Baseball Ethics Batting Practice, Part 1: The Historic and The Good

The Historic

Not only is April 15, 2022, Opening Day for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, it is also MLB’s Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the date  baseball’s apartheid was ended forever when Jack Roosevelt Robinson (1919-1972) took the field for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the most important of baseball’s many influences on the national culture and society at large, by far. As for Robinson, a remarkable man and exactly the athlete for the difficult role assigned to him, he was among the first admittees to the Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of Honor, with this post from 2012.

In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number, 42, and has dedicated all games on April 15 to Robinson. On this date all players wear 42 instead of their usual number, making for mass confusion for fans who don’t know the individual players on sight. It will be especially strange in Fenway Park today, for Opening Day and Jackie Robinson Day have never coincided before. The tradition individual introductions in the pre-game ceremonies, as the whole Red Sox team lines up along the first base foul line—“Playing left field, #8, Carl Yastrzemski!”—will be weird, as every player will be wearing 42.

There have been a lot of posts here about or relating to Jackie Robinson, which you will find at the Jackie Robinson tag.

The Good (and also historic!)

Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to take the field as a coach in a Major League baseball game this week. She coached first base after one of the San Francisco Giants coaches was ejected in a game against the San Diego Padres. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York now has her helmet, which will soon go on display.  Continue reading

Ethics Heroes: Philadelphia Phillies Fans

Now there’s something I thought I’d never write.

The baseball fans in Philadelphia have long had the reputation of being among the most brutal and unforgiving in all of baseball, which is quite an accomplishment. I am, as you know if you visit here often, a born-‘n’-bred Boston Red Sox fan. In the Fifties, fans literally ran a butter-fingered shortstop, Don Buddin, out of town by booing him so hard that he reportedly was moved to tears (and there’s no crying in baseball). After the 2004 World Champion Sox’s spiritual leader and centerfield star Johnny Damon defied his own professed love for the city and the team by signing with the Yankees. He was viciously jeered at Fenway Park for the rest of his career. Still, Philly fans are supposedly tougher.

Thus Philly third baseman Alec Bohm had every reason to dread his next home game after a personal and professional disaster two nights ago. He made three errors in the first three innings Monday in a 5-4 win over the Mets, and after the last, was caught on camera screaming, “I fucking hate this place!” to nobody in particular. Expressing similar sentiments in the Sixties caused the great Dick Allen to be so abused by Philly fans he once wrote “BOO!” in the dirt to jeer back at them. Allen had to be traded too.

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“When Ethics Fails, The Law Steps In”…Or In This Case, Technology

That’s part of a feature from a 1920’s magazine about how catchers and pitchers communicate regarding pitch selection in baseball. (I had Earl Smith on one of my favorite Strat-O-Matic teams, the 1922 Giants!) Trying to steal signs so a batter would know what pitch was coming—a huge advantage—was long part of the game and considered legal and fair, as long as the efforts came on the field. Once a team started using  spies in the stands and secret relay systems not involving players, the practice became unethical.

In 2017, as exhaustively discussed here in these posts, the Houston Astros used a technology-assisted system of sign stealing to win their division, the American League play-offs, and the World Series. It was one of the three most significant scandals in the history of the sport, trailing only the Black Sox World Series fixing plot in 1919 and the steroid scandal on the Nineties. Baseball, as a sport that values continuity and nostalgia, hates to change, but as with its acceptance of replay challenges to over-turn bad calls by umpires, the sport cannot pretend that technology hasn’t rendered some aspects of the game obsolete. There are too many ways to use technology to steal signs now.

Major League Baseball, following the Ethics Alarms motto that when ethics fails, the law steps in (and usually makes a mess of things), tightened its rules and penalties for illegal sign-stealing, but wisely recognized that rules wouldn’t be enough. Baseball managers, coaches and player are not known for well-functioning ethics alarms, and the financial benefits of cheating can be substantial: several Astros players had spectacular years at the plate in 2017 far beyond what they achieved before or since. All of them are many millions richer for it.

