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.