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Wednesday, September 06, 2006
The Ethics of Dogging It in Little League

UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh picks up on the Ethics Scoreboard's problem concerning a curious event at last month's Little League World Series. Here's the scenario:
On August 11 in Bristol, Conn., a Little League team from Colchester, Vt., only had to retire its Portsmouth, N.H. opposition in the top of the sixth inning (Little League games are six innings rather than nine) to win the game 9-8 and move on to the New England regional championship game.

But there was a problem. The Vermont team had made its third out in its half of the fifth inning before player Adam Bentley got to the plate. The Little League has a strict rule that requires every player to bat at least once a game, and the penalty for violating it is forfeit. Vermont's coach Denis Place realized, to his horror, that even though his team had the lead entering the last inning the only way it could avoid losing by forfeit was for Bentley to get an at bat. For that to happen, the New Hampshire team would have to tie the score or take the lead, requiring the teams to play the last half of the sixth inning.

Place held a meeting of his players at the pitcher's mound and instructed them to let New Hampshire score a run. The plan: walk the first batter, and ensure that he made it home with the assistance of wild pitches and intentional errors so the game would be deadlocked at 9-9. Then, hopefully, win the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, with Adam Bentley getting his mandated turn at the plate.

Not so fast. The New Hampshire team's coach, Mark McCauley figured out what was happening and ordered his players not to score. So after a walk and two wild pitches allowed a New Hampshire runner to reach third base, the player refused to advance to the plate despite another wild pitch and a fielding error. McCauley also told his players to strike out intentionally, preserving Vermont's lead but guaranteeing a successful New Hampshire protest that, under the rules, would require that New Hampshire win by forfeit.

This obviously led to a ridiculous spectacle: one team trying to give up a run while the other team was trying to make outs and avoid scoring. The perplexed umpires understandably chose to end the debacle by ejecting Place and his pitcher from the game. Vermont won 9-8 ... and then New Hampshire was awarded the victory by forfeit, because Adam Bentley never got his turn at bat. The New Hampshire team advanced to the next round.
The Question: Whose conduct was unethical? Professor Volokh's take:
the Vermont coach didn't behave unethically (though obviously he did behave negligently by not playing Bentley earlier). I also tend to agree with the Scoreboard that the New Hampshire coach did behave unethically, but I'm considerably less confident about that judgment.
Something oddly similar actually happened to me, and effectively ended my Little League career. My team, the Manoa Orioles, was up against its arch rival, the Nuuanu Dodgers (Manoa and Nuuanu are neighboring valleys on the island of Oahu, and there's some understandable tension). In any event, the regular season series was split, and we faced the Dodgers in the first round of the playoff. My Orioles were crushing the Dodgers, such that the umps invoked the "Mercy Rule" and called the game after five innings (we were winning by something like 17 to 3). We had a team party and went to bed believing we would be moving on to the next round. But, as it turned out, one of our players (thankfully, not me), had not played the minimum two innings. A parent from the other team noticed while reviewing the scorecard, filed a complaint the next day, and we were awarded a loss by forfeit (the Dodgers then advanced to the next round of the playoffs).

At the time, it was certainly hard to accept that result -- I imagine the Vermont players in the Little League World Series felt similarly robbed. As an Oriole, I wanted at least a chance to replay the game -- and that might have been the fair solution to the New Hampshire-Vermont debacle described above.

With time, however, I've come to rethink a bit my feelings about my own experience. Little league rules requiring each player to come to bat, or play a certain number of innings, are there for a reason. Professor Volokh's assertion that the Vermont coach was merely "negligent" for letting one of his players miss the minimum number of at-bats strikes me as inadequate. Instead, I would argue that the Vermont coach was unethical for not giving that player a chance at bat. Of course one wants to win, but the point of Little League is also to give every player a chance to shine, and to develop skills and experience. It's unethical to keep a player -- even a "scrub" -- on the bench just to eke out a win. Even if the omission could be said to be an "accident," it was likely the result of an improper fixation on winning and an inadequate attention to the smaller, less potent kid sitting on the bench. In my opinion, at the Little League level, it's better for a team to lose with everyone getting to bat than to win relying only on its strongest players.


I'm troubled by a rule that requires every player to have an at bat when the number of at-bats in a game isn't a set number.

I'm troubled more by the "innings played" rule in a game that can be shortened.

Yes, all kids should play. But let the rule apply to fielding, too. Sheesh. We never had that rule when I played Little League... and I'm not that old.

Anonymous tim in tampa -- 9/06/2006 12:54 PM  

I'm similarly troubled. If you have no certainty over how many innings are actually going to played, how can you reasonably plan around that?

Let's assume the game is tied going into the 5th inning, and then one team scores 10 runs to invoke the "Mercy" rule. This player should have had his 2 innings, but now you've lost that last inning. It wasn't like you were TRYING not to play him.

If the winning team can't refuse to offer mercy, then the losing team should at least have to waive these forfeit rights to accept mercy. Forget ethics - it just doesn't seem "fair" otherwise.

Blogger Tim Marman -- 9/06/2006 1:55 PM  

Wow. This is really an ethical issue! I suppose Mark Richt would ask, "WWJD" and then go from there....

Anonymous Anonymous -- 9/06/2006 3:08 PM  

Unrelated -- how about Ron Goldman's father going to court seeking to obtain OJ's right of publicity. Now there's a novel legal issue.

Anonymous john -- 9/07/2006 9:50 AM  

I understand the rules for everybody has to play in the regular little league games, because parents are paying good money and the goal is to teach and have fun more than winning, but the LLWS teams are "All-Star" teams.

These are the best kids, who played a lot during the regular season. Sitting on the bench for an entire game isn't a travesty.

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It seems odd to have to explain the ethics of little league but here goes. Violation of the participation rule is clear. Every tournament team coach understands this and the penalty is forfeit. It does not matter if it is intentional or an accident. An accident is very possible if you have ever coached youth sports. That, of course, does not make it acceptable.

The important issue here is making a mockery of the game which is addressed in Little League tournament policy. You cannot ask your team to intentionally lose a game to “win” by another team’s forfeit for violation of the participation rule. This would be to strike out or pitch erratically for the purpose of losing. This is in violation of the Little League pledge.

The penalty for making a mockery of the game is much more severe than a simple forfeit. It is alleged that the New Hampshire coach was in the process of intentionally losing the game to end the game and force the participation rule violation on the Vermont team. The Vermont coach recognized this and responded by attempting to force a tie to extend the game so his player could participate according to the rules.

What a mess. If media reports are correct and they were there to watch it, then the New Hampshire coach violated the mockery policy of Little League which is the ethical transgression. Reports from the field are that the Vermont team may have satisfied the participation rule if the New Hampshire team had “played their best” as dictated by the Little League Pledge. At worst, both teams violated the pledge. The best course of action would have been for the Vermont coach to play it out as they planned and protested the actions of the New Hampshire coach prior to the umpires leaving the field. As it stands, the only one punished was Vermont. In truth, both teams should have been disqualified and the most severe punishment should have been handed to New Hampshire for instigating the mockery and setting an example to the boys that it was acceptable because they “won” and made the big trip to Williamsport. This situation occurs with regularity in Little League and unfortunately the ethics suffer all too frequently at the hands of the officials. Please excuse the pun but Little League dropped the ball on this important ethical challenge.

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