Friday, March 20, 2015

Little League Ethics

Our local Little League does not have lights to play night games. Because baseball cannot be played in the dark, the lack of stadium lights imposes a highly unnatural rule on some of our baseball games: a time limit.

One of the truly beautiful things about baseball (besides that the defense has the ball!) is there is not normally natural time limit. It's what led Yogi Berra to say “It ain't over til it's over”. In typical Yogi style, his famous quote makes no sense and perfect sense, all at the same time. A team always has a chance in baseball, even when down by a huge margin, if they can just score enough before their final out.

It truly ain't over til it's over.

Until there is a time limit.

A time limit in baseball changes everything. It raises strategic and ethical dilemmas: Is it ethical to stall to try to reach the time limit and preserve a win? Is it ethical to purposely speed up the game to reach the time limit and preserve a win?

I have encountered these ethical questions forced by Little League time limits, and these ethical questions to me are critical. In my life, I strive for excellence. One goal is to achieve excellence in sportsmanship and ethics – especially in Little League. By definition, excellence is not easy to achieve. Excellence requires dedication. Excellence requires plain old fashioned hard work. Excellence requires a lot of thought and discipline. Excellence is the highest achievement for which I can strive, and I can think of fewer more important goals than setting an example of excellence in sportsmanship and ethics for our youth. This is serious.

In a baseball game with a time limit, the visiting team can take the lead in the final inning – only to have the game revert back to penultimate inning – resulting in a loss – if the time limit is reached. This is highly unnatural in baseball, but it does come up. Many tournaments must be on a time limit. Rain storms sometimes even impose time limits in Major League Baseball.

After much thought, I believe that speeding up a game intentionally under the rules, even in Little League, is ethical. I believe that slowing down the game intentionally is less clearly ethical, but can mainly be moderated by the umpire anyway.

Here is an example. My team will be the visiting Brewers, the home team will be the Giants. Going into the last inning, the home Giants are winning 8-6. The sun is going down, and the rule is that when the ambient light gets low enough, an automatic light goes on. When that light is on, there is one more batter. If the game's final inning is not complete, the score reverts back to the last complete inning.

On this night, the Brewers stage a valiant comeback. There was a walk or two, but our Brewers were hitting and running and scoring. They were jubilant. They had taken back the lead in dramatic fashion. Yogi was right, it wasn't over! Life lesson speeches on not giving up write themselves after comebacks like this one. This kind of come back is beautiful. It is powerful.

The Brewers went up 11-8, with only 1 out in the last inning! But now the ethical dilemmas start. If time runs out, the Brewers lose. Once that light goes on and the umpire calls the game, the score reverts back to last final inning. The comeback – officially – is erased. But it is not erased from the minds of the Brewers. It is not erased from the minds of the Giants. The rule is for safety, so there are no games after dark, and so umpires don't push it. But tell that to Alex when his game winning hit is nullified. Tell that to Andre, when his game-tying run no longer counts. Let the games begin!

It's the final inning. The Giants' coach takes a leisurely stroll to the mound to talk to his pitcher. And most of the defense. While infuriating to the opponents, a coaches' visit is well within the rules. It might even be advisable to calm down the pitcher and the defense. I conclude such a visit is ethical. However, the umpire MUST keep a tight leash on how long such a visit can last. Stalling must be controlled by the umpire, but I do think it is actually ethical for the team with that advantage to slow down a little bit: within the rules and within reason. What if a coach tells a kid to tie his shoe 4 times? This is pushing the limits dramatically now. But here again, I believe the umpire can have some control on the stalling. He can yell “play ball”. If the kid is tying his shoe on the base, that is his team's disadvantage. If a batter will not get in the batters box, the umpire can allow a pitch, and call a strike for each one. Soon, pitch timers will be part of the major leagues, like shot clocks in basketball. So, I don't believe there is strong ability for a team to stall the game with a strong umpire who keeps a lid on it. Of course, a stalling team could purposely try very hard to get no outs and prolong an inning indefinitely. Although the other team could counter, I think this would now cross the line for me into unethical. The stalling team would be purposely failing in order to salvage a win on a technicality: a time limit.

Now, what about the team that went ahead with a fight to the end and a dramatic come back, our visiting Brewers? Can those Brewers ethically speed up the game to bring the end more quickly? I believe this is ethical. After taking the lead by three, can they purposely make their final two offensive outs to get on to the field faster, and try to get their final three defensive outs in time? Can they purposely steal a base when they think there is a VERY strong chance they will be thrown out? Can they purposely strike out, no matter where the pitch is thrown? Or is asking kids to do that for the team going too far?

My instinct tells me rushing to outs is, in fact, an ethical tactic. Unlike excessive stalling, it is striving to finish the game to AVOID the technicality. It's striving to finish the game naturally, before getting to the time limit. In the words of the Little League pledge, it is “Striving to Win” – and I believe it is also “Playing Fair”.

I read an interesting story on Little League ethics that parallels my thoughts. I won't recount the whole story, but the link is here

Without retelling the entire story, one quote is particularly apropos, edited slightly to fit this current situation
“True, [running into an out or striking out purposely] was superficially a violation of the League's "strive to win" ethic, but in this odd instance it was really the opposite: only by [quickly making outs] could his team win.”

Of course trying to win cannot dictate everything. It has to be within the rules. But clearly, trying to steal a base is within the rules, and striking out is also.

The link to the ethics story also points out an interesting parallel. When we ask a player to perform a sacrifice bunt, s/he is purposely (probably) making an out for the betterment of the team. I maintain that getting outs quickly to finish a game before a time limit is in fact directly akin to a sacrifice bunt. I'd like to award Jack a sacrifice steal, and Justin a sacrifice strike out.

This is important to me. I want to do the right thing. I believe sacrificing for the good of the team is noble. I believe striving to win is critical to sport. I believe fighting to avoid the nullification of a brave and jubilant comeback is itself noble and ethical. I believe in running into an out. I believe in a quick strike out. I believe in the sacrifice bunt.

And I would fight that fight again.