Tex Ritter’s much-covered recording about the soldier whose deck of cards reminded him of the Bible has a parallel for me in the relationship of baseball to ethics. Like cards, baseball is a pastime, a game, but if you pay attention, there are profound lessons in ethics to be gleaned from the history, characters, and events of the game. In my official bio that I use for speaking engagements, I suggest that intensely following the travails of the Boston Red Sox since I was 12 was a major factor in sparking my lifelong interest and fascination with ethics. And it is true.
I live in the Washington, D.C. area now (unfortunately), and the local team is the Montreal Expos in exile, the Washington Nationals. The Nats’ mission is to bring Washington its first MLB World Championship since Walter Johnson was pitching and Coolidge was President. So far this goal has been elusive. That 1924 World Series-winning team, with the best names any team has had ever (Muddy Ruel, Ossie Bluege, Goose Goslin, Joe Judge, Nemo Liebold, Firpo Marberry, Mule Shirley, Pinky Hargrave, Curly Ogden, and more) has faded into forgetfulness while two Washington Senators franchises fled (to become the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, respectively) after decades of failure. The Washington Nationals, not nick-named Senators on the theory that the name was cursed, have proven cursed themselves. Despite having won more games over the last five seasons than any National League team, and having won the National League Eastern Division three times, the team has never sniffed the World Series, having lost repeatedly in the first round of the play-offs.
This season the Nats were loaded from the start, and even after terrible injuries to two of their best players, they have the best offense in the league, the best hitter (Bryce Harper) and arguably the best starting pitcher (Max Scherzer). They are also in a lousy division where they don’t need to be great to win it without breaking a sweat.
But like the gorgeous woman with a wart on her nose, there is an obvious imperfection. The Nationals have no closer, that pitching specialist whose job is to get the last three outs (and sometimes more) to lock down victory in a close game. This is not a new development, by any means. After the team decided to let last season’s (excellent) closer to leave via free agency, fans and sportswriters wondered how and when the team would replace him. One by one all of the established closers available by trade and free agency were snapped up, and it became clear that the Nationals ownership’s position was, “Never mind. The team is good enough. Maybe we’ll get lucky and some pitcher will surprse us, but even if we don’t, this team is good enough to win anyway. And we can save ourselves a bunch of money.“
This was a gamble, but not a wild one. Indeed, the assessment has been proven correct so far: even without a closer, the Washington Nationals are 11 games ahead of their only conceivable challenger for primacy in the NL East, and half way through this season are on pace to win about a hundred games, the mark of a legitimate contender for World Series glory. Yet the team has the worst relief corps in the league, and the 9th inning has been a nightly adventure. Only the explosive Nats offense has rescued the team from repeated disasters and shock losses, and not every time. Moreover, whisperings from the clubhouse suggest that management’s willingness to allow this Rolls Royce of a baseball team ride the road with one bald tire is causing frustration and resentment among the players.
A team cannot win a championship with this glaring weakness, unless it is uncommonly lucky, and everyone—knowledgeable fans, players, coaches and the sportswriters—knows it. The answer by those defending this season-long negligence is that there is plenty of time to address the closer issue through a trade, but that is a rationalization. Now there is little margin for error. Some closers suddenly lose their reliability, control or fastballs. Teams that choose poorly in April have time to find an alternative; teams that wait until July are stuck if an expensive new closer doesn’t thrive in his new environment. Moreover, the Nats aren’t the only team with closer vacuums, just the best one. They have less time than they once did to address this problem, more impediments, and no margin of error.
Not only might this self-inflicted Achilles heel destroy the team’s prospects for glory, it speaks to an unprofessional and unethical approach to its mission, one that is applicable to all of us.
None of us is perfect, and all of us have weaknesses and vulnerabilities that we have it in our power to address. It is a life competency to be able to ruthlessly assess what we do not do well enough and have it within our power to improve, and then to dedicate ourselvesto addressing that deficit. This applies to everything from personal temperament—impulsiveness, laziness, cynicism, cruelty, lack of empathy, fear of commitment, pettiness, jealousy, and all the rest—to self-destructive habits—procrastination, poor diet, poor hygiene, incivility, bad manners, dishonesty, financial irresponsibility—to a lack of essential life skills and abilities—education, critical thinking, writing and speaking, vocabulary, literacy, technological competence, parenting, relationships. Of course there is never time to improve in every area, but every area we can improve also improves our prospects of success, happiness, and making a positive impact on society and those with whom we share our communities and the planet. This is a lifetime quest to be the best we can be, and it should never end. We should never decide “I’m good enough.” We’re never good enough, and the longer we delay getting better, the closer we come to a failure we had it in our power to prevent.
This is the ethics lesson that is playing out, right now, right before our eyes, on the baseball field in Washington, D.C. We all have a duty to improve. Let us hope, when the Nationals once again fail to achieve the potential their talent indicates they have within their grasp, a lot of baseball fans and their children understand greater significance of the cautionary tale they have witnessed.
Then at least the Nationals will not have blown their season in vain.