Saturday, August 19, 2006

Who's Not Here and Why? One Story

Before every Little League tournament game, players and parents walk on the field and recite the Little League Pledge. Kind of corny, I know, but not a bad sentiment if backed up by action. The pledge reads:

I trust in God

I love my country

And will respect its laws.

I will play fair

And strive to win

But win or lose,
I will always do my best

Take special note of the "play fair" and "strive to win" parts, the casualties when the adults maneuver for angles to win without really winning.

Amy Wheelus, a coach with the Buckhead Little League wrote to me with a distressing tale about a game with the Warner Robins Little League in the Georgia state tournament. Buckhead carried 13 players—rather than 12, as many teams do—to give an extra kid the experience of tournament play. A technical violation in using that kid cost Buckhead a forfeit.

With an 0-0 score going into the bottom of the sixth inning, Buckhead tried to get something going with a bunt. But after falling behind in the count 0-2, the Warner Robins coaches held a meeting on the mound. What followed was along series of wild pitches. After that batter walked, Buckhead sent its 13th player to the plate for his mandatory at-bat. Then things got really screwy. Warner Robins started throwing wild pitches to get Buckhead’s baserunner home. The runner advanced to second and then third.

What was going on? The Buckhead folks guessed that Warner Robins might be trying to let Buckhead have the run, so the batter couldn't finish his turn at plate. If that batter did not complete his at-bat, Buckhead would be in violation of the must-play rule and forced to forfeit the game.

But the runner finally scored on ball four. With the walk, the last hitter completed his at-bat. Whew. Buckhead could go home a winner.

But Warner Robins protested—not that the 13th kid didn’t finish his at bat, but that another kid didn’t start a plate appearance with a fresh 0-0 count back in the fifth inning.

Here's what happened earlier in the game. After completing a triple play in the top of the fifth inning, the Buckhead guys were so excited that the coaches momentarily forgot to substitute one batter, who needed his mandatory turn at rthe plate, for another.

"As the first pitch came to the plate, I though, 'Uh oh, we forgot to send the other player in,'" Coach Amy told me. "I immediately went to the plate and put the new hitter up there."

The temporartily forgotten kid went to the plate with an 0-1 count. He finished the at-bat with a strikeout. No one protested the move at that point.

“We thought we had caught it in time and corrected the error," Wheelus says. "It was purely that a mistake by us, the coaching staff.”

But the Little League rule states that for an at-bat to count for mandatory play, it must start with a 0-0 count. So Warner Robins protested to the Little League poobahs in Williamsport. The poohbahs ruled that Buckhead violated the rule and so Warner Robins should get the victory by forfeit.

I called Mickey Lay, the president of the Warner Robins Little League, to see if he had any second thoughts about winning that way with a forfeit.

"Absolutely not," he said. "There should be no slack at all because the rule was clear. If the rule was vague, it would be something to look at. But because the rule was black and white, it was the right thing.

"I believe the mandatory play rule is very important and should be implemented. It's up to the manager to make sure that every child plays. If you know you're going to win in a shortened game, you have to get the players in early. To win this way [with a forfeit] is tough, but the rules are clear."

Even if the team makes a mistake and immediately tries to correct it?

"Absolutely," Lay responds.

Little League allows players who accidentally bat out of order to fix the situation on the spot. Seems to me that the organization ought to allow some slack in this situation as well.

Quick reminder: This is a game. A game for kids.

But there's something else smelly going on here. If Warner Robins had not taken a dive in the sixth inning, Buckhead probably would not have taken the lead. And so that kid who started his AB with an 0-1 count would have gotten to the plate again in the seventh inning.

Little League rules state that teams have to try to win. They cannot roll over for the sake of getting a better matchup in the later stages of a tournament -- or for any other reason. But the Little League potentates ruled for Warner Robins anyway. The word was that the technical violation of starting an at-bat with an 0-1 count is more compelling than a team trying to lose. Why? Because determining whether someone took a dive is a "judgment call."

Well, baseball is full of judgment calls that matter. Virtually every call an umpire makes is a judgment call. That's part of the game's beauty.

Wheelus was so passionate, I’d like to let her complete the story:

“I accept that we made a mistake – and by the ‘letter of the law’ we should be penalized. But what I can't accept is that the team from WR was allowed to intentionally shorten the game and potentially keep our player from getting that official at-bat. There was no reason to think that we were going to score in the bottom of the sixth and if we hadn't, the player would have been up in the seventh.”

“How can LL allow something like this to occur and be rewarded? How could that manager take that game out of his kids’ hands? They had played the best game of their lives and what did he tell them? I don't think you can win this on the field, so let’s ‘throw the game’ so that we can win it on protest?”

