When Little Leaguers Need to Play to Lose

The Little League World Series is a global baseball tournament. Children age 12 and under take to the diamonds representing their home towns and communities, facing off against similarly-aged youngsters. The tournament gathers teams in sixteen regions — for example, in 2006, the state champions from the six New England states gathered in Bristol, Connecticut — and the winners of those regions advance to a tournament held annually in Williamsport, PA. It’s very straightforward: win your games and you move on to the next round, or ultimately, to the Little League World Series title.

But in that 2006 New England regional, there was a glitch. The team that won, lost. Even though — or maybe because — they tried to lose, almost. 

In August of that year, the state champions from Vermont and New Hampshire faced off, with the winner expected to advance to Williamsport. As the game entered the top half of the sixth and final inning (Little League World Series games are six-innings long, not the typical nine in pro baseball), it looked like the Vermont team was going to win. They were winning by a score of 9-7 going into the inning, and while New Hampshire was able to claw back to a 9-8 deficit, things looked good for Vermont. And then things got wild. Literally.

Instead of throwing good pitches, the Vermont pitcher suddenly found himself unable to get the ball behind the plate. The fielders were similarly unable to get the New Hampshire players out. New Hampshire’s chances of tying the game seemed very high, all through the fault of a collective collapse by their Vermont opponents. With the tying run on third base, New Hampshire Mark McCauley decided to respond with his own unorthodox move — he told his batter to intentionally strike out, ending the game.

Coach McCauley — clued in by some parents in the stands — realized what was going on. At the tlme, Little League had a “must play” rule; that is, the coaches had to make sure that each and every kid on the team played in every game. Specifically, each child had to play “in the game for at least three consecutive defensive outs and one at-bat,” per the Associated Press. (It should be “plate appearance, as any nerdy baseball fan knows.) In the fifth inning, the Vermont coach, Denis Place, put Adam, the last player in the game, expecting that kid to come to bat; Adam would then fulfill the “three consecutive defensive outs” part of the rule in the sixth. But Adam’s spot in the batting order didn’t come up in the fifth. Vermont, as the home team, wouldn’t need to come to bat in the sixth and final inning if they were winning. As a result, Adam hadn’t yet taken his requisite “one at-bat,” which would result in Vermont forfeiting, despite having otherwise won.

Coach Place told his team about his error and came up with a plan. If New Hampshire tied the game (or took the lead) in their half of the sixth inning, Vermont would come to bad in the latter half of the inning, and Adam would get that at-bat. He told his team to do whatever it took to help New Hampshire score a run, including pitching and throwing wildly. So McCauley responded in kind; he told his team to not score. 

What turned out to be an honest mistake on Place’s part turned the game into a farce. Both managers huddled with the umpires who instructed the managers to “not make a mockery of this game,” per the AP. Coach Place and his pitcher were ejected from the game as the shenanigans continued and ultimately, New Hampshire didn’t score that elusive 9th run. Vermont “won” the game, 9-8.

And then they lost. New Hampshire filed a protest, per the New York Times, and officials took the game under advisement. They ultimately ruled that, by failing to play Adam enough, Vermont forfeited the game. New Hampshire was awarded the win, officially by a score of 6-0. New Hampshire advanced to the 16-team World Series, falling to eventual champion Columbus, Georgia in the quarterfinals.

Bonus fact: If you watch the Little League World Series on TV, you’re not watching it live — there’s a five-second delay. And you have the 2006 LLWS to thank for that, too. As ESPN explained, “it the middle of the sixth inning, just before a commercial break, a player for Staten Island used an obscenity while telling his teammates in the dugout that they needed just one run to tie the game. The Staten Island manager, Nick Doscher, responded with a quick slap to the player.” The player and coach were reprimanded (specifics have gone unreported) by officials, and broadcasters ABC and ESPN decided to implement a slight broadcast delay from that point forward. 

From the Archives: Bats and Hammers: The young baseball fan — and the Major League team owner — that changed music history (slightly).