By Richard Procter
Heckscher Ballfield #6 is nestled in the southwest corner of Central Park, its outfield overlapping with fields one through five. The sights and sounds of Broadway are muffled by a row of trees and the fields themselves are surrounded by a constant parade of dog-walkers, joggers and parents escorting athletes to the appropriate diamond. It is a crisp 51 degrees and the sky is still overcast as the next game begins, with the Jackhammers, decked out in maroon uniforms, challenging the Nailers, dressed in blue.
Both teams are part of the Yorkville Youth Athletic Association, and more specifically the Boys Grapefruit League Division C, whose players are in grades two and three. It’s Saturday, April 30, at 9:34 AM when the first pitch is thrown. The Jackhammers bat first and get off to a quick start, leading 7-1 at the end of the first inning. The game starts to look like a blowout; the Jackhammers scored 22 runs in their previous game and seem poised to do so again.
Nobody likes extremely lopsided games. When the girls basketball team at Covenant School in Texas beat Dallas Academy 100-0 in January of 2009, head coach Micah Grimes was fired, roundly criticized and even landed a spot on GQ’s list of the “Top 20 Most Despicable Coaches,” a list that includes child molesters and criminals. A high school baseball game in April of 2011 that ended with a score of 53-0 (also in Texas) prompted immediate district-wide changes to the league’s mercy rule.
Unlike professional leagues, youth athletics often utilize what’s known colloquially (never officially) as the mercy rule. It’s also been called the slaughter rule, the knockout rule or even the skunk rule (i.e. “We got skunked”). The purpose of these rules, essentially, is to end games between mismatched opponents. And while national attention is usually only brought to high school routs like the one between Covenant School and Dallas Academy, the mercy rules are less common at the high school level and generally used in younger leagues, for players aged five to 16. Even then, having such a rule is not necessarily a given.
Soccer is the most popular youth sport in the United States. USA Youth Soccer, the primary governing organization for youth soccer leagues in the country, has grown since its start in 1974 when it had just over 100,000 registered players compared to three million players in 2010. Does the biggest youth sport in America have a mercy rule?
“We don’t,” said USA Youth Soccer Communications Coordinator Mike Anderson in a phone interview. Without a mercy rule in place, Anderson said USA Youth Soccer focuses on promoting coach and parent education courses.
“A big portion of soccer among the younger age groups is coaching around development rather than winning or losing,” he said. While there is no official mercy rule in place, Anderson said there are official youth tournaments where once one team is ahead by three to five goals, they no longer keep track of the score while continuing to play out the game.
USA Hockey, the equivalent of USA Youth Soccer, registered nearly 560,000 players for 2009-10 and provides detailed recommendations for leagues of all age groups up through 16-year olds. For leagues with players eight and under, the recommendations suggest that score not even be kept because it says its point of emphasis at that age is skill development and learning. Leagues of all age groups are recommended to “promote a non-competitive environment” so that players “can learn the basic skills without the distractions that are often associated with an overemphasis on winning,” according to official guidelines issued by the USA Hockey board of directors.
With an estimated 425,000 participants aged five to 16, Pop Warner is the largest youth football organization in the United States. And, unlike USA Youth Soccer and US Hockey, Pop Warner does have a mercy rule: when one team is leading by 28 points, the clock starts to run and doesn’t stop, even if the other team rallies.
“The rule is not recent,” said Josh Pruce, Pop Warner Director of Scholastics and Media Information in a phone interview. “It’s at least 20 years old.” The rule is in place to speed up lopsided games, Pruce said. “We’re out here to have fun, not to embarrass or hurt anybody.”
Probably the most well known version of the mercy rule comes from Little League baseball, which had more than 2.1 million participants in 2010. The rule is officially known as the 10 run rule: if a team is ahead by 10 runs or more after a certain number of innings, the game is over. How many innings is determined by the age of the players and whether the home team is leading. Local leagues may opt in or out of this rule, but it’s mandatory for tournament play.
Lance van Auken is the vice president for communications for Little League international and has been affiliated with Little League in one way or another for over 40 years. He recalls playing with the rule when he was a Little League player in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He said in a phone interview that not much has changed since then.
