Tex Ritter’s much-covered recording about the soldier whose deck of cards reminded him of the Bible has a parallel for me in the relationship of baseball to ethics. Like cards, baseball is a pastime, a game, but if you pay attention, there are profound lessons in ethics to be gleaned from the history, characters, and events of the game. In my official bio that I use for speaking engagements, I suggest that intensely following the travails of the Boston Red Sox since I was 12 was a major factor in sparking my lifelong interest and fascination with ethics. And it is true.
I live in the Washington, D.C. area now (unfortunately), and the local team is the Montreal Expos in exile, the Washington Nationals. The Nats’ mission is to bring Washington its first MLB World Championship since Walter Johnson was pitching and Coolidge was President. So far this goal has been elusive. That 1924 World Series-winning team, with the best names any team has had ever (Muddy Ruel, Ossie Bluege, Goose Goslin, Joe Judge, Nemo Liebold, Firpo Marberry, Mule Shirley, Pinky Hargrave, Curly Ogden, and more) has faded into forgetfulness while two Washington Senators franchises fled (to become the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, respectively) after decades of failure. The Washington Nationals, not nick-named Senators on the theory that the name was cursed, have proven cursed themselves. Despite having won more games over the last five seasons than any National League team, and having won the National League Eastern Division three times, the team has never sniffed the World Series, having lost repeatedly in the first round of the play-offs.
This season the Nats were loaded from the start, and even after terrible injuries to two of their best players, they have the best offense in the league, the best hitter (Bryce Harper) and arguably the best starting pitcher (Max Scherzer). They are also in a lousy division where they don’t need to be great to win it without breaking a sweat.
But like the gorgeous woman with a wart on her nose, there is an obvious imperfection. The Nationals have no closer, that pitching specialist whose job is to get the last three outs (and sometimes more) to lock down victory in a close game. This is not a new development, by any means. After the team decided to let last season’s (excellent) closer to leave via free agency, fans and sportswriters wondered how and when the team would replace him. One by one all of the established closers available by trade and free agency were snapped up, and it became clear that the Nationals ownership’s position was, “Never mind. The team is good enough. Maybe we’ll get lucky and some pitcher will surprse us, but even if we don’t, this team is good enough to win anyway. And we can save ourselves a bunch of money.” Continue reading