Monday, August 14, 2006

Little League, Big Controversy

We got into the Romney Oaks story this afternoon on my KMOX show. He's the kid with brain cancer who played in the Pony League championship game in Bountiful, Utah, this spring.

In the bottom of the 9th, Romney's team was down by one run with two outs and a runner on third. Jordan, the best hitter on Romney's team, was up, but the opposing coach called time and walked out to the mound. He instructed his pitcher to pitch around Jordan, give him an intentional walk, and bring up the next batter instead.

The next batter was Romney. He's a small kid, a brain cancer survivor, and not nearly as good as Jordan or the other kids on his team. He struck out, and all hell broke loose. Parents were mad, the umpire couldn't believe it, the local newspaper lambasted the other coach, politicians and blogs chimed in.

Romney's father said, "What are we teaching our kids? Are we teaching them it's OK to pick on the weakest person?"

Too bad they're all wrong. No one picked on Romney. The coach didn't tell the pitcher to throw at his head. Romney was treated the way he probably wanted to be treated, just like any other kid. It would have been scandalous if his coach had pulled him and put in a pinch hitter, taking away his chance to play under pressure.

What if Romney had gotten a hit and brought that runner in? Talk about a Cinderella ending, just like that autistic kid in upstate New York who scored those six 3-pointers at the end of a game and was carried off the court as a hero. In Romney's case, instead of blaming the opposing coach, his parents and teammates should have rallied around him anyway: "Hey, Romney, you did your best, and that's what counts!" "Nice try, Romney, you'll get'em next year!"

Instead, the reaction has made Romney seem more a victim. The stories written about the incident make a big deal about Romney crying after his strikeout, as if that makes him more pathetic. It doesn't -- it makes him more like the other 9 and 10 year olds in that league. If any of them had gone down swinging in that situation, they probably would have cried, too. I've seen bigtime pros cry when they lose the championship game in lots of sports, so why use that against Romney, or as proof that the other coach is a big bad meanie?

Several callers said all this teaches the kids is that winning is everything. No, winning isn't the only important thing, but this was a championship game, not some esteem-building club. By definition, it's competitive, and everyone involved knew it. No rules were broken, and if there were no cancer angle, if Romney were a perfectly healthy yet still not-that-good ballplayer, no one would have said a word about any of this.

Best of all is Romney's attitude. He didn't let this incident knock him down and keep him there. Instead, according to SI's Rick Reilly, Romney told his father, "I'm going to work on my batting. Then maybe someday I'll be the one they walk."

Comments below. Rick Reilly's column here. Jeff Gordon's piece here.