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Youth team pays high price in win-at-all-costs game

8/15/2006

We are conditioned to root for the underdog.

You might remember Jason McElwain, the senior manager for the Greece Athena High School basketball team in Rochester, N.Y. Back in February, McElwain, who is autistic, was added to the team's roster for the season's final game. He entered with four minutes to play and, after his first shot was an air ball, made six 3-pointers and another shot to produce 20 points in three minutes. His teammates carried him off the court, the crowd embraced him and it was hard not to be moved. Jason's story, relayed around the country by ESPN's "SportsCenter," became the newest, brightest thread in the tapestry of underdog culture.

Earlier this summer, on June 23 in Bountiful, Utah -- a place seemingly delivered from the mind of a sentimental screenwriter -- a similar scenario presented itself. In the final inning of the Mueller Park Mustang League 10-and-under championship game against the Yankees, the Red Sox's Romney Oaks found himself at the plate with two outs and the tying run on third base. Oaks is a frail boy whose growth was stunted by a malignant cranial tumor at the age of 4. How frail? Not knowing what his prospects for recovery were, the Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for Romney and his family to visit the President of the United States last year.

He has recovered. Still, years of chemotherapy and radiation, a steady dose of human growth hormone and a shunt in his brain have ruled out contact sports -- Romney was allowed to play baseball only if he wore a batting helmet in the outfield -- but here was his chance to be the unlikely hero.

It might have been an achingly sweet, heartwarming story, except it didn't happen for Oaks the way it happened for McElwain. Romney, who had managed only two hits in a dozen previous games, never had a chance. With two strikes, tears already filling his eyes, he swung weakly. His bat hit nothing but air. And so, the Yankees won.

But did they really?

Seven weeks after the fact, the decision by the Yankees' coaches that thrust Romney into that difficult position in the first place has sparked an emotional national debate about the importance of winning in youth sports and the lessons we teach our children. After he conferred with assistant Shaun Farr, Yankees coach Bob Farley elected to intentionally walk Jordan Bleak -- the Red Sox's best hitter, who already had thumped a home run and a triple -- to get to Romney.

It was, in baseball's time-honored tradition of strategy, the percentage move. But in a league of 9- and 10-year-olds, where everybody bats and there can be a maximum of only four runs scored per inning, was it right?

"If the kid gets a hit, we've got a Disney movie," Craig Parry, the league president, told ESPN.com. "At the moment it happened, nobody thought it was a big deal. And now, it's the lead story. In life, everyone has a line. This story is about where do you draw that line?"

"It was a baseball move," Farr has insisted over and over again. "We played within the rules. We were trying to win."

"Little League is the place they're supposed to learn how to hold the bat, how to throw and catch, how to field," said Elaine Oaks, Romney's mother. "It's not a place where you teach them to pick on the weaker kids."

This awkward conundrum, essentially, is the issue.

We have grown increasingly cynical about our sports stars. San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds pursues the all-time home run record under a cloud of suspicion. Cyclist Floyd Landis and sprinter Justin Gatlin are likely to lose, respectively, their Tour de France victory and world 100-meter record after failing drug tests.

Professional sports, despite the passions that teams ignite in their fans, is a grim business; and big-time college athletics have long been more about the money than the education. But youth sports -- at least in our sentimental screenwriter's mind -- have remained a pure place. The official Little League crest features three words: character, courage and loyalty.

Winning and losing helps teach those values. The black and white of the final result is one of sport's charms. Ben De Voe, the 26-year-old sports editor of Bountiful's bi-weekly Davis County Clipper, found some nuances between the lines. He did not attend the game, but heard about the incident; and, after interviewing the participants, wrote a column a week later. Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly gave the story a national stage in last week's issue.

"The reason this story is so compelling is that gray area," said De Voe. "It is a microcosm of what we have degenerated into in our society."

A split decision
Seeing the state flags snap in the breeze at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center in Bristol, Conn., it is difficult not to smile. Walk around the $5.5 million campus named for the former commissioner of baseball and it feels like 1950. The only things missing from the state-fair vibe are the waft of manure, corn dogs and blueberry pies.

Each August, the Giamatti complex is home to the New England Regional Tournament. This year, Connecticut state champion Glastonbury met New Hampshire state champ Portsmouth in the final on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps because the players and coaches had been bunkered in Bristol for nine days, the news of the Romney Oaks situation had eluded most of them.

They learned the details of the Bountiful game the day before their championship game, which would send one team to Williamsport for the Little League World Series.

