There’s a play I remember from years ago that probably happened. The Rangers were skirmishing against the Mariners on some dusty August afternoon, filling box scores for future generations. A faceless Mariner, probably Dustin Ackley, hit a slow roller wide of first base. The equally anonymous pitcher—let’s call him Colby Martinez—ran over to first, thinking it was a 3-1 putout; so did the first baseman, assuming a 4-3. The second baseman did indeed field the grounder and threw to the pitcher for the close out. Only one problem: The pitcher didn’t catch the ball; the first baseman, two steps off the bag still running in, intercepted it. It was a confluence of bodies, and the ump missed the call. The Rangers convened on the mound, the ball subtly passed into the glove that already should have held it, and play resumed.
This mistake didn’t matter; nor did the game, nor the season, nor really the sport itself. Certainly no one else remembers this play, including the people involved. No searchable story or video exists. Half a decade later, it still drives me crazy.
A simpler version of the same phenomenon, from 2014, was captured on film here:
Gregor Blanco catches the ball off the ricochet—mind you, the ball bounces 15 feet into the stands—spares one moment to reflect on the unlikeliness of the bounce, and then decides, why not? and lifts his glove in the air. Maybe the umps didn’t see. The umps did see, of course, along with 20,000 people, and play resumed. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes. But as the father of a precocious 4-year-old, I can’t help but watch the play and think of her reaction: He’s cheating, right? Isn’t it bad to cheat?
Baseball doesn’t really have a good answer to her question.
Sports, unlike life, are defined by their constraints. In life, the possibilities are, as much as one would hope, endless: a string of infinitely branching paths, of ideas and opportunities and creations. Sports are a celebration of work; not the Gatorade colorful sweat exertion, but actual, dehumanizing labor, repetitive and all-consuming. When an athlete puts on a uniform, they become something less than their full selves, enter a very specific contract of behavior, bound by rules.
We all enter contracts, of course; we all accept the limitations on some of our freedoms to make a living, and to reap the benefits of limiting others, agreeing not to murder and steal and sing Journey songs a capella in office carpools. But these limitations are usually on the kinds of things we wouldn’t do anyway, like mail fraud, and we rarely feel the bonds of our civility, except on the occasional empty highway road. After all, there are so many ways to be happy, so many things to do, that except in situations of severe limitation (like prison, or poverty), we can usually find something to do that doesn’t come at the cost of others. Well, if not usually, often.
The athlete doesn’t have to do this calculation every moment; their attention is consumed elsewhere. But the problem is that unlike the pursuit of we plebeians, the goal ahead is very simple and intentionally puts them in direct conflict with the people around them: to win the game. The problem is that the game can’t exist without its rules, but the very same rules are a force that erodes the purpose of the game.
Take, for example, baseball as a symbol of development. Play wiffle ball with a group of 6-year-olds and they will constantly cheat; they do this not because they are malicious, but because they have not yet developed the sense of malice. Still developing the cognitive skills to understand the effects of their actions, and absorbed by their desire to receive the accolades of victory, they will cheat shamelessly, openly; tag one with the ball and they will continue running, unable to conceptualize this new reality. Advance the age of these children to nine or ten, and you will be able to conduct a full game without the need of umpires. They will want to win, but they will also want to maintain each other’s acceptance.
But then, at some point, umpires appear, and everything falls apart. Because as soon as an authority appears, a person responsible for maintaining order, the players will transfer all moral obligation off themselves and onto the ump. Suddenly, it’s only cheating if you get caught, and once that transition occurs, and you have teammates who are relying on you to win, it becomes morally unacceptable not to cheat, and cheat as well as you can.
This is, sadly, evident in all realms of society where success is treated as the highest good: in the business environment where every ounce of production is owed to the shareholders at the expense of the employee, or in politics where every iota of power justifies the cost required to seize it. Sports, capitalism, social justice: the natural limit for all of these is war, and the only barrier between us and that, other than time and necessary passion, are rules. The rules tell you what is too far, and when they cannot tell in advance, they assign the power to the umpire, or Nuremberg. But never to the player; it would be a crime against one’s fan base if, in a championship game, a runner slid into home and then objected to the call, claiming that they had, in fact, been tagged.
Baseball is clumsily seeking to add to its rulebook, regulating mound visits to six per nine-inning game. It’s the usual collective action problem: there is no individual cost and some individual benefit drawn from visiting the mound, but collectively, the act is clearly (if minutely) deleterious to the sport as a whole. Fortunately, sports have a tremendous advantage over ordinary human nature, because it’s easy to simply legislate away unwanted activity. Catchers would prefer as many mound visits as they feel like taking; hitters would like as many swings as necessary to hit the ball, too, but the framers of the sport wisely decided to go against their wishes. Reducing catcher visits is just another constraint, no more or less arbitrary than the basepaths themselves.
So naturally the reaction from several catchers has been to state their intention to disregard the rule.
The defiance of Willson Contreras is somewhat odd given that there’s no indication that a fine would be the result of such disobedience, but if it were, it would be disastrous. Rules violations that affect the play of the game should only incur in-game penalties; the game and its finances are already far too intermingled. But beyond that, by sticking a price tag on cheating, it transforms the act, to the point where it is no longer cheating. It becomes a business decision, no different than one to pay a parking ticket or close a factory or bribe a petty official, a price paid for a service rendered. It becomes amoral.
But whatever in-game punishment the league chooses, from automatic ball to ejection, what’s important is that it choose one. Leaving discretion to the umpire will only add the frustration of unpredictability to the current situation. As Contreras notes, he’s willing to do anything to win. That’s considered a virtue, but it’s also the motivation behind our modern political situation, when the age-old unwritten rules of legislation have been abandoned for the sake of power. Even war has rules, as difficult as they are to enforce; under the threat of death and social destruction, we still believe that there are certain things—mustard gas and murdering babies—that are morally wrong. This is why we need more rules, in baseball and life, and not fewer: rules to avoid ambiguity, rules to enforce shared benefit, not leave it to the whims of the strong.
Ultimately, there are two types of rules violations in baseball: with and without motive. When a player does something against the rules without intention, like throw an unhittable pitch or balk or bat out of turn, the punishment is relatively mild. When it is premeditated, there is only one possible sentence: exile. If this happens, the punishment will feel cruel and unusual, at least at first, but soon that shock will dissipate, mostly because it’ll stop happening. Defenses will have to forgo the advantage, and instead, pitchers and catchers who have developed their bonds will have the advantage over those who have not. Teams and catchers will adjust to the new state of confinement, and the game will move along, infinitesimally quicker and better than before.
Baseball is about winning; even the 6-year-olds want to win. But it isn’t about winning by any means. The means, the limits and the adjustments, are what separate a sport from a contest, and society from barbarism. And let’s not lie to ourselves: even if you don’t get caught, it’s still cheating.
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