by the Night Writer
There is news this week from Canada about a youth recreational soccer league in Ottawa where a team that gets ahead by six goals automatically forfeits the game. It’s the latest devolution of the “Mercy” rules in place in most youth sports these days, though this policy is enough to make one argue for a “Sanity” rule. The message it inevitably sends is that “if you suck bad enough there will always be someone else we can make pay for it.” Sure, they’re just kids now, but they grow up with that mentality and the next thing you know you’ve got multi-billion dollar bailouts for businesses too insecure to fail.
That’s about all I’m going to say about the cultural implications of this mis-begotten policy, there are plenty of people to do that. It does, however, remind me of the time when I coached a girls (9&10 year-olds) fast-pitch softball team. They were all pretty much new to the game so my focus was on teaching fundamentals and sportsmanship and trying to make it fun. The league had a mercy rule that limited a team to scoring no more than five runs per inning. If you got to five runs, regardless of how many outs were on the board, you were done at the plate for that inning. You could, however, get more than five runs if extra runs were scored as part of the same play. For example, if you had scored four runs already and bases were loaded a home run would still add four more runs. You can read more about this league here, but we were undefeated going into our last game. In the last inning the other team scored four runs to cut our lead to two, and loaded the bases with two outs. We were playing on a field scheduled for a men’s league game immediately after ours, and while we weren’t in danger of going overtime, the men wanted to get on the field for their warm-ups. Clearly, intentionally walking the batter would score the magical fifth run, ending the game and preserving the win. The girls knew this, and my pitcher asked me if she should walk the batter. I said no, play it out. This made her pretty nervous. Meanwhile, the guys were clamoring for me to walk the batter so they could get on the field. I turned to them and asked, “Is that how you learned to play the game?”
That shut them down a bit, and I called a timeout and deliberately sauntered out to the mound, and called my infield together. I told the pitcher, “you can do this, and your teammates are here to make the play.” Everyone went back to their positions and a couple of pitches later the batter hit a soft pop-up that was caught by our second-baseman, who also happened to be the tiniest kid on the entire field. The whole team was elated, jumping around and hugging. I don’t think they would have been quite as excited if we’d simply walked in the “losing” run and walked off the field, and I can’t imagine that the other team would have felt they’d been treated fairly in that scenario.
Frankly, I don’t know if anyone on that team remembers that moment now, some 34 years later (though a certain former second-baseman might), but I hope they do. I hope that as they grew up they remembered that they had been able to test themselves, to develop their own skills and had learned how to trust each other as well. I hope they learned that you have to take risks sometimes to get what you want, while always playing within the rules. Along the way I hoped they learned that winning is fun, but losing is part of life, too, and that experiencing both makes you better able to celebrate with others when they win, and commiserate with them when they lose. While any glittery trophy they received that day likely now corrodes in some rural Missouri landfill, perhaps something purer still gleams inside them. Could one moment in one season made a difference? Perhaps not, but I hope that in later seasons with other coaches the same lessons and principles were reinforced and carried over into other areas of their lives.
After all, it’s in the game.