Society prizes “good” sportsmanship.  When I coached youth soccer, coaching clinics always emphasized its importance.  For instance, we were encouraged to never allow a game to be decided by more than seven goals.   Profanity was not allowed.  The teams lined up to shake hands after the final whistle.

      My earliest lessons on sportsmanship took place at home.  At about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a Scrabble defeat: clearly unacceptable.  I also knew of an opponent who hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so she’d have it available in a crucial moment; also clearly wrong.  (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

     However, baseball consumed most of my thoughts during the first decade of my life.  Through baseball 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.


          What constitutes “good” sportsmanship evolves with society.  We’d be angered, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that dominated professional sporting events in the first half of the twentieth century.  As shown in every recounting of Jackie Robinson’s career, athletes not only tolerated hateful speech, they often participated in it.  Yet, they also enforced a code of honor that’s now violated regularly.  For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1960.   The only question would have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own. 

     A professional tennis player recently created controversy 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.  She said, in paraphrase:  “I’m trying to beat her.  I don’t want her to have good luck.  Why should I fake it?”  I found her honesty jarring.  Yet, it sort of makes sense. 


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

     This quotidian statement dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred since 1965.  I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates.  Most of my teammates’ names are lost in the haze of memory.  However, I remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass, and the satisfying sounds of baseballs landing in leather mitts.  

     Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed nowadays:  “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher.”  This taunt passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds.  Both teams employed the same chant, in the same teasing tone of voice, even if the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate.  (Picture Ted Cruz after an unfavorable judicial decision).


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

     I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position, but I was consigned to second base.  Unfortunately, a kid named Scott played shortstop, and his seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star.  Hoping to be cool, I wore dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy.  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, consisting of a mostly nerdy bunch of Jewish kids from West Philadelphia, fashioned itself as stars, as though historical records were posted and the Pirates perennially topped the standings.  As an adult, I understand no one tracked historical records of Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked the standings at the time.  Drawing on his decades of experience, Mr. Greenfield simply excelled at making us feel good about ourselves.  

     The Angels, sponsored by St. Donato’s, the local Catholic Church, were the only opponents we feared.  They represented the mysterious “other.”  Since their players attended parochial school and my team attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us.  Objective facts recede to stereotypes and vagaries of memory, but my recollection is 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 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-olds.  Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I worried if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband.  I agonized.  I couldn’t sleep.

     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 still played second base, subordinate to splendid Scott.  Yet, 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.  He made practices fun, and we won nearly every game.  Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to ice cream after wins.


     The season proceeded routinely, as we whipped teams named 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 ritzy private school – they made us look tough, by comparison.  Looming in the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.  Even their coach was monster-sized!

     From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble.  Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, stood inches 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 sensed the smug expression on St. Donato’s coach as he loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

     Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well enough, but batting seemed hopeless.  We sat glumly between innings.  We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant.  From my first at-bat, I recall seeing his arm move 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 we couldn’t get anyone on base.  How could we score?

     “Gather around,” said David, before our last at-bat.  “I have an idea.” 

     Following David’s instructions, though we were all right-handed, our first batter sidled up to 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 chest, compressed to just a few inches.

     The pitcher looked confused.  Left-handed batters were rare.  He threw his first pitch in the dirt.  The next pitch flew over the catcher’s head.

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

     The umpire shrugged:  “It’s not illegal.”

     “How close to the plate can he get?” asked 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 batter took the same left-handed crouch and took first base after four more pitches missed the tiny strike zone.

     “Hey,” shouted the coach.  “You gotta call some of these strikes!  They’re bending over.  This isn’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 glared at us with anger, despair and humiliation.  He walked the next batter to load the bases and plunked the next batter with a pitch in the thigh to score a run.  By this time, in his fruitless effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the kid who was hit barely flinched before heading to first base.  

     “We want a pitcher….”  “We want a pitcher….”
      Shaking his head, St. Donato’s coach walked to the mound to calm his star, who may have been his son, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes.  After a moment’s discussion, the coach signaled he was replacing the big pitcher, who was now sobbing.  Scott was our next batter.  He hit the reliever’s first pitch for a double and we won the game.


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