“People complain one side or the other,” van Auken said. “Some would say that it’s too many runs, that it should be seven and not 10 or whatever, and others say there shouldn’t be one at all. But I think most people accept it.”
Dave Jacobsen, 46, has been coaching youth sports since 2000 and is currently head coach of the Bowditch Middle School boy’s 7th grade B team (the Buccaneers went 11-2 and lost in the championship game) in Foster City, California. Shortly after he started coaching he attended a workshop put on by the Positive Coaching Alliance. He liked what it had to say and now works as the organization’s communications manager. In a phone interview, he said that one way or another, its important that youth sports leagues have a way to deal with one-sided games.
“There are very few life lessons to come out of a blowout game,” he said. “There are very few sporting lessons to come out of a blowout game.” The PCA promotes the idea of youth sports as a place for young people to learn life lessons and develop character traits through sports. That purpose can get lost if games are not managed properly. “If you’re a kid who gets involved in too many blowout games, the game gets boring,” he said. “You may leave the game and quit sports altogether and miss out on life lessons.”
Jacobson said properly coached games can do a lot of work in limiting blowouts. The coach of the winning team has lots of options available: giving significant playing time to players who usually don’t play much and/or telling the players to focus on a skill — like dribbling with their left hand — rather than scoring. According to Jacobson, the PCA has trained over 450,000 coaches in the United States, only a tenth of the estimated four million youth sports coaches in the country. Still, many youth organizations hold their own coaching seminars.
The Yorkville Youth Athletic Association is one of those organizations.
Arlene Virga has been the Executive Director of the YYAA for the past 16 years. It serves over 5,000 children in New York City and has leagues in 12 different sports. The YYAA trains its coaches internally and Virga has been adamant about not implementing mercy rules in any YYAA leagues.
“I’m not a fan of the mercy rule,” Virga said in a phone interview. “The very statement ‘We’re mercying you’ is almost worse than getting beat by a lot.” Virga prefers variations on the mercy rule as a method of preventing blowouts. In the YYAA baseball league, the Nailers find out that the 10 batter rule is in effect. Once a team has gone through 10 batters, that half of the inning is over, regardless of how many outs the team has.
Virga’s priority as executive director is making sure the rules allow for children to keep playing, which she feels is the only way they can get better. A strict mercy rule doesn’t give young people enough credit, she said. “We think kids can’t take certain things. We make things so nice for them that when they do come up against difficult things in their life they’re not prepared. It’s really okay to take a shellacking sometimes.”
Heading into the bottom of the third inning, the Nailers find themselves down 7-1. Their defense, which betrayed them in the first inning, has tightened up, holding the Jackhammers scoreless since then. Suddenly, the Nailers offense comes alive, and they quickly rack up five runs, closing to 7-6 with two outs and the bases loaded. But do the math: five runs plus two outs and three players on base is 10, and the Nailers rally ends due to the 10 batter rule.
The umpire, Ben Weil, works several games a week for YYAA, loves it, and said he hasn’t seen a game that he felt was out of hand. “Out of all the games I’ve done, I’d say the worst one was something like 15-3, which isn’t that crazy. I haven’t had a game where one team was scoring six or seven runs per inning and the other team wasn’t scoring at all.”
The Heckscher Ballfields do not have scoreboards, so the only way to find out the score is to keep track or ask the umpire. Weil said he thinks games go most smoothly when the coaches don’t or won’t tell the players what the score is; neither the Jackhammers coach nor the Nailers coach will tell the players the score, saying only “You’ll find out when it’s over.” In this case, the Jackhammers hold on to win 13-6. No mercy rule needed, and despite early indications, the game is not a blowout.
Mitchell Leidner is the father of eight-year old Alexander Leidner, who plays for the Jackhammers. The elder Leidner said that he likes that the YYAA uses the 10 batter rule. “In this way, it’s more about speeding up the game,” he said.
Jacobson said it’s important for coaches to help their young athletes to keep perspective: “They can control their effort. They can control their sportsmanship. They can control how they treat their teammates and the officials. They cannot control the opponent, the weather, the scoreboard, the home court advantage. If you and your athletes can look in the mirror and say we gave our best effort and the other team was just better today, then everyone should be able to walk away satisfied with the experience.”