Letter of the rules vs. spirit of the game

More than one coach at this year’s Senior League World Series expressed disappointment with the tournament’s change in format.

Rather than utilizing the pool-play approach featured during the event’s first 13 years in Bangor, Little League opted for a modified double-elimination format, in part to bring the SLWS into conformity with other Little League championship tournaments but also to eliminate the need for any tiebreakers and thus leave advancement to simply winning games.

Steve Keener, Little League’s president and chief executive officer, explained as much during a recent visit to Mansfield Stadium for the SLWS championship game.

“Pool play opened itself up to possible manipulation of the game in terms of advancing based on the number of runs you give up and the number of innings you play (defensive run differential, which previously was used as a tiebreaker),” said Keener.

“The overwhelming majority of people go out and play the game with the integrity that it’s meant to be played with and approach it the right way regardless of what the outcome of that game might be. But we’ve had a couple of instances, and we felt if (modified double-elimination) was good enough for what we’re doing in Williamsport we can use it here. The only way you’re going to advance now is to win, and we should be consistent all the way throughout our programs.”

It turns out one of those “instances” came into full public view less than two weeks after Keener uttered those words in a division where the format change has not yet been made — the Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Oregon.

South Snohomish, Washington, which won its first three games of pool play, was accused of losing its final game intentionally in order to have a rival team in the pool eliminated via tiebreaker.

According to the Des Moines Register, not only did the Washington team lose to the Rowan Little League of Salisbury, North Carolina, 8-0 on Monday, it was no-hit with a lineup that lacked four regular starters due to a coach’s decision while several of those who did play found themselves frequently bunting — sometimes with two strikes.

The result left three teams — Washington, North Carolina and Central Iowa — tied for first place in the pool, but only two of the three could advance to the semifinals. Since each team had one loss, Central Iowa was eliminated by the defensive run differential tiebreaker, which involves runs allowed vs. number of defensive innings played.

Washington had barely defeated Central Iowa 4-3 earlier during pool play while routing the Philippines 11-0 and Canada 10-1 in its other games.

Central Iowa filed a formal protest concerning the Washington-North Carolina game, which was upheld.

“The Little League International Tournament Committee recently received credible reports that some teams did not play with the effort and spirit appropriate for any Little League game,” according to a press release issued by Little League.

Little League subsequently ordered a play-in game between Central Iowa and Washington that Central Iowa won 3-2 on Tuesday morning before being eliminated in the semifinals by Warwick, Rhode Island, 5-4 that evening.

Washington team officials denied any wrongdoing, though the league’s president later expressed regret that while its coach adhered to the letter of the rules the game may not have been played true to the spirit of Little League softball.

Look for that not-so-subtle difference to be removed from the strategic arsenal next year with a switch to a modified double-elimination format on Little League’s softball side.

Ernie Clark

About Ernie Clark

I'm a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, my coverage areas range from high school sports to mixed martial arts.