Category Archives: baseball

Sign-Stealing and Stupid Rules

The recent MLB sign-stealing cases raise some important questions and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it. Here are some of my thoughts.

I am not all that interested, from a philosophical perspective, in whether the Astros or Alex Cora/Red Sox are facing appropriate consequences. (As a Red Sox fan, I have some worries for sure.) The investigation has concluded that there were violations of the rules regarding sign-stealing and the league has doled out what seems to me to be serious penalties. MLB wants to signal that it won’t tolerate such activities in the future and I think these penalties do that. Break rules, get punished. Nothing philosophical interesting with that.

What is far more interesting, philosophically, are the questions this raises about the rules. Why have rules against sign-stealing via technology? And this pushes us to consider the nature of rules in general and how they are meant to govern the activity. It also raises important questions about what kinds of rules we should have and what the appropriate scope of the rules should be.

In the case of sign-stealing, it is not clear to me what the rule is trying to prevent. When I think about rules against pass interference in football or the balk rule in baseball, I can understand the point of the rule. These may be difficult rules to apply at times, but the importance of prohibiting the activities these rules prohibit is clear enough. But sign-stealing is allowed in baseball—it’s always been an aspect of the game. The problem here is that teams employed cameras and other technologies to help them steal the signs and it’s this use of technology that is against the rules.

But why? Sure the tech makes it easier and faster to identify the signs (or at least seems to). But does it change the game? Does it undermine the skills of baseball? The pitcher still has to make the pitch. The batter still has to hit the ball. The latter might be easier if you know the pitch that is coming (though even knowing it is curveball doesn’t tell you the actual speed and location), and that seems to be the concern. (Though it is not clear any advantage was gained ).

But this concern strikes me as somewhat myopic. If sign-stealing, even with cameras and replays or whatnot is allowed, the pitching side is going to devise ways to hide their signs better and also to fool those trying to steal them. If you know someone is watching (and you are on TV, millions are watching), you’ll figure out a better way to hide it or misdirect the watchers trying to decode. So why should we assume that the sign-stealing with cameras is going to make it any easier to guess the pitch. (This is an empirical question—but when we look at the history of sport (and almost any institution) it is evident that each new development is met with a counter-development).

One legitimate concern is that technology could get out of hand. Do we want teams bugging dugouts, hacking into communication devices, and other kinds of technological surveillance? Probably not. But a few things to say in response to this. First, sign stealing has always been a part of baseball—bugging the dugouts has, to be my knowledge, not been. Second, we can draw a principled line between surveilling those things that are out in the open (like pitch signs) and things that are not (like a dugout conversation). This might be parallel to the expectation of privacy doctrine in law. The signs for the pitch are on national TV, so there is little reason to expect privacy. The conversation or communication between the dugout and the bullpen are not broadcast, and so there seems to be an expectation of privacy.

Nevertheless, it is against the rules and the teams that knowingly and intentionally engaged in these activities were wrong to do so and it looks like most of those involved are facing serious consequences for this. But punishments and punitive measures only go so far. It would be better if we took a step back to think about what the rules are trying to do, whether they accomplish that, and whether those goals are good ones, and whether the rules are good rules.

And I don’t think sign-stealing with technology passes that consideration. To be even more blunt: I think it is a stupid rule.

I think it fails to be a good rule in at least three ways. Good rules should be (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Clear and not ambiguous
  • Reasonably enforceable
  • Reasonably justified or make sense for the game.

How are these cases unclear or ambiguous? Don’t use cameras or other technology to steal signs. That seems clear enough. But the problem is that the activity being made impermissible is something that is allowed in some situations but not others. You can steal signs if you are a base runner on second. But you can’t do it if you are in the bullpen. You can make use of video to study pitching signs during the preparation for the game, but not during the game. Also what counts as technology? In the past teams, like the 1951 World Series winning NY Giants, apparently used binoculars. I just don’t see a clear, non-arbitrary set of principles to justify why doing it with cameras/tech is prohibited while without such tech it is allowed and this makes it ambiguous.

Enforceability: The fundamental problem with these cases is that we are trying to prohibit the team from looking at things that everyone can already see. To be effective, these rules would necessitate massive and expensive policing of teams, crowds, and broadcasts to truly combat it. And it would still likely fail to be effective.

Justification: As I wrote above, it’s just not clear why we should prohibit these activities. The advantages seem minimal – especially if the surveillance is transparent (that is, allowed and understood to be going on). Allowing the teams to look at what everyone can see anyway and what they can look at outside of the particular competition doesn’t seem likely to upend the nature of the game.

None of this is meant to justify or excuse the activities of those involved. I would like to hope, however, that these cases push us to think more about the nature of the rules of our games. Having good rules to govern our activities will make those activities better.

 

 

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Examined Sport: Russell, “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?” Part 2

J.S. Russell’s “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?”, published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport in 1999, presents a theory of sport adjudication that Russell argues better explains sport, the role of officials and umpires, and guides those officials in officiating their sports. Russell’s paper is one of the first explicit attempts to explain and apply interpretivism, one of the central philosophical accounts of sport. This is part two of two episodes on Russell’s paper. Part One.

