Baseball Has A Cheating Problem That Is Old, Was Supposedly Addressed Decades Ago, And Is Strangling The Game. It Is Relevant To More Than Baseball (Part 1: Introduction)

Baseball sticky

Since about four other readers pay any attention to my baseball ethics posts, let me say right up front why this a mistake. Baseball’s current pitchers using foreign substances on the ball problem is, ethically, exactly the same as our nation’s election cheating scandal, or the illegal immigration crisis. It arises from the same dead-headed rationalizations, intellectual laziness, and self-serving deception. We can and should learn from it. But we won’t.

If you want to ignore the latest baseball ethics scandal as a niche problem unrelated to greater ethics principles, be my guest. You will be missing an important and still developing lesson.

Baseball’s hitting is way down this year, and pitching is more dominant than it has been since the mid-1960s. There is a reason: almost every pitcher is using some kind of sticky substance on the ball. This increases “spin rate,” which before computers and other technology was impossible to see, much less measure. The faster a pitcher can make a ball spin, the more it moves, curves and dives at higher speeds. Sticky substances allow a pitcher to do that. Using them is against the rules; it’s cheating. But for years now, the same kind of ethics-addled fools who allowed Barry Bonds and other cheats to use illegal steroids and wreck the game’s home run records as long as they lied about it have let pitchers illegally doctor the ball.

This week, the whole, completely avoidable ethics train wreck became an engine of destruction for the National Pastime.

Unfortunately, one has to understand the context to comprehend what is going on now, and that means looking backwards, in this case, to 2014. Here, with some edits, are two Ethics Alarms essays that provide the context. The first was titled “The Abysmal Quality of Ethical Reasoning in Baseball: A Depressing Case Study.” The second, Pineda-Pine Tar, Part II: Baseball Clarifies Its Bizarro Ethics Culture, appeared 13 days later. Yes, what is happening now was foretold by conditions that were evident seven years ago. The remaining parts of this series will bring you, and the train wreck, up to date.


What happened was this: During last night’s Red Sox-Yankee game in Yankee Stadium, the Boston broadcasting team of Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy noticed a glossy brown substance on New York starting pitcher Michael Pineda’s pitching hand. It was very obvious, especially once the NESN cameras started zooming in on it.   “There’s that substance, that absolutely looks like pine tar,” play-by-play man Don Orsillo said. “Yeah, that’s not legal,” color commentator and former player Jerry Remy replied.

Indeed it isn’t.  According to rule 8.02(a)(2), (4) and (5), the pitcher shall not expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove; apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball; [or]  deface the ball in any manner.

The Red Sox, who probably knew about the gunk on Pineda’s hand, didn’t complain to the umpires, and just went about their merry way, losing the game. Asked about the stuff on his hand, Pineda demonstrated the full range of body language indicating that he was lying his head off. “It was dirt,’ he said. Later, when the ick appeared to be gone,  Pineda explained, he had just sweated his hand clean. Right. Whatever was on his hand—beef gravy, crankcase oil, chocolate syrup…the majority of pundits think pine tar—it wasn’t “dirt.” Pineda’s manager, Joe Girardi, was brazenly evasive.

The Yankee pitcher was cheating. This isn’t a major scandal, but cheating is cheating: sports shouldn’t allow cheating of any kind, because if a sport allows some cheating, however minor, it will encourage cynical, unscrupulous and unethical individuals on the field, in the stands, and behind keyboard to excuse all other forms of cheating, from corked bats to performance enhancing drugs. Cheating is wrong. Cheating unfairly warps the results of games, and rewards dishonesty rather than skill. Cheating undermines the enjoyment of any game among serious fans who devote energy and passion to it. Any cheating is a form of rigging, a variety of lying.

And yet, this clear instance of cheating, caught on video, primarily sparked the sports commentariat, including most fans, to cite one rationalization and logical fallacy after another to justify doing nothing, and not just doing nothing, but accepting the form of cheating as “part of the game.” I’ve been reading columns and listening to the MLB channel on Sirius-XM and watch the MLB channel on Direct TV since this episode occurred. Here are the reactions:

  • This isn’t a new phenomenon.” Comment: Show me the statute of limitations on ongoing misconduct, please. Also not new: torture, rape, adultery, incest, bribery and embezzlement. So what? That makes these things all right? Excuses society from trying to reduce their occurrence?
  • Baseball shouldn’t pay attention to what broadcasters or viewers think they see during games.Comment: The issue is, why aren’t the participants on the field, and the umpires, aware of what the audience can clearly see? This implicates integrity and competence, as well as trust.
  • The Red Sox ignoring the problem settles the issue: all the teams do this, and nobody wants to open that Pandora’s box.” Comment: Huh? So we let cheaters decide when and if  cheating in going to be acceptable? If Red Sox players cheat, they should be exposed and sanctioned, as should the team. And if “all the teams do it,” then it is in the interest of baseball and the fans to make all the teams stop.
  • It’s not like the Red Sox knocked the cover off the ball after Pineda got rid of the pine tar.Comment: ARRRGH! Consequentialism at its worst. So cheating is OK as long as you can’t prove it made a difference. Terrible logic, terrible ethics, terrible policy—and one of the major arguments to excuse Barry Bonds’ epic PED cheating. 
  • Since Clay Buchholtz, the Boston pitcher, has also been accused of doctoring the ball in the past, it would be hypocritical for Boston to complain about another pitcher doing it.Comment: Well, it has never been proven that Buchholtz, who for some reason showers between innings and pitches with perpetually wet hair, was cheating, so the premise of this rationalization is speculative. Never mind that, however: the reasoning is corrupt to the core. Boston should want the other team’s pitcher to stop cheating, and if that brings scrutiny to its own cheaters, good.
  • Young fans, who appreciate free-form sports like Ultimate Fighting, don’t care about cheating and rules.” Comment: Then we need to get them on the program, before the culture’s corruption problem becomes epidemic. Our games reflect society’s values.
  • The problem wasn’t that Pineda was cheating, it was that he was so flagrant and shameless about it.Comment: Why shouldn’t he be flagrant and shameless, if this is the level of concern sports journalists and fans have about cheating in their sport?
  • This kind of thing is hard to catch, and it’s embarrassing if you complain and nothing is found.If wrongful conduct is hard to catch and prove, then it shouldn’t be regarded as wrongful to attempt to catch and prove it!


Back to 2021 now: Does that last item seem redolent of what we are seeing now regarding the possibility of election fraud and another manipulation in the 2020 Presidential election?

Here was my essay when the proverbial other shoe dropped almost two weeks later:


You shouldn’t have to appreciate, care about or even understand baseball to find illumination in its latest ethics controversy, which shows how cultures can go horribly wrong, precluding exactly the values that any functioning entity must embrace to remain viable and healthy.

A couple weeks ago, the sport embarrassed itself by making excuses and accepting lies regarding New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda being allowed to break the game’s rules against pitchers applying foreign substances (in this case, pine tar) on the baseball while pitching to the Boston Red Sox. I interpreted the post-incident consensus of the game and its pundits as “everybody does it, so let’s not make a big deal over a little infraction on a night when it was abnormally cold and hard to grip the ball.”  That’s unethical enough, but the truth, as revealed in Part II, is far worse.

Last night, fate had Pineda on the mound against the Red Sox again. Baseball’s ethics had already begun falling apart in chunks when Sox manager John Farrell, asked about whether he expected Pineda to cheat again (for that is what using pine tar on baseballs is—cheating. Official Rule 8.02 states: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” ) answered that hopefully, if he did, he would be more discrete about it. Huh?

But Pineda was not discrete; in fact, he could not have been more obvious, or ridiculously so. After a rough first inning in which he gave up two runs, Pineda emerged from the dugout with a large, brown, greasy gob of pine tar on his neck.

On TV. In nationally broadcast game. Against the same team that he was caught using pine tar against before. In that team’s home park.

In the Red Sox dugout, Manager Farrell and the team were laughing and rolling their eyes. Farrell finally shrugged, and walked out to complain to the home plate umpire, for it is an automatic ejection for a pitcher to be caught doctoring the ball. The umpire dutifully walked out to the mound—he had to have seen the offending gob before Farrell complained—and to add to the foolishness, checked Pineda’s glove, cap and jock strap before looking at the huge brown smear on his neck. Finally he did so, said, “That’s pine tar!” (in the previous game, Pineda told the press it was “dirt”) and threw him out of the game.

In subsequent interviews with Farrell and others, the explanation that emerged was this gibberish: “everybody” uses something to grip the ball better when it is cold (and often when it isn’t); hitters don’t mind because they don’t want to get hit. Pineda’s offense wasn’t that he used pine tar, but that, as Farrell suggested before the game, that he was “blatant” about it. That gave Farrell no choice, you see….even though his own pitchers also use foreign substances to grip the ball (in unequivocal violation of a baseball rule), and this sets his team up for “retaliation.”

I feel like I’m going crazy.

Everyone agrees that it’s acceptable  to break a rule that an umpire will throw you out of the game for breaking?

Breaking the rule secretly and discretely is fine; but breaking the rule so the cameras and the fans can see that you are breaking it is unforgivable?

Pineda’s offense wasn’t that he broke the rule, but that he was open and obvious about it?

THIS, in a game that supposedly extols and demands sportsmanship’? That word is defined as “an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors.”

