Silicon Insider: Teaching Corruption

Let me tell you a story.

As you may know from reading this column, one of the things I do is manage a Little League team. Not T-ball, like I used to do, with the tiny boys and girls; but Juniors, the level for 13- and 14-year-old boys.

Junior level Little League represents a major, and sometimes insurmountable, jump for kids, as it is the first level played on the full-sized baseball field -- 90 feet to first base, 60 feet 6 inches to the mound -- as well as lead-offs, pick-offs, curve balls, etc. Only the slightly shorter fences (300 feet) distinguish a Junior field from that found in any Major League baseball park.

Adding to the challenge is the enormous physical and psychological changes boys at this level go through during the course of two years. Last year's 13-year-olds were children -- few were much taller than 5 feet, with squeaky voices, sullen junior high school attitudes, and, distressingly for the better athletes, most could barely make the throw across the infield to first base without bouncing the ball.

This year, the same kids, now 14, showed up with that uniquely stretched look of newly minted adolescents, deep voices, the first wisps of moustaches and zits, and girlfriends sitting in the stands. They threw rockets across the infield, broke up double plays and picked off runners at second base. My jaw dropped during one practice when my centerfielder casually uncorked a 250-foot strike to home plate.

But the most impressive, and memorable, change was in the attitudes of the kids. Covering the spectrum of class, personality, talent and experience, they were not a naturally compatible group -- and last year that led to a number of arguments, a few thrown fists and a lot of razzing of each others' performance. This year began the same way -- and not surprisingly, that lack of cohesion in the dugout led to an equivalent lack of teamwork on the field … and in the first half of the season we lost a lot of games, often horribly.

Learning to Win

Then something amazing happened. We were playing a very good team, and we had somehow managed to take a two-run lead by the end of the sixth inning of the regulation seven inning game. But, in the top of the seventh, the other team not only tied us, but went ahead by three runs.

In keeping with the pattern of the season, my team should have folded: three quick outs, pack their gear and slip out into the night. Instead, they finally found themselves as a team. They talked to each other, cheered each other on, fought their way back.

And they won.

They were a different team from that day on: focused, self-assured, supportive of one another. Every kid who struck out returned to the dugout with information about the pitcher's strengths and weaknesses. The infielders talked to each other about different play scenarios; and they backed each other up when the ball was hit. The catcher kept up the pitcher's morale when the latter started to fade. And the kids even came out to the field early, just to put in extra warm-up time.

They won nine out of the last 10 games, often beating teams that had slaughtered us early in the season. Once, when they were behind in the late innings, one of my players walked over to me and said, "Don't worry, coach, we'll come back." And they did.

As you might imagine, as proud as I was of them for their play, I was far more proud of their character. On the threshold of both high school and adulthood, they found out something good and important about themselves. I suspect they will always remember this season.

Unfortunately, they will also likely remember something else.

One of the dreams of both the boys and us coaches was to play in the district's post-season "Tournament of Champions." It had been many years since a Juniors team in our league had qualified. And as we began to rack up the wins, it suddenly seemed possible. It would all come down to a make-up rainout game to be played on a Sunday, the last day of the official season. The district added the game to its official calendar, and even sent out an e-mail to all Junior managers announcing that final tournament berth would be decided by our game. My guys were confident and ready to play.

Then, that Sunday morning, as I prepared to head over to the field, I happened to check my e-mail -- and there was a note from the other manager: he couldn't get enough players and would have to forfeit. I drove over and told my players, who were already warming up. They were disappointed; they had come to play and win. We stood on the field for the required 10 minutes, until the umpire declared the game an official forfeit -- then went home to prepare for the next day's tournament.

But it wasn't to be. The Junior director had his own agenda, which apparently included the team just behind us in the standings. He announced that the forfeited game was invalid -- thus putting us .001 percentage points behind his preferred team -- because we hadn't notified him directly of the game being scheduled. When I argued that we had notified the league information director, that the league had sent out an official notice of the game, and that it was even on the schedule, the director simply replied that none of it mattered: he made the rules.

Accepting Defeat

After much shouting, the real reason finally came out: he was angry that our league hadn't sent a representative to his private meeting at the beginning of the season (we had, but he hadn't noticed). And because of that perceived slight, my players were to be punished. Meanwhile, the forfeited game was quietly erased from the official calendar on the orders of the district president.

Why am I telling you this story? It is, after all, just a small event in a suburban Silicon Valley town, involving a handful of teenaged baseball players. Nobody died.

The reason is the unexpected reaction of my kids. The parents, needless to say, went nuts. Some even wanted to start a letter-writing campaign to have the district officials fired by Little League.

But the kids? After the initial dismay, most just shrugged it off. As my son said, "So, we got screwed again. Big surprise."

There it was in a nutshell. Each of my players had endured 10 years of Little League, surviving longer than two-thirds of their peers. They had put up with a decade of obsessive parents, pathological (and cheating) managers and coaches, rigged All-Star votes, and coaches' pets. Half of my team had, just in the last year, either quit organized baseball or left to try out Pony League in hopes that it would somehow be different. But they had come back: because they loved baseball, and because they trusted me. And I, too, had failed them.

The Acceptance of Corruption

I would have understood their anger. Instead, I am haunted by their acceptance of corruption and betrayal.

But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Theirs was supposed to be the blessed generation, the beneficiaries of all of the cultural changes and enlightenment of the last 30 years -- after all, wasn't everything done "for the children"?

But if we played Mozart over their cribs, we also pumped porn into their computers via the Internet (if you think they can't find it, or films of people being killed, or images of the most horrible human savagery, you're deluding yourself). We didn't let them walk alone to school, but left them as prey to perverts on the Web. And we dutifully marched them out to plant a tree on Earth Day and barred them from ever, ever showing any physical aggression at school, and created games in which there were no winners or losers -- and then at night let them watch reality shows in which fame and fortune goes to the best liar and backstabber, in which ordinary folks are held up to public ridicule.

Worst of all, even as we protected our children from every possible danger -- putting them in car seats, banning secondhand smoke, checking them in and out of school each day -- we allowed emotionally disturbed adults to inflict their illnesses on our kids as games, TV shows and comic books. We went from fighting bad guys in a simplified form of the old morality plays to actually, in games like Grand Theft Auto, becoming the bad guy: slaughtering innocents, shooting hostages, running over pedestrians, pimping hookers, sodomizing victims, and in every way internalizing the attitudes and perspectives of a murderous sociopath.

Whatever You Can Get Away With

Is all of this turning our children into maniacs? Of course not. But ask any college professor or business manager who deals regularly with 20-somethings and they'll tell you about the disquieting belief among young people that whatever you can get away with without being caught is all right; and anyone you can sucker deserves it for being a fool.

It's the con man view of the world, in which even being caught and made to do the perp walk can be a good career move. Make a deal with a handshake these days, and you'll draw back only four fingers.

And these 20-somethings are just the vanguard of this new world. Behind them are the teenagers who have taken the full brunt of this amoral assault. If we wanted them to be idealistic, we should be content that the best of them are merely cynical, worldly and jaded. It's a helluva way to go through life, but it may be the best survival strategy available.

And so, if they find themselves ripped off by some low-level Little League bureaucrat who didn't get his proper obeisance … well, there are far bigger corruptions and far worse betrayals out there stalking them. The best response is to shrug and keep moving.

And yet, I hope in the tough times my players will always remember that moment this season when they came together as a team, when they believed in themselves and helped each other to victory. When they showed the nobility of true character. They are going to need that character in the years ahead, and in the hard world in which they are the first citizens.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."