The first bona fide ethics controversy of the 2014 baseball season has erupted, and it involves the team of my youth, the Boston Red Sox. It is not the controversy itself that is so noteworthy, for it is an old, old one: pitchers using foreign substances to doctor the balls so they dip, curve, and sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” What is noteworthy is the reaction to the incident by players and the sports media, which has me feeling that as an ethicist, I need to think about following another sport. The ethics reasoning, or lack of it, is truly depressing.
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, my comments in bold:
- This isn’t a new phenomenon. Show me the statute of limitations on ongoing misconduct, please. Also not new: torture, rape, adultery, incest, bribery and embezzlement. So what? That makes these things all right? Excuses society from trying to reduce their occurrence?
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