"Oh," said John Brownell, Connecticut's second baseman, frowning, "that's mean. He's had a lot of bad things happen to him in his life. We never intentionally walk anyone.

"That's evil."

Thomas "Moose" Ehrhardt, Connecticut's catcher, picked at his red pin-striped pants, listening thoughtfully to his teammate.

"You've got to let the good kid hit," Erhhardt said, after thinking it through. "The other guy has no chance."

Keegan Taylor, New Hampshire's 100-pound center fielder and leadoff hitter, wasn't so sure.

"I think the coach of the other team did what he had to do to win," said Taylor, who, despite his diminutive frame, knocked in all three runs in New Hampshire's 3-0 victory over Connecticut in Sunday's final. "I feel bad for the kid, but the coach was doing what was best for his team.

"I mean, it wasn't the smartest thing to do, but he did it -- and they won, right?"

Kids, unburdened by the psychic filters that come with life's experience, tend to speak their mind. Adults, of course, know better. All of the players' parents interviewed by ESPN.com said they disagree with the Yankees' strategy of walking the Red Sox's best hitter to get to Oaks. And while the majority of the players said they felt it was wrong to put the game on Romney's shoulders, the coaches were split.

Connecticut manager Tracy Michalek, standing in the door of the team dormitory, whistled when he heard the options.

"Holy cow! That's a good question," he said. "Maybe we go to the next guy. Pitch to the kid, but maybe do your best to let him hit the ball?"

Michalek, a genial man, seemed to be talking theoretically.

One of Michalek's coaches, Joe Uccello, considered the scenarios for some time before he addressed the issue.

"I think I would probably try to get that [Oaks] kid up," he said. "Me, personally, I would probably pitch around the good kid. Nothing obvious, but you're playing a championship game here."

"It's not illegal, but it's not ethical, either," said New Hampshire manager Mark McCauley. "You've got to pitch to the good hitter. You let the kids decide the game. That's what it comes down to.

"If the second-best hitter is on deck, maybe you walk him."

One school of thought holds that if Romney Oaks was capable of playing in the game -- despite his physical challenges -- he should be treated just like any other player.

"What they did was perfectly within the rules," Marlo Oaks, Romney's father, told ESPN.com. "But Richard Nixon once said that he played by the rules of politics as he saw them. In this particular case, we have rules that have never been utilized at this level.

"People say, `Don't you want Romney treated the same as everybody else?' Yes, that's the point exactly. This is the first time [an intentional walk] happened. His weakness was being singled out. In reality, he was not being treated the same."

Parry, the league president who is a neighbor of the coaches involved, insisted that no rules were broken and said he hopes they all return to coach next year.

"I think if it was the first game of the season, they would have definitely pitched to him," Parry said. "But in the final, the line obviously changes. The coach is thinking, `My 13 kids have played their hearts out all season long. Don't I owe it to them to take the steps that are legal to give them a chance to win?'"

Assessing dozens of conversations in Bristol over the weekend, Brownell is the one who seemed to be most personally offended.

"Do anything to win? Anything?" he asked. "No. That's not right. There's more important stuff to do than win a baseball game. You pitch to the No. 4 hitter; and if the kid beats you, so be it.

"It's a 9-10 [age] championship game, not the end of the world."

An issue of fairness
Jeanine DeLay lectured at the University of Michigan for a decade on the subject of sports ethics. She is a board member of The Academy for Sport Leadership, a non-profit group whose purpose is to increase opportunities for women in sport professions.

For DeLay, the Romney Oaks story is about exploitation and special treatment, and the limits we place on them. The story resonates for her because of her experience with a number of world-class athletes at Michigan.

"My students were always disappointed when injury or other circumstances prevented them from playing their toughest or most-talented competitors," DeLay said in an e-mail. "They felt as if it was a lost opportunity to challenge themselves.

"What moral signal is given to the best hitters, as well as the Romneys, in the Mustang League? The fact is, the players on both sides will never know who 'won.' One of the problems with youth coaches is their failure to take their role as teachers of fairness seriously. If coaches taught fairness, that would be coaching's greatest ethical service."

Ethics and Little League baseball occasionally have butted heads before. Five years ago, the Rolando Paulino Little League All-Stars from Bronx, N.Y., rode the amazing arm of Danny Almonte all the way to the Little League World Series. But Almonte's two-hitter in the third-place game, as well as a previous perfect game and a no-hitter, were taken away when it was discovered that he was two years older, 14, than his falsified birth certificate suggested.

