Baseball Ethics While Watching Baseball, Part 2: Revenge

The second baseball ethics story that imposed upon my consciousness last night (the first was posted on here), is more substantive than the first.

Some background is required. The Houston Astros are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers for the first time since it was revealed that the Astros had used an illegal (in baseball terms) scheme to assist the team’s hitters by stealing the opposition’s signs using outfield cameras during the entire 2017 season, including the World Series. The Dodgers were the Astros’ National League opponents in that Series, a very close one. They have not been shy about claiming that they were robbed of a World Championship.

The two teams meeting for the first time since the Astros management was punished by Major League Baseball sparked lots of speculation. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he didn’t expect his players to retaliate against the Astros, which shows what he knows.  In the sixth inning of the first game of the series with the Dodgers leading 5-2,  fire-balling L.A. reliever Joe Kelly threw a 3-0 fastball over Houston’s MVP Alex Bregman‘s head to the backstop. This is what as known as “a message.” Later in the same inning, with runners on first and second, Kelly threw a first-pitch fastball that nearly hit Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in the head. That ball also sailed to the backstop and allowed both runners to advance. Correa  ultimately struck out, and as Kelly retreated from the mound towards the dugout, he made a mocking frowny face, then shouted, “Nice swing, bitch!” at Correa. These are known in technical baseball lexicon as “fighting words.” Both benches emptied, but no punches were thrown. The Dodgers went on to win 5-2.

During the off-season, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a memorandum telling teams not to retaliate against the Astros. There is also a temporary rule for the shortened 60-game 2020 season prohibiting players and coaches from fighting with other teams or arguing with umpires—social distancing, don’t you know.

While I was watching last night’s Red Sox-Mets game, I learned that Joe Kelly had been suspended eight games. That’s a huge suspension, especially in a 60 game season. An  equivalent suspension in a normal 162-game season would be 22 games. Texas Ranger Frank Francisco was banned for only 16 games for throwing a folding chair into the crowd at a game in 2004. Kelly didn’t hit anyone and didn’t fight with anyone, and he is hardly known for great control of his pitches. He swears those wild pitches were accidents.

No, I don’t believe him.

I suspect Kelly’s suspension will be reduced after his appeal, but the League had to take emphatic action or the Astros would be getting thrown at all season, there would be fights, and someone would be seriously hurt. The peril of close contact among players causing a virus outbreak adds another reason to crack down hard. Baseball is performing a national service by doggedly going through with its season, weird as it will be, and one team, the Marlins, have already been crippled by a wave of positive tests. A few similar situations and the season will have to be stopped again, permanently.

There are periodic ethics stories where the reactions of the majority of the public, at least those who react at all, make me wonder if I’m wasting my time and should have just sold-out to some law firm that would hand me a nice, fat check every month. Almost all of the comments on various websites and blogs slam Manfred, defend Kelly, and ridicule the discipline. Here’s a typical reaction:

“So let me get this straight: Manfred wouldn’t suspend any of the Astros players for cheating their way to a championship, ruining careers and corrupting records in the process, but a player for the franchise they cheated most of all gets suspended 8 games for making a face, saying something mean and scaring a couple of the cheaters with pitches that didn’t hit them.”

Manfred’s explanation this off-season for why none of the Astros players were suspended was clear and irrefutable. First, if the management of a team installs a cheating scheme, the players are placed in an impossible position. If they defy the team and report it, they will become pariahs in the game. Yes, I agree that players should have done that, but doing so requires courage and sacrifice, as well as inflicting perceived betrayal on freinds and team mates. Punishing subordinates for not refusing to obey orders is in the high weeds of ethics, and gets into the murky war crimes debate. It is also known that several players refused to use the stolen signs, but unknown exactly how many or which.

Most critical of all, baseball was only able to crack the case by offering confidentiality deals to players who eventually provided details to enable the investigation.  Baseball’s approach, which involved team level fines, loss of draft choices, and career-threatening suspensions of the Astros’ manager, bench coach (Alex Cora, the mastermind of the scheme) and general manager was appropriate, if not perfect.

