Being a 62-year-old curmudgeon who's spent the vast majority of my life as an ink-stained wretch, there haven't been too many times I've seen reason to embrace digital platforms over newsprint options.
But the Haywood High School baseball mess is one of those times. Video of Tomcats coach Dusty Rhodes' presumably profanity-laced tirade during his team's loss to Sequatchie County at the Spring Fling is all but required to fully appreciate why the TSSAA hammered the program with multiple fines totaling $4,500 and banned it from postseason participation for two years. For visual proof, check out this tweet from Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis.
While that punishment may have been unusually severe, it was also wholly justified given that Rhodes' bad and befuddling behavior — and bad is being remarkably kind here — was unusually disturbing.
For perspective, the gold standard in these parts for going bonkers on an umpire is former Chattanooga Lookouts skipper Phillip Wellman, who made arguing with officials something of an art form, even if it sometimes appeared to be a contrived tantrum. And yet Wellman at his most animated would have cringed watching Rhodes' explosion.
It wasn't just that a man hired to teach impressionable teenagers the value of sportsmanship, restraint and perspective showed none of the three in kicking dirt at the umpire who called an illegal pitch against his pitcher. Rhodes also — at least according to the umpire's report — called the official "a piece of (expletive)."
The length this meltdown continued and the fact that his own players had to attempt to restrain their coach surely played a role in the penalty.
To quote the umpire's official report: "Dusty continued to argue for over 10 minutes and would not leave the field (despite having already been ejected). His anger and rage were uncontrollable."
Read that last sentence again: "His anger and rage were uncontrollable."
Yes, it was in the Class AA state tournament, and a losers-bracket game at that, so the team on the short end of the scoreboard after the final out was done for the season.
It happens. It eventually happens to every team in every sport the world over that doesn't win it all. Life's full of such disappointments and not always fair. But when you're regarded as a role model, which all coaches of young people are or should be, how you handle disappointment is often as important as achieving success.
And by that standard, Rhodes will be lucky if this event doesn't cost him his job.
This isn't to say this situation is over. Nor should it be. Haywood administrators — who, given a chance to recommend punishment, sadly chose to go with a standard TSSAA penalty for a baseball coach's ejection of a two-game suspension and a $250 fine — will reportedly submit a far more severe penalty for Rhodes on appeal.
A technical point for why the TSSAA didn't deal more harshly with Rhodes: It can't. TSSAA bylaws don't allow the organization to discipline a coach beyond the standard penalty. Only the school can do that.
Or as TSSAA director Bernard Childress told Hargis on Friday: "It's a very difficult call for us because we are an organization that cannot discipline school employees. It's up to the administrators to take action that is appropriate for whatever the violation is, and in this incident, the action that the school administration had submitted was not appropriate for the behavior of their coaches. We have to penalize appropriately so we can send a message to others that this will not be tolerated."
Though the umpires appeared to handle Rhodes' tirade with a highly commendable amount of restraint, the reason Rhodes lost his cool might have been less praiseworthy. With Haywood already trailing, the umpire twice called the obscure hybrid pitching stance, which meant the pitcher's foot was in front of the rubber.
Rhodes had approached the mound after the first hybrid call, which results in a ball, then lost his cool after the second such call.
Coaches speaking to this newspaper on condition of anonymity have said this is a pet call with this umpire, similar to how some basketball referees call palming even though many don't. Of course, in most cases, it's called once — and given the fact neither the pitcher nor Rhodes may have been familiar with it, you wonder if the umpire might have at least informed the coach his reliever was still doing this and that if it happened again, he'd have to call it again.
There is a growing chasm between TSSAA referees and coaches in all sports in this state, especially come the playoffs with games played in Middle Tennessee. And while it's true the TSSAA is having more and more trouble finding folks willing to take the abuse officials are too often forced to endure, the bitterness in the coaching community is escalating toward the current batch of officials, particularly those in the mid-state region where football and basketball are concerned.
That said, nothing ever excuses the actions of Haywood in general and Rhodes in particular.
Maybe he should be fired and maybe not. But anything less than Haywood administrators instituting a one-year suspension and a lengthy anger management class for their high school's baseball coach should keep the current TSSAA penalty intact, if only to make certain that message to others is clearly received that behavior such as this will never be tolerated.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.