The Mercy Rule
Several years ago, I was asked to be an assistant coach for a little league baseball team my friend Steve was coaching. This team wasn’t just a typical little league team however, this team was was made up of the left-over kids who didn’t make the other squads around the area. Also this team only had nine players, there are nine positions in baseball, meaning we had no bench, and as the pitching coach, I had no idea how to put together a rotation for the upcoming season. Upon meeting the team, I was immediately aware that we were going to have a rough go of it.
Let’s take a look at the roster. 1st base, Kenny, who was about six feet tall and had absolutely no idea how to play baseball. His size made us coaches excited because we felt we have a potential power hitter, but during his first at bat, Kenny walked to the plate holding his bat upside down. In the field he was not much better, as he put his glove on the wrong hand and backwards, but he was tall, so we stuck him on first. On 2nd base, Julio, the coach’s son who had some raw skills but a debilitating fear of the ball. So much so, that he would jump out of the batter’s box whenever a pitch was thrown and, in the field, he would often play with his eyes tightly closed. The shortstop was Evan, our most gifted athlete, who had a good discipline about him and honestly his only downfall was that he couldn’t play every position at once, so he suffered a great bit for his team. At 3rd Base was Shawn, who had zero interest in sports but surprisingly was gifted with the best arm and could throw from 3rd to 1st with ease, which was never accurate but on the occasion he stopped a ball, he would get it near Kenny, who would normally just watch it sail by into the fence behind 1st base. In leftfield there was Nick, who was one of two brothers on the team, and the antagonist of all of the coaches. His skill set was his speed, but his insistence on challenging his coaches every decision and crying when things didn’t go his way tended to hinder his in-game performance. Centerfield was Andrew, who was Nick’s older brother and the oldest on the team. He was tall skinny kid with natural ability but full of anxiety about his ability to perform, which led to him often making mental errors, to which his brother would mock him. This often resulted in a in game wrestling match in left-center. In rightfield, Tony, who was a stocky and strong kid, who could throw hard and hit a ton, if he made contact. Behind Evan, he was the best pure athlete, but his weakness was that he would cry, often for no distinguishable reason. The crying wasn’t the worst part, it was that when he cried, he also would freeze in place, and it could last up to ten minutes or more. Having no one to replace him with due to our limited roster, Tony would be out in rightfield weeping while we hoped to god no one hit the ball towards him. At catcher, Simon, who was a bit of a troublemaker and foul mouthed, but he was also fearless, so he jumped at the opportunity to get behind the plate. Simon couldn’t really catch, or throw to second base, he often couldn’t throwback to the mound accurately which would delay play while the ball was chased around the field. Finally, at pitcher, Jesse, who was a pitcher by default because when I yelled out “who wants to pitch?” Jesse’s hand went up first. He wasn’t really a pitcher, but he tried which was enough.
Needless to say, this was a ragtag bunch of kids trying to be baseball players for a summer, the results were not great. In fact, we lost every single game, 0-15, but by some sick twist of fate, the little league office mandated that all teams make the playoffs. This was very troubling news to me, as after a long season of losing, player meltdowns, arbitrary crying, and a little actual baseball, I was ready to go about the rest of my summer in peace. Now I had the task of picking a pitcher to start a unearned playoff game but more so the anxiety of, “What if we win? I’ll have to do this again next week. We cannot win this fucking game. Damn it!”
The playoff was against the best team in the league. They had won every game, so our team really stood no chance. During our pre-game warmups we were informed that, our third baseman Shawn might not make it. This left us with eight players, to which I thought, “This is great, we can forfeit, go get ice cream, and I’m done!”, a sentiment shared by at least five of the players that had overheard me mumble it aloud. Steve, our coach, was not about to give up though, he was adorably committed and believed that we might be able to take down this juggernaut of a squad. Shortly before the game, the umpire asked for our line up and upon hearing we were short a player, he asked if we were going to forfeit. I was so excited to say yes! Then Steve got an idea, our opponents team had twenty players to our eight, so he asked the opposing coach if we could borrow a player for the game? To my shock, it was agreed, and the game went forward as planned.
