Baseball and Ethics: Being the Best

187px-mike_trout_2018This is the fourth inning in my Baseball and Ethics series. Previous innings are available at the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Who’s the GOAT? Who is the greatest of all time in baseball? At this point, you might as well call out to the stadium popcorn hawker, fork over $7 (don’t forget to tip), and watch the fireworks as people fight over who is the best player. This fight might even be better than that time Nolan Ryan pummeled Robin Ventura.

Surely the question of defining who is the baseball GOAT is worthy of consideration. Some of the names that must be included are Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. From a more contemporary perspective, names such as Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Barry Bonds* enter the conversation. To throw in some pitchers, we need to think about Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.

Why do people like to argue over who is the greatest of all time? First, baseball admittedly has some down time, and we need something to do while watching a game. This is why every square inch of the stadium video screens is covered in statistical information. I never knew how much useless baseball trivia I could store in my brain until I started attending live MLB games regularly. I even used that useless trivia to be the only 2-time winner of the Rangers’ ToppsQ Trivia stadium game last season, including winning the inaugural contest.

Second, people argue over the baseball GOAT because people like to argue. It’s a simple fact. We need something to argue about and we will find almost anything that fits the bill. If you don’t believe me, just look to our elected officials in Washington.

Third, people argue over the greatest because we aren’t entirely certain what makes someone the greatest. Baseball—both past and present—is full of spectacular athletes who have excelled at levels far beyond normal human limits. I laugh when I hear people say they could play the game better than a certain player on the field. The reality is that if they actually could, they would be on the field. Even guys like Bartolo Colon, who looked like he should have been eating his own bucket of popcorn in the stands, are able to perform on the field in ways that the average human cannot.

So that leaves us with the question of what qualities make a player the greatest. Honestly, we can’t really quantify them even though some guy in a sabermetrics lab with sets of data like ERA, WHIP, WAR, BA, OBP, OPS will tell us that he can. At the end of the day, the greatest players simply embody greatness. They are the best.

Looking at the GOAT question from an ethics perspective, we are led to consider virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is a theory that focuses on what it means to be good rather than to do good. Certainly a person who is good will do good, but that is not the focus of this theory. Virtue ethics points us to character traits that embody goodness. As Steve Wilkens writes, “Character ethicists are more concerned with virtue than with virtues. The Greek term areté, usually translated as ‘virtue,’ means something like ‘excellence.’ While we may be able to isolate particular areas of intellectual and moral excellence in a person, the ideal is that they reside in individuals as a package.”[1]

183px-sanzio_01_plato_aristotleDebates about the GOAT don’t just happen in sports; we have a similar debate in ethics. When it comes to virtue ethics, there are significant players who battle for the title of greatest virtue ethicist. The two titans are Plato and Aristotle. While we might consider the GOAT in sports to be a once-in-a-generation player, Plato and Aristotle were alive at the same time. Admittedly, Aristotle was Plato’s student, but in the realm of virtue ethics, it is likely that the student surpassed the teacher.

Plato identified four cardinal virtues—temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. Aristotle defined a way to identify these virtues in contrast to their corresponding vices. We call Aristotle’s approach the Golden Mean. In essence, Aristotle taught that the virtue was found in the middle ground between two extremes, which are vices. For example, courage is the virtue between cowardice and foolhardiness. For Plato and Aristotle, the best person is the one who embodies these virtues. We can call him the ultimate 4-tool player.

This Golden Mean set the stage for other later thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, to build on this system. In fact, borrowing from the work of Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas developed a 7-tool virtue player. In addition to the four cardinal virtues, Aquinas identified the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. In keeping with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these is love.

Back to baseball, virtue ethics is probably best illustrated by the rare 5-tool player—speed, power, hitting for average, fielding, and arm strength. There are few players in the history of the game that can be called 5-tool players. In fact, even the best players may be downgraded in one category to question whether or not they truly fit. In my lifetime, the two players who perhaps most clearly reflect these tools are Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout.

Griffey had it all. He was elite at the plate and in the outfield. He was a 13-time All-Star in his 22-year career. He won 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Sluggers. He has a career 83.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement).[2] No one who watched “The Kid” play doubted he was the best all-around player of his day.

Trout is the contemporary version of Griffey. He is also a centerfielder with elite speed and fielding ability. He is one of the most feared batters today. If there is a knock against Trout, it is his arm strength, but opposing teams still don’t test him often. Trout has a career WAR of 66.1, but he is still adding to that number. Currently in his eighth full season, Trout has amassed 7 All-Star appearances, Rookie of the Year (2012), 6 Silver Sluggers, and has finished first or second in league MVP voting six times.[3]

Griffey and Trout are just good. The stats demonstrate the fact that they can do it all. But watching them play brings further understanding to just how good they actually are. It’s like virtue ethics. We can talk about what it means to be good, but when we see it in person, we know what it looks like.

An asterisk was added to Barry Bonds’* name when listed among the all-time greats because his name should always have an asterisk.

Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 130-131.

[2] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/griffke02.shtml.

[3] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/troutmi01.shtml.

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.

Baseball and Ethics: The Rule Follower

320px-trevor_bauer_283414824615329This is the second installment in my Baseball and Ethics series. Part 1 is available here.

The baseball season will likely present us with countless controversies about blown calls, rule changes, cheating, and performance-enhancing drugs. But before we jump into the coming controversies of the new season that starts this week, I want to revisit a couple past controversies and apply them to the theory of ethics called deontological ethics.

Rules are at the heart of America’s pastime. There are many times over the course of a season that I see a play happen and wonder which rule applies. Some of the most misunderstood baseball rules include the infield fly, interference by a runner or batter, obstruction, and the balk. I even wonder sometimes whether umpires fully understand the rules.

One of the strangest plays where almost no one on the field understood the applicable rule came in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Divisional Series between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin hit the hand of the Rangers’ batter Shin Soo Choo as he was throwing the ball back to the pitcher. The ball rolled down the third base line while baserunner Rougned Odor raced home to score. It took nearly 12 minutes to sort out the rule with the umpires, both managers, a video review, and an official protest by the Blue Jays. The rule that applied in this situation is 6.03(a)(3).[1] Watch the video.

 

 

When we talk about rules and ethical theory, the perennial champion is deontological ethics. This theory might as well be the Yankees, and its most famous proponent—Immanuel Kant—is Babe Ruth. Kant’s deontological system of ethics speaks to rule-followers everywhere. Rules, duties, and obligations are virtually synonymous with this theory just like bubble gum and sunflower seeds are with baseball.

Kant’s system centers around what he calls the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a command that has no exceptions. It is absolute in its application.[2] While there are three main variations of the imperative, I want to focus on the first. Kant describes the first version of the categorical imperative this way:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

192px-immanuel_kant_28portrait29
Immanuel Kant

This is what Kant means. The only rules that should be implemented are those that we would want to be universal. For example, you may want a rule that allows you to lie when the circumstances would benefit you. But in order to implement that rule, you must make it universal as well, giving everyone else the right to lie to benefit themselves. Thus, chaos could ensue and many people could be harmed by the rule. Therefore, such a rule is not in keeping with the categorical imperative. By contrast, making a rule that requires truth-telling would fit the categorical imperative. While there may be times that telling the truth is difficult, it maintains order in society as a universal rule. From a baseball perspective, the categorical imperative is like the basic rules of baseball that extend from Little League to Major League. They are the essence of the game.

When taken to its logical end, Kantian deontology would not have a long list of universal rules, but those that exist would be absolute duties. Everyone is bound by those duties in deontology, and to violate a duty would damage the stability of society. Think of it as having nine players in the field, running the bases in a counter-clockwise direction, and needing three outs to move to the next half of the inning.

How exactly does deontology connect with baseball? Besides the fact that baseball has tons of rules that function as a list of duties that must be performed, I think a recent controversy best illustrates the categorical imperative. In May of last season, Trevor Bauer, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, made headlines by accusing several pitchers for the Houston Astros of using a foreign substance to increase the spin rate of their pitches.

