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Is Acting Unethical in Baseball?

UPDATE 10/12/10: Animated .gif files have been removed due to bandwidth issues.

During the bottom of the seventh inning of Game Two of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, Chase Utley was awarded first base when it seemed like a high-and-inside Aroldis Chapman fastball grazed his hand. As we see in the animation below, the baseball clearly never made contact with Utley. As such, Utley was wrongfully awarded first base. The Phillies would go on to score three runs in the inning in part because of Utley’s reaching base.

The above is yet another reason why instant replay could be implemented in baseball to ensure that the correct calls are made, but that isn’t the debate I want to focus on. Instead, I want to talk about the ethical aspect of acting in baseball. Some people see the above as well as a similar acting job done by Derek Jeter in mid-September and conclude the players are cheating or being otherwise unethical.

Asked about his HBP from nearly a month ago, Jeter told reporters:

Reporter: Did you… [exaggerate the HBP]?

Jeter: Well, I mean, [the umpire] told me to go to first. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to go to first, you know? My job is to try to get on base. It’s part of the game. I’ve been hit before and they said “you weren’t hit”. So my job is to get on base. Fortunately for us, it paid off at the time, but I’m sure it would have been a bigger story if we had won the game.

Utley spoke about his HBP last night with reporters. Via Todd Zolecki:

But wait a second. Did that pitch actually hit him?

“I’m not sure,” Utley said coyly. “It was pretty close. At first I thought it was going to hit me in my head. Fortunately, it didn’t. And he throws so hard. I felt like I thought it hit me, so I put my head down and I ran to first.”

Is it wrong to take a base that isn’t yours? Is it wrong to put on a show to wrongfully take a base?

I don’t believe it is. Utley and Jeter are not the first two players to attempt to deceive umpires into making a call that benefits them and they certainly will not be the last. Outfielders attempt this — though much less successfully — when they trap a ball between their glove and the grass. Even if the outfielder knows it bounced, the umpire’s view may not have been the best and if he stands up confident that he caught the ball, he may earn the out. Catchers will frame a borderline pitch, moving his glove ever so slightly back into the strike zone, hoping to convince the home plate umpire that the pitcher threw a strike.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey stole second base in Game One of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves and, despite the safe ruling, was clearly out. On receiving the benefit of the doubt from the second base umpire, Posey quipped, “I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have instant replay right now.”

For as long as there exist umpires that are human beings, mistakes will always be made and the arbiters will be prone to various methods of persuasion, whether it’s acting, framing, or simply a player’s confidence. Players will continue to list “actor” under Skills on their baseball résumés and they should not be condemned for this.

Should Posey instead have told the second base umpire that he was out, and jogged back towards his dugout? Does Posey owe it to his teammates and to Giants fans to go along with the incorrect call, or does he have a larger obligation to the spirit of the game to play honestly 100 percent of the time? By encouraging and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on dishonesty (especially with no enforcement), aren’t we implicitly rewarding those who lie?

If Utley, Jeter, and Posey have one thing in common, it’s that they all try their hardest to succeed on the overwhelming majority of opportunities. In other words, they do what it takes to win. That includes running out mundane ground-outs and pop-ups, diving for foul balls, sliding hard into second base, and yes, acting. That attitude is one that should be encouraged by Major League Baseball.

That players can, for lack of a better word, trick the umpires is not the players’ fault; it is the system’s fault. If a player’s acting to generate a beneficial but incorrect ruling is to be frowned upon in baseball, then every call needs to be eligible for instant replay review and ball-strike calls must become computer-generated.

Barring that, enjoy the theater that is Major League Baseball and accept the flaws of the human beings who take part in it.