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Saturday, June 20, 2009

You Don't Always Win Being Right All The Time

I don't know where I learned the proverb that is the title of this post, but I sometimes finding myself saying this to colleagues at work. It's along the lines of "pick your spots", "know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em" and "you might win this battle but lose the war." The linked article is a recent column by Rick Reilly of ESPN the Magazine about a college softball coach whose team won a game because of a rule that she invoked. You should read the article and determine for yourself whether the coach was right (Reilly doesn't) or whether what the coach did is what's wrong with kids' sports.

Reilly's article, though, underscores a theme that has bugged me while watching my kids' baseball and softball games this spring -- coaches behaving badly. Mind you, I'm not indicting these people -- most of whom are solid members of their community -- I'm commenting on a troubling phenomenon that will teach our kids the wrong things. Here are a few examples:

1. In one game, the coaches are umpiring because it's a makeup game and no umpires are scheduled. The coaches are each calling balls and strikes for their own pitchers. One coach is aggressive, barking sharply at the opposing players that the balls he's calling are close and that the kids should be swinging. That conduct was troubling enough. His team was leading, but the other team was rallying and drew within one run with men on base. Then, there's a close play at second base. That coach's player is obstructing the baserunner's ability to get back to second base. The opposing player stumbled headfirst back to second and was safe. So what does the coach do -- in a demonstrative, almost theatrical, way, calls the baserunner out because the league has a rule that forbids head-first slides. Forget about the obstruction, forget about the fact that the season was young -- this (at least at the time) Tony LaRussa wannabe needed to win the game. Needless to say, the other teams' kids were crushed, their rally ruined because of a technicality. A high-school coach watching the action (and whose son was on the team that benefitted from the call told me) that the call was wrong, and most of the parents left scratching their heads wondering why the coach had to act the way he did.

2. In another game, the scorekeeper for one team that is in the lead, up four runs, announces with two outs in the last inning and the bases loaded that the trailing team was on its tenth batter. The rules allow for a maximum of ten batters in one inning. The trailing team's coaches shout from the other side of the field, "no, it's only the ninth batter." The scorekeeper for the leading team persists -- he had his facts straight. He walks toward home plate and politely says, "No, I can show you, it's the tenth batter." The opposing coaches continue to shout, "Ninth batter." The scorekeeper then walks all the way toward the opposing dugout, facts ready, to prove that it was the tenth batter. Only when he gets right near the dugout the other coaches relent and say, "You're right, it's the tenth batter." Needless to say, the coaches insisting upon "ninth batter" were trying to get as many batters up there to try to win -- and by breaking the rules.

3. In the same game as game #2, the tenth batter is up with the bases loaded. He hits a line drive down the first-base line that is foul by two feet. The trailing team's first-base coach shouts "fair ball" before the umps can say anything, and he has his players scurry around the bases. The leading team gets the ball into the infield, but after three runs have scored, the batter ending up on third. They wanted to count the runs, even though the ball was clearly foul. And, if they had gotten the batter home, they would have claimed a tie game. Again, what lessons are being taught by this conduct?

4. Games have time limits of about 1:40 (read: you cannot start a new inning after you hit that mark), and there have been several instances of coaches whose teams were in the lead trying to convince the umpires not to start another inning before the 1:40 mark has been reached (you can play past 1:40 if you start the last inning before 1:40). Sometimes their lobbying has prevailed, thereby depriving the other team of a rightful shot to win the game.

5. An opposing coach was heard yelling (in a bench-jockeying fashion) to the other team's 10 year-old pitcher who was struggling, "How do you feel about that?" after the pitcher had yielded a three-run triple.

6. A group of coaches insists upon pitching only their own kids. Another parent has been a coach in many leagues and at the high-school level. He volunteers to work with the team's pitchers, because he sees that their techniques are flawed. The coaches say "we have it under control", and the team finishes in last place, their pitching horrendous. All I'll say about this one is that if I were a coach and a dad or mom showed up with expertise that I didn't have and offered to help, I'd take them up on it in a second.

