The baseball ethicist: Why nobody signed Barry Bonds

I had been gleefully anticipating the 2008 baseball season for one additional reason than the usual ones: no more Barry Bonds. For an ethicist, the astounding volume of invalid rationalizations put forth to excuse, tolerate, or lionize Bonds during his last few years was a constant irritant, too often requiring website essays and calls to blathering idiots (“Hello, Rob Dibble!”) to try to keep the ethical rot from becoming too entrenched. With Barry finally gone, I foolishly assumed that I would be annoyed no more.

But it was not to be. All that changed was the theme. This time, it was, “What team will sign Barry?” followed by, as the season progressed, “Why hasn’t anybody signed Barry?” and the Player’s Union’s jaw-droppingly brain-dead, “How dare you not sign Barry?”

As it had been obvious to me from the first day of Spring Training that no team would or should sign Barry Bonds, this chorus was as puzzling as it was perplexing. Are baseball commentators really so disconnected from the ethical imperatives of the game? Do they really not grasp what signing Barry Bonds, for any amount of money or no amount at all, would have meant? The answers, sad to say, appear to be yes and yes. They, or many of them, just didn’t get it. And they still don’t.

This was brought horribly home when The Hardball Times Annual arrived, and there was the usually reasonable John Brattain condemning major league general managers for not signing Bonds, because, you see, he might have made a difference, even gotten the Mets, or the Jays, or some other also-ran, into the postseason. But just as, in Sir Thomas More’s words, “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world,” signing Bonds in order to make the playoffs would have been a dubious and foolish deal for any team, even if one buys the questionable assumption that he would have played well enough to hold up his end of it.

The reason this is, or should be, obvious is the Mitchell Report, and what it signified to the baseball community.

Cynics may scoff, and Barry himself couldn’t care less, but baseball is the one professional sport that carries with it a duty to the American culture. Character counts in America, and baseball is bound by history, tradition and its role in legend and myth to make certain that character counts on its playing fields as well. Baseball players, as Bill James quite accurately stated, are paid to be heroes. The sport does not have the raw physical display of football, or the speed of basketball, or the simple-minded appeal of soccer. What it does have that no other professional sport even values very much is integrity, or at least an appreciation that integrity is important.

This does not mean that athletes of bad character don’t find their way onto baseball rosters, but it does mean that they need to 1) be very good and 2) not put their lack of character on public display if they want to stay there. When the Boston Red Sox were considering drafting pitcher Clay Buchholz in 2005, they were very concerned about an incident in high school in which Buchholz stole some school equipment, and consequently the team almost didn’t draft him. Other teams stayed away because of the offense.

Can anyone imagine a pro football team hesitating for one second from drafting a promising prospect because of something like this? There simply are no equivalents of Pacman Jones in baseball. Players who have serious criminal charges, who are accused of rape and spousal abuse, drunk driving and drug arrests just fade out of the game. Football and basketball want to sell merchandise to kids. Baseball wants to be an example for kids (and sell merchandise).

Baseball made a serious mistake in the ‘90s by looking the other way while steroid abuse mutated its players, distorted game results and warped its record book. But the Mitchell Report, released a year ago, was a crystal-clear announcement that the sport was banishing its ethical ambiguity on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs. For this purpose, it was irrelevant that the report was incomplete and limited in scope. The Mitchell Report announced that Major League Baseball believed that steroid and HGH use was wrong, unacceptable, and sullied the game. It would condemn and embarrass any player found to violate this standard. Cheating was not cool, and cheaters were not welcome. The conduct was officially inconsistent with the values and best interests of the game (as it had, in fact, always been), and the owners, players, teams and fans were hereby expected to heed that fact.

Whatever else it did or didn’t do, the Mitchell Report accomplished that. Roger Clemens, who had up to that point been extolled as one of the game’s greatest and most admired players, instantly became a tarnished ex-hero because of the Report’s conclusions, aided by the Rocket’s unconvincing declarations of innocence.

For his part, Barry Bonds’ name led all players with 95 mentions in the text. But this only put the exclamation point on what was already a foregone conclusion. The evidence that Bonds was a long-time, intentional, unapologetic and incredibly successful chemical cheat had been mounting for years, and was by then the kind of overwhelming circumstantial and logical mass that could only be denied through obdurate stubbornness and lunk-headedness. Not that there weren’t plenty of stubborn lunk-heads in the media willing to do it: there certainly were…and, incredibly, are. But no one could deny that Bonds was the face of baseball’s steroid disgrace. That gave him special status, or perhaps a better word is infamy.

A team could employ one of the many mediocre, borderline or journeyman players whose names appeared in the Mitchell Report without making the implied statement that it was endorsing and rewarding a cheat. Signing Brendan Donnelly, Paul Lo Duca or Paul Byrd would not be seen as an enlistment in the Dark Side.

Bonds was a different matter entirely, if for no other reason than he had ridden performance enhancement drugs to the pinnacle of baseball’s records. He was the Big Enchilada, the Numero Uno: his career stood for the proposition that steroid use could turn a great player into a super-human juggernaut, shattering all previous limits; that they could allow players to improve dramatically when historically athletes began to decline; that the drugs could lengthen their careers, make the players become more valuable to their teams, and earn them millions more dollars than they would have earned otherwise—and they could get away with it.