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Examined Sport: Russell, “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?” Part 1

J.S. Russell’s “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?”, published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport in 1999, presents a theory of sport adjudication that Russell argues better explains sport, the role of officials and umpires, and guides those officials in officiating their sports. Russell’s paper is one of the first explicit attempts to explain and apply interpretivism, one of the central philosophical accounts of sport. This is part one of two episodes on Russell’s paper.

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Why I Love Baseball

I was emailing with a friend today and the subject of why Americans like baseball came up. He was not born in the States and doesn’t quite get baseball. That conversation gave me the opportunity to put into words some ideas of why I love baseball. And now that’s given me a topic for a blog post.

I think most like baseball (along with many of our other preferences: other sports, music, tv, etc.) for nostalgic reasons. Many grow up playing the game, watching it, or going to the ball park with their parents or friends. One’s current spectatorship is tied into those memories and brings us back to that state of mind. It becomes a connection to one’s history and place. Quoting —(you have to by law, I think, quote Field of Dreams when you write about baseball)— the Terence Mann character in Field of Dreams:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.

Though I don’t think the quote is precisely right, there is a lot of truth in it. Every time I emerge from a tunnel in a ball park, I am taken back to those first few times I passed from the dark of the tunnel under Fenway Park into the bright sunshine and pleasant cacophony of the crowd. I get a rush each and every time and feel like I am 10 years old again.

Moreover, being a Red Sox fan keeps me tied to my home state. It’s been roughly two decades since I lived in Boston, soon I will have lived more outside of Massachusetts than in it. But donning my Red Sox hat makes me feel a little like I can hop on the T to Quincy Market for some Pizzeria Regina any time I want.

I also like baseball for some other, more intellectual reasons.

One of the things I love most about baseball is the battle between pitcher and batter. This is the point of tension that the whole game turns on. What is the pitcher going to do? What kind of pitch will he throw? What about the runner on first? How will the batter respond? Will he let it go for a ball? Foul it off? Put it in to play?

Each pitch is its own game in a way and the strategy of what to pitch/how to hit changes depending on the number of outs, strikes, balls, men on base, etc. With each passing moment as the pitcher looks into the batter’s box the tension builds. The pitch is thrown and you wait on the batter’s swing–what’s going to happen? Will it be strike? A foul? A hit? A HR? Swing! And then the release of tension as this moment of the duel resolves itself but it immediately starts to build again for the next pitch. This rise and release of tension is, for me, the basic piece of enjoyment of watching the game. (This is one reason I am completely against a pitch clock.)

Another element of baseball I love is that it is a kind of a fractal. Stay with me here… You have the pitcher-batter tension point but that takes place within a whole at bat which is part of an inning, which is in a game, which is in a series. Each level has a similar repeating pattern: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, a best of three series. It’s not really a fractal but it is a kind of complex spontaneous order arising out of a set of simple rules, repeating each pitch, each at bat, each inning, each game, and each series. And yet despite repeating this pattern, each at bat, inning, etc., is unique and its own thing. There is something beautiful and satisfying in experiencing the infinite variety that arises while being constrained by a set of simple rules.

There are many other reasons to enjoy baseball: the excitement of a HR; the beauty of a double play; the amazing skill of chasing down a fly ball in the outfield. And if you are at a live game, forget about it! The beauty of the ballpark is worth the ticket in itself. But one shouldn’t feel that they have to like baseball. It’s one particular form of beauty and enjoyment among the endless assortment of human activities and endeavors worth admiring and enjoying. Whether it is baseball or something else, the important thing is to revel in what you love.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Reviewing The Matheny Manifesto

In The Matheny Manifesto, Mike Matheny, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, lays out his diagnosis and solution for youth sports. Mike Perry, a long-term Cardinals fan and frequent Sports Ethics Show guest, joins Sports Ethicist Shawn E. Klein for a discussion of some of the books main themes. They discuss the problem of over-involved parents, the lack of adult-free play spaces, and Matheny’s view of leadership, authority, and faith in the context of coaching and sport.

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Guest Post: The Top 10 Principle

The author of this guest post is Christopher Robinson. Dr. Robinson is a professor at the Ringling College of Art + Design (FL).

Baseball encourages a certain delusion present in all groups that breed fanatics: the belief in the best. This error is reasonable. We can, after all, count the times a player bats and the number of times they hit and compute a simple “batting average” and then objectively rank players. It makes sense to conclude that including more traits will continue to produce objective rankings. This, however, is a fallacy. While including multiple traits may get us better rankings, they typically produce multiple valid rankings.

For this post, I will focus on a single sport: baseball. I will present what we can call the Top 10 Principle: While there are better or worse Top 10 lists, there can be no authoritative ranking of baseball’s best players. Indeed, when we rank entities along more than one dimension, we will often be able to produce more than one valid ranking.

