Seeing the scores of some recent high school basketball games got me to thinking about sportsmanship in general and how it is defined in different sports and at different levels, but specifically in baseball. In basketball you very well can't tell a team not to shoot the ball before the shot clock runs out, so I guess it comes down to the coach realizing at a certain stage of the game that he needs to call off the full court press and play the subs, but even then, the score could still get out of hand. We all can tell bad sportsmanship when we see it there. Likewise with football. If you're up by three touchdowns with a minute left and your opponent can't stop the clock, you don't throw for the end zone or send in your kicker for a field goal. Everyone understands where the line is drawn there and for the most part everyone agrees.
But is it so clear in baseball? I'll bring up an example from a game I attended a few years ago. The Reds were playing the Astros. I think it was getting late in the game, maybe around the 6th inning, and the Reds were up by about four runs at the time. I can't remember the exact score. There were runners on first and second and Ron Gant was on deck. The player at the plate (can't remember who) dropped a bunt down the third base line and the third baseman was playing so deep there was no play. It was a bunt hit and the bases were loaded. Gant then came up and hit a grand slam and the Reds ended up winning the game by seven or eight runs when all was said and done. The manager of the Astros made some comments after the game that the Reds were guilty of bad sportsmanship for trying to run up the score in that inning. When asked to clarify his remarks, he mentioned the bunt. It wasn't the grand slam that burned him up, but that the Reds bunted when they were up by a few runs already.
Now I was at that game and it was pretty obvious to me that the hitter was trying for a base hit with that bunt attempt. He didn't square up like he would for a sacrifice attempt. But let's say that he was trying to sacrifice the runners over. Most of us will agree that the sacrifice in that situation might increase your chances of scoring one run, but decrease your chances of a big inning, so why was the manager more furious with the bunt than he would have been had the batter hit a home run? Let's say for the sake of argument that the hitter had lined a hit to center field and then Gant followed up with a homer. The end result would have been the same, but lining a solid single up the middle would not have brought the ire of the opposing manager.
Since then I have heard from many baseball people that playing small ball with a big lead is bad sportsmanship, and there is a part of me that wants to agree with that, but the more I think about it, the more that attitude seems to come out of a flawed understanding of the game. We all know that in certain situations, small ball can increase your chances of scoring a run, and in situations where all that is needed is one run, it can be the way to go. So with that in mind, that seems to me to be that last thing you would want to do if you were wanting to run up the score on your opponent. It seems that you would want to employ a strategy that would maximize your chances of scoring multiple runs in an inning. If your opponent is trying to claw back into the game and you tack on one more run in the sixth inning, he still has a chance, but if you drop a four spot on him, you very well might have locked up the game.
I guess the problem people have is that if a team executes a small ball strategy in that situation, it appears that they were "trying" to score. So if a team just goes up there and swings the bat, they're not trying to score? Perhaps the only way you could not try to score would be to go up and purposefully strike out, but nobody is going to do that. I just find it somewhat humorous that if Adam Dunn bunted a guy over when the Reds were up by four runs, he would be chastised more than if he hit a three run homer in the same situation.
The final part of this little dilemna is the nature of the game today. What lead is safe in a game without a clock? I guess that all depends on the strength of your bullpen. Who among us has forgotten that debacle against the Cardinals last year? I guess my whole point is this. How do we define sportsmanship in baseball in regards to running up scores and how much of the general attitude comes out of an old school understanding of the game?