A Baseball Ethics Quiz: Moral Luck And The Deflected Ball


I was surprised to find how often I have written about the Steve Bartman incident (shown above) here. For those of you who missed it (and if you are not a baseball fan, couldn’t care less) the episode is rife with ethics lessons.

Bartman was the hapless young Chicago Cubs fan in 2003 who unintentionally interfered with a foul ball that might have been catchable by Cubs outfielder Moises Alou in the decisive game of 2003 National League Championship Series. Bartman’s mistake (it didn’t help that he was wearing earphones and watching the ball rather than the action on the field) began a chain of random events that ended in a complete collapse by Chicago in that very same half-inning, sending the Miami Marlins and not the Cubs, who had seemed comfortably ahead, to the World Series.

Bartman issued a sincere and pitiful apology but it didn’t help. He was widely vilified by Chicago fans, who at that point had not seen a pennant-winning team in their lifetimes. Sportswriters joined in, and he was literally run out of town. Bartman’s name then became part of Cubs and baseball lore, one more chapter in the sad saga had been called “the Billy Goat Curse,” the uncanny inability of the Chicago National League team to win it all. The Cubs finally broke the imaginary curse in 2016, and in a show of kindness and remorse, privately awarded Bartman  an official Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Championship ring.

That was nice, but Bartman’s life had already been, if not ruined, seriously degraded by the incident. I thought about poor Steve last night, when a foul ball nearing Fenway Park’s “Green Monster” left field wall wafted its way down the foul line. As Sox outfielder Danny Santana tracked it, so did several fans in the seats that look over the grandstand onto the field. Their eyes were on the ball, and as it moved way from foul territory into fair–maybe: in Fenway Park at that point, it is only a matter of a few feet’s difference—one fan lunged for the ball, deflecting it away from Santana’s glove.

Santana pointed at the fan, not so much accusingly as to call for an umpire review. If the ball was over the field when the fan touched it and prevented him from making a catch, it would be an out by virtue of the fan interference rule. If the ball was over the stands, the fans had a right to try to catch it.

The game was in the fifth inning of a 0-0 tie, and Boston is desperately trying to hold on to the last play-off slot in the American League, with three other teams in close pursuit. It is not all unlikely that a single game could decide whether the Red Sox make the post-season or not—they won the World Series in 2004 as a Wild Card team, after all—and Red Sox fans are at least as fanatical as Cubs fans. It looked like the Bartman mess all over again.

Indeed, the video made it pretty clear that the fan had interfered. The guy didn’t help things by laughing, demonstrating how he tried to catch the ball, and looking pleased with himself. Meanwhile, the umpires gathered for a videotape review, as a crew in New York looked at multiple angles of the play on video monitors. At issue: Had the game umpires been correct in not calling interference? This option wasn’t available in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox didn’t wait for a ruling. They ejected the fan from the game, ushering him out with a security team. The public address announcer always warns fans not to interfere with balls in play, and that ejection, fines and even prosecution may follow if they do. Interestingly, the Sox didn’t care what the umpires ultimately ruled. The team decided that the fan interfered, so out he went.

The umpires, however, disagreed. They ruled that there was no interference. The Red Sox TV announcers opined that the Sox had been over-ruled by “the law,” meaning the umpires. They implied that the fan should have been pardoned and given back his seat. They even suggested that he would be allowed back. He wasn’t.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day asks,

Should he have been pardoned and reseated?

My answer is no. The Red Sox own Fenway Park and have the right to eject any fan for reasons they deem sufficient. The umpires’ decision  regarded whether he had interfered sufficiently to stop Santana from catching the ball. The Red Sox management have an interest in discouraging interference with balls in play regardless of whether they happen to affect the game or not. Fans who quickly jump out of their seats onto the field to pick up a foul ball have always been ejected, for example.

