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: