Pineda-Pine Tar, Part II: Baseball Clarifies Its Bizarro Ethics Culture

bizarro_world-baseballYou shouldn’t have to appreciate, care about or even understand baseball to find illumination in its latest ethics controversy, which shows how cultures can go horribly wrong, precluding exactly the values that any functioning entity must embrace to remain viable and healthy. For someone like me, to whom Baseball is Life, the whole thing just makes me want to jump out the window.

You will recall that a couple weeks ago, the sport embarrassed itself by making excuses and accepting lies regarding New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda being allowed to break the game’s rules against pitchers applying foreign substances (in this case, pine tar) on the baseball while pitching to the Boston Red Sox. I wrote about it here. I interpreted the post-incident consensus of the game and its pundits as “everybody does it, so let’s not make a big deal over a little infraction on a night when it was abnormally cold and hard to grip the ball.”  That’s unethical enough, but the truth, as revealed in Part II, is far worse.

Last night, fate had Pineda on the mound against the Red Sox again. Baseball’s ethics had already begun falling apart in chunks when Sox manager John Farrell, asked about whether he expected Pineda to cheat again (for that is what using pine tar on baseballs is—cheating. Official Rule 8.02 states: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” ) answered that hopefully, if he did, he would be more discreet about it. Huh?

But Pineda was not discrete; in fact, he could not have been more obvious, or ridiculously so. After a rough first inning in which he gave up two runs, Pineda emerged from the dugout with a large, brown, greasy gob of pine tar on his neck. On TV. In nationally broadcast game. Against the same team that he was caught using pine tar against before. In that team’s home park.

In the Red Sox dugout, Manager Farrell and the team were laughing and rolling their eyes. Farrell finally shrugged, and walked out to complain to the home plate umpire, for it is an automatic ejection for a pitcher to be caught doctoring the ball. The umpire dutifully walked out to the mound—he had to have seen the offending gob before Farrell complained—and to add to the foolishness, checked Pineda’s glove, cap and jock strap before looking at the huge brown smear on his neck. Finally he did so, said, “That’s pine tar!” (in the previous game, Pineda told the press it was “dirt”) and threw him out of the game.

In subsequent interviews with Farrell and others, the explanation that emerged was this gibberish: “everybody” uses something to grip the ball better when it is cold (and often when it isn’t); hitters don’t mind because they don’t want to get hit. Pineda’s offense wasn’t that he used pine tar, but that, as Farrell suggested before the game, that he was “blatant” about it. That gave Farrell no choice, you see….even though his own pitchers also use foreign substances to grip the ball (in unequivocal violation of a baseball rule), and this sets his team up for “retaliation.”

I feel like I’m going crazy.

Everyone agrees that it’s acceptable  to break a rule that an umpire will throw you out of the game for breaking?

Breaking the rule secretly and discretely is fine; but breaking the rule so the cameras and the fans can see that you are breaking it is unforgivable?

Pineda’s offense wasn’t that he broke the rule, but that he was open and obvious about it?

THIS, in a game that supposedly extolls and demands ‘sportsmanship,’ which last time I checked, is defined as “an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors”?

Pineda II officially and beyond question defined Major League Baseball’s ethical culture as the following:

“Cheating is defined as getting caught breaking the rules. A player or manager who breaks the rules in such a way that it is obvious to fans, journalists and TV cameras is unethical, and must learn to be discrete in future dishonesty.”

I listened this morning to former player and current analyst Doug Glanville this morning, and spit out a mouthful of coffee as he said, “Of course, this is a slippery slope.” It is the icy Everest of slippery slopes, Doug; in fact, it not only is unethical, it precludes coherent ethical reasoning. It is Bizarro World ethics, completely backwards, like eating the dinner plates and throwing out the food.  If a practice is commonplace and accepted throughout the sport, why isn’t Pineda more ethical by being open about it? I am reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s rant about men who wear hairpieces, when he says that it is the implied insult that everyone can’t tell that offends him. “The should have to keep the price tag on, hanging down in front!” he says.

Don’t fans realize that what players are really telling them is that it’s important to fool them, the fans, into believing that the rules mean anything in the game, other than technicalities to be skirted and broken–secretly and “discreetly,” of course? Michael Pineda respected the fans of the game enough to think, “OK, everyone’s breaking this rule, so I might as well let everyone know that I am too,” and he’s being called a cheater and an idiot.  John Farrell is saying, is he not, that cheating only counts if  someone isn’t sufficiently sneaky about it, and everyone is sagely nodding, as if this makes any ethical sense at all. Bizarro World.

Baseball isn’t even consistent in its application of this unethical ethics theory. Giants slugger Barry Bonds was violating the rules against steroids so blatantly and brazenly it would have been comic if it wasn’t so horrible. He morphed into a muscle-bound mutation of himself; he started hitting the ball harder and further at an age when every other player—every other player out of tens of thousands who played the game before him–start declining; his batting prowess exceeded previously recognized limits, and teams began walking him intentionally at a record rate. That’s the real slippery slope, you see. Once a culture starts making up ethics as it goes along, there really are no ethics, or rules or principles. Just expediency.

