Law vs. Ethics In Baseball: The Great On-Deck Circle Controversy!

What’s going on here?

During last night’s Texas Rangers, in a crucial moment with the bases loaded, Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, waiting for his turn at bat,  suddenly turned up within a few of yards of home plate, watching a pitcher he wasn’t familiar with to give Beltre an edge when he got to the plate. Baseball’s rules, however, require that the next batter remains in the on-deck circle provided, which is closer to the dugout and not behind home plate. Reasons for this include making sure that on-deck batters don’t interfere with play, can’t relay stolen signs to the batter, and aren’t killed by foul balls.

The home plate umpire called time and told Beltre to get back in the on-deck circle. Beltre then moved the on-deck circle to where he had been standing.

The umpire threw him out of the game, and rightfully so.

Umpires have discretion to toss a player for “making a travesty of the game.” This is an ethics rule, based on maintaining integrity: the baseball rule book knows that in a complex structure like baseball, situations will arise where conduct isn’t specifically prohibited but clearly violates the spirit of the game.  [Then there are gray areas, as I described in this post, one of my all-time favorites.]  The law has a similar catch-all ethics rule: lawyers are prohibited from “engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.” The classic example of “making a travesty of the game” is when a team in the lead as a rainstorm intensifies tries to make sure enough innings have been played for the game to be official (the losing team must have been up to bat five times). In a few games, this has meant that the team that was ahead was desperate to make three outs as quickly as possible, and the team in the field, already losing and desperate to have the game stopped before it became official, had an interest in making sure that no outs were made so the inning could drag on until the field was flooded. These games—I saw one of them—degenerated into farces in which batters were swinging at balls three feet wide of the plate, pitchers were trying to hit batters to put them on base, baserunners were taking leads half-way to second base while pitchers refuse to pick them off,  outfielders were allowing balls to drop in for hits and the batters who hit them were sloooowly jogging to first so they would be out.

In Beltre’s case, he was on firm ground legally: the rule doesn’t specify exactly where the on-deck circle should be, and in many parks, they are not portable. This one was, however, so technically, he might have been within the rules. He wasn’t within the spirit or intent of the rule, however, and he also was defying the umpire’s orders, which is intrinsically unethical.

Score one for ethics over law.

37 Comments

Filed under Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Professions, Sports

37 responses to “Law vs. Ethics In Baseball: The Great On-Deck Circle Controversy!

  1. Sorry,but I have to take issue with a couple of points.

    1) It was _not_ a critical point in the game. Yes, the bases were loaded, but the Rangers were down 18-6 at the time, needing only to put eight more men on to bring up the tying run.

    2) Beltre did not suddenly appear at that spot. From all I’ve read and heard, that is where he always stands when he is on deck — he’s been hit by foul balls before when he stood near the on deck circle.

    3) From all I’ve heard, Beltre is known as a prankster. Even though he swears he was not doing so when he moved the on deck circle, one cannot help but wonder……..

    4) Also, from numerous accounts no one actually stands on the on deck circle (who knew that it was actually a mat these days). Batters use it to pile all their paraphernalia whilst they are on deck. Beltre may have been a bit further from it than most (I don’t know), but apparently that was his normal spot when he was on deck. Why all of a sudden was it a problem?

    5) You probably know this already, but Beltre had already gotten 3 extra base hits last night, giving him a career total of 2996. It’s likely that many of the (few) fans who stuck around through the bottom of the 8th were just hoping to see him get number 2997.

    Yes, I am a Rangers fan but no one I’ve heard — including national broadcasters — can explain why Beltre’s positioning was suddenly such a problem for the second base umpire.

    • 1) It was _not_ a critical point in the game. Yes, the bases were loaded, but the Rangers were down 18-6 at the time, needing only to put eight more men on to bring up the tying run.

      Agreed, but irrelevant to the post.

      2) Beltre did not suddenly appear at that spot. From all I’ve read and heard, that is where he always stands when he is on deck — he’s been hit by foul balls before when he stood near the on deck circle.

      “Everybody does it”, but I do it all the time variation. It’s still a rules violation, and teh fact that other umpires were negligent doesn’t justify what he was doing.

      3) From all I’ve heard, Beltre is known as a prankster. Even though he swears he was not doing so when he moved the on deck circle, one cannot help but wonder……..

      Wow, you’re hitting all the rationalizations! “It was just a joke” now! Not an excuse, not a justification.

      4) Also, from numerous accounts no one actually stands on the on deck circle (who knew that it was actually a mat these days). Batters use it to pile all their paraphernalia whilst they are on deck. Beltre may have been a bit further from it than most (I don’t know), but apparently that was his normal spot when he was on deck. Why all of a sudden was it a problem?

      Equivocation. A bit? he was no where near the circle. Good example of how reasonable enforcement open the door for blatant violators. On deck players stand close to the on-deck circle. Beltre wasn’t close.

      5) You probably know this already, but Beltre had already gotten 3 extra base hits last night, giving him a career total of 2996. It’s likely that many of the (few) fans who stuck around through the bottom of the 8th were just hoping to see him get number 2997.