Moreover, that the fan’s interference ended up irrelevant was pure moral luck. The Tampa Bay Rays batter who hit the foul struck out on the next pitch. The Red Sox won the game in dramatic fashion: this fan was as lucky as Steve Bartman was unlucky. If the Cubs had won in 2003 the way the Red Sox did last night—a two-out, two-run homer to turn a 1-0 looming loss into a 2-1 lead, and an astounding outfield throw to nail a Rays runner at third base for the last out in the ninth—Bartman might be mayor of Chicago now.

It’s also important to remember that the umpires only reverse a play on review if it is certain from the video that the original call from the field was wrong. I think the call was wrong, but it was very close.

11 thoughts on “A Baseball Ethics Quiz: Moral Luck And The Deflected Ball

  1. I agree with you, he should not have been “pardoned and reseated.” It will only encourage more interference. Even the delay caused by such incidents can upset the rhythm of the game unnecessarily. Let the players play the game and the spectators spectate. In my younger days I was a big minor league (Chattanooga Lookouts) fan, and such conduct by a fan at Engel Stadium would have been unheard of, but I’m sure would have been dealt with firmly had it occurred.

  2. I’m sure the terms and conditions printed on the back of the ticket allow removal for any reason deemed sufficient, so, this was probably good enough. Shouldn’t have tried too eagerly to catch the ball. I wouldn’t even try, since Bartman got his life destroyed as a result of this and there was a couple at a Yankees-Rangers game who caught a ball, but never saw that a nearby toddler was also reaching for it, and then started to bawl his eyes out, so they got a lot of shit from the announcers and then more garbage online. A souvenir ball just isn’t worth it. BTW, if you catch a ball fair and square, are you obligated to give it away to the nearest kid, or no? The only thing I ever caught at any event was a rose from a bouquet thrown by a singer (she was just going to discard the bouquet when she got back to the hotel anyway, so she threw three of the flowers into the audience). I’d have offered it to my lady friend if I was there with one, but that’s about it.

  3. I find it hard to believe being mayor of Chicago would be an improvement over Bartman’s current life, no matter how miserable it has been. Who’d want to be presiding over that shooting gallery?

  4. It is a fact that if a ball is out of the reach of the fielder, there will not be a catch.
    It is a fact that a ball which has passed over the wall into the stands is free game for the fans.
    It is a fact that the Red Sox suck.
    The first fact is irrelevant in the ruling that there was no interference.
    The second fact is relevant to the ruling. But, there would not have been a catch in any case.
    The third fact applies to the Sox’ unethical decision to punish an innocent fan, and it is just one more piece of evidence (as if it were needed) that the third fact is indeed a fact.

    • Except that the ball was NOT out of reach, any more than any fly ball: it was balling toward the fielder’s glove.
      Except that passing over the wall is irrelevant it the ball then curves back over the wall over the field, which it did.

      The Red Sox have certainly sucked since July 5. They made the right call in the case of that fan, however.

  5. I would agree with you without further comment, but that is boring, so I will add this:

    It’s a stupid ball of little consequence!

    Yes, it is fun to catch a foul ball (I almost have, see below), but you run the risk of draconian (and even unfair) repercussions if you even come close to the line.

    I have had a couple opportunities to catch a ball and those events still annoy me.

    Once, when I was 12 or 13, I was right behind home plate and the pop-up was coming right toward me. My friend, who was next to me and a few inches taller moved into my space, went for it with his glove and knocked it 3 rows back.

    Of course, I would have caught it.

    Then, a couple years ago, I was down the right field line, ready to pull off my hat to snag a foul ball (not the best plan, but a working one). So, we get a foul ball coming right to me. I pull off my hat, snag the ball. My partner (business, not romantic) lunges for the ball, knocking into me, it flips out of my cap and, after bobbling it a few times, my partner catches it. Of course, we are all excited for this stupid ball, but I am kind of annoyed by fate.

    Then, along comes a kid, 7 or 8, I would guess. He came over and wanted to see the ball. He was so excited to see the ball that we let him keep it. Because it was a stupid foul ball. Just the sort of thing an 8 year old would treasure after going to a baseball game.


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