Baseball Season Opener Special: The Little League Baseball Ethics Challenge

The Bad News Bears never had to face a problem like THIS...

The baseball season began March 31, with most teams, including my beloved Boston Red Sox, starting play on April 1. To salute this landmark, which annually signifies the date on which my mood changes from irritable to gay, I am presenting my favorite baseball related ethics post, from 2005. It is still a story with many difficult ethical dilemmas, one that explores the proper application of rules,  ethics, sportsmanship, the importance of winning, balancing the welfare of a team with the needs of the individual, and more. Here is “the Little League Baseball Ethics Challenge.”

Play Ball!

The tournament leading up to the Little League World Series included one game with an unusual series of events that set the stage for a fascinating ethical debate.

The Situation: 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: the team in the field trying to give up a run while the team at bat 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?

Possible Answers:

1. Place, the Vermont coach
2. McCauley, the New Hampshire coach
3. Both coaches
4. Neither coach.

There are good arguments to be made for all of the answers. And remember, neither coach had much time to consider their options.

When quizzed by reporters, a pair of sports ethicists chose 3. Both coaches.
Both coaches acted unethically, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida. “Anytime a coach changes how the game is played and orders his players to do something that’s not a natural at-bat or pitch, it crosses that line.”

Daniel Doyle, executive director of the Institute for International Sport, in Kingston, R.I., agreed. “The lesson is anytime you’re coaching kids, you never make a decision to use strategy to impair the integrity of the game. You follow that principle and you’re going to be fine.”

I do not agree. Denis Place not only did not behave unethically, he made the only ethical decision open to him. But his rival manager, McCauley, indeed was unethical.

Analysis: The dilemma arose in part because of the special objectives of Little League baseball, which are embodied by rules that occasionally work at cross purposes. Winning is important (remember that the game in question took place during an international tournament designed to determine the best team), but excellence of play is even more important, and excellence includes good sportsmanship. Co-existing with these straightforward objectives are the organizational goals of ensuring that all the young participants have a rewarding experience that includes the opportunity to play, learn and improve. Looming over all of this is the Little League Pledge, a statement that dates from the Eisenhower administration and is recited with reverence by the players before every game:

I trust in God
I love my country
And will respect its laws
I will play fair
And strive to win
But win or lose
I will always do my best.

The most important aspect of the Little League’s values is this: the kids…their health, safety, happiness, development, socialization and growth, physical, mental and emotional… come first. This is why the rule that caused all the trouble exists. Coaches, particularly in games like this one in which the winners are rewarded, will naturally want to put their strongest team on the field (recall Walter Matthau’s moment of truth in “the Bad News Bears”). The rule ensures that even the weakest players will get a chance to play in every game, and it establishes a hierarchy of values by the proscribed penalty for violating it. The kids come first: if all of them don’t play, your team loses no matter what the score.

The problem with the rule, like some laws, is that the punishment is effective as a threat but unjust and excessive in execution. If a game is really forfeited, the coach isn’t the only one punished; so are all the kids on the team and their families. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fate of the unlucky child whose failure to come to bat resulted, through no fault of his own, in his or her team losing a victory. The guilt and blame that will follow from the enforcement of this rule are far more damaging and long-lasting than the pain of sitting out one game.

Nobody thinks Coach Place intentionally kept Adam Bentley from batting in the fifth inning. It was simply bad luck; a hit or two by his team mates and Bentley would have come to the plate. When Place realized that his team was doomed if he didn’t find a way for the game to last into the home half of the sixth, he had three options, all of them bad:

  • He could explain his plight to the umpires and the other team, and ask them to waive the rule. In seeking this result, he would have been invoking a Reciprocity ethical analysis: “Wouldn’t you want me to be generous and merciful to you if our positions were reversed?” This would be futile, and should be futile. Changing a rule mid-game, even by consensus, is both bad practice and a bad lesson for the players. It is inherently unfair. It is not a proper application of the
    Golden Rule.
  • He could go ahead and let his team win in the top of the inning, have victory taken away by forfeit, and take full responsibility. This is apparently what the sports ethicists and the League felt he should do. It is essentially an absolutist approach: a pledge is a pledge, and not even unanticipated and unique circumstances justify going around it. Teams do not, can not and must not intentionally let their opposition score. No exceptions.
  • He could instruct his team to allow New Hampshire to tie the score, and hope that his team could win by scoring in the bottom of the sixth or in extra innings.

In choosing the last option, Coach Place was applying the balancing approach of utilitarian ethical systems. Using that method of analysis, his course was obvious. True, allowing the other team to score intentionally was superficially a violation of the League’s “strive to win” ethic, but in this odd instance it was really the opposite: only by allowing a run to score could his team win.  I would like to hear the argument that he was telling his players not to “strive to win” when what they were doing was essential to having any chance at victory. They were not throwing the game. Doing nothing would be throwing the game.

