Baseball Ethics Batting Practice, Part 2: The Bad And The Ugly

[Part 1, “The Good,” is here.]

The Bad

If it weren’t that I was emulating the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, the title here would be, “The Terrible.”

This week, Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame-lock Clayton Kershaw was pitching a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins with just two innings and six outs remaining. There have only been 23 perfect games—no men on base at all, no hits, no runs, no walks, no errors— in baseball’s 150 year+ history. Kershaw has never pitched one, and at 34 he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He had only thrown 80 pitches, meaning that he was likely to finish a perfect game, if he succeeded at pitching one, with less than 110 pitches thrown, well under what is considered risky for starters. Yet Dodger manager Dave Roberts took Kershaw out of the game. He’s done this before with pitchers in the midst of no-hitters, usually when their pitch count was high, but this time there were no reasons, just excuses.

What’s going on here? It’s the corporate approach to baseball. Roberts used a utilitarian argument, saying that what mattered most was getting to the World Series, not any single game. In other words, the fans don’t count; even if the chances of our ace being hurt by pitching two more innings is remote, the decision has been made organizationally that protecting long-term investments like superstars with multi-year guaranteed contracts has a higher priority than the game itself.

Watching a pitcher try for a perfect game or even an ordinary no-hitter is any fan’s dream; not only is it pitch-to-pitch suspenseful, but if you witness one, you have been a part of history. Your ticket and program become collector’s items. Baseball’s priorities as demonstrated by this sickening episode are literally upside down. In recent years, it has eliminated two of the most exciting plays in the game, take-out slide at second base to break up a double play and the collisions at home plate, and all but eliminated the prominence of star starting pitchers by reducing their workloads drastically. It’s a professional sport where its athletes are all millionaires, but as Roberts’ decision proves, it is unwilling to take any risks to keep the game exciting and memorable.

Utilitarian trade-offs only are ethical if competing factors are assigned the right values.

The Ugly

Then there are the MLB teams that don’t even try to win or field a competitive product. The strategy is called tanking. After World Series title runs first by the perennial cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs and then the Houston Astros, tanking has become a popular way to rebuild. Instead of accepting mediocre play that holds little chance of pots-season glory, a tanking team will trade away high-priced veteran players for unproven prospects and, to be blunt, stink for season after season, with small payrolls and a series of 100-loss seasons. Such teams do not reduce the price of tickets or ballpark food, though what they are selling has lost much of its value. The practice alienates fans and enriches tanking owners. Players hate it, because in any season at least four or five teams have taken themselves out of the market for the best free agents.

The new, contentiously-negotiated agreement between the players and the teams was supposed to address tanking, which can only be effectively addressed by a mandatory minimum payroll rule. When ethics fail, law or rules have to step in. Baseball teams are supposed to serve their communities, but the contagion of elevating profit and single-goal success over integrity and concern for stake-holders has taken hold of baseball’s culture. Days after the owners ended the lock-out to allow the season to begin, two franchises with grand traditions of fielding exiting teams held fire sales, slashing their budgets and signaling that they were joining the tankers: the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds. Good job, everybody!

In Cincinnati, fans and sportswriters were vocal in expressing their anger, so last week the team president, Phil Castellini, told them to stuff it, saying in part,

Well, where are you going to go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? That’s the other thing — you want to have this debate? If you want to look at what would you do with this team to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists? It would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And so be careful what you ask for…I think we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have. We’re no more pleased with the results than the fans. I’m not sitting here saying anybody should be happy. I’m not polishing trophies in the office right now, and that’s what we’re here to do. 

His rant did not go over well.

Later the same day, after the team’s PR director had grabbed him by the throat and screamed, “What the hell’s’ the matter with you?” the Reds CEO issued a pro forma apology:

I apologize to Reds fans and regret the comments that I made earlier today,” he said. “We love this city, we love this team and we love our fans. I understand how our fans feel and I am sorry.

Right.

15 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics Batting Practice, Part 2: The Bad And The Ugly

  1. “There have only been 23 *perfect* games—no men on base at all, no hits, no runs, no walks, no errors— in baseball’s 150 year+ history.” Emphasis mine.

    So the expression ~~~> nothing is perfect, isn’t true after all. Maybe it is time to modify that expression.

  2. “There have only been 23 perfect games—no men on base at all, no hits, no runs, no walks, no errors— in baseball’s 150 year+ history.”

    Should have been 24, just ask Armando Galarraga.

