Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Baseball Ethics Lesson: When Friendly Advice is Unethical

Joe Girardi, recently fired manager of baseball’s Florida Marlins despite leading his young and unheralded team to a surprisingly successful season in 2006, may have shown why the organization was right to send him packing.

In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jon Lieber revealed that Girardi contacted him during the season to tell the pitcher that some of the Marlins players had observed that Lieber’s pitches were “flat.” The conversation occurred shortly after a July 31 Marlins win in which their batters pummeled Lieber. Lieber, old pro that he is, knew what Girardi’s revelation meant.

“Basically, I was underneath the ball,” Lieber told the Daily News. “I wasn’t on top of the ball like I should have been. And that’s why the ball doesn’t have that crispness when it gets to the strike zone or that sharp break on my breaking ball.” Lieber fixed his mechanics, and was much better from then on. He also beat Girardi’s Marlins twice, helping to ensure that the team narrowly missed the play-offs.

The news of Girardi’s friendly tip apparently caused some consternation among the Marlins, and with good reason. At the time the Marlins field leader decided to give his help to an opposition pitcher, the two teams were neck-and-neck in a battle for the Wild Card. Why was Joe Girardi assisting “the enemy?”

Girardi didn’t and doesn’t see it that way. He was Lieber’s catcher during his playing days, and regarded him only as a friend, not a bitter adversary. “If you think a friendly conversation cost us the Wild Card, you’re sadly mistaken,” he told “They’re acting like I sat people down and gave signals away.” Here Girardi was attempting to make a distinction between giving proprietary team information to the opposition and giving “friendly” advice to an old buddy—who would use that advice to the detriment of Girardi’s team. Sorry Joe; there is no distinction. Both are betrayals of duty and trust.

As the Marlins manager, Girardi had an ethical duty to the people, his players, whom he led, and his employers, the Florida Marlins, who paid him to defeat and surpass the other teams in the National League. It is a clear breach of ethics for a Marlins manager, or any Marlins employee, player or coach, to give an opposing pitcher useful information that will improve that pitcher’s performance to the benefit of a team that isn’t the Marlins. It doesn’t matter one bit if the information is “You’re tipping off your pitches,” “Here are our signs,” or “Our third-baseman is a sucker for a change-up out of the strike zone.”

The sports media, being generally as competent in discussing ethics as they are in assessing Paris fashion trends, have played this story as a “fraternization” issue, which misses the point. Yes, baseball has a rule against players fraternizing “at any time while in uniform.” That rule is for appearances sake. It doesn’t look good to the fans, who want to feel as if their players approach every game with fire in their bellies and hatred in their hearts, when they see their heroes chumming around with the supposed “bad guys” from the other team before a game. But anyone who thinks about the issue for ten seconds should understand that the players are not going to be antagonistic to each other outside of the games, for they belong to the same elite profession, the same union, and often have been on the same teams in the past. They’ve showered together, for heaven’s sake. The anti-fraternization rule has more to do with illusion than reality, because many people believe that you can’t exchange niceties with someone one minute and throw a fastball at his head the next. Those people, bless ’em, do not work in the fields of law, big business, entertainment or politics. Or professional sports.

Fraternization is not the issue in Girardi’s conduct. Giving his old battery mate a big hug or a bouquet of flowers on the field would not have injured the Marlins, though it would have just disillusioned many of the Marlins fans (if one can use the word “many” in the same sentence as “Marlins fans.”). What Girardi did was a betrayal, plain and simple. He put his friendship with Lieber above his primary duty, which was to do what was in the best interests of his team. It was in the best interests of his team for Jon Lieber to pitch as badly as possible, especially when he faced the Marlins. Lieber’s problems on the mound were not appropriate for Girardi’s attention, because they were professional problems, and Girardi and Lieber had diametrically opposed professional obligations. If Lieber was having marital problems, or needed a good surgeon for his family, then Girardi’s duties as a friend would make giving Lieber advice on those personal topics ethical. But his pitching mechanics? Those were problems for Lieber’s pitching coach, current catcher, and team mates, not his former catcher who was now being paid to beat him.

This isn’t really a difficult ethical issue, but clearly baseball players and writers, and certainly Girardi, seem to have difficulty grasping it. One Marlin, who asked to remain unnamed, said, “I’m sure it happens more than people realize. I think hitters may call a former hitting coach if they are struggling. The thing Joe should have done was tell Lieber, ‘Don’t tell anyone I’m telling you this, but … .'”

[INSERT SOUND OF ETHICIST SCREAMING IN FRUSTRATION HERE] Everybody does it, he reasons, so Girardi’s mistake was not making sure that his betrayal was kept secret!

No wonder these guys have difficulty understanding why they shouldn’t use steroids.

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