Pineda II officially and beyond question defined Major League Baseball’s ethical culture as the following:

“Cheating is defined as getting caught breaking the rules. A player or manager who breaks the rules in such a way that it is obvious to fans, journalists and TV cameras is unethical, and must learn to be discrete in future dishonesty.”

I listened to former player and current analyst Doug Glanville this morning, and spit out a mouthful of coffee as he said, “Of course, this is a slippery slope.” Ya think? It is the icy Everest of slippery slopes, Doug; in fact, it not only is unethical, it precludes coherent ethical reasoning. It is Bizarro World ethics, completely backwards, like eating the dinner plates and throwing out the food.  If a practice is commonplace and accepted throughout the sport, why isn’t Pineda more ethical by being open about it? I am reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s rant about men who wear hairpieces, when he says that it is the implied insult that the thing fools anyonw tell that offends him. “They should have to keep the price tag on, hanging down in front!” he says.

Don’t fans realize that what players are really telling them is that it’s important to fool them, the fans, into believing that the rules mean anything in the game, other than technicalities to be skirted and broken–secretly and “discreetly,” of course? Michael Pineda respected the fans of the game enough to think, “OK, everyone’s breaking this rule, so I might as well let everyone know that I am too,” and he’s being called a cheater and an idiot.  John Farrell is saying, is he not, that cheating only counts if  someone isn’t sufficiently sneaky about it, and everyone is sagely nodding, as if this makes any ethical sense at all. Bizarro World.

Baseball isn’t even consistent in its application of this unethical ethics theory. Giants slugger Barry Bonds was violating the rules against steroids so blatantly and brazenly it would have been comic if it wasn’t so horrible. He morphed into a muscle-bound mutation of himself; he started hitting the ball harder and further at an age when every other player—every other player out of tens of thousands who played the game before him–start declining; his batting prowess exceeded previously recognized limits, and teams began walking him intentionally at a record rate. That’s the real slippery slope, you see. Once a culture starts making up ethics as it goes along, there really are no ethics, or rules or principles. Just expediency.

Once, at a legal ethics program, a lawyer came up to me and said, defiantly, “Legal ethics is whatever you can do to win for your client and not get disbarred.” I said, “I think you are in the wrong profession.”

I should have recommended baseball.

8 thoughts on “Baseball Has A Cheating Problem That Is Old, Was Supposedly Addressed Decades Ago, And Is Strangling The Game. It Is Relevant To More Than Baseball (Part 1: Introduction)

  1. “Young fans, who appreciate free-form sports like Ultimate Fighting, don’t care about cheating and rules.”

    I’d like to know who said such a foolish thing. MMA fights have plenty of rules, including banned moves, and there are many ways to cheat. Even e-sports, speed-running and video game tournaments, whose audiences skew younger, have tons of rules and major cheating scandals, with the cheaters usually being shamed and shunned by their communities.

    • I see no evidence that young fans object to cheating unless it hurts the party they are rooting for. Do you? I’ll concede that MMA was a poor example. If I hadn’t written that seven years ago, I’d retract it.

      • The computer gaming community is big on outing cheaters. Billy Mitchell, for example.

        Even more wild is the whole community that has sprung up around compettitive gaming, figuring out new ways to get high scores in games 30+ years old. A new technique for quickly moving pieces in Tetris was discovered just last year.

  2. This year, so far, the Houston Astros are leading the league in a number of parameters related to hitting and scoring. Are we to conclude that the Astros are still cheating?

    • No, we might conclude that they have some really good players.

      They had some really good players the year they won the World Series — they had a top notch team, and it is not any kind of a stretch to think that they could have won the World Series without cheating.


      With what they did, they not only broke the rules, but they cheated their own fans (such as me). We believe the Astros could have won using only their own native talent — but how can we ever be sure? That is a taint that will simply never go away. *sigh* By doing what they did, they cheated their own fans (not to mention themselves) out of the pride and awesome feelings that come with winning a world championship.

      That part is at least as bad as what they did to the sport itself. I am still a fan, but there is always that nagging doubt……

  3. It’s an interesting problem.

    “Everybody Does It” is in the unethical rationalizations list because 1) everyone doing something doesn’t make doing the thing ethical and 2) it’s almost never true. But if you have a situation where it is true, and we seem to have that here, because you’re seeing this issue across the entire league, then I don’t know what a person is supposed to do. Do you become that one ethical island in a sea of cheaters and relegate yourself to losing, or do you join in?

    In a league that is historically and obviously more results than ethics oriented, I don’t think the solution can reasonably be expected to come from the teams. MLB has to be clear: “We’re going to look at every ball pitched, if there are sticky substances applied to it there will be consequences, and this is going to start tomorrow.” With a problem this widespread, anything less is attempting to swat out a problem with all the efficiency of a shorting bug zapper.

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