Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Running Up the Score: At What Point Does Enough Equal Too Much ?

In sports, it's often considered gamesmanship, or at least poor sportsmaship, to outscore an opponent to the degree that it humiliates the opponent. Most would agree with this concept. The debate comes in terms of determining what constitutes the degree that humiliates one's opponent.

Young children's baseball and softball, as in both Little League, Bobby Sox,ASA, and their counterparts by other names (Cal Ripken League, etc.) often operate with a "mercy rule" of either eight or ten runs. Sometimes a given number of innings must be played before the rule comes into play. By that time, the gap between teams could easily be thirty runs. So much for the mercy rule in such cases. In the very lowest levels of these leagues, limits may exist as to how many times the complete lineup may bat before a side of an inning is retired, which is helpful for those times when a team has run out of pitching, and the poor pitcher left standing on the mound cannot buy a strike. Ideally no one is taking any outcomes too seriously in any of these games; perhaps after a particularly one-sided loss is the best time for a team to be taken out for pizza or ice cram, rather than after a stellar victory.

My uncle coaches both interscholasctic baseball and recreational youth baseball. My uncle says that the first year that kids play on a full-sized baseball diamond, usually at the age of thirteen, with the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate being equal to that which high school, college, and professional baseball players face, can produce dismal pitching results and can result in games that are painful even to watch, much less to coach or actually play. Adding to the agony of it all, my uncle says, is that by this time, even in the recreational leagues, winning is usually foremost among the objectives of the program at least in the players' minds. (While it may not be either "everything" or "the only thing," still it is something, and is the reason most of the players are on the field on a given day.) Furthermore, while running up the score is not considered good form, virtually no lead is a safe lead that first year of play on a full-sized diamond. Just as one team's pitching goes bust, seeing one batter after another advance to first and eventually around the bases as batters are either walked or hit by pitches, the very next inning may bring about the very same thing for the opposing team. Hence, no lead is truly safe, because it ain't over until the fat lady hath completed the final embellishment on her aria and waddled off the field.

In that thirteen-year-old level of youth baseball, one may just have to accept that it's going to be a bit ugly at times. Perhaps umpires could widen the strike zones (for both sides) a bit when walks seem to be getting out of hand, not so much that players are having to swing at pitches over their heads to avoid being called out on strikes, but just enough to give the poor pitchers a chance. The batter already has the advantage anyway just with the mere possibility of getting to first base without doing anything but stand next to the plate and observe pitches going over his head, rolling past his feet, or being thrown behind him.

Baseball's a sport that's very much in the gray area in this regard. Football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and water polo are bounded by time limits. A game goes on for X number of minutes, after which it's declared over, and one team wins by virtue of having scored more points than the other. If a football team has its quarterback continuing to throw passes for touchdowns, or keeps its first string in the game, all the way through the fourth quarter when it has a sixty-point lead, observers may conclude that the victorious team ran the score up. Likewise if a basketball team is continuing the fast break and the full-court press with a commanding lead in the final seconds of the fourth quarter (or second half in intercollegiate play) the allegation of running up the score again may be hurled.

In other sports, such as swimming or track, no such unwritten rules of propriety exist. A runner or swimmer isn't expected to move more slowly or jump less high or dive more sloppily (or even with less complexity) because the competition isn't as keen on a given day.

The truest gray areas can be found possibly in the sports of volleyball and tennis. A player or a team must reach, depending upon the sport, a given number of points, sets, games, or matches to be declared the winner. No matter how much a team has dominated early in a match, tables can turn, and again, it's not over until it's over. No time limit exists. So is it poor sportsmanship not to allow the opposition to win a game or even a point?

In a social setting of any sort, if a tennis player fails to allow an opponent the benefit of even a single point, bad feelings will occur. For that matter, even failure to allow an opponent to walk away with at least a single game in the set or two played will more than likely result in a bit of a grudge unless it's by previous arrangement that all players should play to maximum capacity for thr sake of sport.

In a competitive setting -- whether in tournament play or in a dual-match setting of interscholastic or other team play -- is it poor sportsmanship for one player to win every point he or she is able to win
without regard to the feelings of an opponent? Opinion is divided.

My opinion is that a tennis player should not attempt to humiliate an opponent by repeatedly acing him or her, or by regularly returning serves for outright winners, or by otherwise overpowering said opponent, when the issue of victory is never in doubt. On the other hand, in a sport such as tennis where a fluke injury on the part of an opponent can result in a victory by default for the player who is one point away from loss, it is perfectly acceptable to keep the ball in play until an opponent makes an error, or to hit occasional outright winners even when far ahead of one's opponent if it's a situation where the outcome of the match counts for something, whether it be for a point in a team victory or for advancement to the next round in tournament play. In theory, the one point in a tennis match deliberately given away to one's opponent can cause the match to go one point longer than it would otherwise have, resulting in the player who should have been the victor sustaining a match-ending injury on what should have been a match-point in favor of him or her. Had the earlier point not been given up eliberately, the previously-played point would have been the ending point of the match, the injury would not have occurred, and the player would have won rather than defaulted, resulting in either the loss of the win for his or her team or the failure to advance to the next round of the tournament.

For this reason, it is my belief that, in a competitive (tournament or team) setting, it is perfectly acceptable for a player to win a tennis match without ever letting the opposition win as much as a single point.Will doing so result in hard feelings? Most likely. Do all, or even most tennis players possess the mental toughness necessary to win every point of a match? It is highly unlikely. Are players usually mismatched in competitive pairings to the extent that it is even possible for one player to win all of the points in a match? Not usually. Still, in a competitive situation, if winning of every point played can be accomplished, it should be, and no apologies should be deemed necessary for having done so.

Note #1: My assumption is that, for the sake of argument, each point won or lost was won or lost fairly. This was not an attempt to discuss the impact of bad line calls or foot-faults.

Note #2: This has been written in rebuttal to an argument with my PseudoUncle, who has never played tennis competitively, and who believes that failing to allow an opponent in a competitive tennis match to win a single point is the equivalent to a basketball team defeating its opposing team by a score of one hundred to zero. I obviously think PseudoUncle's analogy does not apply.

1 comment:

  1. But what happens if you DO show mercy do an opponent and they give you a good thrashing?