Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Tony LaRussa’s World Series Ethics

Some cynics would say that we should expect Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa would be ethically challenged; after all, he is a lawyer. But that would be unfair to lawyers. If there is one ethical principle lawyers understand well, it is that their primary duty is to serve the interests of their clients, the people who hire them and trust them. LaRussa appears to have willfully violated that ethical principle in Game Two of the 2006 World Series. He had his reasons. Did they supersede his ethical obligation to his “client,” the St. Louis Cardinals? Let’s examine them and decide.

In the first inning, with his team at bat, LaRussa’s players informed him that the Fox national telecast had shown that Detroit starting pitcher Kenny Rogers had some kind of dark substance on his pitching hand. If it was pine tar, as the Fox announcers speculated, Rogers was breaking the rules, which prohibit a pitcher from having a foreign substance on his person…especially a substance, like pine tar, KY Jelly or Vaseline, that in the hands of the right pitcher can make a baseball perform stunts that the Cirque du Soleil would envy. All LaRussa had to do was ask the umpires to inspect Rogers, and if he was caught black-handed the Tigers ace would not only be ejected from the crucial game but quite probably suspended for cheating. To say this would give the injured and underdog Cardinals a large competitive boost is an understatement.

But Tony LaRussa didn’t demand an inspection. He merely asked the umpires to tell Rogers to wash off his hand, which he did. Rogers then went out and pitched his third terrific game of the post-season, shutting out LaRussa’s team for eight innings. The Cardinal manager said he didn’t regret his decision at all. “That not the way we wanted to win,” he said.

That eight word sentence is ripe with mystery. Does LaRussa really mean “we,” or does he mean “I”? It is almost certainly the latter. Winning because the other team is punished for attempting to cheat is not dishonorable; it’s the cheating team that has disgraced itself. The Cardinals organization, LaRussa’s players and the team’s fans would hardly have risen up in protest had he insisted that Rogers be properly punished for attempting to get a prohibited “edge,” if that is indeed what he was doing. It was LaRussa, and only LaRussa, who didn’t want to win that “way.” But why?

Some have speculated that he withheld an official protest to the umpires because of his friendship with Tigers manager Jim Leyland, a suggestion that LaRussa has angrily denied. No wonder. LaRussa knows that if that played any part in his controversial decision, he would be guilty of placing a personal relationship above his duties as manager, a breach of loyalty calling into question his ability to zealously pursue the Cardinal’s goal of winning the Series to the necessary detriment of his friend in the other dugout. A lawyer who refused to exploit a mistake by opposing counsel in trial because of a long-standing friendship would be a candidate for disbarment as well as a malpractice suit.

LaRussa’s real reason seems to involve his interpretation of the so-called “unwritten rules” of baseball. Some of those unwritten rules are long-standing and well known: “Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter”… “Don’t steal bases or sacrifice if your team is winning by a large margin”…”Don’t risk injuring an opposing player in a rout”… “If the other team beans your team’s star, your pitcher has to bean their team’s star.” LaRussa, however, has embraced a relatively new “unwritten rule,” and an uncommonly bad one, which seems to be, “Since everybody on both teams is trying to get an edge by skirting the rules, don’t do anything more than is necessary to stop the cheating when you catch the other team doing it. Next time, it may be you.” Or as he put it,

“There’s a line that defines the competition, and you can sneak over that line, because we’re all fighting for an edge. Just because there’s a little something that a pitcher is using to get a better grip, that doesn’t cross the line. I said [to the umpires], “Let’s get rid of it and keep playing.”

This is rationalization for unethical conduct on an epic scale. Here is the Scoreboard’s translation of LaRussa’s statement:

  • “There’s a line that defines the competition, and you can sneak over that line…” Translation: “Anything you can do without getting caught is fair in this game….”
  • ” …because we’re all fighting for an edge.” Translation: “…because everybody cheats and we all know it.”
  • “…Just because there’s a little something that a pitcher is using to get a better grip,…” Translation: “An opposing pitcher may be using an illegal sticky substance to throw a better sinker ball, but so are some of my pitchers.”
  • …that doesn’t cross the line.” Translation: “Just because it’s cheating doesn’t mean we should make a big thing out of it.”
  • I said [to the umpires], “Let’s get rid of it and keep playing.” Translation: “People who live in glass houses can’t afford to throw stones. Some day I’m going to want another manager to look the other way when one of my guys gets caught cheating.”

One cannot interpret LaRussa’s words or actions without reflecting on the fact that he was at Ground Zero when the steroid epidemic exploded, not once but twice. He managed Jose Canseco with the A’s while the muscle-head Oakland slugger was using steroids and promoting them to other players, including Mark McGwire. And he was McGwire’s manager in St. Louis when the now-pumped up first baseman used his “edge” to set a new single season home-run record, later broken by fellow steroid aficionado Barry Bonds. Did LaRussa know what pharmaceutical misconduct was going on, but tolerate it because his players were just “fighting for an edge”?

LaRussa’s supposedly sportsmanlike gesture in the World Series is really an endorsement of the cheating culture that has allowed Bonds, McGwire and others to thrive in baseball. In the context of the rampant abuse of banned performance-enhancing drugs that went on in clubhouses he watched over by players he was charged with supervising, LaRussa’s decision to allow Rogers to avoid detection and punishment seems less like a principled statement that one shouldn’t seek to win by penalizing the opposition for a rules infraction (itself a flawed ethical proposition), and more like a pragmatic position that cheating is a legitimate tool of competition.

It is a fair assumption that Tony LaRussa would not support this tool’s utility if it wasn’t in his own toolbox.

LaRussa’s decision in Game 1 was unethical. He was unethical not to use every means available to him under the rules of baseball to increase his team’s chances of winning the game and the World Series. It is not up to Tony LaRussa to decide what “way” of winning is acceptable. His job is to win, period, by any means the game permits. He was also wrong to openly endorse cheating as a legitimate tactic in baseball, though there is good reason to believe that LaRussa endorsed this philosophy long ago. His “sportsmanlike” gesture in fact was the antithesis of sportsmanship. By sympathizing with cheating rather than condemning it, LaRussa undermined the spirit of competition and the integrity of his game.

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