The grinch who stole a homer

Ashly Erickson, a 1B for Central Lakes College, hit a home run called back on a rules violation by the opposing coach. Courtesy Brainerd Dispatch

This column originally appeared in the June 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Some things are so small, so minuscule, so atomically insignificant, they can be seen only from three feet away using the Hubble telescope. The heart of Jean Musgjerd is one of these things.

She's the women's softball coach for Rochester (Minn.) Community and Technical College. Here's what Coach Musgjerd did -- and try to keep your lunch from rising up as you read:

It's this past May's Minnesota College Athletic Conference state tourney, and Central Lakes College is tied with Rochester, 0-0, bottom of the seventh and final inning. Central Lakes pitcher Olivia Graham has her first no-hitter going. Now, with Central Lakes at bat, she just has to hope her team can score a run to lock it up.

Sure enough, Central's freshman first baseman, Ashly Erickson, rips one over the fence. Game over. Madness erupts. As Erickson and her cantaloupe smile round third, some teammates high-five her. It's the greatest moment in her short softball life.

But when she touches the plate, the Rochester players begin shouting, "That's an out! She's out!" Then Musgjerd helpfully tells the ump that Erickson should be out since, according to the rules, teammates aren't allowed to "touch a batter or baserunner legally running the bases."

Central Lakes' interim coach, Heidi Rogge, was flabbergasted. She'd taken over only two weeks before, when the head coach suddenly quit. "I can't imagine a coach thinking that way," says Rogge, 28. "I couldn't be that petty. How can someone feel good calling that?"

The head ump for the tournament listened, shrugged and said, "Batter's out."

It was a walk-off-walk-back-on homer -- the first game ever lost by congratulations.

Erickson was crushed. "I thought, How can that not count? I hit it over the fence!"

So you can guess the rest. Graham lost her no-no in the ninth and Rochester won, 4-0. Musgjerd's integrity was in the Dumpster, but hey, her record improved. She didn't return my calls but did tell the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "You don't want to win in that way, but you have to play by the rules."

No. You do not want to win that way. Period. It's lower than mole excrement.

Worse, the Rochester players yelling "That's an out!" as soon as Erickson crossed the plate suggests the move was a stink bomb Musgjerd had been saving in her purse, ready to throw in the middle of somebody's parade. Who thinks that small?

I hate this kind of crap. There's nothing cheaper than using some tiny, unconnected technicality to rob somebody of her rightful moment of glory, won fair and square. It's the cheapest thing in sports: an adult pencil-whipping some kid just because she can. And my e-mail box fills up with these kinds of stories all the time.

I lost the pine box derby because a den master said I didn't fill out the form right.

They DQ'd our team because the coach found out I failed math class two years ago.

They said the goal didn't count because my jersey was out.

Makes me want to chew a hole through my desk.

For another thing, that's not even the rule! The rule states that the first infraction calls for a warning. Erickson should've just been warned, not called out. Would love to know what the umps were thinking on this. But they won't call back either.

It just didn't have to happen.

Remember what transpired just over a year ago in women's softball? A Western Oregon player hit a home run but, in her jubilation, ripped her knee touching first. Nobody knew what to do. Because of this stupid rule, her teammates and coaches couldn't help her round the bases. And that's when two kids on the other team -- Central Washington -- decided to carry her around the bases. Imagine that: sportsmanship.

The whole thing still leaves the 18-year-old Erickson wondering what the adult world is coming to. If she ever becomes a coach, will she make the same call to save a win? "No. No way. They would have earned that home run. That should be their glory. I'd let it go. 'Cuz that's not right."

No, it isn't. And if Coach Musgjerd has a thimbleful of self-respect left, she should call up Rogge today and forfeit the win, because both she and the umps had it wrong. She should say, "Turns out it should've been a warning, not an out. You win. Congrats."

Because, after all, you have to play by the rules.

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