“Our players handled it with grace, but they felt cheated and betrayed. The kid that was the runner on base at the end of the game was mad several days later because he felt like the other team was mocking him by allowing him to advance and think that he won the game. We are now several weeks after the event and our players are still upset because they will never know what would have happened if the game had continued. Both teams advanced to semi-finals and we lost to Northern in the semis.

“We wrote a letter to LL asking them to evaluate the situation which goes against their published tournament policy but to our knowledge, they did not even investigate the situation. St. Pete and Williamsport would not even talk to our manager and get his side of the story. We provided the names of the umpire and several other managers who were in attendance and witnessed the situation, but none of them were contacted.

“LL has gotten to the point of being so bureaucratic in an attempt to protect the players that they have allowed a group of players to have the best game of their lives turned into a mockery by their coaches.”

That runner on the bases suffered more than his share of the dirty tricks. That player Rivers Patterson, was the batter who went to the plate in the fifth before getting pulled back. And then he scored the presumptive winning run in the sixth as a special pinch runner. Amy Wheelus emphasizes that he didn't make any mistake. The coaches forgot to pull him before he walked to the plate. Don;t blame him -- or any kid, for that matter.

One Buckhead mother put the matter into perspective.

"You know," she told Coach Amy, "this has given us a chance to talk to the kids about something that otherwise might not come up. It's an opportunity to teach about playing the game the right way."


Blogger CarrieM said...

I don't know if it is the internet or what, but we sure are hearing more of these stories this year. Yet, the MPR has been effect for many years. Perhaps we just haven't been aware that Williamsport's phones are ringing off the hook during the month of July...

12:27 PM  
Blogger epken said...

No this isn’t new. Again people your missing the point. Why didn’t the team just sub for the next player? I’ll tell you why. It was probably the leadoff guy or a better player. If you forget to sub then you should just remove someone you hadn’t planned on subbing for. Why is this guy waiting till the fifth inning people? Have some sympathy for the kids. None the coach. He’s an idiot. Nobody gets all the way to state without knowing the rules. It's a major part of the Little League game.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Section1Guy said...

I'm so on the fence with this. The rule is the rule, and you shouldn't be allowed to fix mistakes that determine winning and losing which a forfeit is.

You can't ask for a do-over if a kid misses his spot and leaves a ball up. That's a mistake, isn't it??

I love these people (like Charles Euchner) who want the game to be about the kids and should be fun and not so cutthroat....guess what, the Mandatory Play Rule is a ridiculous rule. Nobody should be forced to play anyone, but LL succombed to the pressures of soccer moms and Charles Euchner types...they added the Mandatory Play Rule and basically cut rosters from 14 to 12 giving that many less kids a shot at experiencing the LLWS, even from the bench.

Well now teams are losing because of incompetent coaching from this rule. And they want to give do overs. Basically they are its now okay to NOT play everyone.

You can't have it both ways Charles.

7:56 PM  
Blogger epken said...

I agree with Section1guy. Not to sound like a broken record. But for all the people who fully don't understand LL rules, I'd like to say one more thing. A sub in Little League has no specific spot. So the coach didn't have to wait to the 5th inning to put in his sub. And it was even more crazy to insert a sub with a count that late into the game. Just sub him for the next guy!! It was probably the coaches' son, so he didn't want to. Don't feel sorry for coaches who are waiting to sub. The reason there waiting to sub is usually they don't want to put in the lesser player at that moment. My 1998 District team (the last year of no minimum play) had 14 players. This year all of our district teams had 11. I like mandatory play, but this is what happens. It's part of the game like it or not. You think this stuff is bad. Wait till Little League puts in pitch counts. I have a feeling that's coming. You think these few examples of manipulation with mandatory play are bad. You have no idea how that can be manipulated. Charles Euchner will be able to write a whole book on that. Another good intentioned idea by Little League brass, that will open the tournament up to more and more manipulation. Remember you heard it hear first

8:19 PM  
Blogger East Bay Baseball said...

The previous commentator asked, "Why is this guy waiting till the fifth inning people?"

Perhaps because it was probably only the second time around in the order for Buckhead since the game was 0-0.

As a LL watcher -- all of three years -- I have come to view a 6-0 scoreline with suspicion especially if the favored team is on the losing side of the score.

One has to only go to to see all the games recorded as 6-0 because of the MPR violation. The problems began to arise after the rule was changed from three consecutive outs OR one at-bat to three consecutive outs AND one at-bat.

It was a huge problem in 2004 when slaughter results were overturned by the MPR. Two years ago, there was an infamous game in West Texas where one team was leading 20-something to nothing going into the bottom of the third, put its last remaining sub in the fifth slot in the order and unbelievably only sent four batters to the plate after scoring 20-something runs in the previous two innings ... leading to the charade of trying to let the opposing team equalize and therefore avoid the MPR forfeit -- and the other team swinging at wild pitches.