Bonds was regarded differently because he was different. His success made him different. His arrogant public stance that there was nothing wrong with his conduct made him different. How a team regarded Barry Bonds was unavoidably going to be a statement about steroids, rules, lawbreaking, character and baseball’s values.

The principle in force here is cognitive dissonance, often referred to in the media but seldom correctly. A psychologist named Leon Festinger devised a scale—vertical, with zero in the center, extending upwards from +1 to +100, and downwards from -1 to -100. (The diagrams below will use a simplified version of the scale.)

The Cognitive Dissonance Scale measures how positive and negative attitudes toward people and things subconsciously influence attitudes toward other people and things that they have connections to and associations with, through the involuntary reduction of cognitive dissonance in the human mind. For example, you dislike an author and his books, let’s say, Stephen King. At the same time, you love a particular political cause, say, energy conservation. Using Festinger’s scale, imagine that King is a – 6, and energy conservation is a + 10…

+10 Energy Conservation
+9 ______
+8 ______
+7 ______
+6 ______
+5 ______
+4 ______
+3 ______
+2 ______
+1 ______
0______________
-1 ______
-2 ______
– 3 ______
-4 ______
– 5 ______
-6 Stephen King
– 7 ______
-8 ______
-9 ______
-10 ______

Then you discover that King is a vocal supporter of that energy conservation. This creates serious cognitive dissonance that your mind must resolve: you cannot hold two related things in such different regard simultaneously, according to Festinger’s work. If you love the cause more than you detest the author, the cognitive dissonance will be resolved by your gradually feeling more positively toward King, and less positively toward the cause, so they eventually meet at plus 2.

+10______
+9 ______
+8 ______
+7 ______
+6 ______
+5 ______
+4 ______
+3 ______
+2 Stephen King; Energy Conservation
+1 ______
0__________________
-1 ______
-2 ______
– 3 ______
-4 ______
– 5 ______
-6 ______
– 7 ______
-8 ______
-9 ______
-10 ______

Suddenly, you have more interest in the author’s books. And you are less passionate, and more open-minded, about the cause. Your attitude has been adjusted, and you probably never noticed when.

Cognitive dissonance and the process whereby it changes attitudes explains much of advertising, political affiliations, biases, and most important, how powerful, popular leaders, celebrities and institutions can influence (or pervert) public culture for good or ill. A team signing Barry Bonds would set off a massive cognitive dissonance chain reaction. The team, which has the strongest positive value for most of its fans, would confer some of that positivity onto Bonds, who has seen his own values plummet below zero by the cognitive dissonance produced by his association with cheating (a strong negative), drugs (another negative), and law-breaking (also negative).

When Bonds rises on the scale, so do drugs and cheating: fans of the team signing him will become more likely to start mouthing the familiar, lame rationalizations Bonds defenders, sycophants and enablers have been using for years. (This was seen in the attitudes of Giant fans, who continued to support Bonds while the rest of baseball fans were substantially critical.)

Meanwhile, the team would fall on the scale, pulled down by Bonds’ negative value. Usually the weight of one player, no matter how negatively rated, couldn’t pull an entire team into negative territory with its fans, but this is not impossible, as I will personally attest: a lifetime, die-hard Boston Red Sox fan and a professional ethicist, I would not continue to follow or support the team if it embraced the warped ethics of Barry Bonds and the steroid apologists by signing him. I would, I am quite sure, actively dislike the team until a new regime took over, and it would probably never regain my previous level of loyalty or good will. Cognitive dissonance dictates that the team’s unavoidable decline on the value scale would also pull down others associated closely with it, such as its players, management, and major league baseball itself.

The team that hired Barry Bonds would be making a devastating statement of its own values and priorities, which would be this: “Cheating and using performance enhancing drugs is not as big a negative on our scale as winning is a positive. So if you help us win enough games, cheating is OK. In fact, it will be rewarded: observe how we hire Barry Bonds despite overwhelming evidence of steroid use and multiple federal indictments.” Hiring Barry Bonds would specifically contradict the Mitchell Report and what it stood for, which was essentially setting the cognitive dissonance value for using performance-enhancing drugs as prohibitively negative.

Sure: some factors could raise a player’s score: cooperating with Mitchell (Giambi), apologizing (Pettite), minimal use (Paul Byrd), not being good or healthy enough to matter (lots of guys). But Bonds had many factors that deepened his negative score: greed, warping the records, encouraging other players to use by his success, arrogance, embarrassing the sport through his prominence, and more.

Signing Barry Bonds in 2008 would have been as logical as the producers of the Naked Gun series deciding to hire O.J. Simpson to reprise his role as “Norberg” for Naked Gun 4, because, you know, he was sooooo funny in the first three films, and how could you do Naked Gun without bumbling Norberg? It would make as much sense as Disney hiring Lindsay Lohan for a new Herbie movie, because she’s as cute as ever. Pete Rose is a real competitor: let’s hire him to manage the Mariners! He’s just what the team needs to shake it out of its doldrums!

Add to this the fact that O.J., Rose and Lohan are definitely better bets to be able to duplicate their previous performances that a 43-year-old, gimpy-kneed Bonds after a half-season of inactivity, and you have a course of action that would not be just foolish, but certifiably insane from a business, baseball, and cultural perspective, short and long term.

Thus it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that no team took that course, nor should any team have been accused of negligence or collusion for reaching the only responsible and logical conclusion available. But a lot of sportswriters and sports commentators think values, standards and ethics are irrelevant to baseball.

They are so wrong.

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