Sportsmanship vs. Fair Play: Bunts, Bean Balls, and Umpires

Abacus RevealsCorrespondent IIAugust 12, 2011

Thou shalt not stand here and admire thy work. It can be dangerous.

(Just ask Dwyane Wade!)


What’s the difference between “good sportsmanship” and “fair play?”

Should both be governed by the rules?

Hmm… more complicated than you might think.

Allow Abacus to begin with a true story, an echo from the past:

In his college days, Abacus somehow found himself umpiring Little League Baseball in a tiny, mom-and-pop, four-team league.

One evening the Red Sox pitcher—against the Yankees no less—brought his A-plus game. Through five innings, no base runners.

The Red Sox had scored a couple of times, so the outcome of the game itself wasn’t in doubt as the sixth and final inning arrived. The first two Yankee batters went down, Abacus does not recall how.

Abacus does recall the next Yankee batter—he’d been squatting behind home plate only a moment before, one of the older players, and a kid who for the prior game or two had been instructed by his coaches to bunt every at-bat until further notice. He’d “shown bunt” until he had two strikes in his previous at-bat.

You already know what happened next, on the first pitch, naturally—no mulligans.

Adios, perfect game!

An uneasy silence, particularly emanating from the two generally feisty Red Sox coaches, accompanied the game’s final out.

Now this all happened long before the rise of the game-concluding group hug, er, Abacus means handshake, in youth and school ball that we see nowadays.

The players simply gathered around their coaches briefly, and the curtain fell on another episode of the national pastime—at least until the Red Sox coaches reached the mon-and-pop corner saloon that went along with the mom-and-pop league.

Notice here that nothing “illegal” (i.e. in violation of any rulebook requirement or restriction) had occurred, but rather we had a breach of “etiquette” (i.e. behavioral expectation for a given social situation).

How, then, are such transgressions to be policed by the authorities, in this instance youthful umpire Abacus and partner “Grandpa” McCoy, who did slightly resemble Walter Brennan? 

(Abacus was much too youthfully adolescent at the time to have been able to define, much less practice, “preventative umpiring,” an overlooked, underappreciated, but crucial tool in the arsenal of any good official at any level… end of preachy digression. Sorry!)

The rulebook for a sport, indeed for any contest or game, exists for two simple reasons: to maintain a proper competitive balance, enabling fairness and integrity, and to ensure the relative safety of all participants. (Those dominoes get to flying, literally, if Mrs. Abacus invites the right mix of party guests.) 

In other words, the rules give the offense and defense equitable opportunity (“a fightin’ chance”) and, as feasibly as possible, try to prevent injury—no niceties about when or when not to steal a base, only a studied decision about when and under what conditions the abilities of the normal player are up to the task of stealing bases.

Now, the “etiquette” of a particular competition, which would include what we tend to think of as gamesmanship, like smack-talk across the domino table, is a dynamic of the social environment in which these events are occurring, a nebulous code of conduct, if you will.

Enter tradition, “house rules,” regional preferences, and all flavor of what-not.

Here's something that used to happen a lot.  An inning of a sub-varsity blowout would end unexpectedly after a flurry of action on the base paths, even though no apparent out had been recorded.  An umpire had ruled a baserunner out for failing to touch a base -- the rules at one time required the official to make that call even without an appeal from the defense.

No real base-running blunder had occurred; it was simply an opportunity to move along a game that needed moving along.  Anyone astute enough to recognize what had happened would not find any fault..

That's some gamesmanship that Miss Manners might even approve of, bred of courtesy, kindness, and respect for an opponent. however over-matched.

In actuality, the “official rulebook” generally does grant some rather broad authority to a game official (to eject a participant, even to penalize a team with forfeiture under certain conditions).

But a wise official exercises such authority judiciously.

Allow Abacus again to chaperon a brief visit to his echo chamber.

A youthful partner of a then middle-aged Abacus once prematurely halted a youth, fast-pitch softball tournament game by rule declaring a forfeit because he’d decided the offensive coach was making a “travesty of the game.”

The crime for which this nefarious coach received the death penalty?  He'd instructed, none too subtly, an inexperienced baserunner to illegally step off her base and thus induce the final out of the inning (assuming an alert and cooperative umpire will call the out).

Had he not incorporated this not-as-crazy-as-it-seems strategy, the defensive coach would have made sure the game's time-limit (this was a minor tournament) had expired, thereby ensuring that a new inning would not be played -- barring an unlikely two-out rally by a weaker team.

Solid coaching strategy (trade one out for the three that come with a new inning)...fairly common practice, even, albeit with a tad more subtlety, like a non-verbal sign.

Suffice it to say, the youthful associate suffered some subsequent career stall, and Abacus was subject to his share of ribbing for a while as well.

So, how can breaches of the etiquette code be governed and controlled?

Major League Baseball, in its effort to curb the use of retaliatory bean balls, has instituted a system of warnings and mandatory ejections. Even here, though, the umpire is required to determine “intent,” a slippery slope, indeed.  It requires at least good judgment, if not clairvoyance.

Just ask Abacus’ inexperienced colleague.

Upon reflection, maybe the answer can be found in the dinky, four-team league.

Just take things to the mom-and-pop corner saloon—maybe push aside a few barstools first.

Who knows, maybe that's where Dwayne and his buddies go these days.