On the positive side, extending the game meant that Adam Bentley would bat, an objective so important to the Little League that it had passed a rule mandating a forfeit if it wasn’t met. Getting to play would be a benefit to Adam, and an even greater benefit would be that he would not feel responsible when his team missed a chance to advance in the tournament because of him. It also would give his team a chance to get credit for a victory it had earned by outplaying the other team. (It is worth pointing out that Adam’s failure to bat did not give Vermont any unfair advantage or contribute to the team’s lead. One therefore cannot argue that Vermont’s coach’s miscalculation in any way entitled New Hampshire to a victory.) It would avoid the anomaly of an inferior team advancing over a superior one, and avert a forfeit, always an unsatisfactory resolution of a game except to the beneficiaries of it, and often not even them.

Place made the right ethical choice. The arguments of the sports ethicists  are oddly detached from the actual situation of the Vermont team. Lapchick: “Anytime a coach changes how the game is played and orders his players to do something that’s not a natural at-bat or pitch, it crosses that line.” That is an invalid lesson for both baseball and life, and faulty ethics: an unconventional response to an unusual situation is not necessarily unethical. When a baseball player laid down the first sacrifice bunt some time in the 1880s, he was intentionally making an out…”unnatural” perhaps, but a valid and intelligent tactic that is now commonplace. Before something is declared unethical, there has to be a violation of some ethical principle. What is it in this case? The rules of baseball do not prohibit intentionally allowing the other team to score. Place was not failing to “strive to win;” on the contrary, he was striving hard, if unconventionally, while also striving to obey the Little League’s participation rule.

Doyle: “The lesson is anytime you’re coaching kids, you never make a decision to use strategy to impair the integrity of the game. You follow that principle and you’re going to be fine.” Mr. Doyle, don’t you think a result where the team that scores the most runs loses by forfeit “impairs the integrity of the game”? I sure do, and I’ll bet everyone in the stands that day would agree with me. The Little League rule that requires a player to bat at least once, while laudable in many ways, also impairs the integrity of the game (and it isn’t “natural” either, Mr. Lapchick). Following Doyle’s version of integrity in this case wouldn’t make everything “fine” at all: a victory overturned after the fact, victimized kids, a traumatized player, the inferior team advancing, a rule broken. That’s “fine”? Fine for whom?

Interestingly, Coach Place later said, without elaborating, that he could have accomplished his goal in a more subtle way, and he was correct. For example, he could have had all his players play out of position; a non-pitcher struggling to get a ball over the plate, his slowest players in the outfield, his weakest arms at third and short. Presumably playing an inferior team wouldn’t offend Lapchick’s definition of “natural” or Doyle’s version of “integrity,” which shows how shallow their analysis went. (Lest this sound too harsh, I should note that it is likely that neither of the ethicists were given much time to consider their opinions, and I think their AP quotes reflect that.) I regard this as a cosmetic difference only, what lawyers call “a distinction without a difference.”

He also could have waited to see if such strategies became unnecessary as a result of New Hampshire scoring a run without assistance. But the only way to make certain that his team would avoid a forfeit was to be proactive. Or so it seemed at the time. He was proactive, and his team still forfeited. Still, his plan was not unethical

What about the conduct of the New Hampshire coach? Easy call: unethical:

  • His actions were aimed at ensuring that the rule would be broken, not followed.
  • He was ensuring that a young player would not get the opportunity to bat, which his own League had decreed was crucial.
  • He was asking his players to lose the game, while Place was seeking only to extend the game…a critical difference.
  • By doing the above, he was attempting to advance in the tournament through forfeit rather than merit, thus exploiting a technicality in a contest that is supposed to be a measure of skill.
  • His instructions to his team constituted an effort to block a colleague’s good faith attempt to avoid breaking a rule for the good of his team and the league.

McCauley could have reacted to Place’s desperate strategy by having his team play it straight, and either win the game by scoring as many runs as possible in the sixth inning or by proving its superiority by winning in extra innings. He wasn’t willing to take that chance, and preferred to win by forfeit. That’s bad sportsmanship. It violates the spirit of the Little League Pledge. And he was trying to lose the game.

So whose conduct was unethical?

The  answer is 2. McCauley, the New Hampshire coach.

3 thoughts on “Baseball Season Opener Special: The Little League Baseball Ethics Challenge

  1. I was all set to blame the rules committee for creating a set of rules that allowed such a situation to occur, by not analyzing the “corner cases” for such a possibility, but then I did the math: 9 runs + 5 innings X 3 outs, is at minimum 24 times at bat.

    Unless the team had 25 players, Coach Place had opportunity to allow Adam Bentley a chance at bat and therefore failed to properly plan the player rotation, for which Coach Place is solely responsible.

    His strategy after that error was reasonable and no different than a sacrifice fly, it was just moving forward from where they were, within the rule structure of the game, to a win.

    If there was an ethical failing on his part, it was in the original mistake, not the strategy for dealing with it.

  2. Seems to me that the umpires should have permitted the home half of the inning to occur regardless of score. It’s not fair that one coach got 6 innings to fulfill his batting requirements while the other coach only got 5.

    Other than that, McCauley should have forced Place to load the bases and walk a run in and then start batting aggressively to run the score as much as possible.

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