Beginning in 2005, the 10-run rule (or other game shortening events) trumps the MPR, so teams aren't penalized if they win by 10 or more runs but all their players haven't completed the MPR requirement.

Cases still arise, though. In our district in Northern California, last year's district champion and a heavy favorite to win states, lost on a MPR violation in the first game of last year's sectionals that it was hosting. You'd think they'd have learned their lesson but the same LL lost on the MPR rule in the semifinals of this year's districts in a twist on the Buckhead scenario (through a miscommunication between the manager and umpire, a sub was placed in one spot in the batting order by the umpire, came up in another spot later in the order and was taken out without completing an at-bat when it was determined he was batting out of order. The team only came back to within one spot of him properly batting, so it forfeited, losing 6-0 instead of winning 9-2).

Regarding the merits of the MPR, I would only add that all you need to do is to see the reaction of a kid who doesn't complete his minimum play -- whatever the circumstance -- but whose team wins.

It happened this summer in my son's team's third district victory, and the kid who didn't get to bat could have cared less our team had won its second game in a row on the way to six wins in six days to reach the championship game from the loser's bracket -- he was VERY upset. (I said "whatever the circumstance" because there can be really odd circumstances -- the player in question, the ninth batter, was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the second by his sub -- one small problem: our team batted around so the sub had to bat a second time in the inning. After getting nine runs after two innings, we got only one more run and only one runner on base in the next two innings, so the No. 9 batter never got up even though he had been in the field for three of the four innings.)

On last comment: I take the Buckhead coach at her word regarding the addition of the "13th player." But there is another reason to have used 13 players this season. If Buckhead didn't, it could have only had two (not three) coaches.

The new 13/3-12/2 rule -- meaning teams can only have three coaches if they have 13 or 14 players in the dugout at the start of the game -- seems to have been Williamsport's attempt to stem the tide in the reduction of all-star rosters. One consequence of the MPR after the requirement was changed to one at-bat and three consecutive defensive outs was that teams started to cut back on the number of players from 13 or 14 to 11 or 12.

(Again an example from my son's '06 season: It began the all-star campaign with 13 players, but because the requirement is 13 players in the dugout, not on the roster, it could only have two coaches in the first game since one kid was away on vacation when the tournament began. It added a 14th player after the first game. One reason was to get a third coach -- ie. an adult first-base coach -- after a key base-running mistake at first base in that first game.

The new rules seem to have worked, though not entirely. You only need to see if a team in the LL WS has a kid or adult coaching at first base to know how many players are in the dugout.

One final thought: I've made my living covering soccer for more than 20 years as managing editor of Soccer America Magazine but my passion the last few years has been LL baseball, following my son and his team's run as 11s and now 12s. The knock on youth soccer is the overcoaching that takes place, but it is nothing compared to the manuevering, all within the rules, by LL managers as they go about meeting the minimum play rule and utilize the special pinch-runner rule. I served as TD for probably a dozen games the last two seasons, and the manuevering by managers was dizzying -- more than we (umpires, scorekeepers, tournament directors and even managers) could often keep up with.

(Two months later, we're still trying to figure out what's the penalty, if any, for utilizing an illegal pinch-runner. Such a situation came up in what was the decisive, opening game of district play. After 20 minutes of reviewing the situation, no one seemed to have a logical answer. The one thing I learned was that reading the the Internal Revenue code was easier than reading the LL rulebook.)

Paul Kennedy
Managing Editor
Soccer America

9:51 PM  
Blogger epken said...

I understand its was 0-0. Your correct. But so is my theory. He didn't want to sub for one of his top hitters. So he ignorantly tried to put the kid in with a count. Don't feel sorry for him.

10:16 PM  
Blogger baseball mom said...

you are missing the whole point of this...the coaches that intentionally threw the game are as much at fault or more at fault than the coaches who made an honest mistake. There is no excuse for a coach instructing his players to intentional loose a game.

For the record -- The player that needed the at bat in the 5th inning was the starting Center Fielder. The coaches made the substitution in the bottom of the 2nd -- to get their subs in early!
And as Section1guy said, the score was 0-0. The 8 spot in the line-up only up twice.

The mistake that was made was forgetting to re-enter the starter and by LL tournament rules the only place the starter can re-enter is in the same batting order position. The re-entry was made as soon as it was caught -- but it was too late, ONE pitch had already been thrown.

6:09 PM  
Blogger epken said...

What I'm getting at is why did the manager sub before the starter met his mandatory play. Most people don't even no you can do that, and very ... very few do. My guess is: It was the second inning and there was a runner or two on. Maybe you had a big guy on the bench who could hit. So your manager took a chance and inserted him. A strategic move. I agree it's wrong that the coaches tried to loose, but you'll get no sympathy here that your manager is doing everything to win and either forgot or didn't know the rules. I guess he really wanted the kid to bat again in the fifth, didn't he? I feel bad for your son and the rest of the players, but I don't buy this guy was trying to get his subs in early. There's better ways to do that. And if you sub that way, it's the "cardinal rule" the subbed for bats when that spot comes up. Shame on him.

