When I played Little League baseball, they always made us say a pledge. “I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose I will always do my best.”
The pledge didn’t mean a whole lot.
Until I understood what it meant.
My team, the Giants, were playing well one season. We beat the Cardinals, our biggest rivals, in a game and we clinched a spot in the playoffs. Or so we thought.
The league rules said everyone got to play. In each six inning game, each player had to play at least three innings. One of the scorekeepers noticed that one of our players had only played two innings.
“Rules, shmools. We beat them fair and square,” I told my parents. They thought otherwise and pointed out that if our player HAD played three innings, the outcome might have been different.
I thought about this game when I sat down and watched a playoff game some time later. The New York Yankees played the fifth and final game of the 1977 ALCS at Kansas City. The Yankees and the home team Royals had gained respect for one another and were beginning what would be a bitter and lasting rivalry on the field. They would eventually face each other in the playoffs four times in five years!
In the bottom of the first inning, Royal superstar George Brett drove a Ron Guidry pitch over the head of center fielder Mickey Rivers. Brett rounded second and slid hard into third base with a triple.
As Brett got up, Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles kicked Brett in the jaw! Brett responded with a punch to Nettles’ head. The Yankee players on the field and in the dugout near third base got to the fray before Brett’s teammates and some of them tackled Brett to the ground.
The Royal fans must have had a collective heart attack: if their best player were to be injured, the team would hardly stand a chance to win the game and go to the World Series.
Then, completely unnoticed by even the Yankee announcers, one of the Yankees, catcher Thurman Munson, lay down on top of Brett against the other Yankees! Brett would later say that Munson told him something at the bottom of the pile, “No one’s going to take any cheap shots.”
From Munson’s point of view, it just didn’t look like a fair fight. He obviously wanted to win the game but he wouldn’t allow his teammates to achieve victory in an unethical way. Now I could finally see the point my parents were telling me about playing fair in Little League.