Category Archives: baseball

Brief Review: Infinite Baseball

On one hand, I really rather enjoyed this book. The chapters are short and pithy. Noë’s musings about baseball are thought-provoking; and his love of baseball shines through out. His idea that baseball is all about deciding who’s responsible for what left me thinking about baseball from a new perspective. The relation of baseball to language and linguistics was intriguing. Anyone interested in baseball will find the book charming.

On the other hand, I found myself annoyed at times with the book. Clearly aware of the philosophy of sport literature, the author makes almost no mention or reference to it. So many of the topics he dives into he treats as novel and original, as if he’s the first to consider these topics philosophically, when they are well-trodden in the literature. Noe has some interesting insights, but these too could have been better had he engaged with the writings by philosophers of sport.

Noë is explicit that he’s not trying to write a philosophy of sport book; that his is more the musings of a philosopher obsessed with baseball. And there is much in the book that fits this vein. But much of the book is also engaged in philosophical analysis of arguments about topics central to sport.  As such, it is, necessarily, a work in philosophy of sport. And on that front, one has to grade it down a bit because it doesn’t enter the dialogue where those conversations are taking place. To strain the metaphor, he’s swinging the bat, but not stepping into the batter’s box to face the pitcher.


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The Abomination of the Pitch Clock

Major League Baseball has announced rule changes for 2023 that would introduce a pitch clock into the major leagues. This is an abomination; a violation of the metaphysics of the game.

Baseball is a game outside of and separate from time. More precisely, it is a game without measured, clocked time.

There is no game clock or play clock. At-bats, innings, games do not have a set or defined time.

Games have an official time only in the descriptive sense of how long the game took: the official game time has no bearing on the game itself. There is no extra time, injury time, half time, two-minute warning, or even time-outs.

It is true that we often here that “time-out” has been called: in broadcasts, game write-ups, etc. This is, however, just a confused borrowing of the concept of “time-out” from other sports. The rules of the game don’t mention a ‘time-out’. They mention ‘time.’ The umpire can call ‘time’ to suspend play (and players/managers can request ‘time’). Notice the suspension of play, the stoppage of play, is not marked by calling for a time out but instead by calling for ‘time.’ This suggests that time is being introduced, rather than stopped. And then when the umpire calls ‘play’: time ceases and play begins. In baseball, play is outside time: the introduction of time stops play.

 Rule 3.12 When an umpire suspends play, he shall call “Time.” At the umpire-in-chief’s call of “Play,” the suspension is lifted and play resumes. Between the call of “Time” and the call of “Play” the ball is dead.

There are several points in the rules that give the umpire some discretion regarding game-action or, more typically, delay based on “reasonable time” passing. And there is Rule 8.04 which specifies (or rather specified) 20 seconds for the pitcher to pitch. (It was later reduced to 12 seconds and with the recent MLB announcement has changed to some new baroque arrangement). And the basis for rule 8.04 goes back at least to 1910, but probably further (1910 was the earliest reference I found). So, this is no modern fluke. However, the 20 seconds was never measured or clocked. It was always up to the umpire (and rarely enforced).

Pace of Play

Many think baseball needs a pitch clock to increase the pace of play. There is a worry that the games have gotten too long and that has affected viewership and fan interest. I am not sure that’s true, but I also don’t think this is the solution. We can agree pace of play is an issue without introducing time into the game.  There are other ways to incentive faster play that are more consistent with the history and essence of the game.  (See my foul strike proposal for one example.)

Play and Sport

The relationship between play and sport is a complex one, but in all sport, even professional sport, an element of play remains. Johan Huizinga was one of the premier scholars of play and its importance to culture. In his famous work, Homo Ludens, he argues that one key element of play is that it is out of the ordinary: “It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8). Further on he says that “Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration” (10). Play is extra-ordinary: it has its own time and space, its own internal boundaries and limitations. It is the carving out of this special time and place that marks something as play; that gives play its magic, so to speak. It either allows us to be entirely absorbed (as we while away the hours unaware, totally enmeshed in a world-building game like Civilization or Minecraft) or creates the tension of the activity: the way in which the last few game-minutes of a timed-game like football or basketball can take much longer in real time, creating the tension of running one last play in the last two seconds—something not possible without the game’s special construct of time.

Baseball utterly and purposely disregards discrete measurement of time. It is measured by other things: strikes, balls, outs, runs. Time is not a factor in any of these. To introduce the discrete and clocked measurement of time, so that batter has 8 seconds to get set, a pitcher 15 seconds to pitch, etc., is to introduce something totally alien to baseball.