The public doesn’t want to consider such arcane matters as the realities of uncovering wrongdoing. The only fair punishment, if player suspensions were used,  would have been to suspend every player on the 2017 Astros. That would have meant harming other teams who now had those players on their rosters. The suspensions would have had to be long ones, making the Houston team’s ability to field a team difficult, and undermining the quality of the MLB product on the field.

I felt, and still feel, that the Astros should have been stripped of their 2017 titles, a well as  the players’ World Series shares. However, no other player or team remains within ethical boundaries by choosing to inflict their own vigilante justice to teach the Astros a lesson.

 

14 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics While Watching Baseball, Part 2: Revenge

  1. The Houston Astros have been punished – pretty severely – for cheating. I agree…their titles should have been taken away, but they weren’t and it’s not a hill I want to die on. The loss of the draft picks is devastating in its own right. Any player that tries to extract more “justice” is no better than the citizen that takes the law into his own hands. It’s still a crime and should be punished.

    Joe Kelly is fortunate that baseball lost its mind and brought the DH to the National League, so he doesn’t have to hit. But there’s nothing preventing Alex Bregman from retaliating as well…checking a swing such that bat just happens to fly out of his hands toward the mound. That’s just as wrong as Kelly throwing at players, but it could still happen.

    Be very careful when sowing the wind…

    • I agree that the Astros have been punished severely. I can but hope it is severe enough to deter some other team from traveling that path in the future. Perhaps teams in the future will stick to the time honored cheating methods. 🙂

  2. Wait. Baseball players can’t administer their own justice between the lines? Fugettabout Jake. It’s baseball. Those are hardballs, not slow pitch softballs. It’s called hardball for a reason. If the Astros want an immunity deal, all they have to do is sit the season out. It’s going to happen every Astros game. Good.

  3. Come on Jack, if this were one of your beloved westerns, Rob Manfred would be the wealthy rancher and the Astos players would be the hapless ranch hands doing the wealthy rancher’s dirty work. Joe Kelley would be the marshal sent to protect the townspeople.

    • The players are writing a new chapter in “the book.” If Rob Manfred wants to write a new chapter or stop it being written, step right up Rob. Put on a cup and a helmet and dig in.

  4. I put this squarely in the realm of play stupid games win stupid prizes. At the end of the day justice isn’t removed from the influence of market forces. If the punishment isn’t just given the evil, people will balance the deficit however they can. Is this wrong? Maybe? I can see arguments both ways. There are certainly some situations where vigilante justice is justified but governing bodies can’t endorse it without eroding their own authority (Battle of Athens anyone)? Individual players on the Astros should have been punished. They weren’t. The human social anitbodies see this injustice and move to correct it. I’m of half a mind that the Dodgers are doing the right thing. The players, objectively, got off too light and the Dodgers taking matters into their owns hands is a good reminder to the powers that be that the best way to avoid vigilante justice is to get the punishment right.

  5. I thought more on the market model of this and I imagine it works this way. For any given crime (and it need not literally be breaking a law) there is some ideal appropriate level of punishment. For any given punishment there is some amount of vigilante response, but that response must be above some critical mass threshold to be actionable. The vigilante response will be proportional to the severity of the crime and the further you stray below the ideal appropriate level of punishment the larger that proportion grows. Going above the ideal appropriate level will likely reduce the vigilante response up to some explosive threshold where the punishment becomes an injustice in and of itself and the social antibodies will sort it out however they can (storming the Bastille).

    In practical terms:
    – That means that severe crimes will usually get some kind of vigilante response even if the punishment is appropriate (for example how child molesters are treated in prison even if they get life)
    – Severe unpunished crimes are more or less guaranteed a vigilante response (Battle of Athens)
    – Leaning towards slightly too severe punishments might be the best way path to order (maybe that’s why American punishments tend to be much larger than European punishments?).

    So is vigilante activity ethical? Maybe, in some situations – at the very least, in those situations, it will be the lesser of two evils. Is it unethical for governing bodies to act in contrived ignorance of this dynamic? I’d say that is. Their job is to ethically produce order, and vigilantism has a weak but none the less casual relationship with appropriate punishment.

  6. Carlos Correa hits with perhaps the highest average exit velocity, among his many considerably hard-hitting Astros’ teammates.

    I want to see Correa squarely smack a fastball right back into the mouth of Joe Kelly.

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