September 2008 Ethics Dunces

Everybody at the September 3 MLB game between the Tigers and Angels


Ok, not everybody. Just the umpires, players, managers, coaches, broadcasters and ballpark officials.

The ethical duty of competence is a pretty low standard. It’s unethical to drive a car if you are blind. Don’t attempt brain surgery if you’re a podiatrist. Don’t defend someone for murder if you’re a patent attorney. That sort of thing. The next step up, a big one, is diligence. Pay attention. Do your job the best you can. Make sure you reach at least the minimal performance levels expected of you.

At the September 3 baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels in Detroit’s Comerica Park, Angels batter Sean Rodriguezlost track of the balls and strikes count. He asked the umpire, whose job it is to keep track of such things. But Tim Welke, a veteran major league umpire, a member of a union and everything, couldn’t remember the count (he also has a little mechanical counter), so he asked the catcher, Brandon Inge. Now, Inge has only recently become a full-time catcher, but still— it is a catcher’s job to know the count, because he chooses the pitches and sends signals to the pitcher. He told Welke the count was one ball and two strikes. That sounded good to the umpire, who agreed. He then told the scoreboard operator to change the count on the board, which read two balls and two strikes. But the scoreboard was correct! Did the operator say anything? No! It is his job to communicate the correct count to everyone in the park, including day-dreaming umpires, half-awake catchers, and batters who can’t count past two. But the operator just went along with the flow. The careless, idiotic flow.

The result of all this was that even though the pitcher (who might well have known the right count but was perfectly happy to benefit from the inept dolts around him) threw what should have been balls three and four, and they were recorded as only balls two and three. On a 3-2 count (by the scoreboard) and a 4-2 count (in the world called “reality”), Rodriguez struck out, when he should have been on first base. The Tigers were retired having made only two real outs.

Baseball just installed a system for instant replay to get home-run and foul calls right, and yet its highly-paid “professionals” can’t pay attention or count sufficiently to keep track of balls and strikes as well as the typical Little League. Clearly, the Angels players and coaches weren’t paying attention; the batter wasn’t; the umpire wasn’t. The radio and TV broadcasters, who have little graphics to tell viewers the pitch count, weren’t following either. Nobody noticed, and if someone did, they didn’t have the courage or sense of responsibility to speak up.

This fiasco would be funny, except for this: the exact same kind of mass abdication of diligence is what causes wars, space shuttles to crash, communities to be poisoned, bridges to collapse and cities to drown in hurricanes. It is often said that America cares more about its sports than about educating children or curing cancer, and that may well be true. Such blatant and widespread carelessness and incompetence in a professional sport being broadcast nation-wide should frighten us, because it is a warning: unless every individual is prepared to be diligent and competent, incompetence and fecklessness can take over a system.

The umpires, all four of them, should be fired. They can’t be trusted. The Angles coaches and players should be fined and reprimanded. The scoreboard operator? Suspend him. Do it for Enron. Do it for Iraq. Do it for New Orleans, and the Exxon Valdez. This mass breakdown in diligence, competence and courage only resulted in a botched base on balls. The next one may kill people.

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