What do the Houston Astros have to do with the state of our democracy? Let’s see.
Baseball—rightly or wrongly—has long been compared to life, or vice-versa. Washington sportswriter Thomas Boswell’s first book was a 1982 collection of essays entitled How Life Imitates the World Series.* In the essay that gave the book its title, Boswell makes the observation that the pressures in baseball differ from those of other sports. It is a pressure that ebbs and flows, day-by-day, over the length of a long season played out every day as opposed to the once a week or twice a week rhythm of the games in football, basketball, or hockey. Yet baseball pressures are heightened at key tipping points, such as during a pennant race, when one’s true character and strength comes through. Just like in real life.
What’s more pressure-packed than a World Series? Or an impeachment trial? Recently, it struck me that Boswell’s premise was perfect when the subject—as it often does these days—turns to the future of our democracy. To see how baseball and life overlap, let’s begin in Houston.
For those not immersed in baseball, the sports world is currently up-in-arms over the sign-stealing scandal by the 2017, 2018, and—perhaps—2019 Astros. In 2017, when Houston captured the World Series title, the Astros developed an elaborate and effective way to use a complicated computer program to decode the signs that the catcher was giving to the opposing pitcher coupled with center field cameras positioned to capture those signs in real time. Then—by the rather primitive method of checking a video monitor and banging on a trash can—they would relay those signs to their batter who was standing at the plate waiting for the pitch.
It is important to note that attempting to steal the catcher’s signs, if you are a player and on base, is a time-honored tradition in baseball. If the catcher and pitcher are sloppy enough to let baserunners see their signs and gain an advantage, then that’s their fault. Why does it matter? Well, if the batter knows that the pitcher is getting ready to throw a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, then he doesn’t have to hold back slightly to see if he is going to get an 88-mile-an-hour curve or an 85-mile-an-hour change-up. In other words, he can go all-in for the fastball. Given that a 95-mile-an-hour fastball travels the distance from the release of the pitch until it gets to the plate in around 425-450 milliseconds and a major league batter takes 150 milliseconds, on average, to get his bat around, it helps to know what’s coming. Good hitting verses a swing-and-a-miss or a pop-up or foul ball comes down to a few milliseconds.
Where the Astros went (way) over the line was in using video equipment (clearly illegal) and relaying those pitches from the dugout (also illegal). There are unsubstantiated rumors that some Astros batters received their signals from the bench via a buzzer they wore on their bodies. And while it is certain that the scheme took place in 2017 and 2018, no one is certain about this past year, when the Astros were shocked by the underdog Washington Nationals in the 2019 World Series. The Nationals went to great lengths to ensure that Houston’s sign-stealing scheme would not give them an advantage. However, Nationals’ catcher Kurt Suzuki is adamant that the cheating continued through last year’s fall classic. Thanks to the caution of the Nationals, it just wasn’t successful.
Major league baseball undertook an investigation after a former Astro pitcher became a whistleblower and turned in the team. Found guilty, there were major penalties assessed to the ballclub and its leadership, and the top two baseball men—the general manager and the manager—were subsequently fired by the owner. While the Astros ballpark is no longer named Enron Field, the stench of the corrupt energy company apparently remains imbedded in the brick and mortar in what is now known as Minute Maid Park. The team was penalized, but the commissioner decided not to punish the players and he also decided not to rescind the 2017 World Series Championship. That’s when all hell really broke loose.
Players as mild-mannered and upstanding as the Angels Mike Trout have called out the Astros for “cheating” and have criticized the commissioner’s actions towards the players. Many have noted that players on other teams lost their jobs or were penalized with lower-paying contracts or loss of incentives because of Houston’s actions. Even sportswriters who specialize in humor columns are outraged, and know the right thing to do.
So what does this have to do with democracy today? A great deal, I would suggest.
The Astros have been less than contrite in admitting their guilt, and have taken on the characteristics of a tribe that protects each member and has each member’s back. Some have said, “We should have spoken up when we saw the sign-stealing, but didn’t.” Virtually the entire team has refused to use the word “cheat” in describing what happened. The owner claims that the cheating had “no impact” on the games. Right. There have been suggestions that others have done similar things (including the World Champion 2018 Red Sox), so it is okay. Some in baseball have called out the whistleblower, with Red Sox legend David Ortiz going so far as to call him a “snitch.”
This is what happens when the tribe and the need to win becomes more important than living by a moral compass and being guided by a larger purpose in life. When we look at our country today, it is pretty obvious that the president is comfortable with breaking not only norms but laws, if it gets him what he wants. Donald Trump has taken actions his entire life that fall on the other side of the law. He has openly admitted, and even bragged about, the illegal actions for which he was impeached by the House of Representatives. He has invited foreign countries in to tamper with our elections. After the Republican members of the Senate let him off on impeachment, he began punishing his perceived enemies, including decorated veterans and individuals he appointed to office, while pardoning his political friends. He has called the whistleblower, whose complaint began the impeachment process, a snitch and a traitor.
Donald Trump is who he is, and he hasn’t changed just because he shocked the world and became president of the United States. If it talks like a duck and walks like a duck, chances are really good it is a duck. But like the Houston Astros players, those who enable him as elected officials or members of the media have turned a blind eye to the cheating and stealing that is taking place right under their noses. The lack of a moral compass has never been more obvious.
There are multiple reasons people cheat at sports and in politics. Most relate to gaining and retaining power and money. In our country at the moment, both are on vivid display. But those involved often strongly deny they are cheating because they fear being called out as a fraud. With both the Astros and with Donald Trump, their over-the-top responses to the charges of cheating are made in response to a fear of an asterisk. They fear someone saying their “wins” weren’t legitimate.
People with a strong moral compass see through this charade. Robert Glazer has written that “Great leaders encourage dissent, welcome whistleblowing and encourage contrasting points of view. Weak leaders demand blind obedience and threaten those who would dare point out any shortcomings or question their decisions. What has become clear,” he continues, “is that when leaders lower the ethical bar, followers are compelled to do the limbo, resulting in the lowering of their own standards. It’s a downward spiral for everyone.”
Boswell—still writing about baseball going into his fifth decade—called out the Astros and, by extension, today’s Republican party:
“Once we are reminded of the great damage that cheating does, we are forced to see the cheaters not as mere rascals and rule-benders but as profoundly selfish and destructive people whose lack of a moral compass cannot be shrugged off with rationalizations that make us feel comfortable. Such as ‘everybody does it’—when we know they don’t. Or ‘why punish only the ones who get caught?’— when that’s exactly what we do in every area of daily life, from murder to insider trading.”
Or it is what we use to do…when we had a fully functioning democracy.
It will be the citizens of this country who decide if we will abandon our experiment in self-governance. Lewis Lapham puts the case forward in the following way:
“It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”
Baseball. Democracy. There is a wide gulf between what matters at the core of these two enterprises. Yet, in many ways Boswell was right. There are so many similarities. And we see that today in knowing that we all have to make our decisions, when we reach those tipping points of pressure, on where we will stand. It may be helpful to remember that in one of the most influential works about the journey of the soul, Dante wrote that there is a special place in infamy for those unwilling to choose between good and evil.
In the end, not making a decision is a decision.
More to come…
*The context behind that proposition could be seen in his very first essay, which has the feisty title: “This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.“
Images from Pixabay.