The Problem of Fairness, and David Ortiz: A Case Study

Fairness is a core ethical value. It is also one of the most difficult to embody. We all know what fairness is in the abstract: treatment of others characterized by impartiality and honesty, and an avoidance of self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism. In complex situations involving many interested parties, however, seeking fairness becomes a dilemma wrapped in a conflict surrounded by contradictions. One of these complex situations now faces the Boston Red Sox, as the baseball team deals with the travails of its designated hitter David Ortiz. Sports has a fascinating habit of crystallizing ethical problems, and the Ortiz case demonstrates how hard it is to be “fair.”

Ortiz, or “Big Papi,” as he is affectionately called, has been a Boston superstar since the 2003 season, when he unexpectedly emerged from the bench to become the team’s most feared left-handed slugger in decades. During the 2004 season, the engaging Dominican designated hitter (Ortiz almost never plays in the field) moved up to legend status with an unprecedented string of game-winning clutch hits and walk-off home runs to lead the Red Sox to their first World Series Championship in 86 years. Slowed by injuries, and perhaps age and excess weight, Big Papi had a sub-par season in 2008, and in 2009 began the year with a two month slump of alarming proportions, prompting many to conclude that he was through as a productive offensive force. They were wrong: from June 1 until the end of the season, Ortiz was again one of the best power-hitters in the league. Still, the worries lingered.

Now it is a month into the 2010 season, and Ortiz is once again off to a terrible start. Not only is he not “hitting his weight,” he is about 50 batting average points below it. His bat looks slow, and he isn’t even drawing bases on balls, as pitchers no longer seem to fear him. Worst of all, his team is off to a slow start too, while its rivals in the ultra-competitive A.L East, the Tampa Rays and, of course, the despised New York Yankees, have both been winning consistently. The fans are worried, even panicked; the Boston sportswriting corps, hysterical as usual, are fanning the flames daily. Should Ortiz be released for the good of the team? After less than 30 games and a hundred at bats? Is that fair? What is fair, in this situation?

Well, it depends what you mean by “fair”:

  • Victor Martinez, the team’s slugging star catcher, is also struggling at the plate, arguably hitting even worse than Ortiz. He is younger, however, and it is assumed that this is just a slump. But how can it be fair to dump Big Papi while another player keeps his job with the same sub-par performance?
  • Big Papi’s contract with the team ends after the season, and his chances of getting another lucrative one, or perhaps any at all, depend on his performance this season: for him, this is literally a make-or-break year. Is it fair for this to play a part in management’s decision whether to stick with him as he struggles? He can’t show he can still hit if he doesn’t play. Is it fair to take his livelihood away from him because the fans are panicking? Or is his contract status irrelevant—after all, he’s been getting 12 million dollars a year from the Red Sox. Why should the team feel that it owes him special patience to allow him to make more millions, perhaps with another team?
  • Ortiz, in his seven years with the team, has become its most dominant personality and famous player, and as a hero of the 2004 “Curse of the Bambino”-defying squad, an icon carrying the gratitude of the organization and the team’s fans. Wouldn’t fair treatment be to acknowledge his past service to the team, and give him more time and patience than management normally would? Would this be favoritism, which is inherently unfair?
  • The Red Sox have another aging player, also a fan favorite, also a World Series hero (the MVP of the Boston World Series win in 2007) named Mike Lowell. He has been displaced as a regular player, much to his displeasure, because of declining skills in the field, but can still hit. This season, he has hit extremely well whenever he has had a chance to play. Like Ortiz, his career hangs in the balance. Is it fair not to let him take Ortiz’s place in the line-up?
  • One reason some claim Ortiz should be treated as washed-up is the fact that he tested positive for a substance banned by Major League Baseball in supposedly private and anonymous tests run by the players’ union in 2003. To some, this proved that Ortiz was one of many stars, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds among them, using performance enhancing drugs (PED’s). But Ortiz has always denied that he ever used steroids or human growth hormone, the Players Union has confirmed that some of the substances flagged in the tests were trace chemicals found in then-legal over-the-counter supplements. Ortiz, like all the players involved, had also been promised that the results of the test would never be revealed to the public (they were subpoenaed by Federal authorities and illegally leaked to the press.) Is it fair that Ortiz should be regarded—and treated—as a cheat and a fraud based on such equivocal facts? Or is it fair to use his declining performance since the PED crackdown as proof that his earlier heroics were the product of illicit substances? Ortiz has built a reputation for honesty and integrity over the years, yet his denials echo similar denials by other players—Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire—who are widely believed to be lying. Is it fair to judge a man’s integrity by the lack of it on the part of his colleagues, rather than his own past conduct? If there are doubts, and there  are many here, isn’t it fair to give Ortiz the benefit of them?Is it fair for the decision whether to dump Ortiz to be driven by the disappointing performance of the rest of the team?
  • The pressure to remove him is growing because the team as a whole has been performing below expectations: high-priced pitchers have looked like they were pitching batting practice; players brought in for their defense have fielded as if with iron gloves; a new third base coach has specialized in getting runners thrown out at home. Two regular outfielders have been injured most of the season. Shouldn’t the fair, just, responsible way to make a decision about Ortiz ignore all of these factors, as well as the team’s failings so far? Why should matters beyond Big Papi’s control change how he is evaluated?
  • Finally, should fairness to Ortiz be part of the equation at all? The obligation of management is to the team, first and foremost. It would be unfair to the team, its players and it fans to sacrifice or even risk the team’s 2010 season out of concern for Ortiz’s feelings, or loyalty to him, or a sense of obligation for his past heroics, wouldn’t it? Yet an organization that shows neither loyalty nor gratitude nor consideration to its most outstanding performers may undermine its morale and culture, which will eventually undermine its success.

What makes being “fair” to David Ortiz undefinable is that every possible choice involves judgments, comparisons, projections and interpretations, all influenced by the experience, priorities, values and objectives of the decision-makers. It is fine to say that the fair decision must be impartial and not influenced by bias and self-interest, but in this case, as in many real world cases, the self-interest of the decision-maker and the object of the decision can’t realistically be partitioned. Terry Francona is the Red Sox manager, and is directly responsible and accountable for the performance of the team. He was also a major league player himself. The Golden Rule tells Francona that he should give Big Papi every chance possible to prove he can still be an offensive force. He also knows that if providing that chance coincides with his team’s collapse, he could lose his job, or at least his job security. And if being what he sees as being fair to David Ortiz is regarded by other members of the team, like Lowell, as being unfair to them because of bias and favoritism, the team will be hurt as well. Francona not only has to worry about being fair, he has to try to achieve the appearance of fairness.

The truth may be that in complex situations, absolute fairness is always an impossible goal. Treating the need for fairness to all as an absolute requirement only guarantees paralysis and failure. The best course, squarely in the realm of Utilitarianism, is to accept the fact that some parties will be treated, or will think they are being treated, unfairly, and to try to devise a solution that addresses the main objectives while being as fair as achieving those goals will allow.

I’m not certain yet, but my guess is that this approach will not work out well for Big Papi.

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