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CV Commentary: The National Pastime? Baseball, Politics And Ethics

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Dr. Robert Smith

The following is a commentary from Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.    

Where do I even begin with such a title? Please know I tried so hard to make this commentary an upbeat reflection of our current circumstances in comparison to our national pastime as the new and abbreviated Major League Baseball Season finally begins. But, as I started with a lite hearted tone, I soon discovered the serious side of the topic and maybe its connection to our national fabric particularly as it affects the political scene in 2020.

Baseball is our national pastime, its America’s game, our youth are eager and excited to take up the sport, and we’re all ready to showcase and praise the superstars of baseball. Indeed, we all have our favorite teams! Go Cards, Cubs, Yankees or Sox!!! But our COVID 19 Pandemic has shortened the baseball season. There are no fans in the stadium and some teams are struggling with an outbreak of COVID in the clubhouse. Not the stellar and long anticipated opening any of us were waiting for, but heck baseball is back!

At the same time, state and national politics have almost become the new national pastime. What else would we do these days except follow the latest drama between Democrats and Republicans, escapades from the White House, rallies (masks or no masks), fiery congressional hearings, controversial court cases, Black Lives or All Lives divisions, federal presence in the streets, allegations of voter fraud (before any voting) or maybe postponing the General Election.

Who needs the excitement of a close call at home base, or a well-executed double play? Heck we have Donald Trump promoting COVID home remedies, a flurry of pardons streaming from the White House, Pelosi and McConnell wrestling over COVID 19 benefits; the Courts ruling for the left and then the right, the economy and GDP in free fall, debates over masks or no masks, states open (but then closed), protests and rioting spilling into the streets, and China jousting with Russia over who is this Country’s biggest threat. Plenty of action on all fronts!

When it comes to politics my neighbors and friends say “…well you know, they are all liars and cheaters and in it for themselves…” or “the only thing that matters in politics is winning and being right.” Scandals are left and right these days at all levels of government, corporate fraud and missteps are everywhere too and maybe even everyday people are not being as nice to each other these days (mask controversy and rising crime rates). Indeed, where is our societal ethical compass?

But baseball is different, it’s fun, and it’s our release. The pure joy of heading to the sandlot to play a pickup game or suiting up for the softball or baseball game after school or work. Heading to a minor league or major league game with the family. Those are (err, were) the good old days. Times were simpler and baseball somehow helped us escape and rise above the malaise we sometimes face in everyday life and it was a great escape if only for nine innings. But, then I thought…is that really true?

I can’t help think about an off-season story that just jumped off the pages…at least for me. It jumps off the pages because it hurts. The story of course is the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal! Sign stealing? Those baseball aficionados might say what’s the big deal…stealing signs to help teams win has always been part of the game. Hmmmm. Maybe, but does that make it right? And it sure doesn’t sound very ethical to me.

In January of last year, MLB confirmed that the Astros illegally used a camera system to steal signs during the 2017 regular season and postseason, during which they won the World Series, as well as in part of the 2018 season. MLB found no evidence of illicit sign stealing in the 2019 season, in which the Astros advanced to and lost the World Series. But…no matter how you slice and dice that…it’s cheating! Several managers were fired; the Astros got fined $5 million, and forfeited their first- and second-round draft picks. No players were punished.

And, I’m afraid this isn’t the first time, as you look at the history of baseball, whether it was Shoeless Joe Jackson of our stalwart Chicago White Sox conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. Or more recently Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds gambling on baseball games while he played for and managed the Reds, baseball has a history of what I would call…ethics transgressions.

My goodness, what about the notion of sportsmanship and fair play? This story really bothered me. Because in the final analysis no one seemed to care!! Punishments for cheating are relatively minor, several other investigations get sidetracked, and even the media and the public just move on.

Does the seeming acceptance of cheating in our national pastime, and perhaps other sports, say something about the fans and maybe citizens’ acceptance of cheating, lying, and otherwise unethical behavior in society and especially in American politics? As we think about the values or golden rules we try to promote to our youth, being ethical seems to be an important one. Yet if Major League Baseball (sort of like mom and apple pie) can cheat, what does that say about our faith in other institutions? Or maybe our role in looking the other way?

The message the Houston Astro cheating story says to me is that well if cheating is ok for baseball, then it must be ok for corporations, government agencies and politicians.  And heck maybe it’s ok for me too! As usual, I don’t have the answer, but I would suggest we all need to be a little more “ethical” in our actions towards each other and in how we conduct our public affairs and maybe even raise our ethical expectations of government, politicians and democratic institutions.

Baseball is back in the spotlight (sort of) and the Houston Astro scandal is old news. But as Major League Baseball struggles back, this forces me to look even closer at our institutions in society (government and corporations) and wonder whether or not the “fix” is in. Are these systems rigged against us? Against the little guy or average citizen? Are these institutions cheating, and how do we even know it? More important, does anyone really care?  Goodness, if it can happen in baseball “America’s Pastime,” I suppose it can happen anywhere.

So on a Thursday night at home…what do I do for entertainment…do I watch Fox News or CNN and all the clever political pundits, or do I check out what baseball teams are playing? 

Play Ball…

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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