Baseball Hall Of Fame Ethics Bulletin

The results of the voting for the Major league Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown are in. The Baseball Writers Association of America elected Braves third-base great  Chipper Jones, slugger Jim Thome , relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman and Montreal Expo legend Vladimir Guerrero, excellent ad deserving choices all.

Joe Morgan is happy tonight. The writers did not elect Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa or Gary Sheffield, steroid cheats all. Nor did any of them come particularly close to the 75% of ballots cast (a voter can select up to ten) necessary for enshrinement.

Good.

Hall of Fame Ethics: The Jeff Bagwell Dilemma

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have been turning in their ballots for the Hall of Fame, their collective totals eventually determining which retired major league baseball stars will have plaques in Cooperstown. If you follow baseball closely, you are aware of the big debates this year: Is Tim Raines worthy? Will Bert Blyleven finally make it? Has Alan Trammel been unfairly neglected? What about Jack Morris and Roberto Alomar? If you don’t follow baseball, you couldn’t care less, and I pity you. One controversy this year, however, should be of interest to non-fans as well as fans, because it involves the proper application of the ethical principles of fairness and equity in an environment of doubt. It is the Jeff Bagwell dilemma. Continue reading

Thomas Boswell’s Outrageous Ethical Breach

In the first installment of Ken Burns’ latest addendum to his epic documentary “Baseball”, there is a considerable discussion of baseball’s steroid problem, and its effect on the game, its image, and integrity.  Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell is one of those interviewed, and caused quite a few PBS watchers, including me, to drop their jaws when he volunteered this:

“There was another player now in the Hall of Fame who literally stood with me and mixed something and I said ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘it’s a Jose Canseco milkshake.’ [ Note: Star outfielder Jose Canseco was widely believed to be a steroid user from early in his career, and he finally admitted it after retiring.] And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than ever hit any other year. So it wasn’t just Canseco, and so one of the reasons that I thought that it was an important subject was that it was spreading. It was already spreading by 1988.”

Boswell, who knew exactly what the player meant by “Jose Canseco milkshake,” never reported the apparent use of steroids—illegal in 1988, as it is now— to the team, Major League Baseball, or the public. Continue reading

Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.”  This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Posthas found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?” Continue reading

Corked Bats and “No Harm, No Foul”

From lawyer/baseball blogger Craig Calcattera we learn that Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount may have used a corked bat. Corking, in which cork is surreptitiously inserted into a hole drilled down the length of a baseball bat, is banned by the rules of baseball: it supposedly allows the bat to be swung faster and propel a ball farther and harder because of the properties of the cork. Get caught with a corked bat, and a major league player gets thrown out of the game, suspended and fined. Worse, he acquires the reputation of being a cheater. Those who are certain that former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa used steroids are bolstered in their belief by the fact that he was once caught using a corked bat.

Yet there are strong indications that the superiority of corked bats is imaginary. When TV’s excellent “Mythbusters” tested the matter, their tests rendered that myth as “busted.” So Robin Yount’s  3,142  major league hits were not aided in any way by the cork in his bat. Should we care that he used one, if he indeed did?

Yes. We should care that he was cheating. Using a corked bat violates the rules, and the fact that this cheating is not as effective as a player  thinks it is, or effective at all, is absolutely irrelevant to an assessment of his character, integrity and sportsmanship. When the Delta House students in the comedy “Animal House” steal what they think are the final exam answers and use them on the test, they are still cheating, even though it turns out that their cheat-sheet had the wrong answers.  A runner who cheats but loses the race anyway is still a cheater; so is a corked bat-user who never manages to hit the ball.

“No harm, no foul”  is just another rationalization to make it easier for some to let unethical conduct go unrecognized and unpunished. The foul is the harm, or part of it. In cheating situations, there are two issues: was there cheating, and what were the consequences of it. The cheater is responsible for the results of his cheating, but often has less than complete control over them.  An ineffective cheater is still just as unethical as an effective one.

Many have trouble grasping this. Even some professions have trouble grasping this: for example, the ethics rules governing lawyers generally only prohibit completed violations.  An attorney trying to introduce falsified evidence in trial doesn’t count as cheating, in the construction of the Rules, if the attempt fails.  A lawyer who tries to deceive his or her client with a slyly misleading statement may not be violating the ethics rules if the client isn’t misled. Admittedly, this weakness in the legal ethics rules has a lot to do with the logistics of enforcement, but it is still an embodiment of “no harm, no foul.” The unsuccessful attempt to break the rules would probably support a complaint that the lawyer exhibited conduct calling  his character into question, but I can’t locate a case of  a lawyer whose bar  disciplined him solely for unsuccessfully attempting to break a rule.

When, if ever, baseball decides to permit corked bats, then using them will be perfectly fine, if probably pointless. For now, however, the anti-corking rule still serves a useful purpose. It helps identify who the cheaters are. In cheating, as in more honorable pursuits, there is no honor in being inept.