As it does predictably and constantly, the daily drip-drip-drama of baseball has given us another ethics quandary to ponder, arising in the context of the sport but with far more significant applications. The issue: is it ethical for an organization to deal with a crisis by firing someone for symbolic value, rather than for cause?
I have written about this traditional phenomenon in baseball before, but the current example is far less defensible on either tactical or public relations grounds. Last season, the Washington Nationals accumulated the best record in the sport, and though they flopped in the play-offs, were almost unanimously expected to be strong pennant contenders in 2013 by baseball prognosticators and more importantly, their fans. So far, at least, those expectations have been dashed. The season is almost two-thirds done, and the Nationals have been uninspiring at best. They have won fewer games than they have lost, and are trailing the Atlanta Braves by an alarming margin. Their pitching has been worse than expected, and their offense has been atrocious.
As is often the case in baseball when teams have a disappointing season after a good one, there is no obvious way to fix the problems mid-season, other than to hope the players start playing better. Unlike the other major team sports, baseball team performance is notoriously quirky, just like the game they play. Excellent players have down years frequently (though not the same players, or they would no longer be considered excellent). Team chemistry evaporates; the ball bounces funny ways. In the case of the Nationals, the most obvious problem has been a flood of sub-par years from almost all the starting position players, with an unhealthy serving of injuries.
The team’s response to its frustration and, really, lack of any substantive way to address it was to fire the team’s batting coach, Rick Eckstein, last week. Nobody saw the move coming, because nobody—literally nobody—believes that Eckstein is responsible in any way for the team’s poor play. Hitting coach (unlike pitching coach) is an amorphous role on a major league team. The players all know how to hit, and if a coach helps a player or two end a couple of protracted batting slumps (or, more likely, help a player think that he did, because slumps are usually just a streak of bad luck) and get a young player to start taking more walks, that coach has had a career year. Many veteran players reject assistance from coaches, and since the players are earning about 20 times more than the highest paid of them, and since many hitting coaches (like Eckstein) can hardly point to equivalent major league success as that of their potential students, you can hardly blame the players who choose to trust their own instincts. Every decade or so there is a hitting coach with a novel theory who gains the reputation of being a guru—-Charlie Lau was the most famous example—but that is rare. Most of them are like Eckstein—hard working, diligent men who study videotapes and take notes during games, who come up to players, say quietly, “You’re dropping your shoulder when you swing” or “see what happens when you lay off the high stuff?” and hope they pay attention.
Firing a coach mid-season is like arresting a criminal suspect while he or she is being honored at a reception—it’s an intentional slap in the face. It suggests that the coach is so detrimental to the team’s performance that he has to be jettisoned immediately, just not renewing his contract after the season isn’t enough. It is the equivalent of saying, “This is all your fault!” And it isn’t his fault.
Still, from an organizational standpoint, there are utilitarian arguments for what the Nationals did, and what other teams have done before them (the Kansas City Royals fired their batting coach earlier this year when the young offense it had crowed about to season ticket holders was late to materialize). Nothing is so dispiriting to fans and destructive to a team’s support as the perception that it isn’t trying to improve. The truth may be that there is nothing better to do than to wait for everyone to play better, but that tactic looks terrible when, as can always be the case, things don’t get better. Leadership is in significant part psychology, and leaders faced with this problem in other fields often resort to symbolic changes that amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. CEO’s fire Marketing VPs. Presidents fire Chiefs of Staff, or shuffle cabinet positions. In baseball, a manager may change the line-up, which statistically is as meaningful as chewing a new flavor of gum. It feels like something, though, and more material changes, like benching stars or wholesale personnel changes, are as likely to make things worse as better. So the team fires the poor hitting coach, demonstrating that it cares, that it isn’t complacent, and most of all, sending the message to everyone else on the team that they could be next. And, of course, hitting coaches are fungible, cheap, and barely noticed by fans until they are fired. What’s the downside?
The downside is that it is unfair to Rick Eckstein. Kant inveighed against ever using a human being as a means to an end, and that is exactly what the Nationals did to their hitting coach. But Eckstein himself, in his remarks to the press after his surprise dismissal, suggested the ethical justification for his now ex-employers’ conduct. This is the game, he said; this is how it has always been. He knew why he was being fired, and knew that this was a possible scenario when he took the job. He accepted the role of a sacrificial lamb, or, scapegoat, if you like that hooved stock analogy better, when the situation demanded it, and, in the assessment of management, in July of 2013 in a dispiriting season, it did. Being there to be fired, in short, is part of the job.
That is why, whether it was wise or not, firing Rick Eckstein was ethical.