Eight days after being eliminated from the American Legion baseball AAA state championship game at Bill Gray Stadium at Legion Field, the Medford Mustangs’ season finally came to an end.
Unless the team’s parents find another broken rule to appeal twin seventh-inning collapses at the Northwest Regional in Missoula, Montana, that is.
Champions of Oregon for four years running — an unprecedented streak in Oregon Legion baseball history — coming into last week’s state tournament, the Mustangs did not win the state title on the field. They lost to the Mid-Valley Southpaws, 6-2, and felt wrong-footed from the start.
Parents and Mustang fans were upset that Mid-Valley brought in an 18th player on championship day: Briley Knight, who had spent the summer playing for his father, Brooke Knight, with the Corvallis Knights, a wood-bat summer collegiate team.
They should have been upset about it.
I was surprised to hear that Briley Knight was going to play. I knew he had been spending the summer with the Corvallis Knights.
However, Southpaws coach Troy Babbitt believed he’d jumped through every Legion hoop necessary to play Knight. State commissioners had even called national for a ruling on Knight’s eligibility and were told he could play.
It was only after the loss — the second in 24 hours for the Mustangs after they lost to Corvallis 7-6 in a nine-inning marathon walk-off — that Medford coach Nate Mayben appealed Briley Knight’s eligibility.
Mayben’s reason for appealing was Briley Knight’s playing status with the Knights. The National Appeals Board sided with Mayben, ruling that Mid-Valley violated both Rule 4.D, regarding player recruiting and transfers, and Rule 6.D, regarding team and player certification and dual participation.
That’s the background for the sordid tale that unfolded during both last week’s title game, and the past week.
What hasn’t been mentioned outside of Legion Field — and the thing that left me ambivalent about the Mustangs’ cause — was the conduct of Medford’s parents and fans.
That conduct, and the events that incited it, cast a horrid pall over an event that ran marvelously well for 14 games as the state tournament returned to Roseburg for the first time in 11 years.
Prior to every American Legion baseball game, Roseburg commissioners have the participating teams repeat the American Legion Code of Sportsmanship. Its primary purpose is to remind the participants about what it is to be a good sport and the importance of adhering to the rules of the game. It should also be a reminder to the fans to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner.
What I witnessed was anything but sportsmanship on the part of Medford’s followers. They heaped scorn and derision on the 17 Mid-Valley players and assistant coaches who were trying to celebrate a state Legion title that was 64 years in the making.
Their comments did nothing to Briley or Brooke Knight. Briley Knight, who will play for the University of Utah in 2019, left the game after being hit by a pitch in the right scapula and suffering loss of feeling in his arm; Brooke Knight deemed it more important to get his son checked out by medical professionals than to stay at the ballpark.
That left a bad impression, but was no excuse for the behavior displayed by the fans toward the players who remained.
Conveniently lost in the controversy was another chilling fact: Medford did not play well during the tournament. The Mustangs had to survive Beaverton 2-1 and Dallas 1-0; they got little out of a 12-0 win over Mid-Valley on Saturday, other than to use up one of their best pitchers.
Corvallis walked-off with a 7-6, nine-inning victory over the Mustangs, scoring three runs after the sixth. Medford committed four errors in the state title game, while its pitchers gave up seven walks and hit three batters.
In back-to-back games at the Northwest Regionals, Medford gave up three-run seventh innings to lose.
And that brought an end to the Mustangs’ season, complete with a four-game losing streak on the field.
As I wrote earlier in this column, I felt ambivalence about how Medford fared. I also felt sadness that a group of young men were denied their due because of rancor and gamesmanship deemed outside the rules.
I have no doubt that the American Legion was right in its disqualification of Briley Knight.
In other sports, when a state champion is forced to forfeit, the title is left vacant. There’s a part of me that wishes Legion had done that in this instance.
It would have put an even greater emphasis on the Code of Sportsmanship the Legion asks its players to follow.