And thus it is that Major League Baseball announced yesterday that teams this season will begin using electronic devices that transmit signals from catchers to pitchers. Continue reading

Baseball Hall Of Fame Ethics: This 2016 Post Just Became Ripe And Moot At The Same Time

The sportswriters who decide who is admitted to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame voted in David Ortiz yesterday. The Red Sox and Boston icon (Carl Yastrzemski once said that while Ted Williams was the greatest Boston baseball player, Ortiz was the most important, and he was right) sailed into the Hall in his first year of eligibility, an honor few players have ever been accorded.

It was no surprise. In addition to having unquestionable statistical qualifications, “Big Papi” is also personally popular. That matters, a lot; the writers this year rejected Boston pitching ace Curt Schilling who also has impeccable Hall qualifications, because they don’t like him. Schilling is opinionated, combative, religious, and worst of all, politically conservative. Can’t have that. On the plus side, the writers also rejected steroid cheats Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, as well as almost certain steroid cheats Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield.

In 2016, anticipating and dreading yesterday’s news, I wrote a post titled, “The Wrenching Problem Of David Ortiz, The Human Slippery Slope.”

Here it is again.

Ethics conflicts force us to choose when multiple ethical principles and values point to diametrically opposed resolutions.  Often, a solution can be found where the unethical aspects of the resolution can be mitigated, but not this one. It is a tale of an ethics conflict without a satisfactory resolution.

I didn’t want to write this post. I considered waiting five years to write it, when the issue will be unavoidable and a decision mandatory. Today, however, is the day on which all of Boston, New England, and most of baseball will be honoring Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who will be playing his finale regular season game after a 20 years career.  His 2016 season is quite possibly the best year any professional baseball player has had as his final one; it is definitely the best season any batter has had at the age of 40 or more. Ortiz is an icon and a hero in Boston, for good reason. Ortiz was instrumental in breaking his team’s infamous 86-year long “curse” that saw it come close to winning the World Series again and again, only to fail in various dramatic or humiliating ways. He was a leader and an offensive centerpiece of three World Champion teams in 2004, 2007, and 2013. Most notably, his record as a clutch hitter, both in the regular season and the post season is unmatched. You can bring yourself up to speed on Ortiz’s career and his importance to the Red Sox, which means his importance to the city and its culture, for nowhere in America takes baseball as seriously as Beantown, here.

That’s only half the story for Ortiz. Much of his impact on the team, the town and the game has come from his remarkable personality, a unique mixture of intensity, charm, intelligence, generosity, pride and charisma. After the 2013 terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, which shook the city as much as any event since the Boston Massacre, Ortiz made himself the symbol of Boston’s anger and defiance with an emotional speech at Fenway Park. Then he put an exclamation point on his defiance by leading the Red Sox, a last place team the year before, to another World Series title. Continue reading

Baseball Integrity Flash! Automated Ball and Strike Calls Are On The Fast Track

If they ever play Major League Baseball again—the sport is in the middle of a lock-out over the distribution of billions of dollars between owners and players, among other contested issues—it looks like games being ruined by bad pitch calls will soon be history.

 MLB officials announced that computer umpires that use an automated system for determining ball and strike calls will now be employed in Triple-A baseball for the 2022 season. I had predicted that robo-umpires at home plate would arrive in five years, considering how resistant baseball is to change, but this puts the Automated Ball and Strike (ABS) system, which was used with success last season in some of the lower minor leagues,  just one level below the major leagues. Absent unforseen problems, this could mean that the days of batters being called out on strikes with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th by pitches six inches off home plate could end after the 2022 season.

