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City slicker knocks hick town's Little League nose out of joint

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“That column was written in New York City!” — “New York City!!!!!!!??????”

Daaaaaaaadgummit, are they hoppin’ mad in Georgia over some snooty big-town writer accusing their Little League team of being bad sports. Imagine that, someone in big, bad New York City saying polite Southerners are the rude ones! Well, I never!

The first round in this media civil war was fired by the New York Post’s sports-moralizer-in-chief, Phil Mushnick, in an Aug. 23 column titled, “Lack of Sportsmanship at LLWS No Surprise.” Mushnick’s lede: “Every August, if you’re interested in gauging our starts-young “sports culture,” especially in the hands of TV, there’s the Little League World Series on ABC/ESPN. It can cure stomach discomfort. By making you sick. ” (Wow, pretty subtle for Mushnick, and the Post.)

Mushnick saved his most pointed finger wag for the coaches of the Georgia team, for how it reacted when a pitcher from the Staten Island, N.Y., team (in the Post’s readership area) tried to intentionally walk one of the Georgia players, and for the ABC crew, which didn’t call the coaches on it.

Saturday, the 12-year-olds representing Georgia were up, 4-1, against the kids from Staten Island when a Georgia batter, being intentionally walked, was at 3-0. But with the catcher again setting up outside and the ball again thrown outside, the batter swung and, of course, missed.

On ABC, Gary Thorne, known for presenting bad guesswork as fact, claimed that the batter “swung at that, just fooling around.”

Oh no,he didn’t. If he had, Georgia’s coach, immediately shown coaching third, would not have responded with silence and a knowing look. It was clear that with Staten Island’s starter’s pitch-count nearing the maximum allowed, 85, the kid had been instructed to swing at 3-0, to increase the total.

Here was another example of adults encouraging kids to forget playing ball and instead try to win by hook or by crook, to exploit every rule, to worm through loopholes.

ABC’s broadcast truck half got it. It cut to a shot of an electric pitch-count board in the outfield, except it focused on the wrong team’s. A close-up showed Georgia’s starter to have thrown 44, when N.Y.’s starter, after that kid swung at 3-0, had reached 77.

Mushnick went on to sprain other fingers while wagging them about the Little League World Series, but no matter. To the state of Georgia, specifically Joe Kovac Jr. of the Telegraph in Macon, them fighting words had already been spoken. Daaaaaaaadgummit, apparently Phil Mushnick doesn’t like winners, especially smarty-pants Southerners outslicking the city slickers. Warner Robins American Little League, the Georgia rep,  won the World Series in 2007, and its girls won the Little League softball World Series a month back, making it the first league to have boys and girls winners.

Kovac Jr. responded today in a column titled, “New York City tabloid says Warner Robins Little Leaguers poor sports.” In case you missed the seething dripping from the phrase “New York City tabloid” — as in, “Big City Asswiper” — Kovac Jr.’s lede was, “Leave it to the New York press to stir up a mild stink over, of all things, the strategic subtleties of Little League baseball.”

Mushnick’s observations came two days after the Georgia boys out-foxed the New Yorkers 6-3 in a contest televised on ABC. Well within the rules of the Little League game, Warner Robins sought to do all it could to up the Mid-Atlantic starting hurler’s pitch count.

Warner Robins leadoff batter Justin Jones, who had cracked a two-run homer earlier in the game, was at the plate with two out in the fourth. The Big Apple squad opted to issue him an intentional pass. Its pitcher tossed three pitchouts to the catcher.

On what would have been ball four, with the Staten Island starter’s pitch count within eight of the 85-pitch, Little League limit, Jones, with the apparent OK from his father, Warner Robins manager and third-base coach Randy Jones, took a half-hearted swing at the unhittable pitch. That ran the count to three balls and a strike, the idea being to chase the strong-throwing starter from the game in hope that a lesser pitcher might come on in relief. Or, perhaps, to even coax the New Yorkers to try their luck and pitch to Jones.

In last year’s regional round in Gulfport, Fla., the Warner Robins team bit on such a move. Its pitcher, facing Tennessee’s mightiest hitter, opted to pitch to the slugger after he took hacks at a pair of would-be ball fours. With the count 3-2, Warner Robins pitched to him and, whammo, saw the ball fly out of the park for a home run.

Saturday, Jones didn’t swing to make it 3-2 and instead walked. The batter behind him struck out to end the inning, but in the next frame the Warner Robins leadoff man went down on strikes, but it spelled the end for the New York starter who’d hit the 85-pitch mark.

Monday evening, during a postgame interview session with reporters after Warner Robins’ 3-2 victory over the Northwest team, the Georgia team’s manager was asked if the New York Post piece was accurate in saying Justin Jones was instructed to swing to increase the pitch tally.

“Do I need my attorney?” Randy Jones deadpanned, drawing laughs from reporters. “The pitch count is a part of the game, and it’s here to stay. And for those who aren’t willing to find strategic ways to use it to their benefit, they will find themselves going home.”

He said he figured to get questions as to the appropriateness of Saturday’s strategizing eventually.

“I think the way that that question was answered the best was by one of the umpires. … Apparently the (New York) coach came out and, as soon as we did that, claimed that I was making a travesty of the game, which is a very broad rule in the book,” Jones said. “But, anyhow, the umpire’s response to him was, ‘I think it’s a travesty that you won’t pitch to the kid.’ So he didn’t say anything else and went back to the dugout. So that took care of that problem.”

You know who is right here? The umpire.

It was a travesty that the Staten Island coaches decided to intentionally walk a player in the fourth inning. You’re not Tony LaRussa. You’re Little League coaches. Just pitch to the kid. Tell your pitcher not to throw him anything hittable, but at least look like you’re trying. Also, congratulations, you’ve just told one of your best pitchers he’s not capable of getting one of the best hitters out. Way to build his confidence. Unless you’re getting a cash bonus for winning this World Series (and if you are, that’s disgusting in its own right), forget the intentional walks unless it’s a real baseball reason — like there are runners on second and third with less than one out.

Georgia, if you think the ump sided with you, you’re wrong. Bascially, he called you out for being rule-bending knuckleheads, too, for cheaply trying to push the Staten Island pitcher to his limit. The ump was saying two wrongs don’t make a right, as in, the only thing more ridiculous than the pitcher trying to walk your guy was your guy swinging at an intentional walk pitch. Oh, and another thing more ridiculous — cheaply trying to use the pitch-count limit against somebody. The spirit of the rule is to keep a kid’s arm from falling off, not so you can game who you get to face.

As for Mushnick and Kovac Jr.:

Mushnick, if you were going to finger-wag, you should have included your homeboys of Staten Island for the intentional walk.

Kovac Jr., you should stop being such a huckleberry about big cities. Then, you should stop talking about the subtleties of Little League managing as if they involve baseball strategy. The biggest subtleties of any youth sports league involve how you develop players, not only their skills but also a love of the game. Not whether you can work the opponent’s pitch count up. Oh, and nice job referring to “a lesser pitcher” on a group of 11- and 12-year-olds. You sound like a heckling parent, daaaaaaaadgummit.

Written by rkcookjr

August 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm

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