Fairness in baseball?

Last week’s — and now this week’s — focus on the steroid problem in baseball centered on the contention that a “level playing field” is in the best interests of the game; no player should have an unfair advantage over another.

It was an odd focus since baseball is not structured on the concept of a level playing field. If it were, the same philosophy would be applied to franchises as well as individuals. But, of course, some teams have a competitive advantage over another by virtue of their location and their payrolls. Or do you actually believe Adam Everett somehow puts the Twins in a position to contend for anything?

The Hardball Times today takes a look at this question of competitive imbalance, calling it “the quintessential American irony.”

There is a definite irony that one of the central tenets of American sports is wealth and talent redistribution yet the country is perhaps the most capitalist on earth. Shoot across the pond to Europe, or any other part of the world, and competitive balance is anathema; in fact, standard procedure, if anything, is to encourage more competitive imbalance! Herein lies a second irony: more redistributive societies do not apply the same rules to sports.

That raises the question of who is right? Does increasing competitive balance help sports to attract more talent and money? Or is the contrarian premise that more imbalance is desirable actually correct?

The research concludes that imbalance is desirable — a recipe for a long Torii-less, Johan-less summer in Minnesota. Apparently that’s good for the game. We’re “taking one for the team.”

  • Isn’t there a fairly healthy distinction between “no player should have an unfair advantage over another” and “no player should have an advantage over another?”

    Geographic location can’t be helped, and teams in less desirable areas knew that when they joined the league, so any geographic benefit or detriment is inherently fair.

    Payroll advantage rewards success, to some degree. It’s the spoils of winning. It can be attained (theoretically) by any team. It’s a fair advantage to those that have it, an a surmountable disadvantage for those that don’t.

    Steroid use is different in that it demands that the players risk long-term personal health costs and to demonstrate a disregard for ethics.

    Players that are unwilling to pay the health and personal ethics costs are at an unfair disadvantage to players that are, simply because these costs shouldn’t be asked of anyone in order to compete in what is supposed to be an honorable profession.

    Or something like that.

  • Bob Collins

    Actually, it only became an issue after free agency.

    And baseball’s situation is it actually can, be helped but it chooses not to do so, partly because the union is so powerful.

    I’m not sure I agree that payroll advantage rewards success. The Yankees, for example, didn’t really do anything to warrant Johan Santana, other than be in New York.

    It’s true the steroid use is a matter of breaking the law (or rules) to gain an advantage. No argument there. Mine is more along the concept that baseball and a “level playing field” somehow go hand in hand.

    From an ethics point of view, that’s an interesting question. Suppose you’re a player on the fringe of making the big club, you’ve got a wife and two small kids to feed (this would be the Dan Naulty) situation. If steroids were the difference between providing or not for your family, is that when you play the ethics card?

    I love ethical hypotheticals. (g)

  • I can’t argue the ‘level playing field’ case, partially because I don’t follow baseball but mostly because it seems completely unrelated to the actual question at hand, which I think you captured nicely in the Dan Naulty situation.

    That question alone is why there is no place in sports for performance enhancers as long as the health risk exists, and to a lesser degree a rules violation exists. Rules can be changed, so for the sake of argument let’s assume that baseball refuses to take a stand on an sportsmanship basis.

    In my opinion, they are still required to take a stand on a personal health basis. Granted, this opens another whole line of argument with regards to players playing injured, etc., but the mere fact that Dan has to balance feeding his family against a known long term health cost swings my vote to the side of banning (and enforcing same) the use of the drugs.

    I think it can (and should) be argued at a per-player advantage level, rather than at a per-team advantage level. The “level playing field” argument raises it to the per-team level.

    This may not be a particularly well thought out argument on my part – I’m really just trying to kill a few minutes at lunch time, and you know how I’m given to rambling at times. 🙂