It’s a bizarre and befuddling tactic whose popularity was shown off this week when the Little League Softball World Series suddenly became entrenched in controversy.
In case you missed it, this is what happened: a team from Snohomish, Washington intentionally lost their final pool play game on Monday, reportedly to avoid a rematch with a tough Central-Iowa team that would get trapped in a three-way tie and be eliminated pending a Snohomish loss.
Snohomish coach Fred Miller instructed players to bunt and rested his starters against North Carolina who, as a result of their 8-0, no-hitter win against Snohomish, advanced to the semifinal. Reports of Iowa players watching the game and crying as they realized what was happening got national attention. Iowa protested the loss, convinced Little League officials that Washington “did not play fair” and as opposed to disqualifying the team, got officials to issue a one-game playoff between Snohomish and Iowa. Washington went on to lose to Iowa 3-2, proving their coach’s concern that they couldn’t get past the Iowa squad a reality.
But here’s the issue: parents, coaches, Iowans and sports commentators everywhere lambasted the coach for his decision to put his team in the best position to win the tournament by throwing the game. National opinion quickly swung against Miller, and the criticism and character bashing were relentless.
"You look at the poor girls from Washington. They're suffering now because of a decision made by their coach," Central Iowa Little League president Chris Chadd told ESPN after Iowa won the one-game playoff. "I just feel for those girls. It makes me sad to know that those girls' hearts are breaking because of this.”
Chris Chadd, who pleaded for Washington to get disqualified altogether after their loss eliminated Iowa, later called the fact Washington wasn’t thrown from the tournament a “cop-out,” proving he really doesn't care about the girls or the game at all — but winning, the same as coach Miller.
Mike Young, a league President of Walnut Creek Baseball, hopped on the hate-Miller bandwagon.
"You see in any youth sport plenty of people that are genuine, good-hearted, wonderful people, and then you put the coaching shoes on and they turn into a totally different person, completely unrecognizable,” he said. "The great thing about all this exposure is that maybe it lets coaches in any sport do a double-check and see that maybe it isn't as important to be competitive in every game as it is to do it the right way.”
And what exactly is “the right way?” SB Nation author Alysha Tsuji congratulated the Iowa team on their win thusly: “Wipe away the tears, Central Iowa, because you're moving on! The good guys don't always finish last.”
Am I missing something? The object of a game is to win. And the best way to do that in a bracket format is to play teams that you know you’d fair well against. Teaching our kids that it’s “wrong” to throw a game they earned a right to lose isn’t just counterintuitive, it’s disingenuous. We’re treating them like children in an effort to help them turn into rational, problem-solving and spirited adults.
As an athlete, I get the sentiment: you play the game to win. You play each inning to get better. You give each opponent your best shot. It’s just the little leagues, right?
But when you’re a group of girls who has worked all season to win this tournament — even if you're 11 and 12-years-old — and you see a path to that victory that is easier than another, you should take it. Whose to say otherwise? Coaches, fans and parents should be intellectually honest with their children, they should encourage them to think outside the box to accomplish a task, and they should do it without feeling guilty.
Here’s a newsflash: if Central-Iowa wanted to advance to the semifinal, maybe they shouldn’t have lost a game in pool play. On the national stage, coaches, parents and league officials had an opportunity to teach kids that sometimes winning involves another layer of strategy and creativity. Instead they taught them that popular opinion and soft parents can take away a path to success you earned, simply by whining and scapegoating until they get what they want (but hey, maybe that’s the game plan we want to teach our children?).
And please, whatever you do, don’t give me the trope about putting “fun first” or keeping the game focused on pleasure. Any competitive athlete (and trust me, these young ladies are extremely competitive) will tell you that winning is fun. You know who has the most fun in the NFL each year? The team who wins the Super Bowl.
Our kids deserve to be taught how to win. Thats why athletes like James Harrison take away their children’s “participation trophies.” Sports, and the lessons they are designed to teach, are about hard work and accomplishing goals. Winning their first three games in pool play games was a result of Snohomish’s hard work. That hard work gave them the right to throw their game, a game that — guess what — served as an opportunity to give less talented players time on the field. Whether we’re ready to admit it to our kids or not, sometimes winning involves shortcuts, sometimes it involves strategy, adaptability and foresight. And all of those things were present in Miller’s decision to rest his stars and bunt through their final game.
If I were a parent, I’d be happy that Coach Miller was instructing my children; I’d be glad to know they were learning from someone who understood how to bend the rules in your favor, work the system, and give yourself an upper hand when you have an opportunity. Especially when that opportunity “did not violate the letter of the rules,” as Snohomish Little League President Jeff Taylor told the Everett Herald on Monday. Because if being “spirited” or “honoring the game” is about giving your best, then you should truly do everything you can to come out on top.