This is a grand slam for integrity. Once games were universally televised and broadcasts could show exactly where a pitch crossed the plate (or didn’t), umpires’ mistakes, in some games with the worst umpires nearing 20% of all pitches, became intolerable. Replay systems already allow reversals of the most egregious calls on the bases, making far fewer games determined by “the human factor,” also known as “lousy umpiring.”

When there was no way to fix bad calls, it was fair to call human error “part of the game.” Now it’s just an unnecessary and annoying part of the game. There was no excuse for letting it continue.

I’m thrilled.

P.M. Ethics Dispatches, 1/11/2022

We have to keep baseball ethics alive even if baseball itself is in a state of suspension: the owner and players are, for the first time in decades, arguing about how to divide up their billions, everything from roster size to minimum salaries are on the table, and as of now, the two sides aren’t even talking with the season just a couple of months away. One of the issues to be settled is whether the National League will finally capitulate and adopt the designated hitter rule, which was accepted in the American League on this date in 1973, a day which many traditionalist fans then and now regard as an unforgivable scar on the integrity of the game. Baseball has always been celebrated for its equity and balance: as it was envisioned, every player on the field had to both hit and play defense. The DH, which is a batter who never uses a glove, also allowed the pitcher to be a defense-only specialist, never picking up a bat which, advocates of the new rule argued, was a result much to be wished, since the vast majority of hurlers are only slightly better at hitting the ball than your fat old uncle Curt who played semi-pro ball in his twenties. All these decades years later, the National League and its fans have stubbornly maintained that the DH was a vile, utilitarian gimmick spurred by non-ethical considerations, mainly greed. When the rule was adopted, American League attendance lagged behind the NL, which also was winning most of the All Star games, in part because that league had embraced black stars far more rapidly than “the junior league.” The DH, the theory went, would make games more exciting, with more offense, while eliminating all the .168 batters in the ninth spot in every line-up.

I had a letter published in Sports Illustrated in 1973 explaining why I opposed the DH as a Boston Red Sox fan. Since then, I have grudgingly come to accept the benefits of the rule: it gave the Sox David Ortiz, allowed Carl Yastrzemski to play a few more years, and let American League fans see such all-time greats as Hank Aaron at the plate after they could no longer play the field. It was a breach of the game’s integrity, but it worked.

1. At least that’s fixed. The Supreme Court issued a corrected transcript of the oral arguments in the Biden vaccine mandate case, and it now accurately records Justice Gorsuch as saying he believes the seasonal flu kills “hundreds…thousands of people every year.” The original version wrongly quoted him as saying hundreds of thousands, which allowed those desperately trying to defend the outrageously wrong assertions by Justice Sotomayor regarding the Wuhan virus to point to Gorsuch and claim, “See? Conservatives are just as bad!” Prime among these was the steadily deteriorating Elie Mystal at “The Nation,” who, typically for him, refused to accept the correction. Sotomayor is one of the all-time worst Supreme Court justices, though she will be valuable as a constant reminder of the perils of affirmative action. Her jurisprudence makes the much maligned Clarence Thomas look like Louis Brandeis by comparison. Continue reading

A “Bias Makes You Stupid” Case Study: Gil Hodges And The Hall Of Fame

Hodges

Let’s get the easy part out of the way right off the bat: Gil Hodges, elected this week to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, was not a Hall of Fame caliber player, and it was as a player that he was selected. He was also not qualified to be voted into the Hall as a manager, though there is no question that Hodge’s single famous achievement as a manager, the upset World Series Championship attained by the 1969 Mets, played a large part in burnishing his reputation.

And yet the group of old ex-players and others that make up what used to be called the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee put Hodges, who died suddenly 50 years ago at the age of 48, voted to place a plaque honoring him among those of Lou Gehrig, George Sisler, Harmon Killebrew, Jeff Bagwell and other far superior first basemen in the game’s long history. (To be fair, Hodges isn’t the least qualified HOF member at that position; that distinction goes to Tony Perez.) The reason for Hodges’ ascension was bias, the positive variety for a change, and lots of it.

