Who's Not Here and Why? One Story
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."