Texas Ranger ace Yu Darvish, in addition to being the only Japanese-Iranian major league baseball player and an Abbot and Costello routine come to life (“Who won the game?” “Yu did!” “Who did? “Not Who, Yu!” “Me?” “Not you…Yu!” ), is apparently something of a trickster. In Saturday’s crucial game between the Rangers and the Oakland A’s, Darvish was facing A’s slugger Josh Donaldson, who had earlier in the season accused Darvish, a true flame-thrower, of being afraid to throw him his fastball. Darvish took up the challenge and as he prepared to throw his pitch to the Oakland thirdbaseman, shouted, “Fastball!” This, in the tine-honored traditions of the game, means that a pitcher is telling a batter that he can’t hit his best pitch, even when he knows what’s coming. It means, literally, “OK, hot shot, see if you can hit this, ’cause I’m throwing it right past you!”
The ruse didn’t work, for Donaldson got a hit. Still, Oakland’s dugout erupted, as the A’s expressed their belief that this was “bush league,” meaning an act consisting of unprofessional and unsporting conduct not specifically prohibited by the rules but nonetheless unfair and not worthy of big league players.
That Darvish’s strategem didn’t work is not decisive, for it is the principle of the thing that matters, and the principle is ethics. Baseball, like all cultures, has its fate in its hands: if it nods in approval of Texas’s rock star hurler turning pitching into psychological warfare with verbal bluffs, then not only will the practice continue, it will evolve in new directions perhaps never before anticipated. If the culture reacts with scorn—and based on the post-game chatter, not to mention that abuse was heaped on Darvish by the A’s from the sidelines, it has— then Yu’s New Cue is likely to be Taboo.
Of course, it isn’t that new. According to baseball lore, catchers, notably Hall of Fame Yankee Yogi Berra, have often messed with batters , attempting to distract batters by filling their heads with all sorts of distractions right up to the moment that a pitch was thrown. Mike Stanton, a former relief pitcher, told his satellite radio audience on the MLB channel that Norm Charlton, once a fast-balling reliever for the Reds, used to yell “Fastball!” at batters all the time, but he always threw his fastball. “What Darvish did was weak,” Stanton concluded. In the macho world of baseball, daring a batter to catch up to your pitch by telegraphing it is kind of cool—pitch selection is one of the main weapons in the pitcher’s arsenal, though some very successful ones, like soon-to-be-retired Yankee great Mariano Rivera, eschew it, and throw essentially the same pitch every time. Mariano doesn’t have to yell “Cutter!”, but he might as well. Darvish’s punk, however, is like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown’s football.
What’s the ethics verdict? Ultimately baseball players decide what practices are acceptable, or the decision is made by the rules committee. Some forms of deception and distraction—infielders pretending to be receiving a throw to deke baserunners into sliding; the “hidden ball trick,” outfielders acting as if trapped fly falls were really caught to fool the umpires—are considered kosher, and have long been accepted as “ethical” within the chalk lines. Other tricks, such as when Alex Rodriquez, running between second and third in a 2007 game as the opposing shortstop got ready to catch a pop fly, shouted “Hah!” behind him and caused the confused fielder to allow the ball to drop, received near universal and instant scorn as “bush league”—a.k.a unethical—and are unlikely to be used again, especially by Rodriguez, who has enough problems. (I approved of it at the time, however.) If a new tactic threatens to make the game less aesthetically pleasing or more dangerous, then a rule may be passed that bans it, though this is rare after a sport has been around as long as baseball has.. 19th Century great Cap Anson used to exploit loopholes in the rules of the infant pro sport until the rules caught up; for example, he sometimes jumped from the left side of the plate to the right side, changing his stance from right-handed to left-handed, while the pitcher was in his wind-up. That was banned. A puckish early 20th Century player named Germany Schaefer used to steal second base, then steal first base again to confuse the pitcher (and perhaps allow him to be part of a subsequent double steal of second and home). The rules committee put an end to that silliness too, though I wish they hadn’t.
In the final analysis, conduct like Yu’s will be sorted out by the baseball culture, and if it is widely regarded as obnoxious, Darvish’s trick will reced into history and baseball lore….especially since it didn’t even keep Donaldson off the bases. Failing at its objective doesn’t define an act as ethical or not, but the odds of successful new tactics being used again are significantly better, and a trick that was only tried once is likely to be presumed unethical—unless the fans really like it, of course. That could make all the difference.
So in the end, it’s up to you.