Baseball’s Childish Ethics: An Embarrassing Case Study

It is often said that baseball is a child’s game, but that doesn’t excuse professional baseball players holding on to childish traditions regarding the “right way to play the game” that are not right, frequently dangerous, and mind-numbingly stupid to boot.

Last week, beginning a weekend series in Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox were enmeshed in a close game., losing 2-0, with time running out. With the Orioles batting and Manny Machado (Non-baseball fans: he is the very young, very large, very talented O’s third-baseman, a joy to watch and already a super-star) on first, Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts fielded a slowly bouncing ground ball and flipped a weak throw to Dustin Pedroia (Non-baseball fans: he is the small, cocky, excellent Sox second baseman, the best fielder at his position in 2016, a former MVP, and the acknowledged leader of the team now that David Ortiz has retired). Pedroia caught the ball in a first baseman’s stretch, awkwardly, just in time to force out Machado: a double play was out of the question. Machado, however, came into the base hard, sliding late, and barreling right over the bag with his spikes raised. (It looks on the tape as if one foot was elevated  when it hit the base.) Machado’s momentum took him into Pedroia, knocking him down and spiking him, as well as injuring his knee and ankle. Machado appeared to try to catch the Sox player after he passed over the base.

There was no question that Machado was out, but the Red Sox manager argued that the slide was illegal: since last year, runners are not allowed to try to break up double plays by intentionally sliding at opposing fielders. Late slides, slides not intended to allow the runner to get to second base, and sliding past teh base to upend the second baseman or shortstop will be called as obstruction, and the batter is then called out to complete the double play. The umpires disagreed with Farrell, and that is still being debated; it’s not relevant here. Pedroia, meanwhile, was led off the field, obviously injured.

After the game, Red Sox TV analysts and former players Jim Rice (Sox Hall of Fame Sox slugger) and Steve Lyons (an opinionated jackass) chuckled about what was coming. Ancient baseball tradition required, they explained, that the Red Sox “protect their player” who was injured by a careless, inept, or intentionally illegal slide. This meant, they explained, that a Red Sox pitcher in the next game was obligated to hit Machado with a pitch in retaliation. “He knows it!” said Rice. “He’ll be expecting it.” Lyons nodded and laughed. (Full disclosure: I hated Steve Lyons as a player, and I loathe him as an analyst.)

This is indeed an “unwritten law” of baseball, and one of the most unethical. I have seen it countless times, and the result is often fights and injuries, as well as suspensions for the pitcher’s involved and outright beanball wars. The theory is that you can’t let a team “intimidate” you, so a message must be sent. The message is “tit for tat” or “Mob Ethics”: you hurt one of ours, we hurt one of yours. Sometimes the situation requires a pitch directed at other team’s star player, when that team’s scrub injures the pitcher’s team’s star. In this case, the target was an easy call, for Machado was both the miscreant and is also the Orioles best player.

Pedroia, for his part, told reporters that he didn’t care whether it was an illegal slide, saying that the rule had been created to protect lesser fielders who didn’t have good footwork, so it didn’t apply to him. He exonerated Machado, saying that he had texted an apology, and that as far as he was concerned, the episode was over.

Never mind. Baseball tradition dictated that if the Red Sox didn’t hit Machado in retaliation, it would be betraying Pedroia and submitting to Orioles dominance. Understand: nobody apparently believed that the slide was intended as an aggressive message, but that didn’t matter. This was tradition. This was culture.

This was stupid.

Nothing happened in the next game, though. commentators (Rice, Lyons and others) speculated that this was because the Sox pitcher, Steven Wright, is a knuckleballer, and can throw a slow, 86 mph fastball at best. In other words, a pitch from Wright wouldn’t hurt enough. Wait: if everyone knows Machado wasn’t trying to hurt Pedroia, why does the pitch have to “hurt”? Isn’t having Wright deliver the vengeance perfect, sending the required, ancient, stupid messages (“You can’t intimidate us! You can’t hurt our leader and get away with it!”) symbolically and with little risk?

