No debate, Malone was a hit

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2003 at 12:56 a.m.

Sometime in the near future, if he hasn't done so already, the most prolific hitter in the history of Florida high school baseball will turn in his orange, blue and white home and away uniforms. It was a day he knew would come, however, the suddenness of it surely felt worse than a 90 mile-an-hour fastball thumping the funny bone.

You see, Ryne Malone is used to success.

As the starting shortstop, he helped P.K. Yonge to Class 2A final fours as a sophomore and junior, and this season, he obliterated former Miami Westminster Christian standout Bill Henderson's six-year-old state career hit mark of 239. But an 8-4 loss to Union County in the District 8-2A semifinals Tuesday night meant that Malone was out of swings, and his 265 career hits would end up second nationally to former G.W. Long (Skipperville, Ala.) player Drew Miller, who had 274 from 1995-98.

However, most organizations are saying they will discount Malone's first-year hit total of 56 (and thus, leave his "official" mark at 209 - 25 behind a ninth-place tie, according to the National Federation of High Schools) because that number came when he was an eighth-grader. In a way, that's fair, but in a way it's not.

Here's why:

It's fair because many states do not allow athletes to play varsity competition for more than four years. After all, these are "high school sports" and high school doesn't begin until the ninth grade.

"I've never been an advocate of kids being on varsity squads before they are freshman because other schools don't have that advantage. For instance, at P.K. Yonge, Malone, volleyball middle blocker Marcie Hampton and girls basketball guard Ashley McDonald starred and earned all-state recognition as eighth-graders. And the Blue Wave aren't the only beneficiaries of youth. Oak Hall's Stevie Uribe won a Class A 3,200-meter state track title as a seventh-grader and Lafayette's Natalie Land is establishing herself as one of the area's better basketball and softball players, also as a seventh-grader.

Athletes like those deserve applause for being able to not just compete, but thrive, at a younger age against physically more mature opponents. However, playing arguably the most singularly dominating position in high school sports - softball pitcher - Buchholz's Stacey Stevens led the Bobcats to the 5A final four as a freshman. Does anyone have any doubt she was good enough to play varsity ball as an eighth-grader? We will never know because she was in middle school, and thus, ineligible to suit up for her zoned high school that year.

That said, I can't fault any school that has an enrollment starting before the ninth grade for using younger kids who can contribute. The Florida High School Activities Association is fine with it (and has verified Malone's 265 as the state record), so while it may create a competitive disadvantage in some cases, it is completely within the guidelines.

Still, how can you tell an athlete with a four-year career in another state that has roughly the same freshman-through-senior at-bat, games played and hit totals as Malone that "sorry, we know you weren't eligible to play varsity as an eighth-grader but because Florida says he could, he gets one more season than you?"

But not acknowledging Malone is unfair in other accounts.

Statistics bear out that Malone, a Florida State signee, finished his Blue Wave career with 265 hits in 486 at bats. Miller, playing in a state that allows more than Florida's 28 regular-season games and also has a double-elimination playoff system, got his 274 in 585 chances, despite playing one less year. And that doesn't even take into immeasurable account that the talent level even in small school baseball in Florida likely is higher than that of some of the biggest schools in Alabama.

Using Malone's .545 career batting average as a barometer, if you give him the 99 more at-bat difference, he'd likely have around 54 more hits and thus, 319 total. But, you also could point out that if Miller had one more year and got his average of 146 at-bats, he would have about 68 more hits or 342 total.

So, what, if anything, can be done?

"Certainly, this can be petitioned and taken to the national records committee (which meets once a year), but I think it would be difficult to change the existing rule." said John Griffis, an assistant director at the National Federation of State High School Associations (and the editor of the national high school sports record book). "I can sympathize with this situation and we are not, with the stroke of a pen knocking out Ryne Malone's 56 hits as an eighth-grader because we know it happened and was a tremendous feat, but for fairness sake, we can't recognize it."

We can recognize this, though.

Based on batting average, hit total and on-base percentage (.787), Ryne Malone is the greatest high school batter baseball's most talent-rich state has ever produced. You can argue balls, strikes and records all you want, but you can't argue that.

John Patton is The Sun's high school sports editor. You can reach him by calling 374-5074 or by e-mail at pattonj@gvillesun.com

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