      The Star Principle and the King’s Pass! Are you going to go for all 82? “Rules are for the little players who aren’t going to the Hall of Fame.”

      6. Yes, I am a Rangers fan but no one I’ve heard — including national broadcasters — can explain why Beltre’s positioning was suddenly such a problem for the second base umpire.

      And I’m a Beltre fan: I wish the Red Sox could have traded for him right now…but the reason is obvious. He was breaking the rules.

      • If I build a fence that is two feet onto your property and maintain it for 17 years without you saying anything — what does the law say about that fence at that point?

        • It’s probably yours. But that’s property law, based on the need to have consistent ownership. There’s no such rule in other laws, and definitely not in baseball. For example, the intentional hit by pitch rule is almost never enforced when a batter lets a ball hit him. But it should be, and can be any time an umpire chooses.

          • Well, I’ll agree that Beltre had to know that once he dragged the on deck circle he was going to get tossed. Given the written and unwritten rules of baseball that was inevitable. But assuming he had been standing in the same spot on deck the whole series, why was is suddenly a problem to that umpire then and not, say, when he was behind the plate or at first base?

            And the next burning question — where is Beltre going to stand Friday night? Where is the grounds crew going to put the on deck circle?

            • I can’t wait!

              My favorite AB quirk was his aversion to having his head rubbed. Victor Martinez would sneak up on him and rub his head, and Beltre would chase him with murder in his gaze. It was always hilarious.

      • To use the vernacular Beltre was being a little bitch. Funny? Maybe sometimes, but not an acceptable reason to break the rules written or not. He was being disrespectful and escalated it by being a spoiled brat.

  2. I think nearly everyone likes Adrian Beltre now (everyone old loves old ballplayers who are still playing well). As mentioned above, Beltre is very close to 3,000 hits for career. My anecdotal observation is that teams that have a player pursuing an individual goal tend to lose a little bit of their competitive focus, and I think some of that might have slipped out last night.

    With respect to the post about the Little League game, I think the correct conduct would be to walk the first batter, and then balk three times to bring him home (assuming the Little League rules let you do these things). That brings the run home with minimal involvement from players on either team. Of course, this is with twelve years’ hindsight.

  3. Eternal optometrist

    I’m not sure this is what anybody meant by making a travesty of the game. That’s a very loose definition of travesty. And “of the game” suggests that it has some bearing on the outcome or at least game play.

    I read a book once where an umpire used to eject people on what he called “g.p.” Or generally principles. This would seem to fall into that category.

    The property law of adverse possession may not apply but the equitable principles of acquiescence or waiver might.

  4. Anyone here ever tried to warm-up on a portable on-deck circle? There is a reason that they are almost universally used by players to store the pine tar and bat weights…not to prepare for an at-bat. Umpire was the one who committed a travesty.

    • Be serious. That’s why Beltre was virtually standing next to the catcher? Tell me another one. Oddly, nobody else does that.

      • Exhibit 1…I rest my case. The Orioles stop using them after this incident because of the danger they present to their players. A review of the tape from last nights game would likely show zero players on the on-deck circle during warm-ups.

        • 1. It would also show nobody standing remotely close to where Beltre was standing. If the issue was the slippery circle, then why would Beltre have dragged the circle so he could stand on it?

          2. Players typically kneel in the circle, swing bats out of it.

          3, The O’s stopped using the circle because of one freak play. Classic barn door locking exercise.

  5. Exhibit 2…caption for this photo is “Chicago White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn and center fielder Alex Rios warm up in the on deck circle in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the…” Check the video and that is roughly the same setup that was happening last night. https://billieweiss.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/img_7709.jpg

    Exhibit 3 https://static01.nyt.com/images/2010/10/05/sports/ONDECK1/ONDECK1-jumbo.jpg

    Exhibit 4

    Exhibit 5

    • #1 is a drawing, and they are nowhere near where Beltre was last night. You could see him in the pitcher-batter TV shot, which you literally never can normally.

      #2 is also a drawing, but the batter’s foot is within an inch of the on-deck circle!

      If that’s your best evidence, I don’t have time to look at the rest. As I said, desperate. And the fact that other batters may try the same illegal stunt doesn’t make it more legal.

  6. Not drawings…USA Today photos…and the shot of Pujols wrecks your entire argument. Again…you play? Because I do, and have been on fields with those things, and everyone avoids them like the plague unless they are trying to trick their brain into an adjustment to a no-stride swing. Your comment that the catcher shouldn’t be in portable on-deck circle, which is within the field of play, rather than the portable on-deck circle being prohibited from the field in the first place since it presents a clear danger to the health and well being of highly paid, and apparently highly valued players seems a bit misguided. Circles should be natural and fixed which would make everything else in this argument moot…AB is good, but even he couldn’t move a proper on-deck circle, and enforcement of staying close to or on the on-deck circle might be something worthy of enforcement…as it is, since there is no rule in place about a player not moving the circle and technically complying with request of the umpire than the umpire was in the wrong. There were other ways to remedy the situation than ejecting a player chasing history.

