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Baseball is as American as, well, Free Enterprise

Earlier this week New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter was embroiled in a minor controversy when he pretended to be hit by a pitch and so got a free ticket to first base. Replays, and an after-game admission by Jeter, proved that he hadn't been hit by the pitch at all, but simply pretended to have been. Even as he was pretending the home plate umpire was telling him to take his base. Whether he was granted the base because of his dramatic antics is unclear, as the umpire seemed to already have been persuaded that he'd been hit by the pitch. You can watch MLB's coverage which shows you specifically what happened. And then the fallout.

Needless to say. there are a lot of views within the sports world about what transpired that are all over the board. While this is a rather minor instance to be sure, it still involves a major player. And I think it strikes a chord in Americans for a reason they may not realize. Because they're Americans! And by that I mean, capitalists. Entrepreneurs. People who like innovation and who like to succeed.

One of my favorite sports writers Joe Posnanski, weighing in at Sports Illustrated, put it this way:

... Baseball prides itself on its spirit. It began as a game of scofflaws, a cast of hard-core men who created the modern rule book by stretching the very limits of the game. Pitching as we know it grew out of pitchers' refusing to just pitch the ball underhand to the batter as the original rules stated. The foul-bunt-on-two-strikes-is-a-strikeout rule came into effect because guys would just keep bunting the ball foul otherwise. The dirt-ball was outlawed. The spitball was outlawed. The corked bat was outlawed. The infield fly rule was introduced to keep people from dropping balls on purpose to get double plays. A rule was added that fielders were not allowed to stand in the batter's sight-line and try to distract. The pitcher's mound was lowered and more closely measured. Steroid testing began. Baseball is a sport in constant flux because the game itself encourages pushing the framework of sportsmanship, and the rulebook attempts to bring back some semblance of order. ....
Baseball is the quintessential American game in part because it so closely mirrors the unique American spirit of independence, entrepreneurship, and adaptation - subtly, not overtly. Not surprisingly, these are all virtues that make up the free-market, capitalist system as it should be (although not necessarily as we know it in the US today). Neither rules, nor mechanisms, are put into place (or they shouldn't be) to manage, conduct, regulate or improve the performance of the system in free-market economies, anymore than they are in the baseball.

In baseball, most rules come into being after the fact so to speak. They come to fruition as a reaction, and rightly so. Why burden a system with unnecessary rules and laws that impede performance. Rather, the system will perform best if it is left unregulated, until such a time as rules and regulations are clearly needed to keep the system functioning to the best of its abilities.

This is what documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns, perhaps unwittingly, exposed and trumpeted to the world in his phenomenally successful 18 hour Baseball documentary series in the 90s. That series, besides being a story about baseball, was a history lesson about being American - about democracy, about capitalism, about striving for progress, about freedom and liberty. And, as many such stories are, it also was about some of the negative things that have accompanied the US in its all too human lifespan.

What Burns did was to show how baseball both mirrored the great American experience, and led by example. Both the good and the bad. For example, the race barrier in baseball was broken years ahead of the Civil Rights movement.

And here we are with another example from Derek Jeter. Jeter, an American success story. Jeter, a sports legend - untarnished by any serious controversy or scandal. His foibles are endearing, his attitude is can-do, and his Americaness seems pure. So, when he is involved in even a very minor kerfuffle, it is examined more closely than it might otherwise be regarded.

But, there are those like Posnanski who see this as an example of the decidedly unpopular attitude of cut-throat, win-at-any-cost behavior. He quotes Leo Durocher (who was as all-American as they come having played for some of the most famous Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers teams of the 1920s-40s): "I don't call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it."

That is neatly followed by Posnanski's very confused (at least to me) moral relativism:

The morality of the play? Right? Wrong? Part of the game? That's for you to decide. I have my own view; I hope to teach my own daughters to always play by the rules, and I would be furious if one of them did something like what Jeter did. That would lead to a DFL -- one of Daddy's Famous Lectures. But I also understand that Major League Baseball is a lot different from kid soccer or tee-ball, it's a competitive and furious game, played at a ludicrously high level with suffocating pressures and intensity, and winning is at the heart of it.
Those who view this as a "win-at-all-costs" move are not looking at this realistically. There really is no cost. Nobody was killed or maimed. It's a game, and Jeter used that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to bring his team success. And, that's what Americans do all the time, every day, play like the game is on the line.

Mickey Craig from Hillsdale College probably put it best when he wrote:

"Baseball differs from the other major sports in how it applies this principle of equal opportunity for unequal ability to excel. Let us call this American equality the principle of the Declaration of Independence. It combines the principle of individualism with the principles of citizenship. Baseball is designed to put each individual on the spot periodically. While a member of a team, the batter is alone. He stands up and his success or (failure) contributes to the success (or failure) of the whole. No other team game combines this one-on-one aspect as does the game of baseball."

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

2 Comments

If Mr. Jeter elects to invest in a brobdingnagian home then that's up to him. If it in fact is disturbing Derek's playing then pay him less so he won't be able to afford such distracting extravagance.

Derek Jeter is really a fairly damn good baseball player. Valued at the millions he is making, do not consider him so.

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