Baseball Ethics And The Pitcher’s Fake Challenge: It’s All About Yu

Pitcher Yu Darvish plays Lucy...ethical?

Pitcher Yu Darvish plays Lucy…ethical?

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!”

Then Darvish threw Donaldson a curve.

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.

Or Yu.


Facts: ESPN

19 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics And The Pitcher’s Fake Challenge: It’s All About Yu

  1. If the tactic is not illegal but successful, Baseball will usually step in and outlaw it (spitball, jumping from one side of the plate to the other during the pitcher’s windup, throwing the cap at a baseball,etc). If Yu’s moves have no effect people will just laugh at them.. That usually kills it.

    Even though the spitball was outlawed a long time ago, Gaylord Perry used it to great advantage.. And even recently Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz was accused of throwing a spitball, by former pitcher Jack Morris, who is now a Blue Jays broadcaster. That’s unethical but people just smile. Gaylord is in the HOF.

    Baseball has so many great stories, it has the most books written about it. An early favorite has to be Jimmy Breslin’s “Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?” covering the first year of the NY Mets.

    • Accusing pitchers of spitballing, especially after they just beat your team, is also a time-worn tactic. (Morris ended up apologizing.) The pitch is notoriously difficult to throw and control, and like Saddam faking that he still had WMDs, pitchers enjoyed gettinbg into players’ heads by encouraging the belief that they were throwing spitballs. Perry did this, and really only started cheating a lot when he was struggling to stay in the game late in his career. (I have come to believe that he should be thrown out of the Hall of Fame.)

      My favorite baseball novel, “The Great American Novel” by Phillip Roth, features the tale of a pitcher who throws the “mucous ball” and the “phlegm ball,” and after they are banned by the league, is thrown out of the game for snapping one game and preparing, and throwing, “the piss-ball.”

  2. “Everybody Does It” is no excuse for breaking ethics rules. But apparently sometimes, in situations where the rules are often arbitrary, such as sports and games, “Everybody Does It” is how the ethics rules are made.

  3. One of my blogs that provoked the most hostility was when I wrote that Derek Jeter, in an incredible acting job, pretended to be hit by a pitch, thereby getting the sympathy of the umpire and, of course, Yankee fans, and a free walk to first base. My opinion was that it was cheating and not gamesmanship as most readers overwhelmingly proclaimed. The response was a clear defense of Jeter’s stunt, so much so that I ended up writing an apology in a subsequent blog. His acting job wasn’t illegal, but I felt strongly that it was unethical and still regret having issued the apology.

    Love your play on the “yu” word. Wish I could write like that!

    • Thanks! You and Rob Neyer agreed regarding Jeter’s fake out, and usually I’m with Rob too. I ended up in the other camp, however—I can’t see how that’s different from the catcher “framing” pitches, as in “let’s fool the umpire into thinking what wasn’t a strike really was.” When the difference is the difference between a base on balls and strike-out, and it often is, why is Jeter’s ploy not equally perceptible gamesmanship? The post is here.

      • Ahhh……but you’d have to see the slo-mo replay and the extent to which Jeter was “writhing in pain”. Totally embarrassing and that’s what changed my mind. But, unfortunately, like everything else, MLB has total control and they’ve since deleted any video of the play, at least any I can find.

  4. A lot of times I think some people in baseball are too whiney about the things that other people do as part of the game. Who cares if the guy screamed fastball and then threw something else?

    It is like the people who complain that a runner on second will move left or right to show the batter where the catcher behind the plate is setting up. That is smart play.

  5. I don’t really have a problem with it, only because catchers have been doing the same thing to batters for a long time. They obviously know what pitch is coming also.

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