Guess not. Nothing happened, and some assumed that the episode was mercifully over.

Then, late in the next game, Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez faced Machado and threw three fastballs in a row (Rodriguez throws his cheese at 95 mph plus) in the general direction of the third baseman’s knees. He missed with all three pitchers, if hitting Machado was his intention. (Later, E-Rod said that he was just “pitching in.” This tells us nothing, because admitting that you tried to hit a batter with a pitch means an automatic fine and suspension.) In his following at bat, Machado came to bat against Sox relief pitcher Matt Barnes, who throws even harder than Rodriguez. Barnes threw a fastball that went behind Machado’s head, narrowly missing his skull and hitting his bat.

Barnes was immediately thrown out of the game.

From the dugout, the camera caught Pedroia shouting to Machado, “That wasn’t me! That was them! You should have been hit yesterday, on your first at bat! You know that. I know that!” After the game, Predroia, who couldn’t play in the game because of his injuries from Machado’s botched slide, expressed disgust with Barnes’ pitch without naming him, saying the entire sequence has been “mishandled.” Barnes has been suspended for four games and fined, serious punishment. He is appealing the suspension.

What’s going on here?

1. When anyone has questioned the tradition at work here, the answer from players and ex-players is inevitable, “It’s baseball.” It’s stupid baseball, at least in this case. This is an “Everybody Does it” excuse. Not good enough.

2. Is it possible, as Barnes swears (“You don’t throw at a player’s head. That’s a red line.”), that he wasn’t throwing at Machado to hit him? Sure, but what a coincidence, if he wasn’t! Since no pitcher ever admits that he was trying to hit a batter, even when everyone knows he was, Barnes’ professions of innocence were accepted like those of the lawyer whose pants caught fire in the middle of his closing argument claiming that his client wasn’t an arsonist and that her car spontaneously combusted.

3. Assuming that Barnes did “deliver the message,” who told him to? Not Pedroia, unless he is  complete and diabolical phony (he isn’t.) Sox manager Farrell? Usually such attacks are ordered by the manager, but Barnes is a crucial arm in the injured Red Sox bullpen. Losing him, just as the team is preparing to play the hated Yankees, could hurt the team where it matters: its won and lost record. Could Farrell think that exacting revenge for an accidental injury to one of his players when that player has stated publicly that it was accident is more important than winning games? If so, he is an incompetent, irresponsible fool, and should be fired.

4. Now, incredibly enough, Boston sportswriters are criticizing Pedroia for being disloyal to a young player, Barnes, who was only standing up for him.

What is this, the third grade? A bad slide unintentionally injures a player, apologies are communicated, but a baseball “tradition” from the era where baseball was played by outlaw players who often tried to hurt each other demands revenge anyway. Only moral luck saved Machado from a potentially career-ending injury, and a promising young pitcher who may have just lost control of a pitch aimed lower has acquired a reputation for being a head-hunter.

Good job, everybody!

13 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Journalism & Media, Sports

13 responses to “Baseball’s Childish Ethics: An Embarrassing Case Study

  1. When I played the Holy Game ™, there had to be actual malice in the act to merit ‘chin music.’ When everyone knew that it was an accident (especially if the injured party accepted that) there was not retribution.

    Alas, some of the professional players were not born yet when I played (High School and after) and seem to not be of the same staunch character as professionals in that day.

    (Of course, there were ALWAYS exceptions. Babe Ruth was an ass, but adored anyway)

  2. brian

    “With the Orioles batting and Manny Machado (Non-baseball fans: he is the very young, very large, very talented O’s third-baseman, a joy to watch and already a super-star)”, you left out ‘terrible base runner’. Not sure most Boston fans understand just how awful Machado is on the base paths, but he is a giant, lumbering, awkward mess of a base runner. I have no doubt in my mind his slide was not intended to hurt Pedroia, it was just a typical for Machado bad slide.

    Barnes and Farrell are lying about the pitch. They both claimed he was trying to pitch inside but the ball got away. However, the catcher was set up on the outside of the plate, so he neither called nor expected a pitch inside.

