The Abysmal Quality of Ethical Reasoning in Baseball: A Depressing Case Study



The first bona fide ethics controversy of the 2014 baseball season has erupted, and it involves the team of my youth, the Boston Red Sox. It is not the controversy itself that is so noteworthy, for it is an old, old one: pitchers using foreign substances to doctor the balls so they dip, curve, and sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” What is noteworthy is the reaction to the incident by players and the sports media, which has me feeling that as an ethicist, I need to think about following another sport. The ethics reasoning, or lack of it, is truly depressing.

What happened was this: During last night’s Red Sox-Yankee game in Yankee Stadium, the Boston broadcasting team of Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy noticed a glossy brown substance on New York starting pitcher Michael Pineda’s pitching hand. It was very obvious, especially once the NESN cameras started zooming in on it.   “There’s that substance, that absolutely looks like pine tar,” play-by-play man Don Orsillo said. “Yeah, that’s not legal,” color commentator and former player Jerry Remy replied.

Indeed it isn’t.  According to rule 8.02(a)(2), (4) and (5), the pitcher shall not expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove; apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball; [or]  deface the ball in any manner.

The Red Sox, who probably knew about the gunk on Pineda’s hand, didn’t complain to the umpires, and just went about their merry way, losing the game. Asked about the stuff on his hand, Pineda demonstrated the full range of body language indicating that he was lying his head off. “It was dirt,’ he said. Later, when the ick appeared to be gone,  Pineda explained, he had just sweated his hand clean. Right. Whatever was on his hand—beef gravy, crankcase oil, chocolate syrup…the majority of pundits think pine tar—it wasn’t “dirt.” Pineda’s manager, Joe Girardi, was brazenly evasive.

The Yankee pitcher was cheating. This isn’t a major scandal, but cheating is cheating: sports shouldn’t allow cheating of any kind, because if a sport allows some cheating, however minor, it will encourage cynical, unscrupulous and unethical individuals on the field, in the stands, and behind keyboard to excuse all other forms of cheating, from corked bats to performance enhancing drugs. Cheating is wrong. Cheating unfairly warps the results of games, and rewards dishonesty rather than skill. Cheating undermines the enjoyment of any game among serious fans who devote energy and passion to it. Any cheating is a form of rigging, a variety of lying.

And yet, this clear instance of cheating, caught on video, primarily sparked the sports commentariat, including most fans, to cite one rationalization and logical fallacy after another to justify doing nothing, and not just doing nothing, but accepting the form of cheating as “part of the game.” I’ve been reading columns and listening to the MLB channel on Sirius-XM and watch the MLB channel on Direct TV since this episode occurred. Here are the reactions, my comments in bold:

  • This isn’t a new phenomenon. Show me the statute of limitations on ongoing misconduct, please. Also not new: torture, rape, adultery, incest, bribery and embezzlement. So what? That makes these things all right? Excuses society from trying to reduce their occurrence?

  • Baseball shouldn’t pay attention to what broadcasters or viewers think they see during games. The issue is, why aren’t the participants on the field, and the umpires, aware of what the audience can clearly see? This implicates integrity and competence, as well as trust.
  • The Red Sox ignoring the problem settles the issue: all the teams do this, and nobody wants to open that “Pandora’s box.” Huh? So we let cheaters decide when and if  cheating in going to be acceptable? If Red Sox players cheat, they should be exposed and sanctioned, as should the team. And if “all the teams do it,” then it is in the interest of baseball and the fans to make all the teams stop.
  • It’s not like the Red Sox knocked the cover off the ball after Pineda got rid of the pine tar. ARRRGH! Consequentialism at its worst. So cheating is OK as long as you can’t prove it made a difference. Terrible logic, terrible ethics, terrible policy—and one of the major arguments to excuse Barry Bonds’ epic PED cheating. 
  • Since Clay Buchholtz, the Boston pitcher, has also been accused of doctoring the ball in the past, it would be hypocritical for Boston to complain about another pitcher doing it. Well, it has never been proven that Buchholtz, who for some reason showers between innings and pitches with perpetually wet hair, was cheating, so the premise of this rationalization is speculative. Never mind that, however: the reasoning is corrupt to the core. Boston should want the other team’s pitcher to stop cheating, and if that brings scrutiny to its own cheaters, good.
  • Young fans, who appreciate free-form sports like Ultimate Fighting, don’t care about cheating and rules. Then we need to get them on the program, before the culture’s corruption problem becomes epidemic. Our games reflect society’s values.
  • The problem wasn’t that Pineda was cheating, it was that he was so flagrant and shameless about it. Wow. Why shouldn’t he be flagrant and shameless, if this is the level of concern sports journalists and fans have about cheating in their sport?
  • This kind of thing is hard to catch, and it’s embarrassing if you complain and nothing is found. If wrongful conduct is hard to catch and prove, then it shouldn’t be regarded as wrongful. I know this part of the current “logic” driving drug legalization, but it confounds “unethical” with “hard to get away with.” They are not the same thing, or even properly related.



7 thoughts on “The Abysmal Quality of Ethical Reasoning in Baseball: A Depressing Case Study

  1. Sounds like you’ve covered it and I agree. I’m glad I don’t follow sports. If I did in addition to politics it would cause me even greater pain and my brain would explode even more.
    How are you feeling?

  2. You do need to find a new sport Jack, I can’t remember the last time a Hockey player got called out for doping, or someone greased a football. Baseball particularly hits me as a game with very loose morals.

    • How ’bout ice hockey teams using enforcers, or “goons”—players whose role it is to fight and intimidate. I imagine the same thing goes on in professional basketball. Baseball perhaps in not so “in your face” as those sports (especially since Ty Cobb is longer with us) but still a sneaky sport. Remember those guys in “the show” want to win at any cost.

      • And that’s the problem. “Win at any cost”. One reason for this is that the sports page is beginning to read like the financial section. The corruption in major league sports–not just baseball–has filtered down through the colleges and into the high schools.

    • Now THAT’S ridiculous. Hockey just encourages fighting and violence, blood on the ice, to keep its roller-derby audience, and Football is the most unethical sport since cock-fighting. Football doesn’t even ban steroids, let its player turn their brains to mush for decades, and has more felons and deadbeat dads on the field on any given Sunday than baseball has had on its rosters in the last 50 years. Baseball’s tolerance for serious unethical and illegal conduct is by far the least of the sports.

  3. I will quote George S Patton, Jr. in his speech to the third army: “. . . Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. . .” Maybe we need a little bit more of this in current times 😉

  4. ◾Young fans, who appreciate free-form sports like Ultimate Fighting, don’t care about cheating and rules. Then we need to get them on the program, before the culture’s corruption problem becomes epidemic. Our games reflect society’s values.

    Therefore, I think it may be too late. Remember the bat a few years ago? Also pine tar (or maybe friction tape)? And the Saints bounties? Just to name a few.

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