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A GREAT ZEAL FOR JUSTICE, SAYS THE AUTHOR, PERMEATES BASEBALL RULES
Ben Yagoda
April 16, 1979
Baseball, which last year completed its most remunerative season ever, has made a fine showing in the American economic system. But even if it lost money, the sport would deserve the position of national pastime by virtue of its rules. It seems to me they constitute a thoroughly admirable slice of moral philosophy. Reading between the lines in the rule book, one finds a consistent code of justice, personal accountability and equality, and even a kind of grace.
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April 16, 1979

A Great Zeal For Justice, Says The Author, Permeates Baseball Rules

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Baseball, which last year completed its most remunerative season ever, has made a fine showing in the American economic system. But even if it lost money, the sport would deserve the position of national pastime by virtue of its rules. It seems to me they constitute a thoroughly admirable slice of moral philosophy. Reading between the lines in the rule book, one finds a consistent code of justice, personal accountability and equality, and even a kind of grace.

Since game rules strictly set out what is and isn't to be done, all sports imply a morality of a kind. In real life, the largely negative presence of the law leaves us pretty much on our own, but in sport, rules are always in the forefront-demanding fairness, defining goals and tasks. And baseball seems to have the most philosophical implications of all: the very structure of the game is full of them. The numerical scheme of threes and nines, the fact that everyone gets the same chance at the plate (or did before the DH rule) and the object of the game (returning "home") suggest an esteem for order, a commitment to equal opportunity and an awareness that all experience may be cyclical.

Individual baseball rules also contain a moral code. There are strictures against the brutal and the sordid—the beanball I and the spitball. Deception is frowned upon, too—hence the balk call and the infield-fly rule, which prevents infielders from disingenuously mulling pop-ups in order to make a double play.

Other baseball rules are more positive. Only the first two foul balls are strikes, since it wouldn't be fair to call a player out for hitting a foul. Decisions must be lived with; once a pinch hitter has been announced, he must appear, and a player who has left the game may not return. Though each team has precisely the same number of chances to score, a winning run coming across in the last half of the last inning halts play, since continuing would be rubbing it in. Baseball even recognizes, as do the most sophisticated philosophers, the importance of doubt (once a bailer has swung, he will never know whether the pitch would have been a ball or strike) and the improbable (what other sport has anything to compare with the dropped-third-strike regulation?).

Where baseball's ethical underpinning comes across most clearly, however, is in statistics. The very weight attached to the records and averages of the game has significance. It implies, on the one hand, that everything a player does is worth recording and remembering, and also that his ultimate worth is to be figured over the long run (162 games, 500 at bats), giving him the opportunity to right any mistake.

Statistics are also remarkable for the importance they give to intention, as opposed to result. This is a luxury that the law itself cannot always afford, and it is the mark of a truly advanced system of ethics. That a player has landed on first, for instance, is far less important statistically than how he got there. He is not charged with a time at bat if he has walked or been hit by a pitch or sacrificed himself (itself a highly moral concept), but is charged with an at bat and an out if he has gained first on an error or fielder's choice. In addition, it is counted as a stolen base, not a wild pitch, passed ball or error, if a runner intends to steal and the play to get him out is somehow bungled.

Other statistics are designed to ensure that a player is responsible for his own actions, but not for anyone else's. A batter is awarded an RBI if he makes an out and a run scores, but not if he hits into a double play (that would be too charitable). The most important statistic for a pitcher is earned run average, which absolves him from runs he can't prevent—except in the case of runners on base when he leaves the game, who are his "responsibility." And new statistics-saves, home-run percentage, slugging average, on-base percentage—are being developed all the time, so that achievement is duly recognized.

But the ultimate demonstration of baseball's zeal for justice are the guidelines for determining the winning pitcher when more than one man has pitched for the victors. They are breathtaking in their attempt to give credit where credit is due, and the 1978 baseball rules deserve to be quoted at length:

"Credit the starting pitcher with a game won only if he has pitched at least live complete innings and his team not only is in the lead when he is replaced but remains in the lead the remainder of the game....

"When the starting pitcher cannot be credited with the victory...[and] during the tenure of the starting pitcher, the winning team assumes the lead and maintains it to the finish of the game, credit the victory to the relief pitcher judged by the scorer to have been most effective....

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