SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Leave it to the New York press to stir up a mild stink about, of all things, the strategic subtleties of Little League baseball.
A newspaper sports columnist for the New York Post went into a tizzy in Monday’s editions, venting about what he saw as an example of the ills of the boyhood game.
Writer Phil Mushnick, who covers sports broadcasting for the big-city tabloid, cited Warner Robins American’s “lack of sportsmanship” in a Saturday World Series game against the Mid-Atlantic team from Staten Island, N.Y.
Mushnick’s observations came two days after the Georgia boys outfoxed the New Yorkers 6-3 in a contest televised on ABC. Well within the rules of the Little League game, Warner Robins sought to do all it could to up the Mid-Atlantic starting hurler’s pitch count.
Warner Robins’ leadoff batter Justin Jones, who had cracked a two-run homer earlier in the game, was at the plate with two out in the fourth. The Big Apple squad opted to issue him an intentional pass. Its pitcher tossed three pitchouts to the catcher.
On what would have been ball four, with the Staten Island starter’s pitch count within eight of the 85-pitch Little League limit, Jones, with the apparent OK from his father, Warner Robins manager and third-base coach Randy Jones, took a half-hearted swing at the unhittable pitch. That ran the count to three balls and a strike, the idea being to chase the strong-throwing starter from the game in hopes that a lesser pitcher might come on in relief. Or, perhaps, to even coax the New Yorkers to try their luck and pitch to Jones.
In last year’s regional round in Gulfport, Fla., the Warner Robins team bit on such a move. Its pitcher, facing Tennessee’s mightiest hitter, opted to pitch to the slugger after he took hacks at a pair of would-be ball fours. With the count 3-2, Warner Robins pitched to him and, whammo, saw the ball fly out of the park for a home run.
Saturday, Jones didn’t swing to make it 3-2 and instead walked. The batter behind him struck out to end the inning. In the next frame, the Warner Robins leadoff man went down on strikes, but it spelled the end for the New York starter who’d hit the 85-pitch mark.
Opined Mushnick: “Here was another example of adults encouraging kids to forget playing ball and instead try to win by hook or by crook, to exploit every rule, to worm through loopholes.”
Monday evening, during a postgame interview session with reporters after Warner Robins’ 3-2 victory over the Northwest team, the Georgia team’s manager was asked if the New York Post piece was accurate in saying Justin Jones was instructed to swing to increase the pitch tally.
“Do I need my attorney?” Randy Jones deadpanned, drawing laughs from reporters. “The pitch count is a part of the game, and it’s here to stay. And for those who aren’t willing to find strategic ways to use it to their benefit, they will find themselves going home.”
He said he figured to get questions about the appropriateness of Saturday’s strategizing eventually.
“I think the way that that question was answered the best was by one of the umpires. ... Apparently the (New York) coach came out and, as soon as we did that, claimed that I was making a travesty of the game, which is a very broad rule in the book,” Jones said. “But anyhow, the umpire’s response to him was, ‘I think it’s a travesty that you won’t pitch to the kid.’ So he didn’t say anything else and went back to the dugout. So that took care of that problem.”
Jones was then asked, while his son’s on-purpose swing and miss was every bit within the rules, was it sportsmanlike?
“He intentionally missed,” the manager said, “they intentionally walked him. ... You can pitch around a guy without intentionally putting him on. So the coaches have options and, uh, we’ll use the pitch count to our benefit.”
The manager of the Northwest club that Warner Robins edged Monday said he saw no harm in the way the Georgians ran up the New York ace’s pitch count Saturday.
“It’s almost comical” someone would question the move, Mercer Island, Wash., manager Steve Stenberg said. “I don’t know why they didn’t have him swing at the next pitch to make it a 3-2 count and tack on another pitch.”
Monday evening, the Warner Robins manager noted his team’s pitching depth, which extends well beyond its top-flight starters. Many Little League powerhouses try to ride the arms of one or two fireballers. Warner Robins doesn’t have that luxury, nor does it embrace that philosophy. In the win over the Northwesterners, five Georgia pitchers combined for a two-hitter.
“I spent a lot of time in the backyard teaching seven, eight, nine guys how to pitch instead of three or four,” Jones said. “And it pays off.”