The Hot Corner: Don't judge lopsided games by their final scores

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What’s the right lesson to teach our kids?

We re-evaluate the answer to that question more frequently than ever. It’s the reason we’ve wound up with new math, a new grading system, new frequency and urgency of social protest, and new ways for old-fashioned and newfangled folks to ridicule one another.

That clash of values can’t help but cross over into high school sports, an environment dripping with emotion as we all try to find the balance between entertainment value and educational opportunity.

One of those ethical conundrums showed up on our smartphone scrolls Friday in the form of two Mountain Valley Conference baseball scores. Dirigo blasted Boothbay by a staggering 43-1 margin, while Hall-Dale walloped Wiscasset to the tune of 33-0.

Yes, I understand the human tendency to cringe when seeing that as the final tally from a game involving kids playing the pastime. Either we’ve played in a sporting event and taken that kind of beating (please don’t ask me about my final Little League season with the Monmouth Lions) or the real world has thrown us a month full of Mondays that felt the same.

Allow me to point out that if we’re writing or reading those words, the experience didn’t kill us, which probably confirms upon which side of the argument I fall.

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Whenever I read about such a drubbing, what bothers me immeasurably more than the score is seeing the immediate, visceral reaction from people who didn’t attend the game and aren’t stakeholders in the losing team.

“There’s no excuse for that,” they type between a wringing of the hands. “Unacceptable. The coach should be reprimanded/fired/placed in a stockade in the public square.”

I read a Facebook thread Friday evening in which someone actually wondered aloud why one of the winning coaches didn’t instruct his kids “to stand on home plate,” thereby giving away at-bats to minimize the damage.

Hear me, please: If we soften to the point where we demand intentional failure from one group of athletes to spare the feelings of another group of athletes and/or (more likely) their parents, youth sports are dead and gone.

Pity is not sportsmanship. Cooking the books is not sportsmanship. Precisely the opposite, actually.

While I was admittedly hundreds of miles away from the scene of the perceived “crime,” I’ve known and respected both coaches long enough to know that neither tried to run up the score.

Dirigo’s Ryan Palmer fulfilled every demand of baseball etiquette in the Cougars’ victory.

After the first time through the order in an endless first inning, once it became apparent that an out would be an accomplishment, his team played strict station-to-station ball. It didn’t advance on passed balls, wild pitches, or myriad other ways in which 90 feet was being served on a silver platter.

Even with instructions to swing at pitches from the shoulder blades to the ankle — again, above and beyond the call of duty — Palmer’s team drew 35 walks. Thirty. Five.

The voices in the peanut gallery who believe Dirigo should have been swinging haphazardly at anything in the same ZIP code as the batter’s box don’t understand that baseball is a game of consistency and habits.

One of the main lines on Palmer’s job description, far above making friends in Boothbay, is to get his team ready for more challenging games in May and June. Being prepared for that grind means taking a disciplined approach to the plate, whether the guy on the bump is capable of locating that dish or not.

It’s harder to “run up” the score in baseball than other high school sports, anyway. Even in an environment where there is a healthy supply of .400 hitters, the pitcher wins more often than not. But this silliness has trickled down to the more emotional and more highly attended world of basketball and football, where the sportsmanship police seemingly scan the sports pages for low-hanging fruit.

There are ways to manage these situations. Running clocks and mercy rules help. They are acceptable and reasonable concessions. Asking reserve players not to try, or telling starters to eschew form and discipline for the short amount of time they’re in the game, are not.

It’s also sadly typical that the first reaction is to attack the coach who’s taking home a piddling stipend of pennies per day instead of asking why the administrators who oversee the games aren’t taking a harder look at alarming trends.

They’ve acquiesced in football and basketball, after all. Two of the highest revenue sports seem to get reclassified every year. Schools are encouraged to play crossover games and weight their schedules to their hearts’ content.

Baseball, undeniably dying on the vine in the parts of Maine that have experienced the greatest population exodus, doesn’t seem to inspire the same sense of urgency.

Seriously, why the heck is Dirigo playing Boothbay instead of Oxford Hills and Edward Little? Why is Hall-Dale playing Wiscasset instead of Cony and Gardiner? If the almighty Heal Points are the answer, then revisit the open tournament or (better yet) come up with a new doggone system or matrix for seeding teams. And if preserving the sanctity of long-obsolete conferences is the answer, it’s the wrong one.

Or else we’ll see more 43-1 results that by most objective assessments easily could have been 70-0. Because watering down one-sided final scores doesn’t fix the problem or help anybody get better.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.

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