The player we got, was Mo, and Mo ran over to our bench, stood in front of our team and said “Hey! I know I am supposed to play over there today, but now I am here! So, let’s go out there and kick some butt!” then Mo ran onto the field full speed taking centerfield. No one followed him. I had decided to start Andrew at pitcher, because he was our most rested arm and honestly the first kid I saw when I was deciding to pick one. The first inning was quite surprising as Andrew struck out the first two batters, and then the third kid up crushed a ball to deep centerfield, which usually meant a homerun, but this time we had Mo, and he tracked it down. It was the first fly ball caught all season by one of our outfielders. We were jumping up and down like we won the game. Mo flew off the field energizing the normally lethargic team. The celebration was short lived. Just as we were getting used to having Mo and his contagious attitude, off in the distance I saw Shawn, racing down to the dugout from the parking lot. This meant two things. One, Shawn had made it to the game and two, Mo was sadly going back to his team.
We actually took the lead that half inning, and for the next few innings the game was back and forth, aided by a few fluke hits by our guys and even more errors by theirs. Andrew, who had pitched a decent game by little league standards was beginning to wear down. He also was now in a bases loaded situation, that made him extremely anxious. I called time out and approached the mound, “You alright?” I asked. “Coach, I am all kinds of stressed. This is a really not good.” he said with self-awareness of his tendency to allow anxiety to overcome him. “Do you want me to take you out?” I asked. Looking me in the eye, Andrew said “Let me try, I think I got this coach.’ The next batter was Mo, from before, and Andrew’s first pitch nailed him square in the head. I returned to the mound, and Andrew handing me the baseball said “I didn’t have it, coach. I am sorry, I got ahead of myself.”
I motioned to Evan, who walked up and took the ball. I said, “Just throw strikes and try to not kill anyone!” He nodded and managed to get out of the inning with only a few runs going against us. The next few innings we fell further behind, I used up all my regular pitchers. The last of the rotation was Julio, who was still afraid of the ball but was begging me to let him pitch. I looked at him and said, “What the hell, it can’t get any worse.” Julio faced just two batters in the 6th and final inning. His first pitch somehow hit him in the back of the head during his wind up and bounced towards 3rd base. After finally getting the ball to the plate, Julio never threw a strike, his final pitch was crushed into rightfield where Tony would normally be. As the ball bounced into the rightfield corner, Tony wasn’t there. “Where the hell is Tony?” I yelled as the bases cleared and Andrew ran from center to retrieve the ball. Then, Tony appeared, emerging from the porta-potty situated just behind the rightfield wall.
After that bases clearing grand slam, Julio immediately walked off the mound and into the dugout to pout. The problem was I had not pulled him or replaced him yet. So, I looked at my roster, and realized the only player left I could pitch was Simon. He had never pitched before, but I was in a bind and honestly, I didn’t care anymore. I called him to the mound, handed him the ball and said, “Look man, just do your best not to hit anyone and we will get out of here alive.” He nodded, then faced his first batter, to which he hit immediately in the hip. Two batters later the bases were once again loaded. Simon had also been changing his windup each batter, ending with a move reminiscent of the crane kick from The Karate Kid.
I went back out to the mound, knowing due to the “mercy rule”, if they scored one more run, the game and the season were over. I got to the mound, Simon looked up at me, “Coach, I am in a bad spot.” I said “What are we going to do? You’re our last pitcher?” Simon bit his lip, thought hard and shrugged, “Beats the hell out of me, coach. We’re fucked!” I laughed, “Hey, I feel you there but watch the language, okay. Here is the deal, Simon. You can get the next three batters out, which we both know isn’t going to happen, or do your best. If this next guy gets on, the game is over. We go for ice cream and that’s that.” Simon nodded and said, “I got it, don’t worry coach.” The next batter got up, Simon wound up, and hit him in the shoulder. The runners advanced, the game ended, and we lost. It was over. Simon walked up to me, winked, and said “That shit was easy. Let’s go get some ice cream.” So, we packed up our gear, gave a final after game coaches speech, and proceeded to stuff our faces at the local dairy queen.