    • Sure there were. So what? The player was violating the rules, the umpire told him to stop it, and the umpire took action within his power to do so. I probably wouldn’t have thrown him out, but I’m not the umpire. The post concerns moving the circle as the legalistic but incorrect solution to the problem.You’re just tossing out tangential arguments.

      And they are obviously not just photographs.

      No single photo disproves anything: this is where your trolling is obvious, That’s not logic, and that’s not evidence.

      The troll clock has been started…

  7. If Davis calls a quick time out, walks over and explains to Beltre that HE has a safety concern (I am emphasizing that it was his concern because challenges of these sort usually come in the middle of a tight ballgame when a manager is looking for a mental edge…if that had been the case I would be less critical of Davis’ reaction) and that he doesn’t want to have to escalate the situation, there is no question that the circle is returned to its original position(which, by the way, it never was last night…it stayed exactly where Beltre moved it to)…if there was a real safety issue why didn’t Davis have it returned to its original position?

    • I’ve already banned you for abject trolling, but one final answer: it doesn’t matter. Beltre was violating the rules and defied the umpire when he tried to play lawyer by moving the batting circle. Where it ended up was well short of where Beltre was illegally standing, so the umpire could conclude that the placement was still appropriate and within the rule’s intent.

  8. Note to Rocky Lockwood, Confirmed Troll: You’re banned. I warned you.

  9. Michael

    This is one of the few ridiculous multi-exchanges I have seen on Jack’s blog. Yes, there are a (very) few definitions of “unethical” that would fit the Beltre incident. However, which of the following (yes, “which of” is correct if one is considering that there may be more than one correct answer) definitions fits: immoral, wrong, improper (maybe), illegal, dirty, unfair, shady, dishonest, unscrupulous, unprofessional (maybe), disreputable, unprincipled, dishonorable, conscienceless, ruthless, unconscionable, unprincipled; oh, wait, maybe it’s this (from a thesaurus), “not conforming to approved standards of social or professional behavior.” Of course, then there’s the old standby Merriam-Webster definition of ethical: “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad; an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior; a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong.” The Brits (at least the Cambridge dictionary) define ethical as follows: “relating to beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.” So, key definitions have a “moral aspect” to them. I would conclude that, if Beltre’s action was unethical, it was so under a very broad appreciation of what is ethical, i.e. not conforming to approved standards of … professional behavior. In considering these burning questions of ethics, it would be useful to state on what ethical principle an act is determined to be unethical.

    • Dictionary definitions are notoriously muddled regarding ethics, which they tend to confound with moralality. Only one set of definitions count here: mine.

      ETHICS: The process of determining right and wrong conduct.
      UNETHICAL: An action or conduct which violates the principles of one or more ethical systems, or which is counter to an accepted ethical value, such as honesty.

      Here are the basic values at issue: I’ll highlight the ones that Beltre breached

      1. TRUSTWORTHINESS, including:

      • Honesty in communication
      • Candor
      • Truth-telling
      • Reliability
      • Sincerity
      • Honesty in Conduct
      • Integrity
      • Loyalty

      2. RESPECT, including:

      • Civility
      Courtesy Beltre tried to show up the umpire.
      • Decency
      • Dignity
      • Tolerance
      Acceptance Defying the umpire, the in game authority
      • Autonomy

      3. RESPONSIBILITY, including:

      • Diligence
      • Pursuit of Excellence
      • Competence
      Accountability Beltre was villating the rules, knew it, and still refused to accept the consequences.
      • Perseverance
      Self-restraint He knew this would infuriate any umpire, knew that as a player and a star, fans and scribes would side with him, so he indulged himself.
      • Prudence

      4. FAIRNESS, including:

      • Openness
      Process Foul. He has to follow the rules, and what the umpire say, goes.
      • Impartiality
      • Proportionality
      • Consistency
      • Equity

      5. CARING, including:

      • Charity
      Benevolence Beltre was just making trouble to make trouble.
      • Consideration
      • Empathy
      • Generosity

      6. CITIZENSHIP [In this case, being a good MLB citizen]

      • Loyalty
      • Patriotism
      • Civic literacy
      • Participation
      • Honorable representation

      Verdict: Beltre was wrong.

      • Michael

        Well done. I prefer the ethics discussions of the ancient philosophers, but I can accept this from an almost-ancient philosopher. Thanks

      • Ok, I’ll accept all the items that you’ve highlighted. Despite his denials, I did think that Beltre thought this was a prank that a) was harmless and b)he could get away with. B) Obviously he didn’t, and a)Well, I hope the Rangers don’t draw this particular crew again anytime soon.

        Apart from that, the more substantive comment I saw from a national sports figure was that umpires have a tendency to be a little too thin skinned and to make the game about them, which it shouldn’t be. Do you have a comment regarding that?

        Too bad I probably won’t be able to watch the game tonight on TV, but I will hopefully be listening to the radio broadcast.

        Oh, and what those pictures above say to me? MLB needs to chalk in the on deck circle and not use a slippery mat. It’s not the first comment I’ve seen about the mats being slippery. That strikes me as dangerous to have on the field of play.

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