As we construct our list of 10 Men, there are certain names that are obvious candidates, such as Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson. As we refine our lists, we will have to move beyond “a player’s hitting skills matter” to quantifying what it means to be a good batter; we won’t just say someone is good, we will count the number of hits or home runs. We will also judge each player by position specific statistics, including catches, throws, or ERA. We will break players down into statistics and then select specific players with the best mix of statistics.

A Top 10 based on the number of home runs would differ from one based on batting average; one based on stolen bases differs from one based on fielding percentage; each attempt to combine traits would produce a different Top 10 list. Indeed, this is a general rule: when we rank entities on more than one trait, we will produce more than one valid ranking of entities.

It is quite common to phrase ethical choices as “either/or,” as absolutism or relativism, as if something had to be universally, necessarily, and certainly good or it was no good at all. In this case, people might argue that there must be one authoritative Top 10 list or any list is valid. This is a false alternative. Even if there is not a single authoritative ranking, some rankings will be better than others. A Top 10 list based on the number of home runs would be more valid than one based on who happened to play in the first game I saw as a child. In a similar way, while I cannot say with certainty who will be in someone’s list of Top 10, I can reasonably predict that it will not be Ray Chapman or Fred Merkle. The world is full of uncertainties, such as whether Babe Ruth called his shot or whether Pete Rose or Mark McGuire will ever be elected to the Hall of Fame, but some explanations and predictions are more reasonable than others.

In life, as in sports, we are constantly ranking entities, ranking options, ranking people, ranking ideas along multiple value dimensions. Not only will there not be an authoritative list of values, but different values will often conflict. A good pitcher will not usually be a good batter. We value clean air and water, but we also value economic growth; we value novelty and stability; we value justice but we also value mercy. When we value all these things, it is impossible to arrive at a single authoritative ranking of people, economic policies, countries, or religions that embody those values. We should expect some conflict and tension as we determine what solutions resolve the various conflicts between values. It is a measure of how far we have come that owners conspiring to keep blacks out of baseball is as offensive as people used to think it was justified.

While there are some universal truths, they appear to be more in mathematics than in ethics. In ranking values in the world, some lists are more reasonable than others, even if there is no authoritative ranking. With this, we are aware that there are many possible Top 10 lists, and this encourages us to ask, “How should one determine a Top 10 list,” before we pick 10 people and then justify those choices.

By discussing the reasons for their decisions, people can have a more reasonable discussion and disagree without ill will. The “Top 10 problem” encourages people to think about the reasonableness of the reasons one gives, and whether one would accept those reasons from other people. It also encourages us to see our limitations, such as in an implicit bias among people to ignore players like Satchel Paige who didn’t play in the white major leagues during his prime years.

Any Top 10 list will contain choices based on objective data, personal preference, and one’s sense of how to integrate the relevant variables. While there’s not one objectively correct one, it is worth taking the effort to understand the principles involved in selecting one’s top choices.

[Sports Ethicist: I would love to see people’s attempts at a Top 10 baseball player list. Please post in the comments. I will get it started with my own list and explanation.]

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Jackie Robinson West Little League Eligibility Violations

I was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article on the Jackie Robinson West Little League eligibility violations. These violations led Little League International to strip the team of its 2014 US Championship. JRW was the hit of the summer with their great run in the Little League World Series. The team’s wins are being vacated for having “knowingly violated Little League International Rules and Regulations by placing players on their team who did not qualify to play because they lived outside the team’s boundaries.” (Little League International)

“Sports, boundaries and eligibility: a persistent issue” by Philip Hersh

Update: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Mo’ne Davis played for Jackie Robinson West.

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Sports Ethics Show: The Value of Playoffs and Championships

New Sports Ethics Show Episode
Baseball playoffs are in full swing with both American and National League Championship Series opening this weekend. For baseball fans, this is one of the most exciting parts of the baseball season. But are we getting something wrong? Is there something wrong with having playoffs decide champions? Are there better ways of determining champions and organizing sport competitions? Dr. Aaron Harper of West Liberty University discusses these questions and related issues with Shawn E. Klein.

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Boston Breakdown with Joe

A new episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is available!

 Joe Danker and Shawn Klein discuss things Boston sports in this episode of The Sports Ethicist. What defines a successful season? How important is it for the Bruins to get to and win the Stanley Cup this year? Are the Red Sox in a grace period after winning the World Series? Is it wrong for the Celtics to be tanking their season?

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Rule Changes in Sport

The next episode of The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday, March 3, 2014 at 6 pm CT on Rockford College Radio.

Rules are an essential part of sport. They define it, they govern it. But what about changing the rules? Three recent rule changes have gained national attention recently: expanded MLB replay, limiting home plate collisions in MLB, and penalizing the use of the ‘N’ word in the NFL. Shawn Klein and frequent guest, Mike Perry, discuss these rule changes and whether they are good ideas or not.

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A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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