SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.

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