A home run for the side of sportsmanship
Friday, May 2, 2008
It's hard to praise sportsmanship without sounding like a chump.
We celebrate cunning, guile and trash-talking in our games every day, but sportsmanship exactly once a year, which in case you missed it, officially came and went March 4. Yet every so often, those same games produce a gesture so grand it reminds you that sportsmanship always will be more about strength than weakness. Maybe that's why it remains the exception instead of the rule.
Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman wasn't doing anything more lofty than keeping track of the baserunners and pitch count in a game last Saturday when Western Oregon's Sara Tucholsky hit the first home run of her career. Never having had occasion to practice, Tucholsky's trot around the bases quickly turned into a disaster -- she missed first, turned back to tag it and collapsed with a knee injury.
As Tucholsky crawled back to the bag, Western's first base coach shouted, "Nobody touch her," knowing that any assistance from teammates or her trainers, or replacing Tucholsky with a pinch-runner, meant the home run would only count as a single. While the coaches and umpires tried to figure what to do next, Holtman waded into the huddle and asked, "Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?"
With the umpires' blessing, Holtman and Central teammate Liz Wallace gingerly scooped up Tucholsky and carried her toward second. Trying to figure out which was the good leg, the trio broke into giggles. By the time they reached second, just about everybody in the grandstand was on their feet cheering or crying, and some were doing both. It's worth noting the game, which had NCAA tournament implications for both schools, was won by Western Oregon 4-2.
"It's one of those things that in the moment of it, it didn't feel like a big deal," Holtman said a few days later when the three were reunited during an ESPN videoconference.
"It was kind of a blur ... we didn't really look up and see the reaction of the fans, but it's something you'll never forget."
It's safe to assume nothing like that would have happened in a men's collegiate game at the same Division II level, let alone the major leagues. By the time they get there, at least on the men's side, athletes have been taught, pushed and even praised for exploiting even the smallest advantage, which is understandable.
Anybody good enough to play at that level is almost far enough in the pipeline to start thinking about making a living playing ball. Much harder to understand is everyone else pretending to be surprised that the take-no-prisoners attitude has seeped down to every level below that.
Every week brings fresh stories about outraged parents attacking umpires and referees at youth league games, or bringing lawsuits against amateur organizations because their offspring were denied playing time or MVP awards. A personal favorite is a few years old now, involving a high school player who was caught with the buckles on his helmet sharpened to a razor's edge with help from his father -- who just happened to have the proper tools lying around because he was a pediatric dentist.
Western Oregon coach Pam Knox refused to be pinned down on the subject of whether Holtman's act proved there was any difference between men's and women's sports, only that it demonstrated "character" and showed their opponents played "for a coach who instills it."
Yet the most interesting thing about Holtman may be this: Although she is the career home run leader in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, she was moved to pick up Tucholsky more by a sense of fairness than generosity.
"It's not like she got a double or a triple and we helped her get an extra base," Holtman said. "Anyone is deserving of a home run if they hit it over the fence."
Her gesture would have generated more buzz had it happened in a men's game, no doubt, and even the little impact it made would have been greater if someone thought to capture that memorable trip around the bases on videotape for wider distribution.
The ethics that inform how athletes follow the rules haven't changed since the beginning of time: Asking for mercy is out of the question; offering it is not what winners do. But there's something to be said for those athletes who still believe it's not just about whether you win the game, but how you play it.
Since most of us let National Sportsmanship Day slide by without notice, we owe a debt of gratitude to Holtman for making a tired old slogan, "Dare to Play Fair," seem hip, if only for a little while, one more time.
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.