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Lombardi and Little League make a poor karmic match


I ran into a friend the other day who is head of the English department at a prestigious private high school. He has a lot on his mind. He is in the midst of interviewing for two open positions in his department, planning his family's vacation and trying to find time to write his poetry. But what he really wanted to talk about was an ethical dilemma he had to handle as co-commissioner of his 11-year-old daughter's softball league, a situation convoluted enough to challenge even Solomon's wisdom.

It was the championship game. The Orioles and the Yankees played the seven regulation innings to a tie. They played a tiebreaker inning, during which the Orioles scored a run and the Yankees two. After the game, however, the parent in charge of the Orioles' scorecard realized she had erred back in the fourth inning, scoring one run instead of the two her team had earned. Somehow it had been overlooked by both teams.

After the game, the Oriole coach raised doubt about the authenticity of the Yankee victory within hearing of several of his players. The umpire and the league president offered differing interpretations of the rules regarding such a situation. But it was too late for subtlety; parents, players and coaches demanded justice. So it was up to my friend and his wife, the co-commissioners, to figure out a fair solution.

They are peaceful, gentle people. Baby boomers with a liberal bent. They're the kind of parent I aspire to be. They were miserable with the possibilities.

Should they stick with the declared win? Should they go back and change the score? Should they play another inning? Flip a coin? Cancel the whole thing and play another game? A championship rode on their decision. There were parents and players to be satisfied. This would be a decision with long-lasting outcomes. Would summer's game be tarnished for some of these kids? Would their decision cause bad feelings about sports for some young enthusiasts? Would families be embittered about the league? And what about the rights of the teams that had played hard? What about the rights of those who had been declared the winners, only to have victory snatched away?

As the commissioners agonized over these conflicting interests and rights, they wondered just what kind of message this brouhaha was sending to the players. They feared that the importance of winning overshadowed the importance of playing one's best and enjoying the game -- the latter being the reason we usually claim (out loud, anyway) for encouraging our children to get involved in sports in the first place.

In the end, my friends figured that because the Orioles and the Yankees had actually scored the same number of runs, counting those made in regular and extra innings, the teams would meet once more to play a decisive inning to determine who would proceed toward the championship.

I tend to scoff at parents who get overly invested in their children's athletic endeavors, assuming these armchair quarterbacks and benchwarming first base coaches are attempting to relive real or imagined glory days through their offspring. Yet even I, who claim that my football-playing brothers got all the competitive genes while I got the do-gooder ones, have found myself caught up in this parent trap. I sometimes struggle to detach my self-image as a parent from my child's prowess on the field.

My son plays on a coed park league soccer team for 5- and 6-year-olds. During his first season my expectations were minimal; no aspirations to college scholarships here. The coach, another parent, was wonderful, supportive and patient. But come the team's second season, I found the spirit of Vince "Winning Isn't Everything, It's the Only Thing" Lombardi negatively affecting my karma.

My son came home bursting with excitement one day after a game I had not attended. He exclaimed, "Mom, I made a great kick!"

"Oh, honey, that's terrific," I gushed proudly. "Did you score?" I let out before I could stop myself.

His father mouthed behind the boy's back, "It was already out of bounds and out of play when he kicked it."

"Well," I said lamely, "it must feel good to use your muscles like that."

The competitive genes, I discovered, weren't absent, just latent. The next game I attended, I cheered for every purple-shirted kid who did anything resembling official soccer play. And I was generous. I mean, this is a team where players occasionally hold hands on the field just because they're feeling happy or make a sudden dash to the sidelines, not for Gatorade, but to give Mom or Dad a hug.

Toward the end of the game, my son kicked the ball hard, right into the goal -- the wrong goal. He jumped up and down, exuberant and oblivious.

I waved at him in solidarity, then hung my head in mock shame. Or was it? I sheepishly said to the coach's wife, whose son was out there too, "I guess we need to go home and work on the fundamentals."

Was that a piteous look she gave me? She said, "Yes, the fun-damentals," with no mistake about the emphasis.

Maybe it's we parents who really need coaches.

(Note: The Orioles defeated the Yankees and went on to win two more games, including the championship.)

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997