Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

Why the American softball team should have no mercy.

Play ball—till the end

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched an inning of women’s softball at the Olympics—which comes as a surprise, since ace pitcher Cat Osterman is my reigning favorite female athlete at the University of Texas. But when I was perusing the box scores this morning, all set to make softball part of my Athens TV ritual, I discovered that the Americans had won four of their first seven games in truncated fashion—because of the application of the “mercy rule.” Say what? There’s a mercy rule at the Olympics?

If you ever played youth sports, and if your teams blew in the triumphant way mine did, then you know the mercy rule (or as it’s known in rural ballfields, the “skunk rule”). When one team is beating the other’s brains in—by, say, 10 runs—the mercy rule gets invoked to prevent the loser from excessive humiliation. I remember many youth soccer games in which the refs spared our side before the final whistle—at which point we’d sprint for the ice chest full of Capri Sun and fudge pies and forget everything that just happened. Which is my point, sort of. The mercy rule is blasphemous in youth sports, more so in the Olympics.

Olympic softball’s mercy rule takes effect when a team is winning by seven runs after five innings. (Softball games normally run seven innings.) Let’s describe the many ways why this is insane. For one thing, baseball (and, by extension, softball) doesn’t have a running clock—Abner Doubleday or somebody else thought the notion that a team can come back from any deficit with two outs in the last inning was kind of important.

A more practical objection—and here I’m emoting on behalf of American victims Italy, Australia, Canada, and Greece—is that the mercy rule robs softball players of hard-won Olympic innings. Imagine you’re a Greek shortstop, you’ve trained many years for the Olympics, and because you ran into the dominant team at the games, you’re asked to vacate the field. If you polled the Greek softballer, I’d bet she would vote to remain on the diamond, continue to get pounded by the Americans, and gain experience for 2008. Or just prolong the Athenian contact high. Or whatever. Anything but hit the showers because an IOC official says it’s for your own protection. For proof, ask Greece’s Ginny Georgantas (only slightly Greek), who got the lone hit in Thursday’s blowout loss to the United States. She called it “the highlight of my life.”

Some might argue for the mercy rule on the basis of aesthetics—long blowouts send the TV viewer into a catatonic state. Well, Olympic softball, especially against the United States, isn’t exactly a marathon affair. Through seven games, American pitchers have allowed zero runs and 11 hits;only three opposing runners have even touched third base. When the United States is in the field, half-innings pass in the blink of an eye. Surely that makes up for the other side of the inning, when American hitters are beating the other teams’ brains in.

Believe it or not, jocks don’t suffer lasting psychological pain because of blowouts. Bad teams—even bad Olympic teams—have a pretty good idea that they’re bad. After the game against the United States, Greece’s Georgantas, who I’m loving more every minute, told reporters, “I’m a little disappointed. But not too much. The Americans are the dominant team in the world.” Somebody get that woman a sports psychologist!

Or take Bryan Curtis (me). Don’t get me wrong. I loved eating fudge pies after getting skunked off the field, but I also played for some pretty horrendous teams in baseball and soccer leagues that didn’t have a mercy rule and I remember the post-blowout powwows at the local pizza joint. My 11-year-old comrades and I talked about Topps baseball cards, girls, the Great Books—but never once whined that the refs didn’t cancel the game on behalf of our tender pre-adolescent psyches. We got over it. The Greeks will, too.