This developing ethics story comes out of baseball, and if you skip the baseball ethics stories, this one shows why that is a mistake. The erstwhile National Pastime is certainly off to a flying start this season in ethics controversies, what with the game’s bone-headed decision to get involved in race-baiting politics seeded by Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams. This new controversy has the advantage of actually being about the game on the field. It also has a marvelous jumble of factors , real and hinted: history, tradition, real rules, unwritten ruled, rationalizations, hypocrisy, persecution, tarnished heroes, and maybe revenge.
Here we go…
Trevor Bauer is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers whose fame, reputation and salary ($34 million a year for three years) are out of proportion to his record, which stood at 75-64 as this season dawns. At 30, this is roughly the equivalent of the success achieved by such immortals as Chris Young, Ben McDonald, and Chuck Dobson, mediocrities all. But Bauer is 1) unusually articulate 2) a social media master, and 3) had his best two seasons, including winning a Cy Young Award in last year’s shortened, pseudo-season, just as he was nearing free agency. Many players and his primary team in his career, the Cleveland Indians, don’t like Bauer, and not just because opinionated players are never popular with management. He once knocked himself out a crucial post-season start by cutting a pitching hand finger playing with a drone (he loves drones). In 2019, after allowing seven runs, Bauer threw a baseball over the centerfield wall, after seeing his manager Terry Francona come out of the dugout to remove him from the game. Bauer apologized profusely, but it was the final straw, and the Indians traded him.
Bauer, among other opinions, has been among the most vocal critics (and one of the few player critics) of the Houston Astros in particular (see here), and cheating in baseball generally.
After the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, baseball cracked down on pitchers doctoring the ball with foreign substances or by marring the surface to make it do tricks. Nonetheless, that many pitchers continued to try to slip spit, or Vaseline, or slippery elm, or pine tar onto the ball has been assumed, indeed known, ever since. This year, as part of the game trying to cut down on strike-outs which have reached boring levels (baseball is more entertaining the more the ball is put in play), MLB announced that umpires would be checking the balls more carefully and regularly to ensure that the rule against doctoring the ball wasn’t being violated. Lo and Behold, the first pitcher to have his thrown baseballs collected for inspection based on suspicion of doctoring was…Trevor Bauer!
Part of the game’s new policy is examining Statcast spin-rate data to determine unusual upticks for individual pitchers. What does that mean? “Spin-rate,” which now van be measured via computer technology, determines how much a thrown ball moves in curves, sliders and other breaking balls, as well as fastballs. The quicker the spin-rate, the harder the ball is to hit. Bauer has tweeted and spoken about spin-rate, and how using stuff on the ball speeds it up. Coincidentally, while Bauer’s normal spin rate on his fastball was about 2,250 r.p.m. in 2018, which is the league average, his spin rate began rising by 300 r.p.m. is 2019, and rose still more last season. So did his effectiveness.
Bauer reacted sarcastically to the report on his Twitter account. He also noted that many baseballs were being collected from games across baseball, not only from him. Oooh, that’s an ethics red flag for me, as was his immediate reaction when baseball announced the new policy, saying that there would be no way to determine who doctored the balls.
Bauer’s manager, Dave Roberts, suspects that Bauer is being targeted, but if he’s cheating, so what? The “Hey, why are you picking on me? Why not him?” dodge is at the heart of several rationalizations on the list, including “Everybody Does It,” #1. The fact that Bauer’s big mouth made him a target is only relevant if he’s innocent. Maybe he is.
Baseball hates hypocrites. Rafael Palmeiro had a Hall of Fame career, but in a nationally televised Congressional hearing he grandstanded before the camera, decrying steroid use as a blight on the game, and shortly after tested positive for steroids. Barry Bonds barely hid the fact that he was juicing, and he’ll get into the Hall before Palmiero, who is regarded as a cheater and a phony. Bauer once accused the Houston Astros of encouraging the team’s pitchers to speed up their spin rate with foreign substances. He also he called for legalization of pitchers using foreign substances to help their spin rate.
So “what’s going on here?” One or more of the following:
1. Bauer is a Rafael Palmeiro-level hypocrite, and he is going to be a reviled pariah that the Dodgers will still have to pay 100 million dollars.
2. Bauer is being deliberately embarrassed by baseball for so vocally criticizing the sport itself in the wake of the Astros cheating scandal
3. Bauer is being set up for breaking ranks, as Palmiero, who swears he never used steroids, believes he was.
4. MLB is focusing on Bauer as a high-profile symbol to send the message that it is serious about punishing players who cheat. No players were disciplined in the Astros scandal, and the game was harshly criticized. Now it is telling the players that they won’t be so lucky next time.
Meanwhile, the reliably ethics-deaf baseball writers are claiming it is baseball that is being hypocritical, because pitchers have always used pine tar to get a “better grip” on the ball, and what’s the big deal?
Baseball writers love rationalizations, especially “Everybody Does it.”
My guess is that Bauer, whose words and conduct long ago marked him as a jerk, probably is an epic hypocrite, AND baseball targeted him. If so, the lesson will be that pitchers in glass houses shouldn’t throw baseballs, and that a pitcher who reasons, “I bet if I put myself in a glass house, nobody will suspect a thing” isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.
We shall see!