Monday, February 16, 2015

Rules are rules

A couple years ago I wrote about the greatest act of sportsmanship I've ever encountered. It happened during a college softball playoff game when a batter hit the ball over the fence for a home run, the first (and what turned out to be the last) of her career. As she rounded first base, she tore an ACL and crumbled to the ground. Unable to stand up, let alone run the bases, her coaches conferred with the umpires who told them that in order for the home run to count, the batter without any assistance from her teammates or a pinch runner, would have to complete the circuit around the basepath. At that point, Mallory Holtman, the first baseman on the other team asked if there was any rule against the opposing players assisting the stricken batter. The umps said no, and Holtman joined by the shortstop Liz Wallace gingerly picked up their opponent and carried her around the bases, lowering her leg to touch each base and finally home plate. The run that the team in the field willingly gave up, ended up costing them the game and a chance for the championship.

Stories like this one should make everyone stand up and cheer because they define in the purest sense, what athletic competition is supposed to be all about. Baseball fans like to think of the game we call "our national pastime", as an institution that exemplifies all that this country is ideally supposed to represent: fairness, decency, and above all, in its rules that ensure every player gets his or her turn at bat, democracy itself.

In reality, when adults codified the rules of the game, thereby wrestling baseball from the domain of children in the mid 19th century, the overriding question on the minds of the majority of folks who have played the game since was this:  "How can I get around those rules?"

An early star of the game who later became an owner and big time promoter of baseball, Albert Spalding, described his game in typical nineteenth century bravado this way:
Baseball is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness, American Dash, Discipline, Determination, American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm, American Pluck, Persistency, Performance, American Spirit, Sagacity, Success, American Vim, Vigor, Virility.
You may notice that nowhere does Spalding mention honesty and fair play.

Granted there were some magnificent players like Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants and "Gentleman" Dave Malarcher of the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League, who were known for their scrupulous attention to good sportsmanship. Both players were documented overruling umpires' decisions in their favor when they thought they were the wrong calls. Needless to say, these two extraordinary individuals are in the minority in the annals of baseball history.

Commenting on the character of some of the most honored and cherished members of the baseball community, Bill Veeck once said:
Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils.
Veeck should know, he was probably as rowdy and raucous as the best of them. He made a career as an executive and owner of several clubs, by thumbing his nose at the baseball establishment, including their rules. One of the eminently quotable Veeck's most famous quotes is this:
I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity.
In his autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck, Bill Veeck took pains to point out the lengths of his mischief. Probably the most famous and notorious of his stunts came when he was the owner of the woebegone St. Louis Browns. On August 19, 1951, as a gag, Veeck sent three foot seven inch Eddie Gaedel up to bat against the Detroit Tigers. Veeck's stunts indeed tested the limits of baseball rules, ethics and sometimes even decency.

There was one rule that Veeck actively sought to break, baseball's infamous color line. As owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1947, Veeck signed the first African American player in the American League, Larry Doby. The following year he signed the great Satchel Paige who at 43, became the oldest "rookie" in major league history. Aghast, baseball insiders claimed that had Paige not been black, he never would have been signed at that advanced age. Taking aim at injustice, Veeck replied, "Had Satchel Paige been white, he'd have been in the major leagues for twenty years."

For his efforts, Bill Veeck, "the game's enfant terrible",  became one of the most beloved, and at the same time, most vilified individuals to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Another colorful Hall of Famer who didn't have too many qualms about stretching the rules, especially when they pertained to him, was John "Mugsy" McGraw, the longtime manager of the New York Giants. In his playing days, McGraw, a third baseman, had a penchant for grabbing the belts of base runners when the ump's eyes were fixed elsewhere. One runner got wise to McGraw, and while standing on second base between pitches, he unbuckled his belt. When his teammate at the plate singled, the runner zipped past third base and scored, while the embarrassed McGraw stood at third base holding a belt.

One of McGraw's most legendary escapades took place in 1901 when he signed a second baseman named Charlie Grant to his team at the time, the Baltimore Orioles, (today's Yankees). Grant was a seasoned professional ballplayer playing for the black team, the Chicago Columbia Giants. As the player was light skinned and had straight hair, McGraw planned to pass him off as a Native American named Tokohama, a name McGraw made up. Blacks of course were not allowed to play "organized baseball" in those days, while there was no such restriction on Native Americans. Before the season began and Grant was able to become the first black player to play in the major leagues in the 20th century, albeit not in the open, his cover was blown in Chicago, as he was well known here.

It was "The Old Roman", Charles Comiskey, the owner and founder of the White Sox who famously declared: "If McGraw keeps this 'Indian', I'll put a Chinaman on third base." Comiskey was not being blatantly racist; he played with and against many black players in exhibition games during his playing career and would have loved to have been able to sign blacks to his team. But rules are rules and Comiskey was only stating the obvious; if McGraw was going to play fast and easy with baseball's color line, so would he. In the end, the sanctity of the rule barring blacks prevailed, and Charlie "Tokohama" Grant was back with the Columbia Giants in a matter of days.

