Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The People Have Spoken

In the New England regional tournament in Bristol, Connecticut, as punishment for not getting all of its players their minimum playing time, the team from Colchester, Vermont, forfeited a big game to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Portsmouth then won the New England regional tournament -- and a berth in the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

Colchester waited too long to get one of its kids up to the plate. Leading by 9-7 going into the top of the sixth inning, Colchester tried to get Portsmouth to score a couple runs to tie the score -- so that Colchester would bat in the bottom of the inning and the lost child could bat. Problem was, Portsmouth was on to the trick and refused to score more than one run. Colchester led 9-8 after five and a half innings, and so did not get a chance to bat again. Little League headquarters gave Portsmouth a 6-0 forfeit because Colchester couldn't get get its last kid to the plate.

This is, to say the least, perverse. Both sides were trying to fail, so that they would win.

I asked readers what the right approach to the problem would be. Here's a sampling of answers:

LET 'EM TIE THE GAME, THEN WIN: Personally, if I was coaching the NH team, I would let them give away the lead, then I would call my team together and say "Now, we're going to win this on the field." The punishment for not playing the kid was losing their lead. Now, my team would have a shot to win the game. I think the New Hampshire coach was just as bad for not allowing his kids to play ball. He should have been ejected as well for making a travesty of the game.

LET THE KIDS WORK IT OUT: I would have let the kids sovled this issued along with some direction or confirmation from the umpires and coaches. Your book really opened my eyes to these issues and I have noticed in all of the regionals that the adults and media are very much a part of the game and have a significant impact.

GET RID OF MINIMUM PLAY RULES: The problem is the LL rules. "Must play" rules are great for the regular season but should be dropped for the tournaments. Each team should be limited to a 12 man roster and leave it up to coaches who to play. Parents and players would know going in what the situation is. Presumably, all twelve players would have something to contribute and would see some playing time during any tournament. This is already the case in LL Seniors Tournaments. Why not make it universal and avoid these situations?

NO, KEEP THE MUST-PLAY RULE: That's a really unfortunate scenario, but the "everybody gets to play rule" should still be a cardinal rule for tournaments. As it is, the rule is relaxed somewhat for tournaments to one defensive inning rather than the regular season two innings. The principle is extremely important: everybody has a role to play in the team's success. This summer my 9-10 all-star team faced an opponent team that had a substitute/non-starting player hit a three-run homer over the fence. Tough experience for our team, but what a memory for that player and that team. Many great teams have superb depth throughout the line-up and don't just rely on a core set of dominant players.

On balance the fault here inevitably and overwhelmingly falls on the Vermont coaches. Especially with so much on the line in these regional games the coaches need to make substitutions early, even as early as the second or third inning if possible (no later than the fourth inning) to ensure that a scenario like this does not develop. With nine runs on the board, it seems unlikely to me that there weren't ample opportunities available to Vermont to make the appropriate substitutions earlier.

DON'T CUT THE VERMONT COACH SLACK: I don't accept the premise of your theory or question. Being a Little League president and coach for 13 years my guess is the reason he didn't get the kid in is not that he forgot. It probably was because it was a tight game and he didn't want to sub at that point. There's no reason a coach that made it to the region final should ever fall into this situation. I'd accept this happening in a district game were you have coaches who don't know or understand the rules. Why do you think it's happening so much in the regions? The coaches are holding back, gambling. When you gamble you lose sometimes. As someone who's coached 6 district teams, 4 advancing to state, I don't believe any of these coaches forgot.

CHARLIE EUCHNER'S RESPONSE: I like the idea of leaving it to the kids to sort things out. It's a travesty for both teams to try to fail, and it's an even further travesty for issues like this to be settled through bureaucratic fiat. Maybe the kids should come up with a solution to submit to the umpire for a final decision.

One approach familiar to kids in pickup games is to have a do-over. If Colchester took a two-run lead in the fifth, why not wipe it off the books and play the inning over? Of course, this option should not be available to a team losing in the game. You say it's too soft a response to a rule infraction? I say, remember this is a game for kids.

Then there's the hockey approach: A power play. When a player commits an infraction from an NHL game, the response is to give a very real advantage to the other side by removing the player from the ice. Why can't baseball handicap the team responsible for a SNAFU, innocent or not? This is radical, I know, but when a team like Vermont goofs and you need a do-over, maybe they should get only two outs in the inning or two strikes at the plate. (I've always thought that major-league teams arguing with umps should be undermanned after the player gets ejected. I don;t care about all the "tradition" claptrap. Screaming and kicking dirt is a stupid waste of time and an insult to everyone in the stadium.)

I don't agree with scotching the minimum-play rule for the summer tournaments. Little League has already been compromised enough by the do-anything-to-win mentality. Let all the kids play. Quite simply, does the game exist for all the kids or for the adults to mastermind victories?

I agree with the comment that managers have to work harder to get all their kids in the game. In two regional final games -- the Alaska-Oregon finale in Northwest region and the Louisiana-Mississippi finale in the Southwest -- the managers tempted fate by waiting until the last inning for minimum-play substitutions. Come on, guys. If all the kids were good enough to make the team, get them in the game. You send an ugly message to the kid when you are so reluctant to use him that you risk a forfeit.

Last year, a kid named Michael Mowatt was a reserve player for the whole summer of qualifying tournaments for Maine. So what did he do in the Little League World Series? He hit two homers and led all players in slugging percentage.

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