So why didn’t anyone sign Barry?

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.


8 Responses to So why didn’t anyone sign Barry?

  1. colin says:

    tht doesn’t have comments set up so i’m leaving this here:
    that article just wasn’t very good. it’s generated the discussion it has likely as a function of that fact. tht has higher standards than that and i hope he isn’t encouraged to write again.

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    FWIW, BallHype hosts THT’s comments section.

  3. Dan Novick says:

    More than one person went through this earlier in the year, but what team should have signed him? You can’t just look at all of baseball and say that somebody should have done it.
    The team had to:
    1)Be in the AL so he could DH
    2)Not already have a good DH (like Ortiz or Thome), or someone who needs to spend significant time there (Vlad or Giambi)
    3)Be in contention (Royals weren’t going to sign him)
    By my count, that leaves one team: The Twins. So you can’t ask, “How come nobody signed Bonds?” and come up with some psychology BS (as Pizza pointed out). The question should be, “Why didn’t the Twins sign Bonds?” I suspect there are people around the web more qualified than Jack Marshall to answer that question.

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    There were a few other teams that could have used the help. The D’Backs after Eric Byrnes went down. The Indians probably would have done well to replace David Delucci. The Blue Jays traded away Matt Stairs mid-season… anyone need a lefty DH? Even still, there might not have been many “natural fits”, but there certainly were some places where for the price of a flyer on a fourth outfielder, you could have a player who could very well power your lineup.

  5. Dan Novick says:

    The Blue Jays were the second team I almost included in that, but I edited the comment when I realized they finished 11 games out of the division and 9 out of the WC (4th place in the east). I figured they realized they weren’t going to make the playoffs even if they signed Bonds mid-season. On July first they were in last place and 11 games out, so I eliminated them.
    The Diamondbacks I guess could have been a fit. But I was eliminating all the NL teams since they can all claim that they don’t want him playing the field.
    I also don’t think Bonds would settle for a 4th outfielder role, but that’s just my opinion.

  6. Nick says:

    I realize I’m just some guy reporting what was supposedly told to a friend of mine, but according to him, a person of importance in the Tampa FO said that they “wanted” to sign Bonds, but that they were told that if they did, MLB would pull/hold up funding for a new stadium. Who knows what’s actually true, of course, but it does seem possible to me that there was some behind the scenes arm twisting from MLB…

  7. Dan Novick says:

    Sounds juicy… I love conspiracy theories. I guess I also forgot the Rays in my comment above (#3).
    Happy new year everybody.

  8. bheikoop says:

    You write,
    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.
    This is in fact a false claim. Marshall simply does not care about the representation of Bonds (steroids/PEDs) as a player with similar traits, Paul Byrd, arrived in Boston this season and did not upset his stomach enough to disregard the Red Sox management.
    In other words, Marshall was writing more about his distaste for Barry Bonds then he was specifically about what Bonds represented, or the ethical issues surrounding bringing him aboard.
    In addition, much of the criticism Marshall has received is based on his blatant disregard for facts and logic. Whether he did so intentionally, or simply is a ‘fan’ not knowing much about baseball is up for debate.
    I’ve wrote at length about this topic, feel free to check it out.

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