I had the occasion to talk to other parents about their kids' collective experiences, and I spoke to one woman whose son is an eighth-grader and who has umpired in these games. Her son has gotten heckled by parents while umpiring a game for seven and eight year-olds, most of whom don't know the strike zone, how to charge a ball and what base to throw to. Even in those leagues, where instruction is supposed to be emphasized, the umpires get grief and sometimes played by parents who purportedly know the rules better than they do. And all I can ask is -- for what purpose?

Why? Because these are kids' games that should be fun and shouldn't be decided because of over-aggressive behavior of some fathers who perhaps don't have as much balance in their lives as they should. Look, I'll be the first one to agree that all of us can have bad days and make mistakes, and some of the behavior I've seen and heard of has come from guys whose kids are friendly with mine and who have coached my kids. But most of it hasn't, and, collectively, the behaviors form a disturbing trend -- of winning at all costs, of winning dishonestly, and of winning in an undignified fashion. Those aren't the lessons we want to be teaching our kids.

What motivates the pattern of behavior is beyond me. Sure, some kids will play in high school and some might earn admission to colleges because of their ability, with even fewer earning scholarships or playing, and with only the once in a generation kid from these parts making the Majors, and, if then, for more than a cup of coffee. Yet, you would think that some parents believe that through being more overbearing than they realize they will develop the next Chase Utley. But the last time I checked, only San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic seemed to develop boatloads of kids at once for the Majors. One can dream, I suppose, instead of teaching the fun and rewards of clean and fair competition, the need for exercise, and the good things that can come out of activities like this -- instead of simply winning.

A friend went to high school with a guy who became an All-Star. This friend grew up in the Midwest, and the future All-Star was an also-ran as a kid. He was the smallest, not the most gifted, but he was among the most determined and worked harder than anyone else. His high school career was just okay, and the kid walked on at a junior college, where his work ethic and determination paid dividends. After two years there, he went to a Pac-10 school (I believe as not even one of their elite prospects) and again, through hard work and determination, stood out. He ended up playing for about 13 years in the majors, starring for two very good teams. Of course, the guy had talent, but he worked harder and wanted it more than almost everyone else. He made it for many reasons, but not because his father invoked a technical rule early in the season to kill a rally, heckled an opposing pitcher or tried to play games with the lineup card.

Perhaps all coaches of kids' sports and all sports parents should take a step back and remember that. Yes, you do play to win, but fairly and squarely, stressing competition, preparation, smart play, hustle, teamwork and comraderie along the way.


Blogger FOOTBALL MAN said...

Great blog looking forward to your future updates.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

My niece plays kids softball in Florida and is ten. She is about the size of a juvenile flea, maybe smaller. Her dad pitches to her all during off season, so she is quite a good hitter.

The first game this season, batting lead off, she comes up the first time and the opposing coach pulls his outfield in very close. Brooke nails the first pitch all the way to the fence. Next time, same thing, only this time it clears the fence. That was the last time Brooke saw a strike.

The next game, she was walked all three times at bat. The fun of playing is not part of the coaches play book. How long has it been this way?

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your stuff, Professor, but you're going down a slippery slope here. OK, I'll admit that I'm still stinging from George Brett's pine tar home run against the Yankees ultimately counting when (as far as I understand it) he really did clearly break the rules. (And I recently read somewhere that the stickiness of pine tar on the ball-striking area of the bat is indeed thought to make the batted ball travel farther since it imparts backspin -- but I digress.)

There is usually a pretty bright line between "cheating" (in some of your examples), flat-out "poor sportsmanship," and strictly "playing by the rules." The rules are there for a reason and should be enforced. And if they are not normally enforced (such as the top end of the strike zone in the major leagues), then the rules should be changed to match how the game is actually played.

Interesting case of obstruction versus the illegal head-first slide. Assumedly the league made head-first slides illegal because they are dangerous(?). Then this is a rule that ought to be enforced (or repealed). And I have no idea whether obstruction or the illegal slide should take precedence. (I could argue it either way. The obstruction makes everything that came after it irrelevant; or the kids' safety is paramount, so the unsafe play trumps all...)

So of course you're right that some parents take winning too seriously and edge over the line of fairplay. That's just a fact of life, which of course doesn't make it right. And having a parent/coach do the umpiring is a recipe for disaster. Any game played under those situations should be considered a scrimmage!

8:08 AM  
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11:31 AM  

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