Baseball Ethics

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Pitcher Armando Galarraga almost pitched a perfect game.  At the last moment a player got a hit and raced towards first base. The ball was hurled to the first baseman and it came down to one critical call by umpire Jim Joyce. Joyce judged that the runner was safe. Unfortunately, a review of the video showed that the runner was, in fact, out. Not surprisingly, Joyce has been savagely attacked in various blogs. Also unsurprisingly, some people have come to his defense.

While I find baseball to be really boring and was forced to endure years of Little League, I do find this situation interesting from an ethical standpoint.

One argument given against Joyce is that he should have decided a close call in favor of the pitcher, rather than the runner. One sensible reason for this is based on considering the consequences. In such a close call situation, a call in favor of the pitcher would yield an amazing achievement-the coveted perfect game. A call in favor of the runner would not provide such an achievement. As such, when the call is so very close it would seem to be right to let the tie go to the pitcher rather than to the runner.

What is, of course, rather critical here is the fact that the call is close.  That is, there are good grounds for going either way on the call.

However, the obvious reply to this is that the job of the umpire is not to judge based on which result will have the best consequences or be a “nice” or “generous” judgment. The duty of an umpire is, as the saying goes, to call it like he sees it. As such, each call must be considered in isolation, without such external factors coming into play. To do otherwise, to change judgment based on such factors, would be a failure of duty on the part of an umpire. Put into philosophical terms, an umpire must judge based on the rules rather than the consequences.

As such, Joyce acted correctly as an umpire. However, there is a rather serious matter to consider: the video showed that Joyce’s call was wrong. As such, the pitcher was unfairly denied his achievement. Or was he?

On one hand, the video shows that the call was mistaken. Oddly enough, the rules of MLB do not currently allow for a change in a call based on an instant reply. However, this situation shows that perhaps this is a good idea. After all, other sports use this and it hardly seems that it would sully the game. Rather, it would make the game more fair.

On the other hand, the game is based on a judgment by an umpire. Those are the rules and as such, that is how the game is to be played. Umpires will, of course, make errors. But, as long as the errors are honest mistakes, then that is all part of the game. Having umpires making calls in real time and not having a video review is part of the sport and to change this, it might be argued, would be to change the nature of the game.

My own view is that MLB should go to using such a review. After all, the technology is there and it would not seem to change the game in any negative way. Or would it? To be honest, I do not have a strong opinion on this aspect. However, I do have feelings about being “robbed.”

While I have never done anything as impressive as pitching a near perfect game, I do know what it was like to be denied an important accomplishment by a miscall. Years ago, I was racing a 10K on the track and set to run my fastest race ever. As you might imagine, 6.2 miles on a quarter mile track involves many laps and people have to carefully count them. In this case, the lap count was off and an official stopped the race early. I did not want to stop-I had been counting my laps. But, when the official calls it over, it is over. Even though it wasn’t. They had to sort out the results and this resulted in some bad feelings. After all, a lot can happen in a quarter mile. Also, since the race was not of the proper length the times did not count.

On the one hand, I was not very happy about this. After all, I had been “robbed.” On the other hand, I recognized that the official made an honest mistake without any malice. As such, I realized that although it was a bad situation, I had nothing against the official. Now, if there had been an attempt to shift blame or otherwise weasel out, then I would have been rather upset. But, an honest mistake is just that and the game must go on.

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  1. Talking Philosophy | Baseball Ethics | baseballcn - pingback on June 3, 2010 at 8:12 pm
  2. I do not think this is a question of ethics at all. The fact is he did pitch a perfect game and will not be given credit for it. There was no breach in ethics. It is just is a bad situation.

  3. Mets,

    I didn’t claim there was an ethics breach. But, you do raise a point worth considering: perhaps the folks who see this as a moral issue are mistaken (but, if so…why?).

  4. Aesthetic arrest! and what did we learn….that there are rules. that there are rules about the rules that there are, among us that have no idea of the importance of the rules in the first place. and that humans make mistakes…..but then, without the rules……no game.

  5. I am not so much concerned with the issue of the umpire making the right call on moral or ethical grounds.

    The umpire is put in a position to make a call to the best of his ability and his own judgement in a high pressure situation; without the benefit of hindsight or time to reflect. He is not in this position by his own assertion, he finds himslef there by a considered process.

    Why, then, do the general public question his call. Is it simply because it is not the call they would have made with the benefit of time and video evidence?

  6. Very interesting post and discussion. To me, your observations – acute as they are – are obvious, Mike. That is to say, I see the situation exactly as you do, and I am loathe to think that anyone could see it any other way.

    Yet I am accustomed to find myself surrounded by people who *do* in fact see similar situations in a very different light – and act accordingly! Your question as to why people treat situations like these as moral issues is central to me.

    It seems, to me, to be related to questions like: “Why is Gazetta dello Sport” so important to so many people?” Or “How can people (seemingly in all sincerity) bicker endlessly over which team is ‘the best’, at all?”

    It has always depressed me to find that (perhaps a majority of) people – consciously or unconsciously – misinterpret differences based on (socio-)psychologically based affections and values as amenable to moral or logical/rational discussion.

    I would think that there are two main reasons: (i) ignorance and (ii) group processes.

    Ignorance in this case is the inability to differentiate between desires and facts, and it has a clear correspondence in developmental psychology. It reflects an infantile (or childish) mind, rather than a developed, mature intellect. And it is, alas, the mindset of many sports fanatics (among others).

    Sociological or socio-psychological processes, on the other hand, may operate at a more conscious level (but often do not). It is so important and integral to many individual’s identity to be an “Inter” fan – as opposed to an “A.C. Milan” fan – that it engenders an active resistance to the separation between emotional and logical discourses – regardless of whether the individual is capable of performing such a separation. So, the “bickering” can be a (more or less conscious) “language game” played to maintain group cohesion; or it can be a (un- or semi-conscious) psychological mechanism for constructing and protecting personal and group identity.

  7. Perhaps the most glaring question is this:

    “How can close to a hundred per cent of the attacking team’s players and fans say (and clearly sincerely believe) that the ball has crossed the goal line – and that this is obvious! – while close to a hundred per cent of the defending team’s players and fans say (and clearly sincerely believe) that the ball has not crossed the goal line – and that this is obvious?”

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