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.



“I Was Born This Way”: Soul Mates, Gay Genes, and Plato

Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael (1509)

It has been said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Could we same the same about the homosexuality and same-sex marriage debate? You may ask, “What in the world does Plato have to do with homosexuality?” The answer may surprise you.

In his work Symposium, Plato explores an alternative explanation for the origin of mankind and gender. Rather than the normal assessment that mankind was created with two genders—male and female—Plato suggests a three-gender origin (male-male, female-female, and male-female) that explains both heterosexual and homosexual orientations. He writes:

In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach.

Plato describes these humans as “terrible” in might and strength. These humans were two-sided (two faces, two sets of legs and arms, etc). After they waged a war against the gods, Zeus decided to humble mankind by cutting them in half. This effectively reduced mankind to the two genders we know today, but according to Plato, mankind longed for his original state. He states:

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male. . . . And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another.

Here in Plato’s Symposium, we see the origin of the idea of “soul-mates” which forms the basis for much of the argument promoting homosexuality. For example, proponents of same-sex marriage argue that it is unjust to deny marriage to individuals who love each other. They claim these homosexual relationships are as intimate as heterosexual relationships and should be legalized. However, such an argument is based not on science or tradition, but instead it is based on Plato’s concept of soul-mates. According to Plato, when two halves meet and recognize the unexplainable love they have for one another, they have no choice but to spend their whole lives together. Based on this logic, proponents of same-sex marriage claim it is against nature to deny marriage to such soul-mates.

No one today would agree with Plato’s “science” claiming that Zeus cut mankind in half and that we search the earth trying to find our soul-mate. However, this is basically the substance of the “I was born this way” argument. Proponents of homosexuality make a claim based on self-identified sexual preference and argue for rights of matrimony for individuals incapable of biologically reproducing themselves. They are merely two soul-mates professing undying love for one another.

When this argument moves into the scientific realm, many supporters of homosexuality propose that genetics are at work—they were born this way. However, this is illogical because it makes an emotional claim as the basis for a scientific declaration. Jumping from “I love this person” to “I was born this way” or “God made me this way” is a leap from emotions to science. However, science is never based on emotions.

Ultimately, this argument demonstrates the dichotomy between the Christian argument and the pagan argument regarding sexuality. In fact, those proponents of homosexuality who attempt to reinterpret Paul’s statements in Romans 1:26–27 regarding the “natural function” of men and women must also deny Plato’s influence on Roman culture regarding this issue. Paul was almost certainly aware of the discussion of sexual orientation from the ancient world’s most influential philosopher.

It is important to interact with the arguments of the homosexual agenda on many different levels. Not all will be swayed by a biblical argument. For some, philosophical discussions similar to the one above may prove more convincing. In either case, we need to be faithful to proclaim the truth and address this pressing issue in our culture.


Plato, Symposium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Internet Classics Archive,

*I would like to thank a wonderful friend and mentor for his guidance on this particular argument. Although he remains unnamed, his influence and words are present in this article. Thanks.