It wasn’t a moment I was proud of. The year would have been 1979. I was an 11 year-old little league baseball player. My team was one of the best teams in the league, losing only a couple of games until this particular day.
I wasn’t a big hitter by any means, but I almost always made contact, striking out only three times on the season. Two of those strikeouts came on this day against a hard throwing lefthander that I felt totally outmatched against. The level of frustration was high, not just for me, but for my whole team.
In a season where we weren’t used to losing, we were getting our butts handed to us that day. 17-3 after four innings to be exact. This is where my memory fails me. Either the mercy rule hadn’t come into being yet, or there were a couple of seasons where Little League played without it. Either way, games were played to the finish, regardless of score.
After taking our at-bats in the bottom of the 4th, we gathered our gloves and started to take the field for the top of the 5th inning. What happened next was unthinkable for a bunch of 11 and 12 year-old boys. Our coach gave up. He stopped us before we left the dugout, waving his arms and shaking his head. I don’t remember his words, but I know they were delivered poorly. The message was clear. If we can’t win the game, there’s no use finishing it. The game was over.
What came next is something that I hadn’t given much thought to over the years. I suppose because I thought I was just acting like a big baby when I reflected back on the events. It just seemed like a typical stupid boy thing to do. But now I realize I may have been onto something that was 100% correct and something that curses youth sports today.
In the dugout, our coach delivered some lame talk about how we had no chance to win the game and tried to explain why he did what he did. We weren’t buying it. I just grabbed my Wilson “Dave Cash” model glove and stormed out of the block dugout at Prichard Elementary School. We weren’t quitters. And I was mad as heck.
My big brother was on that team too, and we normally would have walked together to our mom’s car. But I stomped past him and started across the parking lot toward Main St in a manner that said, “I’m mad and I want everybody to know that I’m mad!”. I kept walking when I reached Mom’s car and she rolled down the window and asked me where I was going. I’m pretty sure that I simply told her that I was going home as I kept on walking.
Mom just let me walk. That’s the way she was. I guess I was cooled off by the time I reached our house about a mile away. Might have even felt a little foolish about it by the time night came around.
It may have taken me nearly 40 years to circle my brain back around to what was wrong with that day. And it wasn’t that I stormed off like a brat.
What happened then and what happens today is that adults are stealing the fun from the kids. And we’re sending them some twisted messages in the process.
Mercy rule? A Little League baseball team is losing 12-1 after 4 innings. Game over. The message for the adults may be mercy. Don’t beat somebody worse than you have to. Don’t leave a team on the field to be humiliated. Sometimes time and scheduling issues come into play. Yeah, I get that. But what about the kids?
Game after game, leaving the field without completing a game in a mercy rule loss (or even a lopsided win). What’s the message? Maybe in a kid’s mind the unintended message is that the only games worth playing (or finishing) are the ones that can be won. Maybe the importance of finishing even unpleasant things is lost.
I know how badly we wanted to finish that 17-3 game on that day. And I remember suffering through and finishing a 28-1 loss on a much weaker team the following year. We didn’t think it was the other team’s place to take it easy on us, and we certainly didn’t want the adults to end the game. It was ugly. But we finished.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that those are the only two baseball scores I can remember from the days of Pee Wee, Little League, and Senior League. It’s possible that enduring those lopsided losses turn out to be experiences that can play a big part in shaping the character of young people.
Don’t give up. Finish what you start. And if you don’t like the way things are going, then it’s up to you to do something about it.
No, I’m not really saying that we shouldn’t have mercy rules. But I am saying that adults should give some thought to unintended consequences of obsessing over scores. Kids love to play. Kids need to finish. And they should be able to find more value (and fun) in playing a couple of innings on the short end of the stick than they do in not playing them at all.
The same goes for the running clock time at the end of a lopsided basketball game. The spirit of the rule may be correct. But its execution leaves a lot to be desired. “This game is decided. Let’s hurry up and get it over with”. Meanwhile, in the closing minutes of lopsided games, kids who may be on the floor for the most significant playing time of the year, looking for brief glimpses of success, essentially have their court time cut in half (because you can’t win, you know). Rushed through.
If the only games worth finishing are the ones that are winnable, then where does that lead the mindset of players on an 0-10 team? Are the next ten games in an 0-20 season even worth starting?
Adults care more about records. Kids care more about playing. If they’re looking forward to their next practice and excited about their next game, that’s a huge win for any coach or parent in youth leagues. Most kids have at least some drive to compete to win. And most kids should be faced with a good number of games they have no honest chance of winning. They have to learn how to navigate those games and to not feel like a failure for losing an unwinnable game.
Play to win. Finish the game, regardless of score. Don’t let the clock run. Win or lose, learn how to deal with it. Maybe it’s a new thing or maybe I’m just noticing it. But I’m seeing a lot of adults, both young and old, that aren’t exactly setting the world on fire when it comes to coping, “dealing with it”.
I promise, when you’re 50, you won’t remember any of your win/loss records. And you won’t remember the scores of any of the games that you won. But you will remember the games and maybe even the scores of your worst beatings. And you’ll remember the times your coaches gave up.