    I wonder what the suspension would have been if the pitch had hit him in the head. I assume it would be more than 4 games, which bothers me. Why does luck, or the skill of the batter in getting out of the way, have any impact on the penalty for the action. I firmly believe that MLB has the ability to end this nonsense tomorrow with stiffer fines, I can’t figure out why they don’t.

    Lastly, I believe there is something interesting going on with the team aspect of this situation that has larger meaning for baseball. The sport has moved heavily into a stats based, money-ball approach to valuing players and building teams. Computer models are built showing which teams will win divisions before a game is played. For the last 5 years these approaches have overvalued the Red Sox and undervalued the Orioles with the Orioles consistently projected to be a sub .500 team, yet making the playoffs in 3 of the last 5 years.

    I believe management and team cohesion are largely behind this phenomenon, and this series showed it. Machado’s restraint after being thrown at was impressive and instructive, especially because of how hot headed he has been in the past (Charging mound at Ventura, throwing a bat at Donaldson, etc.). It was clear to me that Showalter, or Jones, or other leaders in the team, sat down and talked this situation through beforehand. They prepared for it, got buy in from all the players, and acted like a team. They managed to prepare and convince Machado to act like a professional in the likely scenario that he was thrown at/hit, which is no small feat. Juxtapose that to how the Red Sox handled this, no team leadership, no communication, not on the same page, throwing each other under the bus. It won’t surprise me to see the Orioles in the playoffs again this year and the Red Sox missing it just based on seeing the team’s dynamic in this situation. Money-ball strategies are important, but top teams separate themselves through team cohesion and leadership, something that models do not take into account.

    • …MLB has the ability to end this nonsense tomorrow with stiffer fines, I can’t figure out why they don’t…

      Unethical or not, fans like drama. This has become one of the possible actions in an otherwise sedate game, and fans will watch for the same reason the watch NASCAR: somebody might crash.

      • Brian

        I disagree, and i think the NASCAR comparison is ridiculous. I watch more than 162 baseball games last year and saw 1 fight. I watched Nascar for a half a season a few years ago and there were multiple crashes per race. If you watch baseball for the fights, you won’t watch for long before you switch to something else…

        • Brian, that is not what I asserted. I explained that it is the same mechanism. Of course fans do not watch baseball for the fight! But the discussion about the tit for tat (chin music for whatever insult) IS part of the game that interests fans. This in turn translates to money for the league. If this were not true, why are the rules not stricter? My opinion. Money is the motivation in ALL professional sports, right?

          If you disagree, what is your explanation for the rules being as they are? It is all okay to comment and dissent, but there is nothing of value added unless you contribute to that conversation with your opinion, hopefully backed up with facts. (I admit my assertion is based on my experiences, and your mileage may vary)

          • brian

            You said, ‘fans will watch for the same reason the watch NASCAR: somebody might crash.’. I am not disagreeing with the human nature side of rubbernecking, if it bleeds it leads, or watching train wrecks. I am disagreeing with your sentiment that fans watch baseball for the fights like NASCAR fans watch for the crash. The idea being that if MLB cracked down on the fights it would lose viewership in an analogous manor to what would (I believe correctly) happen to if NASCAR decreased the crashes.

            I appreciate the question about why I think they won’t. I am unclear on the exact mechanism stopping MLB. The reason could be money, in the sense that if Odor and Bautista were both suspended for 30 games last year, fans would miss the opportunity to see them play and the product would be degraded. However, fights are so rare currently, that I don’t think stiffer fines would impact many players. Additionally, I don’t think it would take long for the number of suspensions to go to zero exactly because the fights disappear. This isn’t the PED issue, where enforcement is the tough part.

            I suspect the reasons have more to do with the cultural attitude in baseball that Jack talked about. Baseball is a game with history, it’s a sport where tradition is lionized. For many fans and players, any change to the basic structure of the game is rejected out of hand. Look at the push back and chiding that still goes on about the slide rule, and that only changed after a young career was actually ended because of a vicious and irresponsible slide. Yet you still have players, like Pedoria, arguing that the rule is stupid, that players should be allowed to police themselves, that the game existed for years without the proposed rule and it’s been fine.

