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, Bonding, and the Beltway

It’s no secret that I love going to baseball games. Since 2011, I’ve attended over 100 Major League games in 5 different ballparks and seen 26 of the 30 MLB teams (the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, and Phillies just don’t make it to Texas enough). Baseball can often serve as a metaphor for life, and it can be a place to bring all sorts of people together. When I go to a game, I am regularly surrounded by people who are different from me, but we are united by the love of the game. For three hours, our differences are set aside (unless the Yankees are in town), and we find joy in watching the American pastime.

Today’s print edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the role of baseball to bridge the political divide in Washington, D.C. The Washington Nationals are hosting this week’s All-Star Game festivities, and the team provides an interesting outlet for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to come together in unity. Here are a few interesting excerpts:

Each spring, conservative columnist George Will hosts a large, convivial party at his house to mark the launch of another season for the local Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals.

In this year of exceptional divisiveness in Washington, it turns out his gathering provided one of the capital’s rare moments of bipartisan comity. “I think our preseason party is one of the few places you will see Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi socializing,” says Mr. Will.

If you watch the news, McConnell and Pelosi are sworn enemies working towards each other’s destruction. But for a couple hours, they can socialize cordially around baseball.

Here’s another good story from the article:

Amid the capital’s tensions, who can you find at Nationals Park in Southeast Washington? “Who haven’t I seen?” replies Tom Davis, a former Virginian congressman and Nationals Park regular.

He recalls a recent game when, sitting in his usual seats down the first-base line, a foul ball came his way. He was lucky enough to grab it—at which point another fan sitting just behind him tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out that a youngster nearby had been scrambling for the same ball. “Tom, give him the ball,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat. The Republican, Mr. Davis, promptly complied.

George Will even notes that baseball is the right sport for democracy:

In recent years, the Nationals’ bipartisan fan base could unite around success. The Nats have the second-best record in baseball over the last six years, and they won the National League East title in four of those years. This year, angst and anxiety are the forces bonding fans. The team’s record entering the All Star break is an even .500, and its star hitter, Bryce Harper, scrapes along with a batting average of .214.

Even such suffering may be oddly beneficial for loyalists who, in their day jobs, toil with similar frustration at the game of governance. “I always thought baseball was the right sport for democracy because there is so much losing,” says Mr. Will. “Democracy is the system of the half loaf. Nobody gets all they want. The same is true in baseball…It’s good for the soul of democracy.”

I think there’s a lot of truth in what these stories illustrate. People from all perspectives can unite around a simple game of throwing, catching, and hitting. I’ve had countless conversations with James and Jackie, the couple who sits next to us in our regular seats at Globe Life Park to watch the Rangers. Our paths would never have crossed otherwise. In some respects, they are still strangers. In other ways, they are old friends. What I can tell you is that we bond over baseball and then go our separate ways. When we meet again at another game, we pick up where we left off.

We live in a deeply divided society, but we need something to unite us on occasion. Baseball can’t fix everything, but it can help us slow down, relax, and talk things out. Perhaps we should take to heart the words of the column:

The need for such a refuge has only grown in a summer of raw emotions over immigration, Supreme Court vacancies and Russian election meddling. So, as baseball’s mid-summer classic, the All-Star Game, takes place in Washington on Tuesday, this is a good time to pause and reflect on the role—perhaps small, yet undeniable—that baseball and the Nationals play in bridging the increasingly stark divides in Washington.

This is just one more reason why I love this game.

________________________

Gerald F. Seib, “Baseball Bridges the Political Divide in Washington,” The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2018.

Theological Matters: The Forgotten Value of Time with Our Children

LenowTXRangerThis post originally appeared at Theological Matters on May 2. You can read the full post here.

Last month, I took my 10-year-old daughter to a baseball game. It was just the two of us. Our other three children were home with my wife. For nearly four hours, we spent time together in the car and at the stadium. My phone mostly stayed in my pocket (except for taking and posting a few photos), and we talked.

Over the course of the game, we talked about the rules of baseball; I showed her how to tell if the umpire was calling a ball or strike; we even met the people sitting next to us and talked about their experiences watching baseball. My daughter got randomly selected to receive a game-used baseball during the game because she was wearing her Texas Rangers shirt and hat. Clearly, it was a wonderful evening at the ballpark.

The value of that time at the game was priceless. Had it not been for a letter that my 12-year-old daughter penned to my own mother, this opportunity would likely never have manifested itself. Back in November, as the kids were making out their own Christmas wish lists, my oldest daughter put a letter in the mail asking my parents to buy me season tickets to the Texas Rangers for Christmas.

Her motives were pure. She knew how much I loved watching the Rangers play baseball on television. We went to a few games last season and loved every minute. The final reason that tugged at our heartstrings was when she said that she missed being able to go with me to a game—just the two of us—and spend time together. Although my wife and I intercepted the letter before it ever made it to my parents’ house, the letter still had an impact. Last week, I started the summer-long goal of taking each of my four children to at least one baseball game by ourselves.

My second daughter was overjoyed about the opportunity to go first. She has a memory of getting a ball at the game that will never fade from her mind. I even stopped on the way home at 10 p.m. to get ice cream—something only a dad would do. But most of all, we simply spent time together.

We talked. We listened. We slowed down.

