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.
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
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?).
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
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
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:
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....
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....