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Ethics Tricks And Treats, 10/31/2021: Kendri Traps Himself, A Good Man Dies, And More “Let’s Go Brandon!” Follies [Corrected]

Trick or treat

Jerry Remy died over the weekend. Unless you’re a Red Sox fan, you may not have heard of Remy, but he was a Boston icon by the time he died at the age of 68. I was trying to come up with an ethics theme to justify writing a post about him: I can’t, in fairness. He was just a normal guy who got to live his dream, some would say: a Boston kid (Fall River, to be accurate) who grew up, like me, loving the home town team with all of its drama and disappointments, and was talented enough to play for it, after being traded by the Angels to the Sox in 1976. Then Remy became part of Sox lore, the frustrating parts, as his team battled the New York Yankees in their most repulsive incarnation for primacy in the late ’70s, always falling short. In the most famous and tragic of those near misses, Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent’s cheap home run became the decisive blow in a single play-off tie-breaker in 1978, making Dent a a Yankee immortal. Only moral luck prevented the hero of that historic game from being Remy. In the bottom of the 9th with the Red Sox trailing by one run, Remy hit a blast to right field that Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella lost in the sun. It landed in front of him and bounced to his left: Piniella threw his glove up in blind desperation, and the ball, somehow, landed in it. Lou later told Remy that he never saw it until it was in his grip. Had that ball gotten by him, Rick Burleson would have scored the tying run from first, and Remy would have had an easy triple. He might even have had an inside-the-park homer, winning the game, the division championship, and immortality for getting the biggest hit in Red Sox history.

Remy’s knees gave out eventually, like many second basemen before base runners were forbidden from breaking up potential double-plays with hard slides. He eventually became the Sox cable broadcast color man for 34 years, until he left the booth in August to battle lung cancer. Remy was warm, informative, candid, modest and funny, all while describing himself as a mediocre hitter who felt honored to play on a team with stars like Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski. He also kept doing his job, despite more than his share of tragedy and pain. His oldest son was a drug addict, and murdered his girlfriend in a steroid rage. He is serving life without parole in prison; Jerry and his wife took on shared custody of their infant granddaughter. Remy’s battle with lung cancer began in 2008; he kept fighting off multiple recurrences with operations, radiation and chemo, and it kept coming back. He battled depression as well, and spoke and wrote about the illness, inspiring and comforting many who shared that often crippling condition.

Jerry’s last appearance on a baseball field was, appropriately, when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch on October 4 for another one game play-off with the Yankees, who had ended the season tied with Boston, just as in 1978. I knew he was through: he looked pale and weak, but Remy beamed at the huge ovation he received from the Fenway Park crowd as he lobbed the ball to his frequent NESN broadcast partner and fellow member of that tragic 1978 team, Dennis Eckersley. This time, the Red Sox beat the Yankees.

Jerry Remy made a lot of people happy during his life, was respected and loved by those who knew him and worked with him, and kept fighting his way through what chaos threw at him, becoming a better, kinder, nicer human being in the process. That’s a pretty good legacy, better than many greater baseball players. I know he made me happy lots of times, and did so while he must have been suffering.

Good for you, Jerry. Good job at life. I’ll miss you, and so will everyone else. The more good, hard working, courageous human beings we have around, the better it is for everyone.

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Ethics Dunce: Secretary Of Transportation (And Proud Dad!) Pete Buttigieg [Updated]

pete-buttigieg-chasten-

When I wrote in September about Boston Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo abusing his paternal leave privileges to abandon his team at a crucial time in its battle to make 2021 the play-offs, I expected a lot of heated criticism (I didn’t, though I did get a provocative counter argument that became a Comment of the Day.) I wrote in part,