8:37 PM  
Blogger KMac said...

Here's a new twist on the Pledge and "strive to win"

Flashback to 2003 EMEA Seniors Regional Tournament. Saudi Arabia is playing Germany and has an outside chance to advance if they win and the tiebreaker goes their way.

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabi will not win the first tie-breaker which is defensive runs allowed divided by defensive innings played.

Solution.... give up few or no runs, make sure the games is tied and extend the game into extra innings (while not allowing runs)until your defensive runs average is the winning average and then win the game.

Sounds like a tall task but that is exactly what Saudi Arabia did. It took a couple of innings before officials figured out why the Saudis were intentionally striking out. Call goes out to Williamsport and the game is eventually forfeited by Saudi Arabia for "not attempting to win"

I don't know the answer on this one but the Saudi were certainly striving to win the tournament.

8:43 AM  
Blogger truthorcons said...

What Mr. Euchner failed to inform EVERYONE is that the game in question didn't eliminate Buckhead. This was a pool play game. They still made it to bracket play, and had their shot at the same Columbus team that is now in Williamsport. He also failed to let the reader know that the Buckhead staff choose to sub for that kid BEFORE he met his minimun playing time and made a mistake getting him back in. Another thing Mr. Euchner failed to notify the reader is that Buckhead is an elite program that closes out registrations in order to stay within Little League guidelines to only have to put one team the tournament. They also charge their players $250 to play in their spring season. Thats right, TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS! Whether or not WR threw the game, we'll probalby never know. However, when asked, the tournament director stated that he didn't see a thrwon game.

12:45 PM  
Blogger baseball mom said...

Buckhead has not turned away a child in the 8+ years that I've been involved in the program and there are many players who play on complete "scholarships".

This post isn't about Buckhead -- Buckhead admits and accepts responsibility for the mistake that they made.

This post is about the LL Tournament Policy that prohibits the actions taken by WR and Williamsport's lack of enforcing the policy....I've included the policy below for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Little League Baseball and Softball Tournament Policy
In a few instances during tournament play, managers have instructed players to intentionally pitch wildly for the purpose of allowing the opposing team to score runs. In these cases, the intent was:
to prolong the game for the purpose of extending it beyond the current half-inning, in order to fulfill the minimum requirements of mandatory play, or,
to lose the game intentionally for the purpose of influencing the tiebreaker system under the Pool Play Format.
In other cases, managers have instructed hitters and runners to intentionally take action that would result in being called out (to shorten the game for any purpose).

When it becomes apparent to the umpire that the level of play in the game has deteriorated (by the actions of either team), the game should be stopped. If, in the umpire’s judgment, either team is engaged in the actions above, the umpire should refer the issue to the Tournament Director, who should then contact the appropriate Regional Center for a decision by the Tournament Committee in Williamsport.

The Tournament Committee will not tolerate this type of behavior, as it undermines the values of sportsmanship and fair play that should be foremost on the minds of all adults involved. When such behavior is brought to the attention of the Tournament Committee, the Tournament Committee may impose penalties up to and including suspension or revocation of tournament privileges for the league, team, manager, coaches and/or players involved, and/or forfeiture of the game.

Note: This policy is not to be interpreted as a prohibition against intentional walks when used as a tactic on the part of the defense to set up a force-out, double-play, to avoid pitching to a strong hitter, etc. Such intentional walks should be considered a natural part of the game.

8:03 PM  
Blogger truthorcons said...

Obviously you didn't read the policy because the UMPIRE didn't in his judgement see a thrown game. It doesn't matter what headquarters, the tournament director, you, me, Amy, Euchner, Bill Clinton, or whoever you want to include thinks. The umpire is the end all in these circumstances and he didn't call anything. It was 100 degrees and the kid had pitched 6 innings and was probably tired.

Once again, you got your shot at Columbus just like everyone else. And besides, you guys weren't as graceful as you have been portrayed by Mr. Euchner. There were numerous confrontations after the game and in the parking lot. I think those who were there know what your program is about and have very little, if any, sympathy for you and your program. How many 11 and 12's did you send back down to the minors last year? Why? It is all to make sure you don't have to go to two divisions and send multiple allstar teams to the tournament. Mr Euchner, these are the questions you should be asking.

7:18 AM  
Blogger baseball mom said...

I believe that what was said in the article was that "the players handled the situation with grace." I do not believe the players were involved in any issues in the parking lot.

I respectfully disagree with your perception of Buckhead LL. You are welcome to come visit and we'd be glad to sit down and discuss any issue you have with our program.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Roman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:14 AM  

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