Part of the magic of baseball is that there is no time: as long as you have an out to give, you have a chance. It doesn’t matter how many runs you are down by or how long the game has gone on: if your side still has an out, you have life. The battle between pitcher and batter is one of the central games within the game: and it is not limited by time. The pitcher either gets the batter out on strikes, walks the batter, or the batter puts the ball into the play: this might be an out, a hit, or run. But there are no other limits. This makes it purely a contest between the pitcher and batter. And that’s the essence of baseball. Bringing in time undermines this. It introduces an external limitation on the play of the game; one that violates the metaphysics of the game.

As a comparison, consider taking away the discrete measurement of time from American football. The clock runs without stopping: this would fundamentally change the nature of the game: the tactics, the plays, the style of play, etc.  Football is all about the discrete and precise measure of space and time: baseball is the opposite: space and time are not measured or, rather, is rarely measured as part of the play (yes a home run has to go a minimum distance, but that’s kind of secondary to it: once it’s gone that far, it’s a home run). In each sport, these relationships to space and time are essential to the nature and play of the game.

To many this might sound like a cranky baseball purist who doesn’t want to see the game evolve or change. That is to entirely misread the argument here. The point is not that there shouldn’t be rule changes to improve and progress the game. Of course, there should; and there always has been. But there is a difference in kind between changing the mound height or the rules about foul balls as strikes, on one hand, and introducing time into a time-less game. The former are emendations, revisions, or extensions to the game as it is. They might be judged better or worse, for example, at how well they help to create a balance between batting and pitching or even the overall spectacle. The latter kind of change, however, is a fundamental change to the game’s essence.  It might improve the spectacle by some measure but at the cost of the game itself.

That is why the pitch clock is abomination.


Filed under baseball, play

Foul Strike Rule Change Proposal

Many in baseball think there is a need for rule changes to help create more action and excitement in baseball. There are many rule experiments going on in the minor leagues and some recent changes in the major leagues as well. Personally, I think most of these are terrible ideas. They are artificial feeling (starting the tenth inning with a running on second base); they require changes to the make-up of the field (moving the mound back), or they introduce new and external elements to baseball (a pitch clock – an abomination). So, I want to offer a rule change that fits with the history of the game as it has evolved.

In 1901, the National League introduce a rule that required the first two foul ball hit by a batter to be counted as strikes. The American League adopted the rule in 1903.

In part this was introduced to prevent batters from endlessly hitting foul balls. It was meant to incentivize putting the ball into play to help create more action and excitement.

My proposal is to further restrict the number of foul balls allowed. I am not sure what the precise number should be, but let’s say, after the first two foul strikes, the batter is allowed four more fouls before the next foul is a third strike and the batter is out. This incentivizes the batter to put the ball in play, creating more action. It shortens the at-bats, creating a quicker game pace. By reducing pitch counts, it allows the starting pitcher to stay in the game longer (reducing the delay from changing pitchers).

This fits with the evolution of the foul strike rule. It doesn’t require any changes other than tracking the extra fouls.

A full count would be 4-3-2 (fouls, balls, strikes). And it really would be a full count. We would have an actual pay-off pitch: the next pitch will either be in play, be a walk, or be an out. This creates more tension and excitement as well: rather than the anticlimactic foul ball on the ‘pay-off’ pitch, we know something is going to happen.

The only downside I can see is that this tilts advantage to the pitcher/defense. The batter cannot simply foul off pitches waiting for ‘his’ pitch. And in line with that, we would lose some of those epic batter-pitcher battles at the plate. But the trade-off seems worth it to me. We get the faster paced game many want without doing anything radical to the sport.


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Review: Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America’s Pastime

This is a great course. Wonderfully delivered by Bruce Markuson of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the course covers the early years of baseball. From the early beginnings to 1920, the course looks at rules changes, equipment changes, field changes, as well as many of the social and culture changes that impacted baseball. As an overview course, it doesn’t go into as great detail as one might want for some topics, for example, the history of the Negro Leagues. While this is discussed, the history of these leagues is much richer (as admitted by Markuson) than could be covered here.

Markuson examines the different theories of where baseball comes from: the different pre-baseball ball games that were played widely in America and England in the 18th century and how they may have influenced the development of what become known as baseball. He covers how the professional leagues developed in the second half of the 19th century. He discusses how the baseball itself changed the game as the baseball changed. It even goes into how baseball fields themselves changed and developed as baseball evolved (and the changing fields drove some of the changes in the game as well).

If there is one thing you can take away from this course is that Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams was wrong. I love the movie and the speech Mann makes, but he was wrong. He says: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.” Sorry, but the history of baseball shows that it has changed again and again just like America. As America rebuilt and reinvented itself through the decades, baseball has changed right along with it, reflecting America’s greatness and her worst faults.

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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.




Filed under baseball, Cheating, rule-violations

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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Opening and Closing Musical Credits:

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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.


Filed under baseball, Fandom

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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