Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I've been having some real difficulty resolving an issue that surfaced last month.

You can read the story here, but it boils down to this -- a coach in a Little League championship game walked the opposing team's best hitter to get to a 10-year-old cancer survivor. The boy, Romney Oaks, struck out to leave the tying run.

Everyone is pointing the finger at Yankees coach Bob Farley, who ordered the walk. They're saying it was cruel to pick on Oaks. You know what I think?

Welcome to life.

Let me ask you something -- if Romney wasn't a cancer survivor, would there be any debate about this at all? It would just be a case of a coach making the right baseball move. This was a championship game, and as the coach you have an obligation to do the best thing for the kids on your team.

And when kids sign up to play baseball, yes, it's about fun and enjoying yourself. But there's also an inherent goal -- winning the game. And part of the learning process that takes place involves understanding the strategy and the art of baseball.

What really angers me is some of the crap I've read from Romney's parents and sports ethicists. Here's the first quote, from Romney's mom:

"Little League is the place they're supposed to learn how to hold the bat, how to throw and catch, how to field," said Elaine Oaks, Romney's mother. "It's not a place where you teach them to pick on the weaker kids."

If you really think walking the clean-up hitter to pitch to your son was "picking" on him, you need to remove your son from sports right now. Because the issue here isn't mean coaches -- it's your complete inability to understand that there's more to the game than just your son.

Walking a player to get to a lesser kid isn't "picking" on anyone. It's the way the game is played. Is it picking on Romney to put him in the outfield, most likely because he's not good enough to play shortstop? I mean, gosh, every kid should get to play shortstop!

And how horrible is it that this kid's own mother is saying her son deserves special treatment on the diamond? Wouldn't it be worse to have the pitcher just groove BP to the kid so he can weakly ground out to second if he's lucky?

Was there some kind of guarantee Romney wasn't going to get a hit? He had only a pair through 12 games that season, but he had succeeded in the past. Wouldn't it really be "picking" on the kid to treat him differently than everyone else? "Oh, you can't walk that guy. The kid batting behind him has cancer, and you know he'll fail."

Here's another quote from Jeanie Delay, who formerly lectured at the University of Michigan on sports ethics:

"What moral signal is given to the best hitters, as well as the Romneys, in the Mustang League? The fact is, the players on both sides will never know who 'won.' One of the problems with youth coaches is their failure to take their role as teachers of fairness seriously. If coaches taught fairness, that would be coaching's greatest ethical service."

Delay apparently isn't aware there was a final score. The Yankees, the team that walked the kid who had already pounded out a home run and a triple, won. I'm pretty sure if you asked all the kids who played that day, they could tell you that. They aren't stupid.

I get Delay's point -- that it was more important to teach the players about fairness than winning the game. Okay, so at what point do we stop playing nice and starting teaching the game itself? High school? College? Never?

Strategy dictates a walk in that situation, whether the next hitter is only slightly less gifted or terrible. Is it fair to warp the entire game for 24 players to protect one from getting his feelings hurt? Is that the right thing to do?

I feel sorry for Romney, but not because he struck out in a tough spot. I feel sorry for him because everyone -- his parents, his coaches, the media -- is treating him like a fragile little doll instead of what he really is.

Romney's a baseball player, and from what I've read about him, I'm also betting this kid won't quit. He'll grab his bat and go out to the backyard and have his dad throw him a few extra pitches, until he feels like next time he's going to get the hit to tie up the game.

At least I hope he gets the chance. That might heal both scars -- one from striking out, and the other from having everyone else in the world assume he couldn't succeed.

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