Is baseball special?

As much as we’d like it to, steroids is the scandal that won’t go away. The extreme reaction to the news that Alex Rodriguez took steroids admittedly took me by surprise. I mean, he took the stuff six years ago. This is old news, people. Yet folks are labeling it “the tipping point” and calling for extreme measures to fix the problem. The problem that existed six years ago.

Are we going to go through this 103 more times, as more names that should never have been recorded are made public? I sure hope not, and I don’t think so. I’m guessing that the outrage provoked by Rodriguez’s leak and confession is uniquely indignant and comes down to several things:
{exp:list_maker}A-Rod is one of the very best players in baseball right now, and he plays in New York. High profile guy.
He lied about it. To Katie Couric, no less.
Some people would argue that the best players have more responsibility to follow the rules than other players.
Rodriguez was the Great Clean Hope* for many baseball fans—the guy who would break Barry Bonds’ career home run record and rid the record books of steroids forever.{/exp:list_maker}*I hereby trademark the phrase “Great Clean Hope.” Anyone who wants to use the phrase must buy me a baseball book that I don’t already have.

I can’t really say anything more about this topic, because I’m not particularly swayed by any of these arguments. I understand them, but they aren’t strong enough to make me foam at the mouth.

But in the grand colloquy about baseball and steroids, there is a point of view I’m sympathetic to, and it’s something I don’t often hear well expressed. It is this: that Major League Baseball should be held to a higher ethical standard than other professional sports.

Now, before you post that incendiary retort, let me say that I don’t buy that baloney that baseball represents “true American values” more than other sports. Baseball is clearly no longer the National Pastime; football and basketball are more popular. And “true American values” are in the eye of the beholder, anyway. But baseball does have a different emotional relationship with its fans, as well as a unique place in the history and politics of American Sport. And these place a particular burden on the management and players of Major League Baseball.

Politics

Baseball is the only major sport with an antitrust exemption. In fact, as I understand it, it is virtually the only business with an exemption to the Sherman and Clayton acts, which regulate interstate commerce. Thanks to the 1922 Supreme Court, baseball controls at least the movement of its franchises and is somewhat exempt from labor relation laws. This exemption has been challenged in courts several times, but never repealed.

According to the New York Times, “The Court has never delineated what is covered by the exemption. But it has come to embrace a blanket immunity from Federal court action regarding player movement, franchise shifts, expansion, broadcasting, team ownership, the minor leagues and the amateur draft.” Although there are real questions about the practical impact of the exemption, it is still in place. It still serves as a partial shield from competition and federal oversight.

Does that put an extra moral burden on MLB? Well, let’s compare MLB to legal monopolies for a second. Legal monopolies are often required to allow governments to regulate them to a heavy extent. They have citizen’s boards and public hearings. Their prices are set or reviewed by third parties. Theoretically, all major decisions in legal monopolies are made in the public arena, because nothing should be hidden when a single institution has such market power.

Is Major League Baseball a “legal monopoly?” Are they protected by law from competition? No—you’ve got to say that many sports, such as basketball and football, are pretty good competitors for the “sporting dollar.” (Though Ted Turner’s quote still delights: “Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re f***ing it up.”) But MLB does have a legal advantage over its competitors; no other sport has an antitrust exemption. No other sport has an opportunity to lean on a questionable Supreme Court ruling to protect its interests. No other sport is so protected from the development of a rival league.

So let’s call baseball a “legally sanctioned near-monopoly.” The next question is, is baseball open the same way legal monopolies are? Is it even close?

No. There is no fan’s committee. Ownership meetings are not open to the public. Prices aren’t set by a third party. The press only sporadically plays an effective journalistic role. Congress, through periodic hearings, has taken some interest in holding Baseball accountable to the greater good, but not a lot. They have more important matters to attend to.

This lack of transparency and regulation, coupled with the remarkable antitrust exemption, means that everyone involved in Major League Baseball has a unique and particular ethical responsibility. Since there is no competition to keep them honest, the manner in which MLB works with its employees and players, local and national government, other businesses, and with their customers should be held to a higher standard than that of other private enterprises. The antitrust exemption is a privilege, and privileged institutions have higher moral responsibilities.

Do major league owners always live up to those higher standards? No, of course not. We can have reasonable debates about how far they veer from those standards, but that doesn’t mean those standards don’t exist. They are as “real” as any ethical standards can be, short of law.

History

Major League Baseball, because of its long and rich history, has provided a stage for high moral drama several times in its past. In each episode, the resolution of the drama has led the sport and its fans, and sometimes the nation, forward. You know the stories …

The Black Sox Scandal
Sports gambling is a $19 billion business, three times the size of the payrolls of the Big Four sports. With so much money at stake, it isn’t surprising that gamblers often try to influence the outcome of sporting events. But the integrity of the sport (and the gamblers!) depends on an absolute separation between the the gamblers and the game.

This was a problem for baseball in the 1800′s and early 1900′s. Players were involved with gamblers, owners were involved with gamblers. MLB recognized the problem and tried to address it. But that was easier said than done.

Things changed when the some players on the White Sox conspired to let the Reds win the World Series in 1919. This was truly a national scandal, and baseball’s owners reacted. They hired a commissioner, a guy named Landis, who aggressively erased any taint of gambling from baseball. Most dramatically, he banned all of the “Black Sox” from baseball for life, even though they had been found not guilty in a court of law.

Many say that Landis’ strong moves, along with the rise of a star named Babe Ruth saved the sport. I don’t know if all of that is true, but there’s no doubt that the Black Sox scandal was an important phase of moral growth in American sports. Baseball effectively dealt with the issue and regained its stature. It is a morality tale that still holds power today.