Just two weeks ago, there were allegations that two teams, Lebanon and New Castle, in the 2006 Indiana State Tournament conspired to fix a game that allowed both teams to advance to the second round. New Castle was the eventual champion, but those allegations kept message boards buzzing for days.

"Leagues that try to teach parents ethics and good sportsmanship are wasting their time until they deal with the real problem, and that is dialing back on our win-at-all-costs sports culture," said Dr. Bruce B. Svare, the director for the National Institute for Sports Reform. "Kids need to have fun, participate and learn skills. These things should always trump the desire to win when we are talking about youth sports. But adults -- coaches, league administrators, etc. -- won't let this happen because their own needs get in the way."

Presented with the Romney Oaks scenario, Portsmouth coaches in Bristol quickly pointed to a parallel situation earlier in the New England tournament, when New Hampshire led Rhode Island by four runs in the seventh (and extra) inning. With the bases loaded, Portsmouth elected to pitch to Rhode Island's slugging shortstop, Ryan O'Dell.

"We pitched to him," said McCauley, the New Hampshire manager. "He can't win the game. If we walk him and the next guy hits a grand slam, we lose."

That, too, was percentage baseball. (O'Dell got a hit, but New Hampshire won the game.) What happened in New Hampshire's semifinal game against Vermont, however, was something far beyond.

Vermont led 9-8 in the sixth inning; but with his team one out from the championship game, Vermont coach Denis Place visited the mound and gathered his infielders. The next pitch to Portsmouth's Connor McCauley was several feet wide; and the next three, inexplicably, were even farther off the plate.

Manager Mark McCauley, Connor's father, sensed something was wrong. A review of the score book revealed that Vermont had not observed Little League's minimum-play rule that requires each player appear for at least three defensive outs and one at bat in every game. Vermont, aware that substitute Adam Bentley hadn't batted, was trying to induce Portsmouth to tie the game and send it into extra innings, so Bentley could hit and the game would be official.

When the first pitch to New Hampshire's next hitter, Stephen Hemming, was also wide, umpires tossed Place and his pitcher out of the game. Even when the Vermont catcher threw the ball into centerfield, New Hampshire base runner Conor Trefethen never left third. The game ended with New Hampshire's Hemming swinging weakly at another ball off the plate.

New Hampshire lost on the scoreboard on purpose, because it knew what would happen if Vermont couldn't get Bentley to the plate.

"He [Place] was doing what was in the best interest of his team," McCauley explained later. "I had to do what was in the best interest of mine."

Amid boos from spectators aligned with both teams, the players were escorted by a security detail to their dormitories. New Hampshire protested the game and, two hours later, was awarded the victory -- officially, a 6-0 win -- and a berth against Connecticut in the final.

"The worst part," said New Hampshire coach Joe Arsenault, "was that neither team had a chance to celebrate. It was very sad for everyone."

Back in Bountiful, Utah, there is an air of sadness, too.

The Oaks family deliberately has shielded Romney from the passion that has suddenly, wickedly, resurfaced. He has been taking golf lessons and playing in tournaments at the Lakeside Country Club in West Bountiful and is preparing for the cooking competition at the Davis County Fair later this week. His mother says he makes killer mint chocolate brownies and banana bread with chocolate chips.

It is an exceedingly conservative upper-middle-class community, where membership in the Church of Latter-Day Saints approaches 90 percent. Families from the two teams are part of two local congregations. According to De Voe, many relationships have been strained.

"This thing has been a powder keg," De Voe said. "When you talk to these coaches, you get the sense they were coaching the seventh game of the World Series. Man, that's messed up."

"We may have given up on the pros, but I believe that sport at this level can teach some enduring values," DeLay said. "Our professionalizing of youth sport and its control by adults has shifted the moral boundaries of sport to the adult level.

"Kids cross boundaries, are unfair and disrespectful, too. But they also understand better than most adults that the game is a chance to challenge themselves, to be with their friends. They don't always mind losing; because at that age, they are going to live forever and there will be plenty of time to play again."

Mark Pearson, a 12-year-old pitcher and right fielder for the New Hampshire team, was adamant when he first heard about Romney Oaks.

"I wouldn't have walked the good hitter," he said. "It's just a 10-year-old league."

But what if the stakes had been greater? What if the situation had arisen in the New England championship game with a trip to Williamsport on the line?

Pearson's eyes widened and there was a long silence.

"Well," he said, a smile spreading across his face. "I'd just strike him out -- then I wouldn't have to worry about it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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