Monson: Weighing compassion, drive to win
Pony League Baseball and the human condition collided at home plate during a recent championship game, leaving defeat and doubt in one dugout, maybe disgust, too, and imperfect victory, at some cost, in the other.
Standing in the vortex, in the batter's box, was 9-year-old Romney Oaks, a survivor of brain cancer who played little league baseball, in part, because he wanted to be a regular kid who did regular things. What he became, after that single at-bat, though, was anything but regular.
He was transformed into the explosive centerpiece - "a powder keg," as the league president put it - of a discussion about what junior sports should teach children who participate, what the value of that participation is, whether adults mess up the kids' fun, and at what price winning should come. Clear-cut answers are about as easy as knocking a heavy split-fingered fastball out of the yard.
Romney struck out.
And ignited an uproar.
Here's the setup: The two best teams in Bountiful's 10-and-under Mueller Park Mustang League - the Yankees and Red Sox - met in a championship game, played the last Friday night in June. The undefeated Yanks were in the field, up by one run in the bottom of the last inning. With the tying run on third, two outs in the books, and the Red Sox' best hitter, Jordan Bleak, coming to the plate, Yankees coaches huddled and decided to do something they hadn't done all season: They told their pitcher to intentionally walk a hitter. An absolute anomaly in a low-key recreational league in which regular-season games were governed by competitive limitations, such as a maximum of four runs allowed in an inning. Those limits had been suspended for the championship game.
Bleak already had nailed a three-run homer and a triple.
"It was a baseball move," says Shaun Farr, one of the Yankees' coaches. "These kids wanted to win."
Romney was the only thing that stood in their way.
The undersized youngster, who had been diagnosed with the brain tumor five years earlier, who had battled valiantly through a mighty survivor's fight via traditional treatments, including surgery and chemotherapy, had been restricted, thereafter, in his baseball skills. When manning his position in center field, he wore a batter's helmet as a precaution to guard the shunt in his head. When he swung the bat, it looked like a drag bunt.
Red Sox coach Keith Gulbransen, who was coaching first base, says he overheard the Yankees coaches discussing their strategy: "They said, '. . . This is the kid who hit it out. And look who's up next.' They knew who was on-deck. It was heartbreaking. It was sound baseball strategy. But, at this level, was it fair? Romney knew what was going on."
After two strikes, Romney already had tears in his eyes. It was merely a matter of seconds before the kid who wanted to be regular became a special K. After the third whiff, the plumbing fully clogged and backed up, spilling down his face.
There may ordinarily be no crying in baseball, but, on this night, there was.
Gulbransen heatedly demanded an apology from Yankees coaches Bob Farley and Farr: "Apologize," he said. "Romney didn't deserve that."
"This wasn't about Romney," says Farr. "It wasn't about picking on a cancer survivor. It was about taking the bat out of their best hitter's hands in order to win. Our kids had worked hard. We played within the rules. We were trying to win."
Farr says he and Farley had no clue Romney Oaks had battled cancer, a remarkable assertion, considering Farr had coached Romney two years earlier in a basketball league.
"He was my third-best player, an aggressive athlete, out of seven or eight guys on my team," Farr says. "I love that kid. He was normal, athletic, completely into sports. He played a lot in the games. I had no idea he had cancer. I didn't know he was weak. But, in the championship baseball game, I could see that he wasn't swinging the bat much. And we didn't want to get beat by their best hitter, so we went to the next guy in the lineup, period."
Gulbransen's complaint focused on the move's age-level appropriateness in a chummy little rec league.
"I told Bob [Farley], 'Your move was strategically brilliant, but, at this level, inappropriate,' " Gulbransen says. "He asked back, 'When does it become appropriate?' That's the issue. What are we trying to teach these kids? At age 9, they are out there counting dandelions. They're herding cats. I guess the answer would be, when the kids are really in it for themselves to play the game. I wouldn't have done what those coaches did at this level. At higher levels, at comp level, it's appropriate. This is just for fun."
Says Farley: "I treat baseball as fun. I'm positive because I've seen too much negative through the years. I teach the kids basic skills. I'm not in it to win at all costs. But, when it comes down to a championship game, a coach has an obligation to his players to give them the best chance of winning. Everyone wanted to win that game."
Still, Farley says had he known Romney's health history, he would have rearranged his strategy at game's end.
"I would have told our pitcher to go ahead and pitch to their best hitter, but to give every pitch everything he had, and not worry about walking him," he says. "I would have tried to save Romney's feelings."
On the other hand, is it proper for a coach, then, to not intentionally walk a team's best hitter in that situation, to avoid a move he normally would make, based solely on the fact that the next opposing batter is a cancer victim?
Let's put ourselves in that situation. What would we do? What should we do?
Put the game on the line by pitching to the strong hitter? Or pursue the surest route to the win, the way the Yankees did?
"It's unfortunate," Gulbransen says. "At age 9, the boys learned there are shortcuts to winning. The [coaches] took the boys out of the game."
Or did they just play smart?
Find your own answer.
League president Craig Parry, a neighbor of all the coaches involved, who attended the game, has a unique perspective on the scenario not because of his administrative position, but because his own son developed a malignant brain tumor as a young kid, caroming through a similarly heart-wrenching life challenge.
"It's a difficult call," he says. "It's hard because kids are going to have their feelings hurt. But the Yankees coaches didn't do anything wrong. These are all good people. But they wanted to win. They did the best they could in an imperfect situation."
The collision between baseball and the flawed human condition initially left Romney Oaks defeated and distraught. The powerfully positive news is that the young boy subsequently told Gulbransen that he would have none of such discouragement over the long haul.
"Romney made a determination," Gulbransen says. "He said he wouldn't quit. He said he wouldn't be the kid who strikes out to end the game next time. He wants to be the kid who gets intentionally walked."
Any youngster strong enough to stare down cancer can handle the best and worst baseball can serve up, too. The kid may have struck out in the Mueller Park Mustang League. But he's already won the game.