The Conundrum of the Unsuccessful Cheat

A sharp-eyed Chicago White Sox fan with a blog at his disposal caught something interesting in yesterdays Twins-White Sox game, which ended in a ChiSox victory when Twins baserunner J.J. Hardy was thrown out at home to end the game. As Hardy rounded third, Twins third base coach Scott Ullger stepped on to the playing field, planted one foot on third and for all the world looked like a runner holding the bag until he saw if the relay throw was going to be fielded cleanly. Was his intent to fool Twin Mark Teahan, who had just received the throw from the outfield, into believing—just for a crucial second—that he was Hardy, thus delaying the relay throw home? If so, it didn’t work: Teahan threw home quickly and well, and Hardy was a dead duck. As the blogger,Jim Margalus, writes,

“…it would’ve been interesting to see what would’ve happened if the relay were botched, because what Ullger is doing seems to be in violation of rule 7.09(h), in which…‘With a runner on third base, the base coach leaves his box and acts in any manner to draw a throw by a fielder;… is defined as an act of interference’.”

Nothing will happen, because the illegal trick failed. But why should this matter? Ullger cheated. His act was complete; what he did the same whether Hardy scored or not. Why shouldn’t he be fined, suspended or otherwise punished in exactly the same manner either way? This is the problem of attempted cheating, where the offense is all in principle, with no measurable consequences. Logically, the cheater shouldn’t be the beneficiary of his good luck. If a college student copies another student’s exam and flunks the test anyway, he’s still cheating.

Yet we are accustomed to having sanctions and punishment linked to consequences. In civil law, an uninvited tap on a stranger’s head may be a tort, but it is one regarded as too trivial to warrant intervention by the law—unless the tappee has a head the thickness of an egg shell, and the tapper fractures his skull. I have looked for some time to find an example of a lawyer getting disciplined for attempted unethical conduct, and come up empty. For example, a lawyer who neglects a matter entrusted to her and gets a satisfactory result anyway, and a lawyer who is incompetent to handle a case he has been retained for, and blunders his way to victory, are never brought before the bar. I understand why there are no prosecutions for these things, but think about it: doesn’t an attempt to violate the rules tell us that a lawyer is untrustworthy as much as a completed act with dire consequences?

The tendency to dismiss attempted cheating would seem to risk encouraging more of it, as a cheater may only have to worry about punishment if 1) he is successful and 2) if he is caught. What would be fairer and clearer is a two-stage discipline process, including a standard punishment for the act of cheating, and an additional penalty for the seriousness of the consequences, if any. In the Twins coach incident, there is no good reason why  Ullger shouldn’t receive some official sanction for flagrantly breaking the rules. If his unethical act had resulted in an illicit win by the Twins, an additional penalty would have been appropriate.

Unless intentional ethical violations are considered wrong for their own sake, and not just because of the harm they cause, they invite cost-benefit analysis and rationalizations. “It’s just wrong” should describe harm enough.

[Thanks to Rob Neyer for the link.]

9 thoughts on “The Conundrum of the Unsuccessful Cheat

  1. We lost the game, try not to rub it in, ok? 🙂

    I listened to th game on the radio and was not aware of Scotty stepping on the base. Danny Gladden and John Gordon never mentioned this, just the surprising call to send Hardy all the way home.
    Ullger should be punished for this, by the team if not the league. I would be surprised if the Twins did anything about it, though.
    Selig is in town for the opening of the new park I believe, maybe he can take care of it today?

    • I wonder if the decision to try the fake was part and parcel of the decision to send Hardy, because he was out by a mile.

      I’d wish you good luck on tonight’s Twins return to a real home ballpark, but my Red Sox are the opponents, so, well, you know…

  2. Well, I’m not sure I agree that “nothing will happen”. First of all (don’t jump at this yet, Ethics Alarmacist), Ullger didn’t break any rule. Rule 7.09(h) prohibits silly antics by the base coach “to draw a throw from a fielder”. Under your proposed scenario, Ullger was trying to do precisely the opposite — delay a throw. Rule 7.09(i), which says it is interference if the base coach “by touching or holding the runner” helps him return to the base or advance to the next, but Ullger didn’t touch or hold the runner. The runner might have been out by interference under Rule 7.09(e) if (a) the coach is a “member of the offensive team” and (b) what Ullger did was to “stand or gather around any base to which a runner is advancing”.

    There are at least three problems with applying Rule 7.09(e):

    – the rules don’t define “team” and Rule 4.05 is ambiguous on the exact status of the coach, even though Rule 3.17 suggests by inference that he is a team member.

    – Ullger didn’t “stand or gather around any base” — he touched it.

    – Third base was not a base “to which a runner was advancing” — the runner was leaving third, not advancing to it.