The Boston Red Sox recently completed a disastrous collapse that dropped them from first place in the American League East to third. As they went into battle with the two teams now ahead of them, their hottest hitter, Alex Verdugo, vanished on a four game paternity leave. Shortly thereafter, another hot hitter, Hunter Renfroe, was lost for five days on bereavement leave after his father died of cancer. T’was not always thus: in the days before the Players’ Union bargained to add such mid-season leave as a new benefit, if a player’s wife was in labor or a loved one died, it was at the team’s discretion whether he would be permitted to leave the team. OK, I can appreciate the need for the benefit, but both players abused the right. These guys both earn millions of dollars a year. They both routinely talk about the team’s quest to win the World Series, yet when their team really needed them, they absented themselves for many days because they could. That’s a betrayal of the team, team mates, and fans.

By the force of pure moral luck, Verdugo’s indulgence did no damage in the end: the Sox made the play-offs and have prospered (so far, though they lost last night), in great part because of Verdugo’s clutch hitting upon his return. That doesn’t change my ethics verdict on his dereliction of duty however (which the player reminds me of every time he gets a hit now, because Verdugo makes a baby-rocking gesture to his team mates in the dugout.) Compared to the Biden administration’s Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, however, Alex Verdugo is a model of dedication and responsibility.

Buttigieg and his husband Chasten adopted infant twins named Penelope and Joseph in August. The little bundles of joy arrived as product shortages and the supply chain problems had made themselves evident, a developing crisis that is worsening, and one that threatens the economy as well as businesses, jobs and the welfare of millions of Americans. It is also a situation squarely within the jurisdiction of the Transportation Department. Not since the airplane-executed terror attacks of September 11, 2001 has that agency had such a crucial task before it, nor have more Americans needed the performance of DOT to be diligent, timely, and effective.

Never mind! The Secretary of Transportation decided that this was still an appropriate time to take advantage of the Biden administration’s “family friendly” policies, and took two full months of paid leave while the supply chain problems multiplied and expanded. He wasn’t even online with his department during most of that time.

I apologize, Alex! Compared to Paternal Pete, you’re a self-sacrificing hero. I wish you were Secretary of Transportation.

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Ray Fosse And A Lesson In How Ethics Evolve

People who don’t read the baseball-related posts here miss the point: sports in general and baseball in particular create ethical problems that clarify ethics in all fields. The story of former catcher and broadcaster Ray Fosse is a prime example.

Fosse, was an All-Star catcher, a multiple Gold Glove-winner, a two-time World Series champ, and a long-time broadcaster who died yesterday, of cancer at the age of 74. His claim on immortality is the famous play above, which ended the 1970 All-Star Game, back when baseball’s “Mid-Season Classic” was more than just a chummy parade of stars playing baseball with the intensity of an office picnic softball game.

In 1970, Fosse was in his first full big league season with the Cleveland Indians, and signaled that he could be one of the all-time greats at his position. He won a Gold Glove, received some MVP votes, and had a 23-game hitting streak from early June into early July (That’s a lot. especially for a catcher). Fosse made the All-Star team that year and had his rendezvous with destiny when, in the bottom of 12th inning of a tense, tie game, the Reds’ Pete Rose, famous for his hustle and trying to score the winning run from second base, was beaten by the throw home but smashed into Fosse at home plate, causing the catcher to drop the ball and winning the game for the National league. It was a thrilling play, one of the most memorable in the nearly 90 years history of the exhibition, but Rose separated and fractured Fosse’s shoulder. Fosse continued to play for the rest of the 1970 season but because doctors didn’t discover the injuries until the following season his body never healed properly. Fosse would suffer lingering effects from play for the rest of his life. He also was never as good a player again.

Rose was unapologetic, and most conceded that his tactic was a clean play. Fosse was blocking the plate, and the only way Rose could score was to reach home while making him drop the ball. The controversy was over whether it was ethical for Rose to risk injuring another player in an exhibition game. Had Rose epitomized a sporting ideal by playing hard to win—after all, he could have been hurt too—or had he engaged in poor sportsmanship?

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