A. J. Pierzynski, Baseball Cheating and Moral Gray Zones

The baseball season is certainly off to an unethical start.

In Tuesday’s game between the Blue Jays and White Sox, Toronto pitcher Ricky Romero’s gestating no-hitter was aborted in the 8th inning in part because of some deceptive play-acting by ChiSox catcher A. J. Pierzynski. Every era  has one player who acquires a reputation for being tricky, a.k.a. “dirty,” and Pierzynski is the current title holder. When he came to bat against Romero, the catcher with the unspellable name took advantage of a pitch that bounced in the dirt near him to hop up and down as if his widdle toe had a ball-induced boo-boo. Incredibly (for even the White Sox announcers were chatting about how obvious it was that the ball hadn’t touched A. J., noting that he wasn’t even hopping on the most plausibly injured foot), home umpire Tim McClelland stood by silently as Pierzynski trotted to first base. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston protested to no avail, and, not for the first time, A. J. Pierzynski had stolen first base. Now Romero had to pitch from the stretch rather than a wind-up, and the no-hitter (and the shut-out) was no-history seconds later, as Toronto’s Alex Rios hit a home run.

Did A. J. Pierzynski cheat? Should he be fined or punished for feigning an injury,  as some have suggested?

I don’t think this qualifies as cheating in the culture of baseball. The exercise of “fool the umpire” ranges from falling away from an inside pitch over the plate to make the umpire call a “ball” and a catcher quickly moving his mitt into the strike zone after catching a pitch off the plate to make the umpire call a “strike, to an  outfielder pretending that a trapped ball was really a clean catch. These and many other maneuvers are accepted as within the standard gamesmanship of baseball, along with a baserunner stealing a catcher’s signs and the “phantom double-play.”

Revisiting a recent post, punishing Pierzynski would have to be based on the fact that his trick worked: he fooled the umpire. Yet his actions and intent would be the same if he jumped around like a fool and a more observant umpire said, “Oh, come on, A.J. Give it up. That ball didn’t come near you.” Would anyone advocate fining a player for attempting to fake being hit by a pitch? Yet if the punishment is based solely on whether or not the fakery is successful, then a player receives punishment for the umpire’s incompetence.(I see no problem with fining umpire McClelland for being asleep at the switch.)

In a trial, lawyers will often attempt to get hearsay testimony admitted even when they think or even know that there is no viable exception to permit it. They hope that opposing counsel is not fully versed on hearsay, and that the judge will make a mistake. The vast majority of authority in legal ethics holds that this is not unethical, even though a literal reading of the Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 3.4) would seem to say it is. Evidence is admissible if a judge says it is, and it is not cheating to try to get a judge to let in dubious testimony.

Harvard Business School Professor Michel Anteby’s  book, Moral Gray Zones: Side Productions, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant, discusses how all professions and workplaces develop “moral gray zones” out of practical necessity, when strict adherence to certain rules causes problems without benefits. “Gray zones emerge when official company rules are repeatedly broken with, at minimum, a supervisor’s tacit or explicit approval,” says Anteby. This mean that there is a cultural decision that what is technically wrong isn’t wrong in the context of the workplace. There are dangers in this process, to be sure, but Anteby is right. A.J. Pierzynski’s hopping act falls squarely within baseball’s moral gray zone. It’s not cheating.

But Ethics Alarms extends its sympathy to Ricky Romero.

One thought on “A. J. Pierzynski, Baseball Cheating and Moral Gray Zones

  1. People are quick to say that ethical matters are not always black and white, but often gray. My counter is that I don’t think it’s a matter of grayness. Grayness is just our lack of information or our lack of understanding of the underlying ethical principles.

    It’s like looking at a black and white photograph in a newspaper. At first glance, there appears to be a lot of gray. But pull out a magnifying glass and look closer. What do you see? A bunch of black dots on a white background. So what appears to be gray on the surface is really just black and white when we analyze it more closely.

    Ethical situations can be a lot like the photo. We sometimes have to pull out our “ethical magnifying glass” if we are to see and understand the underlying principles more effectively. Once we can bring the black and white into focus, our ethical decisions become easier.

    That’s one of the things I try to do through Police Dynamics training: keep these ethical principles “in focus.” Jack is doing the same thing with Ethics Alarms. Thanks for helping me stay focused…

    Sheriff Ray

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