 

Before getting lost in the right field corner on this one, I need to make a couple things clear. First, I carry a great disdain for the dis-Astros. I’m a Texas Rangers fan, so I am inclined to believe everything that Bauer says and more about the team from south Texas. Second, spin rate is a complicated subject. But to put it simply, the higher the spin rate on a pitch, the more movement it will have, and the harder it is to hit. Basically, Bauer was accusing the Astros pitchers of using pine tar to create higher spin rates and improve their pitching performance. Part of this controversy also stems from the fact that Bauer was prohibited from using a non-sticky medical grade glue to cover the stitches on his finger in a playoff game the year before. Bauer wanted the MLB to enforce a consistent universal rule.

And here we have the connection to Kantian deontology. Bauer (who has a pretty cool Twitter handle by the way—@BauerOutage) was making a case for a categorical imperative. He wanted a maxim that would be universally applied across the game. The Indians pitcher might not be baseball’s next great philosopher and ethicist, but he was certainly invoking the ideas of Hall of Famer Immanuel Kant to make his point.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] http://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/8/0/268272080/2018_Official_Baseball_Rules.pdf.

[2] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 117.

Baseball and Ethics: The Utilitarian Player

247px-ben_zobrist_in_2017_28cropped29

The most wonderful time of the year is almost upon us. No, it’s not Christmas. The Major League Baseball season starts in less than two weeks. For the next six months I will spend most of my evenings watching all or part of a baseball game. It’s the national pastime. It is what life is supposed to be like.

This spring I want to engage in something a little different. Over dinner last night a friend inspired me to think about my academic discipline of ethics in terms of baseball players and ideas. I teach ethics for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I am specifically teaching a seminar right now that deals with ethical theory. I am always looking for a new way to illustrate these theories so students can better understand them. This time around, I’ll try it with baseball. So here is the beginning of my series on Baseball and Ethics.

jeremy_bentham_by_henry_william_pickersgill_detail
Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism is perhaps the most commonly employed ethical system around us. You could call it the ultimate utility player. Here is utilitarianism in a nutshell (roasted peanuts, of course, since we’re going with a baseball theme). Utilitarianism bases the morality of an action or set of actions on the principle of utility—the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham, the starting pitcher of utilitarianism, states, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.”[1] Bentham goes on to offer further definition of utility as “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness.”[2] After Bentham pitched a number of exceptional innings for his ethical theory, John Stuart Mill came into the game in relief of the starter and posted good numbers with his classic pitch, Utilitarianism, first published between 1861 and 1863.

In essence, utilitarianism requires that the person making a moral choice participate in a form of calculus to determine the results of any action and then quantify the consequences on a scale of utility. The action that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people is the most moral choice. Think of this moral math equation as a form of moral sabermetrics.[3] Once we know how one choice stacks up statistically against the other, we can make an informed decision and anticipate a certain set of results.

So how does utilitarianism connect to baseball? I like to think of utilitarianism as the ultimate utility player. This is the player that can maximize good for the greatest number on the field. He may not be a slugger or a Gold Glove winner, but he makes things happen for the team, and every team wants a guy just like him. Let me give a couple of examples. Ben Zobrist is currently just that guy. He’s listed as the top second baseman for the Cubs right now, but he’s played second base, short stop, and various outfield positions. He’s won two World Series championships (2015 with the Royals and 2016 with the Cubs), and he won the World Series MVP in 2016. He’s even a switch hitter. You just figure something good is going to happen when Zobrist is in the game.

800px-joseoquendocards2013Another example from my childhood is José Oquendo. He played most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1988, he played all nine positions on the field.[4] Oquendo played 12 seasons in the majors and then went on to serve as a coach in the Cardinals system for another 21 years. Despite his lifetime .256 batting average, he continued to play for the Cardinals. You don’t stay in the big leagues for 12 years if you can’t play. His versatility and ability to make good things happen earned him the nickname “Secret Weapon” from his manager Whitey Herzog.

Great utility players like Zobrist and Oquendo stay in demand because they bring good results for the team. They are not usually superstars, and they don’t play to pad their personal stats. They generate the greatest good for the entire team. They are the ultimate utilitarians.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

[1] Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, in The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://sabr.org/sabermetrics

[4] https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Jos%C3%A9_Oquendo