If your life is anything like ours, you are busy. . . .

*Read the rest of the post here.

The Name of the Game: Keeping a Good Reputation in Sports

CSM Shots Of The Week 2016:  MAY 16*My recent post at Theological Matters addresses the issue of sports, reputation, and children. The full post is available here.

From halfway around the world, I got a message from my wife—“Have you seen the replays of Odor punching Bautista?” We are baseball fans in my family, and we religiously follow the Texas Rangers. My wife kept me updated while I was on a recent trip to the republic of Georgia.

Rougned Odor is the up-and-coming, fiery second baseman for the Rangers. Jose Bautista is the perennial all-star outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. After a series of bat flips, hard slides, and trash talking stretching back to last season, the bad blood came to its zenith with Odor’s hard right hook to the jaw of Bautista. The replays of the fight between these two players blew up the feeds on my social media page, and it has been the talk of Major League Baseball for days.

In a moment of confession, I have to admit that I felt a little satisfaction after watching the replay for the first time. It was retribution for Bautista’s home run that effectively ended the season for the Rangers last year. But then I started thinking about my son. What would I think if he landed a right hook to the jaw of an opposing player? What if he taunted the pitcher after hitting a ball over the fence?

Read the rest of the article on Theological Matters.

Baseball Theology from Peanuts

This classic Peanuts comic strip is evidence that baseball and theology are a match made in heaven. Thank you, Charles Schulz.

It also serves as an appropriate commentary on the Texas Rangers’ abysmal 2014 season. We can only hope for better next year. But in the words of former Rangers manager Ron Washington: “That’s the way baseball go.”

This comic strip is available at http://www.peanuts.com/comicstrips/3259443.

Wild Pitch: Texas Ranger Robbie Ross and the NOH8 Campaign

Image credit: mikelachance816 on Flickr

The 2013 edition of the Official Baseball Rules produced by Major League Baseball defines a wild pitch as “one so high, so low, or so wide of the plate that it cannot be handled with ordinary effort by the catcher.”

Robbie Ross, a left-handed relief pitcher for the Texas Rangers and outspoken Christian on the team, threw a wild pitch the other day, but not from the mound at Rangers Ballpark. Ross’ pitch came on behalf of the NOH8 campaign. An article on the sports news site SB Nation suggested the idea that Ross’ involvement was wide of orthodox Christianity as it reported, “While it may seem an oxymoron to some for two devout Christians to showcase their religion on a campaign in support of gay equality, it made perfect sense to the Rosses.”

NOH8 is “a charitable organization whose mission is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest.” The campaign uses photography to promote its message, often showing supporters with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize stopping negative speech toward homosexuality.

Ross and his wife, Brittany, were recently featured in a photo shoot for NOH8. In a subsequent interview, Ross proclaimed that he wanted to display his Christianity as part of the message. He said:

Being in sports, and being around all kinds of different people, you just want to accept everyone for who they are. My wife Brittany and I are Christians, and we believe we as Christians should love everyone and show everyone love, and if this is the best way to do it, then we want to support them.

As with many Christians who try to find biblical support for homosexuality, Ross and his wife have elevated the concept of love above God’s specific statements regarding sin. For them, love means inclusion, acceptance, and approval of all lifestyles even if they are labeled as sin in Scripture. In response to a question about biblical passages that label homosexuality a sin, Brittany Ross stated:

I just don’t think it matters if it’s a sin. We all sin, we all know that, so if we just stop focusing on sin, we can start loving each other.

The article reports that Robbie “quickly jumped in” and said:

If you went Biblically off of everything we’re doing now, during our every day, I’m sure there are one or two sins throughout our day we don’t even realize we’re committing.

There it is. In the minds of the Rosses, sin no longer matters—only love and acceptance.

As a fan of the Rangers, I really like Robbie Ross. I had been impressed by his boldness to let others know about his faith. In baseball, all pitchers miss the plate on a regular basis. It’s called a ball. However, the best pitchers don’t throw wild pitches. On this issue, Robbie Ross has more than missed the plate—he has thrown so wild that his pitch can’t be handled with ordinary effort by orthodox Christianity. This pitch requires leaving the accepted doctrines and interpretations of Scripture. It promotes the homosexual agenda in such a way that minimizes the teaching of Scripture. In baseball terms, this pitch was wild and went to the backstop, advancing a runner along the way.

After Paul discusses homosexuality in Romans 1:26–27, he continues to talk about the depravity of mankind for the rest of the chapter. He notes a number of sins that represent a depraved mind. Finally, he makes a piercing statement about those who condone such sinful behavior. In Romans 1:32, Paul writes:

And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

Paul tells us that sin deserves God’s punishment. Thankfully, God has provided the way of salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son. However, Christians who deny the need for repentance and salvation are like those Paul condemned in Romans 1:32. In spite of knowing what God commands, they give hearty approval to those who live in sin.

I pray that the Rosses would go back to their “pitching coach” and work on their delivery again so they can avoid throwing any more wild pitches.

_________________________

“Rule 2.00—Definitions of Terms,” Official Baseball Rules, 2013 Edition.

Cyd Zeigler, “Texas Rangers pitcher Robbie Ross and wife Brittany appear in Christian NOH8 campaign photo,” SB Nation Outsports, September 17, 2013.