(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lessons in Sportsmanship

You would have thought that those who coach baseball everywhere would have learned some lessons from the almost perfect game in Detroit last week. You would have thought that those lessons would include apology, forgiveness, honesty, grace under pressure and all the good things that are preached from pulpits -- religious and secular -- with great frequency (even if they're practiced only a fraction of the time).

The dramatis personae:

Jim Joyce, veteran umpire and a member of a petulant union that protects its members at every opportunity (then again, if you were a member of the umpires' union, you'd expect that protection given the abuse umpires take from fans, players and managers during the season).

Armando Galarraga, a journeyman pitcher who'd never thrown a complete game in his career, let alone a perfect game.

Detroit fans, who've had more than their share of disappointments over the years.

All ended up doing the right thing last week. Joyce, very publicly, gave and apology and expressed contrition over a bad call.

Galarraga was magnanimous in the face of a huge disappointment -- losing a perfect game owing to Joyce's blown call.

And the Detroit fans, who were gracious despite their disappointment and forgiving of Joyce the very next day.

That confluence of events shows what good people we can be if we put our minds to it. Humans err, but that doesn't mean they need to be publicly vilified, tarred and feathered or ridden out of town on a rail. People have grievances, but that doesn't mean they have to be profane and violent. Instead, honesty -- about the facts and emotions -- ruled the day. And what could have been a very ugly sore within the baseball world turned into a victory. All because those involved chose not to resort to the basest of human emotions -- anger -- but because they chose to dig a little deeper, put themselves in the other guy's shoes and treat people the way they'd want to be treated. The Golden Rule turned a leaden moment into pure gold.

So, you would have figured that everyone would have learned something like this, including the coaches in my son's little league game yesterday. Here's the situation -- runner on first, batter hits a ball that goes past the centerfielder, who throws the ball to the cutoff man. Cutoff man throws the ball home to nail the runner -- great throw -- but the catcher can't handle the ball, run scores, and the ball gets by the catcher. Catcher scampers after the ball, pegs it to third -- several feet before the batter gets there -- and there's no call.

It's clear to everyone there that the runner is out.

By a yard, at least.

Except the coach of the team at bat, who is coaching third base. Big (usually affable) guy. Signaling safe emphatically. Yelling "safe" a few times too.

The league deploys middle school kids as umpires. These adolescents have just begun to figure out who they are, and they're not about to take on adults (especially when they're not acting like adults, and especiallly when they're 6'4"). The kids get some training to be umpires, but the base umpire was out of position and hesitated to make the call. The coach of the other team is still demonstrating -- hell, we play to win, don't win? And, finally, the base umpire calls the kid safe.

There were catcalls, of course, and I was among them, though not at the umpires -- they're just kids, but yes, at the third-base coach, the coach of the other team. Why? Because he took advantage of a situation. Why? Because it wasn't a close play -- the kid was out by a mile. He should have learned from Jim Joyce, Armando Galarraga and the Detroit Tigers and been honorable about the situation, especially because the umpire didn't have a clue and the kid was so "out" that even the kids on the guy's on team said so. Instead, he muscled the weak -- a thirteen year-old -- all for the greater glory of one more out, one more run. I hope that he feels good about that, because it's actions like this by otherwise seemingly decent guys that have the parents aghast at grown men behaving badly in kids games.

Last year, our local league for kids this age group had 16 teams in it.

This year it has 10.

There are probably many reasons for this, but the chorus that I hear from the parents is that the parents themselves get fed up with the drama that amateur Tony LaRussas create in games that should be designed for good, clean competition. Yep, I want my kids to play hard and play to win too, but I also want them to learn to play fair, to shoulder disappointments, to pick themselves back up after making an error or striking out. Good lessons, all. The ones, though, that can stick in the kids' minds after the game, though, are precisely incidents of stupidity that can be very hard to explain.

Especially when they can involve seemingly good, decent people that you like.

Especially when they turn off more and more kids.

Especially when, well, it's a kids' game. By kids, for kids.

Isn't it?


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