This is a simple story, and a complicated one.
Simple, in that it’s about some ultra-talented, high-school-baseball players on Bainbridge Island who want to play in the most prestigious national tournament in the country — and have an invitation to do so.
Complicated, because COVID-19 has rearranged the high-school seasons in Washington so the tournament dates now fall outside the designated baseball season — Season Four, which under the new format runs from April 26 to June 27. That makes the tournament a no-go for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
So now you have a situation. Bainbridge High School, understandably is yearning to play in the event — the USA Baseball High School Invitational, March 23-28 at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, North Carolina. Just 16 teams receive an invite, and the winner is generally considered the high-school national champion.
“That opportunity is something I’d think a lot of these kids would dream of,” Geoff Brown, Bainbridge’s coach, said.
For a Washington school to receive an invitation is a rare and precious occurrence. But Bainbridge might have its best team ever. Word of its prowess reached Carter Hicks, director of baseball operations for USA Baseball, who put forth the invitation.
Bainbridge is loaded with Division I prospects, including JR Ritchie, one of the country’s premier right-handed high-school pitchers. Ritchie, who has hit 96 mph, just committed to UCLA. Brown played on the Jackson High School team with Travis Snider that was an undefeated (27-0) state champion in 2006 — and believes this Bainbridge team has more talent.
Two pitchers, Kai Francis and Nate Deschryver, have committed to Gonzaga. Another pitcher, Josiah George, has committed to Washington. Leadoff man Owen McWilliam is committed to Pacific.
“As a coach, as a former player, I know these teams just don’t happen (often) in high school,” Brown said.
Brown believes several of his players are candidates for the U.S. national team, and the exposure to the national coaches would be invaluable. It also would be a rare chance for East Coast college coaches to check out Bainbridge’s wealth of talent.
Beyond that, Brown believes Bainbridge’s participation would strike a blow for Washington baseball and bring exposure and prestige to the 16-team Metro League.
“The whole reason we do youth sports is to give kids opportunities,” Brown said. “And this opportunity is for a chance to one, put Washington baseball on the map; and two, give kids a chance to potentially make the USA team. And potential college opportunities as well.”
To Brown, it’s a no-brainer. And it wouldn’t be a problem under the normal baseball season, which traditionally launches in early March.
Now, however, it’s an uphill road for Bainbridge. When Hicks called the WIAA to do his due diligence, he was told that Bainbridge couldn’t participate because teams are not allowed to play in tournaments before their season. The reason is obvious: If Bainbridge got the two weeks of practice needed to prepare for North Carolina, in addition to a week of games, it would give them a leg up on the rest of the Metro League.
Mick Hoffman, executive director of the WIAA, is sympathetic to Bainbridge’s plight. He says exceptions to the out-of-season rule have been granted for national tournaments — but only when they are after the season and all the league, district and state titles have been determined.
“The problem with a preseason tournament is they have to start 2, 2 ½ weeks prior to get their pre-practices in,” Hoffman said. “They play these games, and then they come into their regular season, and the belief is it impacts the competitive equity within the state and specifically in their leagues or areas.”
Hard to argue with that logic. But it’s also hard not to recognize that the entire high-school landscape has been thrown out of whack by the COVID-19 pandemic. Provided it is safe to participate, is this really a time to take away yet another opportunity for high-school athletes who had their season yanked from them last spring? Especially when the change of dates couldn’t have been foreseen? As Brown said, under a normal calendar Bainbridge would already be four or five games into its season when the tournament begins.
Marc Wiese took his Puyallup High School team to this same USA Baseball tournament in 2015, when it occurred during the regular season. They are the most recent Washington team to participate. Wiese knows what Bainbridge would be missing. He believes ardently it should be allowed to go.
“It was probably the greatest baseball experience those kids have ever had,” Wiese said. “Their goal is to invite the best 16 teams in the nation. These kids get an opportunity to go play in the national training complex. They treat you absolutely 100 percent first class, like big-leaguers.
