Thirty or so years ago, my son Bill joined his first basketball team
It was at the Michiana YMCA, and this league for the littlest guys and gals had two extra rules: Everyone played, and no one kept score. The idea was, learn the game and have fun without worrying about winning.
After the first game, Bill asked me for the final score. I told him I honestly didn’t know. “But did we win?” he asked. “I suppose so,” I said.
On the other side of the court was a boy who asked his father the same question and got a similar reply. For months afterward, he and Bill argued about it. When Bill would see him in the school hallway, he would say, “Loser.” And the boy would shoot back, “Loser.”
This memory came back to me a few weeks ago. I was on my way to my 50-year high school reunion’s Friday get-together when I heard a series of dings from my cellphone.
I’m at an age where a phone call could bring all sorts of bad news. When I got out of the car and checked my phone, I found five or six text messages about a Thursday incident in my senior citizen slow-pitch softball league.
I’m in my second year of three as a commissioner in that league. Ideally, my job would be to introduce myself to new players in May and to make sure we don’t run out of food at the banquet in August.
This year, we had several oddball events, like the one that was causing my phone to ding.
One of the six teams in our junior division has suffered a lot of injuries and was going to have to forfeit because it couldn’t field a full team. But one of its players had a friend available who could fill in so they could still play.
One problem was that this new recruit wasn’t on the official roster. The second problem was, he was 51 years old and our league rules say you have to be 53 or older. The third problem was, we couldn’t just let things slide. He was a good player, and he might unfairly tip the balance against other teams.
It was an easy call. If the new recruit played, his team would have to forfeit. His team accepted that but convinced the opposing team to play them anyway in a practice game. It didn’t make sense for 20-some people with softball gear to go home without playing. The practice game was a good solution.
Everyone would play, and the score wouldn’t matter.
During the third inning, there was a close play at first base. The umpire called the runner safe, and the other team’s shortstop started yelling at the umpire. The argument got louder and the postures became threatening enough that the umpire stopped the game and left the park. Before he did, he asked the park supervisor to suspend the shortstop for two weeks.
The issue was sent along to the three commissioners. Who should we support, the umpire or the player? I heard from all kinds of eyewitnesses, but my vote came down to this: Is there any reason a player should completely lose his temper in a practice game in a slow-pitch softball league for older adults? I couldn’t think of any. A two-week suspension seemed reasonable.
I try not to be a hypocrite. I’ve argued with softball umpires and basketball referees. One difference is, I don’t threaten them. After the game, I usually offer them a smile and a beer in the parking lot.
The following Tuesday, I was back at the ballpark when a different team manager stopped me. His team was scheduled to play the short-handed team that forfeited the previous Thursday. If they tried to use the illegal player, what should he do?
“Be kind,” I said.
“If he plays, they’re forfeiting,” I said. “Call it a win, and be kind.”
It was not the kind of advice he was expecting, and it was not anything I had rehearsed. It didn’t even feel like my voice saying it.
My guess is that these were simple words that have bubbled to the top after years of watching people tear into each other over things that don’t matter at all. We have been programmed into performing roles in these senseless, destructive squabbles. It’s everywhere in our culture – from presidential politics down to lawn-mowing disputes with next-door neighbors. And old-man slow-pitch softball.
We spend too much time shouting “Loser” at each other. Stop it. It’s time for us to let everybody enjoy the game and stop arguing about the score.
I know this isn’t an easy thing to ask. On that same Tuesday night, the league leaders taunted my team after beating us, 19-2.
I know I vowed to be kind, even if they were acting like 9-year-olds at a YMCA basketball game.
So, I did nothing, and I felt like a loser.