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Simple solution, play until the end

| Saturday, Aug. 4, 2001

Davey Lopes, meet Yogi Berra.

Yogi's the swarthy guy most recently appearing in beer commercials, the one who once gained no small measure of fame playing baseball for the New York Yankees. Yogi is the author of so many funny sayings, such as the one about the restaurant that was so crowded, no one went there anymore. Yogi also is credited with 'It's not over until it's over.'

The last is the one Lopes, the hypersensitive manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, should consider. Lopes exploded the past Sunday when San Diego's Rickey Henderson took second base uncontested in a game the Padres were leading 12-5. Lopes interrupted the game at that point in the seventh inning to promise his pitchers would 'drill' Henderson at their earliest opportunity.

The inference was that Henderson, who was not being held at first, should have stayed there because his team already had enough runs. Henderson also was painted as trying to get into scoring position largely to aid his individual quest for Ty Cobb's all-time record for 2,245 runs scored, as if that were a mortal sin.

Later last week, after being handed a two-game suspension for making his statement for downtrodden teams, Lopes still was fuming over a breach of baseball etiquette. He was quoted on his concern with stopping players 'from exploiting this game at certain times.'

Perhaps, Dave should have read his Sunday newspaper and learned how just a day earlier the Pirates had equalled a National League record, one set by the 1952 Chicago Cubs. The Pirates scored seven runs, beginning with two outs in the ninth inning, to stun the Houston Astros, 9-8. Against that backdrop, a 12-5 lead in the seventh inning didn't seem quite as insurmountable.

But, this is not just about a hot-headed manager in one baseball game. The larger issue is about obligations, of winners and losers alike.

All sports have what are lumped into an amorphous category generically titled 'Unwritten rules.'

Many of these rules dictate that teams comfortably ahead should ease off. They should stop trying so hard.

When New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens clobbered Carolina's Shane Willis late in an NHL playoff game earlier this year - while the Devils were well on their way to winning - some cried 'foul.'

It was a clean, hard hit, they agreed, but Stevens didn't need to be delivering it late in a game already all but decided.

Similarly, college and pro football teams ahead late in games aren't supposed to pass the ball or try very hard to score.

Baseball teams should stop stealing bases and pressing for more runs.

Basketball teams should run the clock and shoot only as a final resort.

This all sounds good. In practical application, it isn't as easy.

The Buffalo Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit in the second half to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in a 1992 season playoff, and it should have become clear that no lead is safe.

The Duke Blue Devils beat Maryland in this past year's NCAA men's basketball tournament national semifinal after seeming to be hopelessly behind at the half. An apparent safe lead wasn't.

And, again, the Pirates scored seven runs with two outs in the ninth to beat the Astros little more than a week ago.

If the teams in the lead have an obligation to back off, what is the obligation of the losing teams•

They keep trying their best. Their coaches and managers demand it. That means that sometimes - admittedly not often - they will succeed, and the team formerly in the lead, the one that took its foot off the throttle, will lose.

This mercy sentiment plays better in high school, where rules provide for it. In the increasingly big-business environment of major college sports and most certainly in the pro ranks, mercy is out of place.

As long as there are outs to be made in baseball or time on the clock in football, basketball or hockey, both sides should feel obligated to play all-out and accept the results.

Failing that, let us equip coaches and managers with large, white flags, to be displayed when they're sure theirs is a lost cause and they wish to surrender. Otherwise, play on without giving any quarter, or asking for same.

Sam Ross Jr. is a columnist for the Tribune-Review.

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