead in the third inning, with a runner on third base. Woodland had already defeated the Jacks in the first game of the doubleheader. If the Beavers could win Game 2, they'd clinch a district playoff berth and eliminate the Lumberjacks.
"I thought, 'Oh crap, this is going out. We're going to be down even more runs,'" Flanagan said. "I saw it go over the fence, and I put my hands up."
Pickett, charging for first with slump-busting adrenaline, didn't see the ball clear the fence. Most people in the ballpark saw the ball disappear over the unusually short left-field wall, but couldn't be certain whether it had first landed in the outfield grass, making it a ground-rule double.
It was "a line drive, a quick shot," said Rick Stonex, who was the field umpire. The velocity and low trajectory made it impossible for Stonex or plate ump Tim Hayes to "get wide" for a truer read of the ball's flight path.
"We just turned and watched it," Stonex said. "We were straight away and thought it bounced over."
A chain-link fence in left field at Woodland's ballpark is 31/2 feet tall, with 15 feet of tall grass behind it, then another, taller boundary fence topped with barbed wire. Both fences are fringed here and there by large tufts of grass. Viewed from a remove of, say, 20 yards or greater, the lack of landmarks or a solid, contrasting background make it a difficult horizon to discern.
"It's not very clear-cut," said Pickett.
"My wife was sitting in center field," added R.A. Long coach Jason Castro. "I was sure, and I still am, that it was a home run. She swears to God that the ball bounced in the field and then went over the fence. We debated it for a long time Wednesday night."
Both Stonex and Hayes saw Flanagan holding up his hands and, in lieu of visual evidence of where the ball had bounced, ruled a ground-rule double.
Castro protested. Stonex, and then Hayes, asked Flanagan what had happened.
"How many times in a baseball game have you seen a guy roll into a pitch and act like it hit him?" said Woodland coach Owen Frasier. "How many times do you see a guy foul a pitch off and act like it hit his hands? It's part of the game. It's part of baseball. You sell what you can get."
If the initial ruling had stood, Pickett would have had a ground-rule double and only one run would have scored. And if everything that happened afterwards went unchanged, R.A. Long would have won 5-1 instead of 6-1.
Of course, no one knew that at the time, Flanagan included. All he knew was that a home run hurt his team more than a double in the third inning of "probably our most important game of the season," Frasier noted.
"That thought crossed my mind," Flanagan said.
But when the umpires asked, Flanagan raised his hand, extended his finger and twirled it in a circle — the officials' signal for a home run.
Pickett, who had stopped at second base and watched the conversation (between Castro and the umpires, then the umpires and Flanagan), finished his delayed home run trot.
"If it wasn't for (Flanagan), I wouldn't have had a home run, because neither umpire saw it," said Pickett. "I thought it was courageous for him to go out on a limb."
"Usually, you just go with it, and let the umpires figure it out," added Frasier. "More than anything, I was shocked. You never see anything like that in sports."
"I probably wouldn't have been able to do that," said Huddleston. "I would have just let 'em decide it in the infield. But it was the right thing to do. Troy has always been an honest, good kid with good character."
Flanagan doesn't understand the fuss. He seemed surprised, and a little embarrassed, to be pulled aside by a reporter Thursday in the middle of batting practice in the elementary gym annex.
"I didn't think I'd be in the paper until I was a senior," he said, quietly.
Why not just let the umps stick with their first ruling, their best guess? Just...stay out of it?
"He hit a home run," Flanagan said. "I hate losing more than I love winning. But even then, you have to make the right call. That's the way I was raised. Do unto others as you'd want done to you."
Frasier sensed frustration in the dugout when the inning was over, and Flanagan took some ribbing from teammates. After the game, Frasier made sure to put the moment in perspective.
"You can look away, or you can do the right thing," he said. "We talk about character and integrity and doing things the right way all the time. We hope we're preparing kids to make the right decisions in life. And that's what Troy did. I'd love to take credit for it, but that's all about Troy and the way his family raised him. He was going to do that anyway.
"It was one of my proudest moments in coaching," Frasier added. "To be able to say, 'That guy plays for us. He's one of ours. He's with us.'"
Read more: http://tdn.com/sports/high-school/woodland-s-flanagan-makes-the-right-call-about-r-a/article_4b855d88-95b2-11e1-a6d7-001a4bcf887a.html#ixzz1uLGEJ6np