Sports Legend Revealed: Two teams in the Little League World Series tried to fail in the last inning of their game so they could advance to the region final
BASEBALL LEGEND: Two teams playing in the Little League World Series were both trying to intentionally fail in the last inning of their match-up so that they could advance to the final of their region.
The idea of strategically losing is a well ingrained concept in the world of sports. In most leagues, the team with the worst record in the regular season will have the first pick of the next season's draft (or in the NBA, the team with the worst record will have the best odds of getting the first pick in a lottery drawing held after the season). Therefore, if there is a particularly heralded prospect available in the upcoming draft, it actually makes a certain amount of sense for a mediocre team to try to become as bad as they can to give themselves the best chance to snare the number one pick. It is such a well known strategy that there is even a phrase for it - "tanking the season." We have seen it work well for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Pittsburgh Penguins (who netted themselves Lebron James and Mario Lemeiux, respectively), but we have also seen it backfire horribly, as it did for the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Boston Celtics when they had the worst two records in the NBA in 1996-97, but saw the 3rd worst team, the San Antonio Spurs, end up with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft.
Beyond losing to get a good draft pick, teams also often intentionally lose to affect where they are seeded in the playoffs. I have written in the past about an amusing incident where the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks both tried to lose their final meeting of the 1999 NBA season because the Heat wanted the Knicks to be the #7 team and face the #2 seeded Pacers while the Knicks wanted to be the #8 team so that they could face the #1 seeded Heat.
So the idea of strategically losing is normal. However, what is abnormal is seeing two teams that were playing in the final inning of the game that decided who would go to the finals of their region in the Little League World Series (where the winning team would advance to the Little League World Series) where one team was trying to let the other team score and the other team was trying intentionally to make outs!
Read on to see what was going on in the New England bracket of the 2006 Little League World Series...
In case you're unfamiliar with Little League Baseball, it is a non-profit organization founded in 1939 that organizes local youth baseball and softball leagues all over the world. They have leagues for youths from ages 5 to 18, but likely their most famous league is the titular "Little League," for players aged 9-12.
Every year, the Little League World Series finals takes place in August in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania (where Little League was founded). The Little League World Series is an international competition consisting of the winners of eight regional tournaments from the United States and the winners of eight regional tournaments from around the world. The winners of each region then play each other until there is a champion of the United States bracket and a champion of the international bracket. These two teams then play each other in the Little League World Series. The tournament has been going on since 1947 (it began as just a United States thing but has developed into the international tournament it is today).
Each local league is represented by an "All-Star Team" made up of 11 and 12 year olds who play in that local league (if they chose to enter the tournament). Since 2001, the regions are as follows (they've changed slightly since 2001, mostly names of the region - I'm giving you the current alignment):
In the United States: New England, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest (including Alaska) and West (including Hawaii).
In the rest of the world: Canada, Mexico, Asia-Pacific, Japan, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Latin America and Caribbean.
Since Little League is, at its heart, a league devoted to good sportsmanship, there is a notable rule that must be adhered to in all Little League games, including the All-Star Teams that compete in the Tournament - everyone has to get a chance to play. Specifically, every player on the team roster must have at least one plate appearance and play three consecutive outs on defense in each game (so basically get one at-bat and play an inning defensively). Since Little League Games are six innings long, this could be an issue at times.
And that was the issue at hand in the match-up of two teams in the New England region of the 2006 Little League World Series. The Portsmouth, New Hampshire All-Stars were playing the Colchester, Vermont All-Stars for the right to play the team from Glastonbury, Connecticut to represent New England in the Little League World Series.
In a high-scoring game, Colchester was batting with a runner on and two outs in a 7-7 game in the bottom of the fifth inning. Then, suddenly, Nate Frieberg two-out, two-run homer put Colchester ahead 9-7. This would normally be a good thing, however, Colchester manager Denis Place had not managed to get substitute Adam Bentley up in the bottom of the fifth. The third out was made before Bentley came to bat. I don't know how Place made the mistake - perhaps he thought it unlikely for his team to score with two outs?
In any event, if Bentley did not bat (he was due up the next inning), Colchester would have to forfeit the game. Therefore, the only way to win the game was to get Bentley an at-bat in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the only way to do that would be for Portsmouth to tie the game in the top half of the inning.
In the top of the sixth inning, Portsmouth scored a run to cut it to 9-8, but then Portsmouth got two outs. It was at this point that Place had a meeting at the mound to inform his players of his strategy (it might actually have been at that point that he realized his mistake, I honestly couldn't say). So pitcher Zach Tandy started throwing the ball wildly and the Colchester infielders began throwing the ball around wildly, as well. Portsmouth manager Mark McCauley noted later that he didn't figure out what was going on until he noticed that Tandy wouldn't pitch to McCauley's son, Connor, choosing instead to throw pitches way out of the strike zone. Around this point, a Portsmouth supporter shouted something to the effect of "they haven't gotten a kid in!"
At this point, Little League officials took both managers aside and admonished Place and said to cut it out. Colchester did not, so Place and Tandy were both ejected. With it clear that Colchester was still going to let Portsmouth tie the game (and with the tying run on third base now), McCauley began to tell his players to just swing at everything (and not advance on wild pitches, naturally). Eventually, the third out was made without the tying run scoring.
Portsmouth then, naturally, protested the game and two hours later officials determined Colchester violated the Mandatory Play rule and the game was forfeited in Portsmouth's favor. McCauley said of the game, “I’ll be drop-dead honest. I would’ve rather walked off that field losing, 9-8, and been ignorant to the fact that we didn’t do our job to check that book. I hate this. I absolutely hate this. I wish I wasn’t here. I feel absolutely horrible about it. You know who I feel the worst for is those Vermont kids. You can’t say anything to those kids. My heart breaks for those kids.”
Portsmouth defeated the team from Glastonbury to advance to the final tournament, which began with a round robin before going to a three-round single elimination round. Portsmouth actually won the round robin but was eliminated in the first round of the elimination round by the Columbus, Georgia team representing the Southeast region.
Doesn't this all sound like the plot for the next Bad News Bears movie? Thanks to reader Joe Maggio for the suggestion (I sure do love suggestions!) and thanks to the Boston Herald (I can't seem to find who wrote the article) for the quotes!
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