      • Another scenario that comes to mind is when Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings and lost in 13 innings. I’m not arguing that he had a perfect game but what occurred to me when given the possibility of someone else pitching 9 perfect innings in a scoreless game. And, that now we have the ghost runners in extra innings; so, I suppose if the pitcher retired the first 3 batters and his team scored in the other half of the inning he’d still be credited with a perfect game???. Then there is the unlikely scenario that the ghost runner could steal 3rd and home and the pitcher could still retire the first three batters with his team scoring 2 runs in their half inning, etc.

        It will probably never happen though, the probability is just too low.

        • Well, baseball claims that the ghost runner is, again, only for these “special times”: 2020, the pandemic; 2021, the pandemic and players supposedly having less stamina after a shortened season, and this season, because of the short Spring Training. Most fans hate it. We’ll see.

          • The Texas Rangers broadcasters have dubbed them the ‘zombie’ runner, which I enjoy.

            So, if that zombie runner stole 3rd and home and the other team didn’t score in the other half inning — would we have a situation where a pitcher could pitch a perfect game and yet lose?

            Maybe it’s just me, but somehow that seems wrong. But, I guess that’s what you get when you use Little League rules in the big leagues….

  3. Sigh. I still think baseball died in 94. Whether Gwynn would have hit .400 or not, the greatness of the game was strangled to death by all involved. That should have played out for the sake of the game.

    I bought into the return of magic with the McGuire Sosa derby, only to have that soured by corked bats and steroids (though the latter was willful blindness on my part…).

    I’m back to not keeping up with baseball again the last couple years, not sure what it is, except that maybe I recognize the game isn’t primarily for the fans anymore.

  4. I have always advocated that with pro sport’s franchises the name and history should belong to the host city. If owners threaten to move then they will have to go through the process of rebranding and building a history in the new locale. Owners are the beneficiaries of local governments when they obtain new sports facilities.
    Any goodwill value that may be part of the valuation stems from the potential income from the existing fan base. Moving creates risk and moving when the tanking strategy is being employed elevates that risk so the value of goodwill in the new city is effectively zero.
    I generally don’t weigh in on sports issues because I stopped following sports when Bob Irsay’s move to Indianapolis proved that owners and players don’t give a crap about the fan’s financial and emotional investment in their team. It also proved that government’s are lousy negotiators.

  5. What is the goal of a baseball team? To be profitable. Winning a World Series can do just that for any of the 30 MLB teams out there, whether they are chasing their first title, or trying to add yet another banner to a lengthy list.

    Roberts had an obligation to the team as a whole, not just to Kershaw. Yeah, a perfecto by Kershaw would be a nice bit of history, but Kershaw already has a spot in history as the last pitcher to give up a post-season home run to another pitcher (Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff).

    The real goal is to hoist that championship trophy.

    Similarly, ownership also has to keep the team viable for the long haul. In the present market, some teams will have to trade stars they cannot afford to sign to long-term deals. Now, in some cases, signing a Corbin Burnes to a long-term extension can do that. But does anyone really think the Brewers can pay Hader, Woodruff, and Burnes enough to keep them, and still field a viable team? I’m a big Brewers fan, and I know that’s impossible, barring Elon Musk buying the team, and using mega-salaries as a tax write-off. So, yeah, they will trade good player to do the ethical thing: Take a short-term hit to benefit the team (and its owners) in the long run.

    Unless, of course, they can get the players to take an “all for one and one for all” approach, and take less money. At which point, the MLBPA would probably have some issues…

    • Baseball has a pass from the US Supreme Court specifically because it isn’t considered just a business. ALL the teams are profitable. The communities pay for their stadiums. The World Series is primarily a benefit for the elites; normal fans can’t get tickets or afford them. Teams also have an obligation to the sport. Devalue the entertainment and the fan experience, and nobody will care about the World Series. This was terrible for the sport—and while this isn’t the reason I think so, virtually everyone has condemned Roberts for the move.

    • The goal of a baseball team is to first entertain their fans, win a championship if possible. Fans coming to the stadium actually matter more to baseball teams than, say, the NFL if I understand the economics correctly. Baseball is more of a regional and local game and that’s true of the team revenue as well.

      Now the owners — there the goal is probably not to lose a lot of money. If they really wanted to make a bunch of money, they wouldn’t buy a baseball team. I have to believe that billionaires can get a much better ROI investing in things other than baseball teams. They own the teams for their own reasons — prestige, ego, the thrill of being a fan, etc.

      As Jack has mentioned, baseball is more than just a for profit business (although wasn’t it a baseball player who said “When I call it a game, they (owners) call it a business. When I call it a business, they say it’s just a game”?). There has always been an obligation to the game itself with all its quirks and unwritten rules and stuff.

      On the other hand, these days who knows? I blame the hitters for not adapting to the shift and thereby getting rid of it. Darned home run freaks!

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