            • I never said ‘fights.’ You came up with that on your own.

              But this is no longer productive. Have a great day, Brian

              • brian

                Where did this guy go, ‘If you disagree, what is your explanation for the rules being as they are? It is all okay to comment and dissent, but there is nothing of value added unless you contribute to that conversation with your opinion, hopefully backed up with facts.’?

                Yes, I brought up fight, because the difference between intentionally throwing a 95mph fastball at someone’s head and a fight is? In my book, when someone throws something at you with the intent of hurting you, that’s a fight, do you have some other definition? From google – Fight: 1. take part in a violent struggle involving the exchange of physical blows or the use of weapons.

    • I think that theory is bunk. “Team chemistry” is wildly over-rated, and many teams that profoundly detested each other have been extremely successful. The O’s have exceeded their Pythogorean W-L projections recently, and that’s mostly luck, as good records in one-run games and extra innings is primarily chance (good teams win fewer such games than their -L record in other games suggests.). The other factor is the manager: Showalter is a very good manager, Farrell is so-so. No question, this episode was botched by the Sox all around, but there is no deeper evidence of dysfunction. The Red Sox were not the favorites in their division to win last year, but did. The O’s overachieved to get a Wild Card slot, and lost, ironically, the one-game play-off because Showalter mismanaged the gme.

    • “However, the catcher was set up on the outside of the plate, so he neither called nor expected a pitch inside.”

      Especially b/c, if I remember correctly, Barnes shook off the catcher’s signal, in lieu of a fastball signal.

      “I firmly believe that MLB has the ability to end this nonsense tomorrow with stiffer fines, I can’t figure out why they don’t.”

      I assume it thinks its slavish dedication to “tradition” and doing things the “right way” differentiates if from the other 3 major sports in some way. From this fan’s perspective, it does not.

      “Machado’s restraint after being thrown at was impressive and instructive, especially because of how hot headed he has been in the past”

      THAT was the most surprising part of all of this; how level headed Machado was. Maybe he’s finally turned the maturity corner.

      However, that beatdown he put on Ventura was well deserved. Off the field, Ventura lived a troubled life, but on the field, he was a punk of the highest order.

  3. Zanshin

    Brian wrote, “The sport has moved heavily into a stats based, money-ball approach to valuing players and building teams. Computer models are built showing which teams will win divisions before a game is played. ”

    For your information, I stumbled on the following book (I haven’t read it) ==>

    Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law
    2017 | ISBN: 0062490222 | English | 304 pages | EPUB | 2 MB

    Predictably Irrational meets Moneyball in ESPN veteran writer and statistical analyst Keith Law’s iconoclastic look at the numbers game of baseball, proving why some of the most trusted stats are surprisingly wrong, explaining what numbers actually work, and exploring what the rise of Big Data means for the future of the sport.

    For decades, statistics such as batting average, saves recorded, and pitching won-lost records have been used to measure individual players’ and teams’ potential and success. But in the past fifteen years, a revolutionary new standard of measurement—sabermetrics—has been embraced by front offices in Major League Baseball and among fantasy baseball enthusiasts. But while sabermetrics is recognized as being smarter and more accurate, traditionalists, including journalists, fans, and managers, stubbornly believe that the “old” way—a combination of outdated numbers and “gut” instinct—is still the best way. Baseball, they argue, should be run by people, not by numbers

    • But of course, analytics can go only so far in predicting outcomes in a chaos-based activity like baseball. Nobody, for example, predicted that Cleveland would make the Series. Texas and Baltimore were not expected to make the post-season. Since the Wild Card era, no season has repeated the previous year’s play-off teams.

      Sabermetrics is hardly new: Bill James was using them 30 years ago. Casey Stengal and Earl Weaver were too; they just did it without numbers. Analytics have invigorated baseball, and show its complexity and greatness as a sport and intellectual pursuit, but the game will always be unpredictable.

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