THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
It was around 2011 when I was in my third year of managing a summer baseball team for kids aged 15 to 19. After completing a difficult regular season, we had reached the playoffs and were about to start an early-round single-elimination game that would send the losing team home for the summer.
After the exchange of lineup cards with the other manager and the umpires, I noticed something that seemed incorrect. Some of the names of the players listed on the lineup card for the other team were unfamiliar. The league had provided teams with finalized rosters, so I decided to crosscheck. Sure enough, there were names in our opponent’s starting lineup that were not listed on their roster provided by the league.
I asked the umpires for a moment to confer with my coaches before starting the game. We wondered if this oddity was a clerical error by the league or an illegal attempt to use better players to win. While debating with my coaches, the umpires came over and asked about the concern. We looped them in and explained the situation. After a few moments of questioning and debating, I informed the umpires that I felt the correct thing for me to do was to play the game under protest, which invokes a baseball rule that forces league officials to examine the situation and adjudicate if the game was played properly or not. I justified it by saying that if it was a simple clerical error on the part of the league, then there would be no issue; however, if something nefarious was afoot, I wanted to put a stop to it.
The umpires understood and went to discuss the situation by themselves. While my staff and I remained outside our dugout wondering if this was the correct decision, I verbalized my concern with a feeling of guilt.
“You know,” I said, “I really don’t want to come across as someone who wants to win at all costs. But I’m afraid that’s what they’re trying to do, and I don’t want to put our kids at a disadvantage.”
“Don’t worry,” said Dan, the first base coach and bullpen coach. “It is your fiduciary duty and responsibility to make this determination. You did the right thing.”
Dan was right. If the other team was truly trying to cheat, I would be doing my own team a disservice if I didn’t defend my players from a blatant violation of the rules. Further, I could relax knowing I had chosen to address the situation calmly, coolly, and collectively. I wasn’t throwing a tantrum or embarrassing anyone, nor was I arguing with an umpire over a judgement call that would likely not result in anything positive; I was merely fulfilling my duty to put my kids in the best possible position to win. If we were going to lose that day, we should lose fairly, not because our opponent had an illegal advantage over us.
The umpires came back to our side and agreed that we could play the game under protest. Their rationale was the same as mine: if it was a clerical error by the league, then none of this would matter. However, if the other team was cheating, the league would be required to step in. I thanked them again while restating that I didn’t want to come across as the bad guy. They understood and went to the other team to tell them of their decision.
It wasn’t a few moments into their discussion with the other team that one of the opposing coaches started yelling at us from across the field. “You think we’re cheaters?!? You don’t have the guts to come over here and say that to our face!!!” Immediately, I felt like I had made a mistake. I became ridden with guilt and embarrassment because I had caused a conflict primed with bad behavior and poor sportsmanship, and yet, I was the one questioning whether our opponents were cheating. I wanted to run and hide.
My players began to ask why the opposing coach was yelling at us. I gathered them around into a tightly packed group so they could hear me over the shouts from across the field. “Guys,” I said quietly, “I need you to listen to me carefully so I can explain what just happened.” A serious tenor came across the faces of these young men. “I crosschecked their lineup card with the roster provided by the league, and I saw names in their lineup that were not listed on the roster, so I asked the umpires to play the game under protest in the event that the other team is trying to cheat.”
A tense silence grew among the kids. They were already nervous because of the weight of this game. Now, I couldn’t tell if it was worse.
“I didn’t want to make that decision,” I continued, “But I wanted the playing field to be level. You have all worked so hard to get to this point. If you don’t win today, I want it to be because the other team was better, not because they cheated.”
Some of the parents of my kids were gathering near the dugout and could hear what I was saying. I let them stay purely because I didn’t want to have to explain myself a second time. It was difficult enough to verbalize it once.
“You guys have what it takes to go out there and win, regardless of who is on the other side,” I said. “The most important thing right now is that you have fun, play hard, and leave everything you’ve got out there today. I’ll be proud of you no matter what happens, and all I ask is that you win and lose with grace, dignity, and respect.”
A new determination was beginning to set in among the kids. Maybe they were motivated by the fact that someone thought we would be easy to fool. Perhaps they were strengthened by the idea that another team thought the only way they could defeat us was to cheat. Regardless, they broke from the huddle with a confidence and a unity I hadn’t seen in them that season. I sat down and didn’t leave the dugout all game, scared that someone from the opposing side would hurl more hurtful comments my way.
We demolished the other team that day, advancing to the next round and eventually to our second consecutive championship. When the teams shook hands after the game, the same coach who had been yelling prior to the game refused to shake my hand; I still felt horrible that I had to do what I did, but I took some solace in the fact that it was time to go congratulate my team. The protest no longer mattered since we had won, so it was much ado about nothing.
The league president called me the next day to inform me that the situation was, in fact, a clerical error on his part: he had forgotten to publish the last version of their roster when it was submitted a month prior. On the one hand, I felt better knowing that nothing nefarious was afoot. However, on the other hand, I felt bad that I had to make a decision that was interpreted as an accusation of cheating. I didn’t have the courage to reach out to the other coach because I was afraid that he would misinterpret me again, so I asked the league president to please pass along my apologies if he spoke with him.
To this day, I continue to feel bad about having to make that decision and upset the other coach. But the competitive climate is ripe with people who subscribe to a categorical philosophy: Win-At-All-Costs (or WAAC). To the WAAC mentality, no competition is too big or too small: anything that’s not a victory of the highest caliber is a failure, no matter the cost. Morality is easily sacrificed for success, and yet, the definition of what is moral is easily distorted.
But here’s what’s so crazy about this example: I felt like I was the WAAC coach, a feeling that didn’t sit well with me. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time that the situation was just a clerical error, but I genuinely wondered if winning at all costs included my responsibility to ensure the game was played correctly and within the rules. What would I have sacrificed or ignored if I had kept my mouth shut? Even stranger is the question of wondering how I would have reacted if I was the coach who was being accused of cheating. I suppose it worked out in the end, but not without consternation.
The WAAC mentality has become so problematic in competition that there is no longer a consistency to who blatantly subscribes to it. Yes, there are people who stick out like a sore thumb as WAAC competitors, and there are situations where it is obvious that something must be done to combat this. But there are also people who only dip their toes into the water of this pool to test it out and utilize what they can before succumbing to the dark side of this mentality, perhaps armed with the counter mechanism that the best defense against this is a formidable offense.
A similar conflict would arise just prior to the following season when some of the parents of kids on my team saw an opportunity to live vicariously through the victories of their children and demanded they start their own team in the league. When I opposed the plan because of how it wouldn’t be fair to the other kids on the team, the parents formulated a mob mentality that resulted in one mantra being thrown at me: they accused me of only caring about winning championships (essentially being a WAAC coach), not the experiences of the kids. In less than twelve months from the first incident with the opposing coach in the playoff game, the parents who had witnessed my plea for fairness had forgotten what had happened and decided instead to feed off their own WAAC mentality, leaving me to feel like the bad guy in both situations. They had succumbed to Achievement-By-Proxy Syndrome, a corollary to WAAC where parents experience success as their own when it, in fact, belongs to another person (usually a child).
The pain felt by this mentality goes beyond whether a trophy gets raised at the end of the day. It leaves a deeply psychological stain that damages the desires and outlook of the innocent. Following the season where the select parents broke away from my team, I stepped down as the manager of my own team because I saw the writing on the wall: the WAAC coaches would fight harder because of their desire to win, and I didn’t have the energy to oppose them. It was time to move on and take my talents elsewhere.