In a sense, Chris Janes might be the Charlie Comiskey of today. He's the guy who blew the whistle on the Jackie Robinson West little league team whose national championship was stripped away last week.  In his role as vice president of the suburban Evergreen Park Athletic Association, Janes saw it as his duty to report his suspicions that JRW was fielding some players who did not live within the bounds of that league's territory, in violation of Little League rules. Incidentally, Janes's team was handed a 43-2 defeat by JRW in the tournament, which I'm sure had nothing to do (wink wink) with his decision to turn them in.

Well it turns out that Chris "Without the boundaries, it's not Little League anymore" Janes himself is not above accepting players in his league who do not live within its boundaries. The night that the ruling on JRW was announced, a Chicago woman came forward and claimed that Evergreen Park officials forged documents so that her son could play in that league.

Janes denied any wrongdoing. There are actually no rules prohibiting kids from playing in leagues outside their home districts for the majority of little league activities, only tournaments officially sanctioned by Little League Inc.who runs the annual Little League World Series. Janes insists that while his league does accept outside players whose parents come to them, they do not actively recruit players, nor do they play those boundary-busting kids in tournaments that prohibit them from doing so.

Would he if he could, play kids who weren't from Evergreen Park in Little League Inc. sanctioned tournaments? Your guess is as good as mine but honestly I think it's clear he would.

I haven't a clue how JRW comes upon its players, but I strongly suspect that, just as most little league programs like Evergreen Park's, parents and kids come to them, not the other way around. The organization has been around for a long time, and is very well known. It seems very reasonable that folks from all over the Chicago area would be thrilled to get their kids into the program.

That does not excuse the JRW administrators of willfully violating the rules of the tournament. In fact, there are so many loopholes and waivers enabling kids who live outside the boundaries to play on any given team, even in the Little League tournaments, that it's truly surprising to me that the adults who run JRW didn't go the extra mile to make sure that all the players already on the team could legitimately play in the big tournament. Unfortunately they didn't, and that's why they find themselves in the mess they're in. Perhaps they felt they were just too busy trying to run a little league program made up of hundreds of kids, not just the thirteen kids we keep hearing about. Perhaps in their over-zealousness to gain attention for their program and the contributions that would help out an institution that does a great deal of good in a troubled part of the city, they overstepped their bounds and broke a few rules. Maybe they just felt the good they did for the community overrode the tournament rules.


I hear those cries coming over and over again from dozens of indignant coaches and parents of the teams that were vanquished by JRW in last year's tournament. One of those voices is that of Kristi Black who's the president of the Mountain Ridge Little League, who fielded the Las Vegas team that was the runner up to JRW in the tournament. According to Ms. Black, the tournament "has an asterisk on it like the one on Barry Bonds home run record." The coach of the Vegas team, Ashton Cave, compared JRW's misdeeds to those of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who like Bonds, was found to have used performance enhancing drugs.

I'll give you three guesses, who do you think Ms. Black and Mr. Cave believe should be crowned the US champion? Bet you won't need all three guesses to come up with the correct answer.

The voices of "reason" in defending the move to strip the championship from the kids who themselves did not cause this problem, claim that it's important to teach young people the value of respecting rules, and that a championship won fraudulently is no championship at all. In time they say, the thirteen members of the team JRW sent to Williamsport, PA, will learn a valuable lesson and be all the better for it.

I'm not so sure. My guess is that the lesson those thirteen boys will learn is that the world is an unfair place. What they will take away from this experience is that it doesn't matter how hard you work for something, there's always a chance someone out there will be willing and able to take what you earned away from you, especially if you're black.


With this I agree, up to a point. The Little League does indeed have a precedent for stripping away championships for rule violations. It would be unfair of them to treat JRW differently than other teams simply because they're black. What does seem strange to me is their one-size-fits-all system of punishment for transgressions. There is no redress, and there are no considerations of the severity of the transgression.

Most systems of jurisprudence I know of enact punishments that fit the crime. After all, we don't get our driver's licences revoked for a single parking ticket. Not so apparently with the Little League where it's one strike and you're out.

So where do JRW's transgressions fall in the greater scheme of things? I can sort of understand Little League Inc's philosophy of limiting players on a team to a confined community. But as I pointed out in my previous post, we've become a highly mobile society, and the definition of a community is much broader and more complicated than it once was. And as I mentioned above, there are petitions to be filled out and waivers that can be signed, that allow the de facto expansion of a league's boundaries. In my opinion, this legal end-run around the rule contradicts the spirit of the boundary regulation, if not the letter of it. Many teams take advantage of these loopholes.

Because of that, the question of whether JRW's transgressions created an unfair advantage for their tournament team is debatable. Remember these are twelve year old children we're talking about, not "ringers brought in to create a super team", as they've been depicted. To hear the folks who support the stripping of the championship talk, you'd think JRW enlisted Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols to play for them.

To me, far more serious infractions, perhaps worthy of stripping a title, would include fielding players above the stipulated age limit, paying families for the services of their children, players using illegally modified equipment such as corked bats, the use of performance enhancing drugs, or any other transgression for which no waiver or loophole would ever be considered.