    So it turns out that Ullger did not, strictly speaking, commit interference. If, however, the umpire agrees with my own view that the Official Rules of Baseball appear to have been written by three drunken lawyers at 2 a.m., revising a text typed at random by chinchillas, I doubt that the umpire would be faulted for calling this interference on the basis of the overall spirit and intent of the rules (backed up by the general definition of “interference” in Rule 2.0, which is broader than any of these rules, but is difficult to give meaning to — Rule 10.10 appears to list every act that constitutes interference). I happen to think that (i) is closer than (h), but it doesn’t really matter. In either case, we read to the end of section 7.09, which states that the penalty for interference is that the ball is dead and the runner is out.

    Admittedly, this doesn’t matter much (same result as happened in the game), but it matters a little. A careful reading of Rules 10.10 and 10.11 (I sheepishly confess that I have only the 1996 Rules and am too lazy to look up later ones) shows that how the umpire calls the play has an effect on who gets an assist and a putout on the play (and may in fact result in nobody getting a putout!). You’ll just have to take my word on this, because it’s complicated and I’ve quoted too many rules already.

    So the REAL question raised by this posting is: Did Ullger do something unethical, even if it was not illegal, and if so, what should be done about it? Some sort of League discipline seems appropriate at first blush, and that might indeed be the right answer. However, the history of baseball is studded with actions that were technically legal and subsequently prohibited by amendment of the Rules; that’s one of the reasons why they are such a crazy quilt. Rule 7.08(i), for example, was amended to prohibit “running the bases in reverse order” after Jimmy Piersall with the Mets did just that in 1963. (Although it’s doubtful whether the rule writers got it right, because Piersall didn’t run to 3rd to 2nd to 1st; he simply ran the bases in the proper order while running backwards.) Other examples could be cited, which leaves room for an argument that however other laws or rules are applied, baseball is like poker, or the board game Diplomacy: Anything that’s legal is OK, and therefore ethical. The only loophole is when the umpire decides that whatever was done is “making a travesty of the game.” Try to apply that rule sensibly, under the rules of either law or ethics.

    So, what this posting REALLY, REALLY asks is: Are the Official Rules of Baseball, interpreted in light of the game’s history and long-standing practice, something that the Ethics Alarmicist should spend a lot of time on?

    My vote is no. If the consensus is otherwise, expect more postings from me like this one. So personally, I hope the consensus is otherwise.

  3. No, it’s not “surely more than mere interference”. As my painstakingly boring post tried to show, it didn’t even rise to the level of interference, as defined by the offical rules. It was “less than,” or — more accurately — “different from” mere interference. Baseball’s rules specifically define interference, and what this coach did was no more interference under those rules than if he’d put on a Richard Nixon mask.

    I repeat my question. Ordinarily, laws are strict, and — being strict — can’t do exactly what we want them to do. (“Some Beauties yet, no Precepts can declare.”) So we have helps like legal ethics to guide us in areas that the law doesn’t reach.

    My argument is that there are some games (I repeat, like poker and Diplomacy) in which part of the game is finding legal tricks and evasions. Look at the pine tar incident — there was no penalty for what Billy Martin did, and the umpire’s decision to penalize the batter for using an illegal bat was ultimately reversed by Lee MacPhail (on the laughable grounds that the purpose of the rule was to reduce the home team’s expenses by protecting balls from disfigurement, not to affect the outcome of a game). The rules were quickly changed to stop this nonsense.

    My orations are part of a broader campaign to have somebody sit down and rewrite the laws of baseball from top to bottom. As now written, they are an embarrassment to the game. But until they are rewritten, and until a general “discretion of the umpire” clause is added (stronger than “travesty of the game”), and until players, managers, and coaches view attempted rule dodges as fair game, it’s difficult for me to see how ethics can illuminate much — or any — of the current darkness.

    • I completely agree with your gamesmanship point, and I even wrote a published article about just that, for the “Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009>’ I still think I disagree that this is in that category. If a coach runs into the middle of a run down and jumps around trying to make the fielders get confused about who is the runner, but never actually interferes with a throw, would that be mere gamesmanship too? The Twins coach did something I have never seen tried, and I think such a novel move forfeits the argument that it is culturally sanctioned cheating, in contrast to, say, trying to keep pitching with a damaged ball until the umpire throws it out.

      All the application of ethics means is that we try to figure out whether something should be regarded as right or wrong given the current culture of the game. That can be done with the worst rules in the world. When Alex Rodriquez, running the bases for the Yankees two years ago, got a pop fly to drop uncaught in the infield by shouting and making a Blue Jays infielder think a team mate had called him off, he was accused of cheating—interfering, by a literal interpretation of the rules.. Old time players scoffed at it, saying that the trick was as old as the hills, used to be standards practice, and never worked because everyone was wise to it. They also said that it guaranteed a pitch at your head next time up. But the culture had changed: it was no longer standard, and the game’s punishment–a ball at the head—was now likely to get the pitcher warned or even tossed out of the game. Ethics dictated that what was once ethical gamesmanship was now unethical cheating.

  4. Pingback: A. J. Pierzynski, Baseball Cheating and Moral Gray Zones « Ethics Alarms

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