You were supposed to read about Osceola’s playoff baseball game from Saturday in this space — a look at a possible return to the state tournament, or a season roundup.
But Friday I got the chilling phone call that the game was being forfeited to the other team, Timber Creek.
That usually calls for a news story. Instead I’m writing a column so I can add my two cents worth with a clear conscience.
The forfeit occurred after the eligibility of Hamilton Martinez, the pitcher in last Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Winter Park, was questioned. Why? In order to play in the postseason for their team, a player needs to be on the team’s roster for a minimum number of regular-season games. That number for baseball is 10; teams can play a maximum of 25.
Since Martinez played a bulk of the spring with a travel academy club, he didn’t start high school season in a Kowboys uniform; OHS Coach Scott Birchler knew about this in the fall, and it was confirmed in the spring.
When Martinez, who played for Osceola in 2018, continued to show up for home games — and a couple road games, Birchler said — because he wanted to support “his boys,” he and the coach hashed out a plan, allowed by the rules, for him to rejoin the team while managing his workload while pitching for the academy. Birchler said he texted the club coach — a player Birchler coached a decade ago at Dr. Phillips — about it.
"I told him, 'Since you're here every game, why don't you at least put on a uniform and sit in the dugout instead of the stands?’” Birchler said. “We didn’t bring in a kid off the street. He’s one of our own. He wanted to do both and we tried to accommodate him, we just didn’t dress him for every game after he came back.”
It didn’t become an issue until the day after the game and two days before the Timber Creek matchup, when the FHSAA contacted Osceola High and the school district. Birchler and his coaches looked into it — and only found evidence Martinez suited up in eight games.
The club coach then fanned the flames by tweeting that Winter Park was protesting Martinez’s eligibility — followed about a half-hour later by another post complaining the Kowboys had him throw 108 pitches after he had club outings three and five days prior. (By Sunday, that tweet was deleted.)
Despite the FHSAA telling Birchler the team was cleared to continue play until a deeper investigation concluded, he met with players and coaches Friday in the wake of the social media firestorm and made the gut-wrenching choice to forfeit Saturday’s game — instead of playing on and likely being told to do so by the state or his own administration.
“It wasn’t malicious. We made a mistake,” the coach said. “We knew there was a number. We just didn’t know the number.”
Someone or some group had to tell Winter Park about this. Who was it? I have a theory — I won’t publish it because it will make a lot of people mad, and the social media backlash won’t be worth it.
Yes, Birchler made a mistake. He needed to know the 10-game minimum. But mistakes aren’t a habit with him. Scott’s been around long enough to know what can be done to give a baseball program a foot forward, but he’s not one to cut corners, nor is he stupid. As an open comment to Osceola and school district administration, I hope the only fallout from this is that he and other coaches now fully understand of the rule, or we find a way for travel teams and high school programs to work more hand in hand.
I’m probably dreaming big about that last part. In the past I’ve said, “Travel ball is killing some high school sports,” but I’ll walk that back. I’ll just say that, based on last week, I know they can’t co-exist. It’s the story now for baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer and, in a limited way, basketball. A small handful of club coaches, who know there’s little a player can do on a high-school field that will get them a scholarship, make kids choose: play for the club team they pay for a spot on, or wear the school name across their chest along with classmates and friends.
By the way, here’s that shortened season wrap-up I spoke of. Next year will likely be some sort of Kowboy rebuild, as a dozen of them graduate this year: Jorge Rivera, Derik Diaz, Isaiah Rivas, Andrew Fernandez, Franklin Ramirez, Edgard Velazquez, Brett Birchler, Sam Brabant, Frankie Santaniello, Michael Russo, Jael Mateo and Keniel Carrion.