Obviously you can't justify infractions by saying that everybody does it, but I find much of the rhetoric leveled at JRW to be vindictive, self-serving, and dare I say, hypocritical. If it were up to me (which of course it isn't), a much more reasonable punishment for boundary infractions would be limiting sanctions to the administrators, in the form of fines or suspensions. I regard revoking the championship from the children of Jackie Robinson West to be draconian, if not unjust.

All the talk going on in the week since the championship was stripped, seems to miss the point of children's athletic programs. Any reasonable person would say that the purpose of such programs is to not only teach kids how to play the game, but also to teach values such as teamwork and sportsmanship. Winning and losing are of course integral parts of any game but in no way should they be front and center in children's sports. Critics claim that by their actions, the folks at JRW placed winning above everything else, but it seems to me that the other teams' fixation on cheating and unfair advantages on the part of JRW, places a far greater emphasis on winning, than do the infractions themselves.

If the coaches of the teams who lost to JRW were truly concerned with the spirit of the game and not only about winning and losing, they would accept the outcome of the tournament, not try to make excuses for losing. It's their responsibility as teachers and role models to understand that it's just as important to teach kids how to be gracious losers (as the JRW kids were when they lost the world championship to a team from Taiwan), as it is to be respectful winners.

Of course there would be no game of baseball without rules. But not all rules are created equal; some are integral to the game, others are not. If everyone slavishly followed every rule enacted since the game's inception, runners would still be put out by being hit (or plugged, which is the correct term) with the ball, pitchers would still be throwing underhand, and blacks would still be banned from the game.

It's far easier to tear down that to build. The folks at Jackie Robinson West have done a magnificent job over the years, building an important institution in the city of Chicago. Tens of thousands of kids have walked through their doors since 1971 when the league was founded. It's true that their administrators may have run roughshod over some tournament rules, but put into the their proper perspective, these transgressions don't amount to much, little more than bureaucratic neglect.

Players like Christy Mathewson, Mallory Holtman, Dave Malarcher, and Liz Wallace, all understood that the game was bigger than they were. Despite having the rules in their favor, they all chose to do what they considered to be the right thing, rather than accept a ruling against their opponents that they felt was unjust.

By insisting that JRW's championship be revoked, then reaping the spoils by claiming the championship for themselves, the adults of the Las Vegas team are doing far more to undermine youth baseball than the adults at Jackie Robinson West. As of last Wednesday, the Las Vegas team is now the US Little League 12U Baseball Champion. Talk about an asterisk.

Most of us within the game or without, fall far short of the moral and ethical credibility of Mathewson, Holtman, Malarcher and Wallace. Like the proverbial warning about throwing stones if you live in glass houses, those of us without the integrity of those four, had better be careful before we start pointing fingers at anybody else.


Michael said...

I am not familiar with the rules of Little League Baseball nor am I inclined to become so. My initial response to the issue was one of support for the revocation of JRW's championship. I felt that anything less in view of obvious rules violations would be a clear signal that cheating pays. I am also aware that the kids likely feel they have been treated unfairly. I have yet to read (again I'm not terribly inclined to research it) just how many of the JRW kids were from beyond the allowable area. Did they know they shouldn't be playing for JRW (both the kids and the coaches)? Were they told it was okay? Did they even think about it? Just how common is it for proper waiver requests to be approved? I would like to think that Little League Baseball would consider a more flexible system of punishment; one in which certain waivers, etc., could be filed retroactively as well as a stair-step approach to other disciplinary acts. Yeah, it is a crying shame the kids have to bear the burden of this lost championship. Race may or may not have been a motivator on the part of the person who blew the whistle but I have no doubt that Little League Baseball, Inc., is racially blind. It is, to my way of thinking, simply a case of adults screwing things up once again.

James Iska said...

Lots of fault to go around, starting with the JRW folks. One of the problems as I see it is the inconsistency of youth baseball residency requirements. Put together a travel team of kids from Timbuktu and nine times out of ten you're good to go. Then LLWS tournament time rolls around, and the coach scrambles to get birth certificates, utility bills, school records, voter ids, mortgage receipts, you name it, just to make sure your kid lives within the sound your league park's PA system. The funny thing is that half of our son's travel team is made up of kids who don't live within the boundaries of our league, yet his coach manages to get waivers for them. Which leads to me to reason that if our coach can make a legitimate case for half of our team, so could have JRW if only they had chosen to jump through the proper hoops. That leads me to the conclusion that a residency requirement filled with loopholes is pointless and should be eliminated. It's certainly NOT an issue worth depriving a group of kids their hard earned championship. Punish the adults for the error of their ways if you must, not the kids.

As far as race is concerned, at the risk of spouting out yet another cliche, let's face it, race is the 800 pound gorilla in the room; it's a fact of life in our society that simply cannot be ignored. Little League Inc. reaped the benefits of having an all black team from the south side of Chicago win their tournament, and now rightly or wrongly, it is inevitable that they will face the consequences of being labeled racists for having taken away their championship.

And the whistleblowers, if, as they claim, JRW has been violating LLWS rules for years, why did they not bring up these allegations sooner, say, before they won the whole thing? Or is breaking the rules "cheating" only if you win?