Monday, August 25, 2008

Is It Unethical to Steal an Idea for a Post?

This post was prompted by the recent polls hosted by The Hardball Times and Tango Tiger, and to “rate” a number of actual situations from baseball history on the standard of ethicality (Dictionary.com claims this is a word; however, my spellchecker doesn't like it). The endeavor was based on a class project at Carleton College.

Recognizing that some of the comparisons are apples and oranges to some degree, I approached the situations with a hierarchy something like this, from most grievous to least:

1. Game fixing

2. Gambling that could raise questions about the integrity of a contest, but does not rise to the level of fixing a game (this would include Pete Rose betting on the Reds to win, for instance)

3. Violent acts against others (Juan Marichal hitting John Roseboro over the head with a bat is what I have in mind here)

4. Cheating by means not available to the other team (this would include the shenanigans like watering down the basepaths, using electronic sign stealing, etc.--the home team generally has a distinct advantage in performing these acts)

5. Laying down for the opponent (Denny McLain throwing a meatball to Mickey Mantle, the Browns allowing Nap Lajoie to win the batting title, etc.) or intentionally playing poorly without a financial interest in doing so (if Manny was not trying in his final days with the Red Sox, it would go here)

6. Cheating by means available to the other team (spitballs, corked bats, etc.)

I did not include anything that does not directly relate to the game on the field. For example, one of the scenarios presented was that of segregation. Baseball obviously held a very unethical stance towards black players for much of its existence, and besides the obvious discriminatory aspects, it injured the game itself by not allowing some of the most talented players to compete. However, once you are sitting in the ballpark circa 1920 watching the Giants play the Braves, the color barrier does not distort the competition between the two teams of specific players in the way that a fixed game or a pitcher throwing a spitball would (*).

Another scenario that was offered was the indictment of Barry Bonds. I see this as the most unethical of all of the choices (other than murder), because I find the state attempting to take away a man’s liberty unjustly more repulsive than a private business refusing to allow a class of people to pursue a livelihood. However, I did not rank it either, as I assume that most people see Bonds, not the state, as the unethical actor. Furthermore, the issue at stake really has nothing to do with baseball. Bonds may have been a target because of his status as one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, but anyone accused of similar actions could be, in theory, a target as well.

I suppose that I should explain why the list is ordered in that way. I looked at it from a baseball perspective rather than a general one. In the big scheme, assaulting people comes up worse in my book than defrauding them, although individual cases may vary. However, from the perspective of a baseball consumer, there is nothing that is more troublesome to me than the possibility that the competition is not honest, and thus game fixing is the worst act possible.

Despite the fact that the various tricks that can be employed by groundskeepers seem to generally be considered innocuous, I personally find them to be worse than other forms of cheating like throwing spitballs and corking bats. In the latter cases, both teams have an equal opportunity to attempt to cheat should they so desire. In the former, only the home team is capable of engaging in it. One could argue, I suppose, that over the long haul of a season, each team has equal opportunity, since each team will host half of their games. Even so, cheating in each individual game does not excuse it from all parties. 1919 wouldn’t have been any better had the Reds been alternating throwing games with the White Sox.

All of that being said, please don’t get the impression that I believe that watering down the basepaths and similar tricks have a major impact, or that I am particularly morally outraged by them. Outside of gambling and outright assault, the rest of the list of things I don’t approve of are things that I would file under “make for amusing anecdotes”.

It seems to me that people’s general attitude towards, say, the spitball is that of amusement. Gaylord Perry can write a book titled “Me and the Spitter”, and everybody chuckles. Books are filled with jokes about how you couldn’t shake his hand because it would slip out of your grip.

And that is how I view the behaviors from #4 on the list on down: worthy of mild scorn, but by no means condemnation.

Here are various “transgressions” that some people may consider unethical but which I have no/very little problem with:

* use of PEDs

* using deception to draw a call from an umpire (phantom tag, pretending to be hit by a pitch, etc.)

* using deception to mislead the opponent (infielders pretending a throw is coming, ARod yelling “Ha!”, etc.)

* sign stealing by normal method of observation without outside help

* intentionally breaking the rules of the game (As an example, a fielder intentionally obstructs a runner, knowing that what he is doing is illegal)

* acts that could be considered violent which commonly occur in the game as part of the game (throwing at hitters, sliding hard into a base, etc.)

Some of those things are against the rules, but they fall under the category of “rules that I don’t think should exist”, and so I am not personally bothered by any of them at any level deeper than a belief that rules should be obeyed.

Of course, PEDs are the big issue of the day. I could write a whole screed on this (and trust me, it would be a screed), but let me try to summarize my feelings in a list format:

1) I do not believe that laws define morality, so the fact that a given substance may be banned by the government does not in any way compel me to oppose its use by baseball players.

2) I believe that people have allowed the word “steroids” to become so dirty that any substance can be slapped with that label and have its use condemned (yes, I realize that there is an actual medicinal definition of what is or is not a steroid, but I’m using the term as it is used in baseball talk--haphazardly). The self-righteousness of organizations like the IOC on “doping” has further poisoned the well.


I think that attempts to draw a bold line between the use of particular substances and the ingestion of other substances are misguided. I believe that adults should be free to make choices about what to put into their own bodies.

3) While I fully support MLB’s right to set a drug policy and ban particular substances, this does not in any way require me to attach moral outrage to those who violate the policy. The penalties for those violations are spelled out. However, those penalties do not include stripping of records in the amateur sports style of pretending that games never happened that so many people seem to want to apply to baseball records.

(Yes, I recognize that there is a difference between wanting to take a jaundiced look at records and wanting to toss them out of the books entirely. However, since my view on the questions of “greatness” are firmly grounded in the player’s win contribution in his own time and place, the two positions are tantamount with respect to discussions of whether, say, Roger Clemens is the best pitcher of the second half of the twentieth century.)

Of course, supporting MLB’s right to set a drug policy does not mean that I have to endorse the particular one they choose.

Since I have used the project of The Hardball Times and Tango Tiger as fodder for a mail-it-in post, I figure that I should at least have the courtesy to suggest that you take a look at Tango’s latest edition of the Fans' Scouting Report. However, I assume that I don’t have any regular readers who do not also read The Book Blog (and if you don’t, what is wrong with you?)

(*) Did you catch this? The spitball was still legal in 1920.

1 comment:

  1. Great, thoughtful post. I disagree about leaving out Bonds (it's just a clear #6 to me, and I have no problem with teams not hiring him if they choose).

    I'd reverse 4 and 5, since the "unavailable to the other team" is available for that team's home games, after all. It's "unfair" in the context of a single game, but not over the course of a season.

    The word "shenanigans" is perfect in your #4. I think those acts are more the fun of baseball than anything unethical. "Unfair" home field advantage is a great baseball tradition, right up there with stealing signs, cheating out of the on-deck circle, or finding and using tipped pitches.

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