You 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.