Integration
The story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of Major League Baseball is the greatest story in any American professional sport. Ever. Yes, there were a few black major league players in the 1800′s, but they were oddities. Some of them only got to play because their skin was relatively fair. And after that, none. Black ballplayers were banned from MLB and forced to form their own leagues.

Some claim that Landis had to be removed as commissioner in order for integration to occur, but I’m not convinced of that. Branch Rickey had a vision and the means to integrate the sport, and Jackie Robinson had the skill and personal courage to make it happen. A new commissioner, Happy Chandler, helped move it along, but Rickey and Robinson probably would have made this happen regardless of who sat in the commissioner’s seat. The impact of what they did, in the world of sports and in our society, was profound.

Every year, MLB celebrates the day (April 15th) that Robinson broke the color barrier, and every team has retired his number 42 (though Mariano Rivera still wears it for the Yankees). Clearly, this is a powerful tale of moral triumph that still resonates even today like a clarion bell.

Free Agency
Thanks to the reserve clause, major league ballplayers literally had no employment freedom if they wanted to keep playing ball. They had to play for the team that originally signed them. If they were traded, they had to go to their new team if they wanted to keep playing. They had almost no negotiating leverage at contract time.

Marvin Miller and Curt Flood were the heroes who changed this sad state of affairs, but they weren’t recognized as heroes at the time. In fact, Miller and Flood were demonized by many fans, members of the press and, of course, the owners. Even many players and former players were opposed to what they trying to do. It is only in retrospect that many people acknowledge that Flood and Miller were in the right, and that Peter Seitz’s arbitration decision moved baseball in the right ethical direction, despite itself.

In my mind, the free agency saga is on a par in drama and ethical impact as the Black Sox and integration sagas. Really, they are all of a piece: baseball has had three dramatic tales in which people had to overcome strong opposition to get the game to do the right thing. To make it right. I’m not saying that baseball did a better job of dealing with these episodes than other sports have, or would have. It’s just that baseball was there first, at least in a national sense. It paved the way.

They are perhaps baseball’s finest legacy, these tales of high ethical identification, conflict and resolution, and every generation of baseball moguls and players should be held against the standards they set.

The athlete

Sport is entertainment. Of course, so is pornography—some entertainment exists so that we can fantasize about a world amoral. America’s major sports, however, entertain for different reasons.

Sports entertain because (among other things) 1) they are fun to watch, and 2) they are a reflection of us. When we watch a sportsman (sportsperson?) strive to do his (her) best, we strive alongside. We understand, we empathize. This is the primal metaphor of the arena. We, too, succeed at times, and we fail at other times, in our own personal arenas. We see our lives played on fields of sport. That is our bond with our sport, our team and our favorite players.

Baseball fans have a different relationship with baseball players than do fans and players of other sports. For instance, can you imagine Jamie Moyer playing the most important position in football or basketball at the age of 46? Can you imagine Dustin Pedroia winning the NBA or NFL MVP? At the same time, I can’t imagine myself on a offensive line, staring down a 300-pound defensive end who’s three times faster than I am. I can’t imagine myself dribbling, running and dunking over a 6’8″ forward (or guard!).

But I can imagine myself scooping up a groundball in the hole and throwing out the runner at first. I can imagine myself running down a ball in the gap or swinging at a major league fastball and actually hitting the ball, maybe for a hit. It’s an illusion, of course, but the skills of a Major League baseball player are somehow accessible to us. This makes the baseball player a different kind of sports hero, one less removed and more personal.

This is one of baseball’s strengths and, I guess, one of its weaknesses. The strength is that the bond between baseball and its fans may be more personal than that of other sports and its fans. The weakness is that we take the personal aspects of baseball players more seriously, and we react more emotionally to the way they conduct themselves on and off the field.

By the way, I’ve raised three kids, and I’m proud to say that I never encouraged any of them to think of baseball players as “heroes” (except for Jackie Robinson). We have plenty of role models and heroes in the newspapers and in our neighborhoods. That should be enough.

Not the numbers

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned numbers and records anywhere. Yeah, I eat, drink and sleep baseball stats, but I don’t think baseball records are “sacred.” Every number in your Baseball Encyclopedia or online needs to be interpreted carefully, whether it was achieved in the steroids era, the 1960s, the deadball era, or the segregated era.

I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve received chastising me for not naming Sandy Koufax among the top 40 pitchers of all time. I understand the reaction—it probably was a goofy decision—but many fans forget that Koufax pitched in a pitcher’s ballpark in a pitcher’s era. The only better era he could have picked would have been the deadball era. Koufax’s awesome years are a little less awesome when you take that into account.

I have a theory that all the BBWAA members who voted Jim Rice into the Hall of Fame are the ones who are most upset about records being broken by steroids users. These are the folks who take baseball’s records seriously, but don’t acknowledge that you can’t accept them on the surface. You need to look at Jim Rice’s home/road splits to truly understand his place in the baseball universe.

My point is that baseball statistics are “just” numbers that must be interpreted and understood in context. They don’t make baseball more special than other sports.

So, you see, I’m a bit of a cynic. I don’t believe in the sanctity of baseball records; I don’t believe baseball players should be considered heroes; I don’t believe that baseball reflects “American values.” Yet I still believe that baseball is special. I have my own reasons for believing that baseball needs to rise above itself and fix this “crisis.” And I’m guardedly optimistic they are on the right track.

References & Resources
If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Joe Posnanski’s steroids symphony.

Note: One reader wrote to sy that gambling revenues are closer to two times the payroll of the Big Four sports. Since I don’t have my original calculations, I thought I’d just note the difference here. The key point is that it’s a big business.

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