December 31, 2008 8 Comments
Let’s start out by stipulating to something. Barry Bonds* would have made at least one team in baseball (and probably a lot of teams) better on the field. Word on the street was that Bonds* was willing to play for the MLB minimum, and as the season progressed, it was clear that there were teams that could have used a good power-hitting DH, or maybe just a guy to stick into LF once in a while, even if he was inching into his mid-40s. Sure, some teams wanted to go with a youth movement, and others already had a dandy DH. But, no one wanted him?
It’s not hard to figure out why teams were shy on signing Barry in 2008. After all, he might have inhaled. And so last week at Hardball Times (on Christmas Eve… which is when I basically checked out of society for a few days…), a gentleman named Jack Marhsall posted a piece looking at the question of “Why not?” from an ethical perspective. The article generated a bit of discussion, sadly, more of it heat than light.
Marshall’s argument rested on a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance theory, which talks about what happens when someone faces up to the fact that they hold two contradictory views and has to reconcile that. As a psychologist myself, I don’t recommend reading his explanation of the subject, as he missed some technical, but important details. Equilibration, which is what he proposes, isn’t the only defense mechanism that one can use against cognitive dissonance.
Basically, his argument goes something like this. That queasy feeling that you would have gotten in the pit of your stomach because Barry Bonds* was playing for your team would make you feel more negatively about your favorite team. Even if Bonds* were hitting a home run every 3 PA, it would still be hard to reconcile the fact that your team might very well win a World Series championship on the back of a cheater. It might raise your opinion of Bonds* to see him in your team’s uni. But a team would be dealing itself a self-inflicted wound by signaling that they were willing to sink to Bonds* (alleged) level. So, therefore a team would have no incentive to sign Bonds*. Makes sense on the surface.
Let’s stick with the equilibration argument, and suppose that there were a team that really didn’t have a lot going for it to begin with (aka, nothing to lose.) They hadn’t won a championship in a while, but Barry Bonds* might well have been the difference-maker between a legitimate shot at a championship and another season in third place. Yeah, signing Bonds* might have had a negative effect on the team’s perception, but perhaps it would spark some interest in the team itself, whether for reasons of making the team better or sideshow curiosity. People would go from being un-interested to very interested, and even given the debit from the bad Bonds* karma, the team might just come out ahead in those stakes for having signed him. Cognitive dissonance is not a static process.
Marshall says that if his beloved Boston Red Sox had signed Bonds (and after David Ortiz was injured mid-season, a few people in the media floated the idea), he would have forsworn the Red Sox until they brought in new management. I guess the queasy feeling would just be too much for him.
The real question is why is that queasy feeling there to begin with? For that, I turn to another psychological theory, this one by Abraham Maslow, on the hierarchy of human needs. Maslow’s theory says that human being are ultimately striving for what he termed “self-actualization”, a term that he reserved for such “peak experiences” as mystical commuinion with the divine. Interpreted more broadly, and in the context of baseball, we might say that the peak experience in baseball is winning the World Series. Not coincidentally, that’s everyone’s stated goal at the beginning of every season (and I don’t believe them for a minute… but that’s another chapter). Before getting to those peak experiences, humans have to take care of other needs first, and in a specific order.
The first needs are for things like food and air. The second is for safety, both immediate (no one around trying to hurt me) and future (financial security). Then, comes the need for love and then respect and admiration. The needs have to be filled in this order, according to Maslow’s theory. Only after fulfilling all four can those peak experiences be pursued. Think about it. If you don’t have food, you don’t care what it looks like to other people, you find food. But if you do have food (and security), you begin to think more about what other people think about you. All 30 teams surely wanted to win a World Series last year, but apparently all of them decided that the loss of respectability wasn’t worth it. So teams actually did the strangely counter-intuitive action of refusing to sign someone who would have brought them closer to their stated goal and the fans celebrated them for it.
Perhaps under different circumstances, a team owner/GM/decision maker might have figured that they had enough esteem from elsewhere that they wouldn’t mind the bad press. It didn’t happen, clearly. But it might have. And certainly some of the fans of the team would have decieded that rooting for a cheater just wasn’t something that they could have their friends catch them doing (although I’m guessing that there would have been a lot of subterranean fans …) Some of them, on the other hand, might not have felt that their needs were being threatened and cheered openly and proudly.
I suppose that whether winning at all costs is ethically permissible is a question for the philosophers. Frankly, I was never much on the subject of philosophy… it always seemed to be a game that ended in a standstill with both sides having large words to justify their positions and their upset stomachs. But I would put forward that teams weren’t thinking about their duty to the American culture. It’s much more base than that. I’d say that they were more thinking with their stomachs, and it was simply a matter that none of the teams who would have benefitted from Bonds*’s presence could stomach having Barry Bonds* on their team.