Baseball and Ethics: The Natural Way

160px-ron_washington_and_joe_west_28347455274329This is the third installment in my Baseball and Ethics series. Previous installments are available at the following links: Part 1, Part 2.

We are a full week into the season, and baseball has taken over my life. Each evening I watch my favorite team—the Texas Rangers—slug it out with their opponents. Surprisingly, they have taken both of their opening series from teams who were expected to dominate them—the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. I relish the fact that the Rangers are in second place in the American League West while the dis-Astros, odds-on favorites to win the division (and the World Series), find themselves in fourth place. Yes, the season is early, and the game will straighten out the standings as it always does. But for now, I will enjoy the early season returns.

Several years ago, the Texas Rangers had one of the most colorful managers in the Majors. His name was Ron Washington. “Wash,” as he was known around these parts, is a master of the infield, elevating the play of young infielders to All-Star levels. As a manager, Wash was known for his exuberance in the dugout and his head-scratching explanations for the way baseball is played. One of his most endearing phrases that he rolled out to describe the everyday oddities of the game is “That’s the way baseball go.” When asked what that phrase means, Washington described it this way:

It means that the game never changes. There are certain things in baseball that will always happen and if you’ve seen it one time, you will see it again. Always remember that.[1]

Washington’s homespun logic relates to the idea that baseball plays itself out naturally. Even though you think what has just happened is unusual, you have to remember that it is part of the game. You can play the game a thousand times before something unusual happens. But when it does, you have to remember that the unusual is part of the usual. It’s a natural part of the game. “That’s the way baseball go” inspired many people to roll with the punches and see life through a different lens. Washington’s memorable phrase even inspired an update to Merle Haggard’s Grammy Award-winning hit, “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

Speaking of the natural part of the game, today’s ethical theory under consideration is natural law. Natural law can be a confusing theory, just like some of the calls made by umpire Joe West. Steve Wilkens offers a helpful explanation of the theory as he writes, “Natural, in this case, refers to how things ought to be, not how they are. When something functions the way it was designed to work, it functions naturally. . . . The ‘law’ part of natural law ethics tells us that there is consistency in the way the world ought to work.”[2]

le_triomphe_de_saint-thomas_d27aquinThomas Aquinas is the Great Bambino of natural law theory—both in influence and girth. Aquinas was perhaps the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and one of the two or three greatest theologians of all time. In fact, one could make the case that he was the greatest mind of his day. Aquinas used natural law theory to explain many aspects of the universe from morality to everyday relationships. Specifically, Aquinas believed that we could discern moral truth embedded in the natural law through reason. He states, “It is that all those things to which a man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance.”[3]

From Aquinas’ perspective, our reason is sufficient to determine what we ought to do and who we ought to be because God created us in a certain way. Aquinas does not believe that nature is the ultimate source of our morals because morality is rooted in God. However, God has written his moral law into creation, and we can discover it there.

The epitome of natural law from Aquinas’ viewpoint is to become like God and be united with him. He recognizes that such will not happen in this life due to sin, but he longs for the “beatific vision” of union with Christ in eternity. This is the purpose of natural law—to point us to our Creator. That is the summum bonum (the greatest good). It’s like a walk-off grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

Circling back to baseball, I see the natural law argument applying most directly to the infamous Designated Hitter (DH) debate. After you give your eyes a chance to roll back into place, let me tease this out. The anti-DH folks make the case that the game is supposed to be played by the nine guys on the field. To have a guy come off the bench only to hit for the pitcher is a violation of the purity of baseball. It’s only natural for the pitcher to be required to hit. If he isn’t any good, that’s the fault of the player, not the game.

On the other side of the debate, the pro-DH proponents (also known as fans of the American League) argue that the most natural thing to do is to allow pitchers to pitch and hitters to hit. Who wants a guy up at the plate who doesn’t know which end of the bat to hold? Bring in the DH to make sense of the different elements of the game.

Both sides appeal to natural law to make their case. Of course they can’t both be right, and that shows one of the weaknesses of natural law. Both sides employ reason to make a rational case for their side. Then we are left with the struggle to figure out who is right. This is why the DH debate will never be solved. Both sides have an element of reason on their side. If only the Angelic Doctor were still alive to navigate this debate for us. Despite the fact that he has been enjoying the beatific vision for more than 7 centuries, we might be able to glean a clue from his own life about where Aquinas would stand on the DH debate. He had many nicknames, just like some of the greatest baseball players in history. His most famous one is the “Dumb Ox” because of his size. He was a notoriously large man. If he were alive today and playing baseball, maybe we would call him “Big Papi.” Case closed.

Aquinas-Ortiz

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Evan Grant, “Ron Washington: OK with viral use of ‘That’s the way baseball go,’” Sportsday, The Dallas Morning News, October 26, 2010.

[2] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 178-179.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1981), I-II.94.2.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s