Of Titles and Little Leaguers

Recently, Little League International vacated the Little League World Series title from Jackie Robinson West out of Chicago. While very unfortunate for the kids who simply showed up to play baseball, anyone familiar with the city of Chicago and it’s checkered past is far less than surprised. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, many of us were “shocked to discover gambling in this establishment” while others, like Rick, are quick to roll their eyes and walk off in disgust.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: vacating wins is the dumbest punishment in sports—it is literally revisionist history. You broke our rules, so we are going to pretend like your win never happened. The second place team doesn’t get the victory instead. No, they get told that they can’t have the record because they lost the game to the cheaters. For those playing along at home: the record of the win is expunged for the cheater, but is retained for the team that lost fairly. The game both happened, and didn’t. Erwin Schrödinger eat your heart out.

The above digression simply is meant to point out the sheer absurdity of a backward-looking punishment. The game happened. It had a result that everyone knows about. Pretending that it never happened does not have an impact that is worth a damn. Punishment should be forward looking—especially in cases where the players are equally victimized by a principal who does not participate in the games, as with the boys from Jackie Robinson West.

These kids played baseball, spectacular baseball. They dominated their opponents and were clearly the best team in the tournament. Notwithstanding, they gerrymandered the Chicago district lines to pack the team with the best players. They cheated, and no excuse can be made on behalf of the administration that justifies this cheating.

Still, Little League International must be brought to bear for its lack of supervision and controls. Of all the questions to be sounded in the coming days, one question rings loudest: how did a team with a forged map get as far as they did? Clearly, the Jackie Robinson West team and the Chicago Little League administrators were partners in perpetuating the fraud. The organization was systemically corrupt enough to clear all of the pre-tournament regulatory hurdles without suspicion—again, readers may look above for my “shocked” face.

The LLWS is one of the greatest tournaments in the world. Teams of aspiring baseball prodigies from all over the world compete for love of the game—if all you can think of is Costner now, I’m sorry and try to reel it in. These kids exemplify why youth sports programs are so great and so important. The fact that a cheater emerged among them to win is despicable. The fact that it was not caught until after the fact, more so. The governing body must implement further controls to ensure this never happens again.

Baseball is a purer game. There’s a special mythos about it that just isn’t present in other sports. It’s a reverent game meant to be treated with respect. We owe a duty to baseball to punish those that would tarnish the reputation of the game. This duty manifests itself in the way the game is administered, the Hall of Fame selections, and even the unwritten rules enforced by players. This duty is what obligates Little League International to levy a severe punishment on the Chicago area Little League organizations that sanctioned this cheating.

The problem is in deciding how to punish without causing too much harm to current players who had nothing to do with the cheating. Vacating does not punish anyone. Banning punishes everyone. The goal is to be more surgical. The best solution is to punish the people at fault—novel idea, I know. Little League International must have governance over the administrators nationally. Every single person with decision-making authority or whose job it was to catch the gerrymandering, must be fired—summarily and without question. The League offices in Chicago who sanctioned this corruption should carry the full weight of the blame and be punished accordingly. Little League International has the opportunity to take a stand and claw back some credibility here. Unfortunately, it seems that vacating wins is their way of washing their hands of the responsibility. This is an untenable position. A forward-looking punishment in addition to the loss of the title and wins is the only acceptable course of action.

Baseball is owed its pound of flesh.

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