“It would be an absolute shame if Bainbridge is unable to go play in this event. For me sports is about creating memories for a lifetime, and this is definitely one of those events that all those kids are going to remember the rest of their lives.
“I just hope the WIAA can look outside the box a little bit. … Let’s not take more things away from the kids. And let’s provide them with as many opportunities right now, because we’ve all been limited. I hope every program in the state supports Bainbridge Island to go play in this event.”
Hoffman said Bainbridge is allowed to appeal to the WIAA’s Executive Board, and that the unusual circumstances of a COVID-19-based reconfiguration “would definitely be taken into consideration. Whether that would sway a decision or not, I don’t want to speak for our board.
“It would come down to the people who would maybe be adversely impacted by that, the other teams that play — what do they say? We would ask the league to weigh in and give a recommendation.”
I talked to four Metro baseball coaches, and two said they would support Bainbridge, and two said they had reservations. Pat McCarthy, the executive director of athletics for the Metro League, told me, “This tournament is outside of the season we have planned for baseball. It’s outside the WIAA rules, and our schools follow the rules.”
Back to Brown: “We’re not trying to get ahead of the game and have our kids all together just to be prepped for the high-school season. This is more about a big-time opportunity for the kids to showcase their ability and potentially have a chance to make the USA team. And on top of that, put ourselves up against the nation. And show what Washington baseball’s about.”
Brown believes the majority of the Metro coaches would support them playing. One who does is Doug Montgomery of Ballard, a perennial Metro contender.
“I think that’s an amazing opportunity for those kids,” Montgomery said. “I don’t see it as them getting a big advantage, starting up their season prior to us. That Bainbridge team is pretty stacked with nationally recruited talent, and so I think it would be a good opportunity to get some exposure for our league.”
Montgomery makes the point that many summer travel teams will be adjusting their seasons and playing games in March and April, before the high-school season, because of the overlap in June that didn’t exist before.
“The fact the kids are playing ball and the idea they’re getting a jump start on our season in terms of getting ready, I’m not as worried about that, because most of them are going to be doing that already,” he said. “Getting them together and putting on a high-school uniform for a tournament with national exposure like that I think is a good thing.”
Bishop Blanchet coach Mike Finnegan said he would enthusiastically support Bainbridge if the tournament were to line up during the season. But in addition to the fact it would get those extra weeks of practice, which he views as a significant advantage, the four or five games it would play in North Carolina concerns him as well.
“We have a 70 percent schedule,” Finnegan said. “That means instead of playing 20 games, we’ll only play 14 games. Playing a few extra games would again be an advantage.”
Another Metro coach said, “Yeah, it’s a bummer they can’t participate this year when normally they could. But we’re all making sacrifices where we can’t do what we normally do.”
The whole situation is, as Hoffman says, “a tough one.” He adds, “Of course we want to give kids opportunities, but at the same time one of our primary goals, the whole origin of WIAA back in 1905, was to govern for competitive equity. To level the playing field. Sometimes these things pop up, and you have to play the bad guy. We don’t want to break kids’ hearts. It’s not fun, but we’re also responsive to all the rest of our members.”
Brown said his ultimate message to Hoffman is this: “The big thing for me, you’re taking away opportunities for the youth. It’s not like this tournament is just some random tournament we fundraise for, where we’re going to go play a couple games in California or something. This is an invite-only, USA Baseball national tournament.”
Like I said, simple and complicated. Under normal circumstances I’d be swayed by the fairness argument. It’s undeniable that Bainbridge would have a distinct advantage over the rest of Metro by getting a three-week head start.
But under the convoluted reality of high-school sports in 2020-21, in a season in which there’s might not even going to be a traditional state tournament, following a lost year that robbed players of exposure to college scouts, I think a one-time exception is justified.
Enough dreams have been shattered.