Once, at a legal ethics program, a lawyer came up to me and said, defiantly, “Legal ethics is whatever you can do to win for your client and not get disbarred.” I said, “I think you are in the wrong profession.”

I should have recommended baseball.


Sources: ESPN 1, 2, MLB

13 thoughts on “Pineda-Pine Tar, Part II: Baseball Clarifies Its Bizarro Ethics Culture

  1. “Cheating is defined as getting caught breaking the rules.. . . ” This guy’s reasoning is superb. He should at least get an autographed baseball from Pete Rose.

  2. Jack: “That gave Farrell no choice, you see….even though his own pitchers also use foreign substances to grip the ball (in unequivocal violation of a baseball rule)”

    Wait, is the rule against applying foreign substances to the ball, or using a foreign substance to grip the ball? Those are not quite the same thing. Is there an exception in the rule book for chalk? (That is what is in the bag behind the mound, right?)

    And, Jack, just to clarify, you would not have a problem with this if the rule book allowed for pine tar, right (regardless of whether that is a smart rule change)? Because if everybody does it, maybe the rule should simply be changed so it is not cheating anymore.


    • You saw the rule quote. The rosin bag on the mound isn’t a foreign substance, because its approved to be used on the field. Anything else–hair tonic, spit, pine tar, Vaseline—foreign. On the ball, or on the fingers coming in contact with the ball.

      If the game is going to allow pine tar–which it obviously does, since the umpires won’t enforce the rule against it unless asked to—then pine tar should be legal. Laws and rules that an culture refuses to enforce just undermines the other rules and laws. Just to take a ridiculous, impossible example, allowing people to illegally cross the border in violation of the immigration laws without enforcement and penalties would be destructive to US society and respect for the law and government generally.

  3. I would like to know REALLY how much cheating goes on undetected in professional golf. (falsifying of scorecards excluded – I won’t do that) That way, I might improve my game (to sub-100), and all I have to say to anyone who questions my ethics is, “Hey, I’m only doing what the pros do.”

    • I doubt there is as much in golf, not because golfers are any more virtuous than baseball players, but because golf is almost always played as an individual while baseball is a team sport. This is also not to say that individual sports players are somehow more virtuous than team sports players, but just that they have less temptation to accept cheating. Consider it a variation of noble cause corruption, if a player on your team cheats you benefit (and would be harmed if the cheating were punished) thus have a strong incentive to rationalize the cheating as something everyone does, while if a player in your foursome cheats it doesn’t benefit and actually harms your position in the foursome so there is little incentive for golfers to rationalize the cheating as acceptable.

  4. I know how you feel.
    I felt the same way when I finally had to admit that Lance Armstrong was cheating.
    It’s very disappointing.

    • But he was really, really, really good at it. Probably one of the best cheaters the world of sport has ever seen. So there is that.

  5. Please excuse what is probably a dumb question to someone who knows baseball…I know why pine tar is used but what is the point of Pineda putting the pine tar on his neck?

  6. Jack:
    I used to love to watch the Colts and the Orioles when the teams were made up of my neighbors – or at least those that lived within 10 miles of me. Every now and again I might accidently see Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Johnny Unitas or some other local hero out doing every day stuff – grocery shopping etc. In those days the teams reflected the community values of good sportsmanship and teamwork. In those days, only the manager was ejected for challenging a call. I don’t recall any player ejected for cheating, although I always felt Phil Neikro’s knuckleball l should have been banned. As time went by, and salaries and ticket prices skyrocketed the entire concept of the local team went away for me. My dedication to the local football team vanished when Bob Irsay moved the Colts in the dead of the night. He took our history, that we “Baltimorons” loved and held dear. It was that day I realized that our team was no longer our team but a set of assets that moved toward more money. In the words of Don Mclean, it was the day the music died for me metaphorically speaking.

    Cheating is cheating. No rationalization can make it any less so. I don’t begrudge anyone that can command a multi-million dollar contract today but I expect that it is earned in fair and ethical manner. Because today’s players seem to be idolized more for the salaries they are paid rather than how they conduct themselves on and off the field we should consider a three strike rule for willful cheating; suspend them for the remainder of the season without pay after the third infraction. Managers that knowingly permit such activity should be banned after strike one because they establish what is acceptable. When corporate executives look the other way when subordinates purposely violate laws/rules to effect better performance, the culture of the organization learns quickly that anything goes so long as you do not get caught.

    Winning is a good thing when everyone on the field plays by the same rules. Winning means that we have triumphed over a worthy opponent. We have risen to a challenge and overcome it. Winning by cheating is not a win but a breach of an implied covenant of trust between the two teams to compete fairly. Sporting events are excellent places to teach kids valuable lessons. When we absolve cheaters by rationalizing their cheating we cheat ourselves of truly basking in the glow of victory over our opponent – if we outscore the opponent by cheating then its not really a win but simply a statistical data point.

    I still follow the Orioles but I can’t watch them because I bring them bad luck whenever I watch the game. I am superstitious that way.

  7. Perhaps we should rewrite the rules for politicians too. We’re going to assume that you ALL are going to cheat, lie, abuse power, and defraud the American people. If you do none of those things, well, then we will take note and give you a gold star or something. Oh, perhaps entry into a Politicians Hall of Fame!

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