When we look back upon this day many years from now, we will all remember it as the day that Jesús Luzardo got his very first Major League win.
Ok, maybe not. But it would have been the story, and should have been the story, if Alex Cintrón hadn’t opened his big fat mouth, and goaded Ramón Laureano into starting a brawl.
First, some background: in 2017, the Houston Astros cheated. They used video cameras and banged on trash cans to relay what pitch was coming to the batters, which is not allowed. They won the World Series that year. This past offseason, current Oakland A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who was a member of that 2017 Astros team, revealed what the Astros did to the world. Everyone was outraged, the rest of the world at the Astros for cheating, and the Astros at Mike Fiers for ratting them out.
Lots of people involved in the cheating scandal lost their jobs. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch were suspended from baseball for a year, and also fired from the Astros. Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán, who were also in the middle of the scandal but had subsequently been hired as the managers of the Red Sox and Mets respectively, also lost their new jobs. A leaked internal email from an Astros employee named Tom Koch-Weser revealed who was at the heart of the cheating program:
I don’t want to electronically correspond too much about ‘the system’ but Cora/Cintron/Beltran have been driving a culture initiated by Bregman/Vigoa last year and I think it’s working.
MLB tried to investigate Fiers’ accusations, but no players on the Astros would talk until they got immunity. MLB granted the immunity, and players talked to the investigators. The scandal came to light, but because of the immunity, no players got punished.
And Alex Cintrón, who is now the Astros hitting coach, did not get punished.
Remember what I wrote just three days ago about Ryan Christenson’s Nazi salute?
Giving a mere apology, and then moving on as if nothing had happened, feels inadequate to many people. Apologies are inadequate because they don’t cause any loss of dignity, any loss of status. And if it feels inadequate, the issue will not go away. People will continue to pursue the issue, to try to punish Christenson further, until they feel justice is done.
The punishment doled out to the Houston Astros was inadequate. So everybody expected, when the season started, that the Astros would have a big target on their backs. They would be hit by pitch after pitch after pitch, until everyone was satisfied that the Astros were properly humiliated.
In particular, this first post-scandal A’s-Astros series was under the spotlight. Both sides had reason to feel that the other side had not been properly punished. Mike Fiers had suffered nothing for squealing on his former teammates. Would they try to get back at him somehow? The A’s, perhaps worrying about that a bit, arranged their pitching rotation so that Fiers would not pitch in this series. And since Fiers doesn’t bat, either, there really isn’t a good way to punish Fiers directly.
So coming into this series, people were very curious what would happen. Would the A’s hit the Astros with pitches? Would the Astros hit the A’s with pitches? Would there be fights? Would there be brawls?
Why do people cheat? Let’s ask Dan Ariely, who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on cheating:
Wired: What did your tests tell you about the ways people cheat and why they do it?
Dan Ariely: We came up with this idea of a fudge factor, which means that people have two goals: We have a goal to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, and we have a goal to cheat and benefit from cheating. And we find that there’s a balance between these two goals. That is, we cheat up to the level that we would find it comfortable [to still feel good about ourselves].
Now if we have this fudge factor, we thought that we should be able to increase it or shrink it [to affect the amount of cheating someone does]. So we tried to shrink it by getting people to recite the Ten Commandments before they took the test. And it turns out that it shrinks the fudge factor completely. It eliminates it. And it’s not as if the people who are more religious or who remember more commandments cheat less. In fact even when we get atheists to swear on the Bible, they don’t cheat afterwards. So it’s not about fear of God; it’s about reminding people of their own moral standards.
It’s basically about the mirror that reminds us who we are at the point where it matters.
Now I don’t want to say this is the only factor that’s going on. Take what happened in Enron. There was partly a social norm that was emerging there. Somebody started cheating a little bit, and then it became more and more a part of the social norm. You see somebody behaving in a bit more extreme way, and you adopt that way. If you stopped and thought about [what you were doing] it would be clear it was crazy, but at the moment you just accept that social standard.
Wired: What’s the difference between the person who goes along with the standard and the whistleblower who says enough?
Dan Ariely: It’s a very good question, but I haven’t done stuff with whistleblowers and I don’t really know what makes them decide to stand up. My guess is that at some point they get sufficiently exposed to other forces from outside of the organization and that gets them to think differently.
We understand cheating is bad, but we don’t really understand where it’s really coming from and how we can reduce it. The common theory says that all we need to do is to make sure we don’t have bad apples and that the punishment is sufficiently severe. I think that’s not the right approach. I think we need to realize that most people are not bad apples – we find very, very few people who really cheat in a big way – but a lot of people are cheating just by a little bit.
In most circumstances, then, in order for cheating to take place, two things have to happen:
- There has to be an absence of moral reminders
- There has to be a belief that other people are cheating, too.
These are the conditions which can create a snowball effect. People see other people cheating, so they cheat too, not a whole lot more than the other guy, but just a little bit more. The other guy then does the same thing, cheats just a little more than the other guy, and it grows slowly with compound interest over time, until without anyone really noticing that a line has been crossed. And it doesn’t stop until somebody with an outside perspective looks in and says, this is immoral.
The belief that other people are cheating, so that you have to cheat too, has a name: cynicism. Cynicism is what emerges in the absence of a strong moral code. Cynicism holds that everybody behaves selfishly, all the time. Instead of a matter of right vs wrong, under cynicism, morality becomes a matter of what you can get away with, and what you can’t. Leadership becomes not about being good and right, but about being strong and clever enough to get away with the dirty deeds needed to win a cynical game. And as cynicism wins, cynicism breeds even more cynicism in an ever-growing vicious cycle until morality vanishes, and all the benefits of moral behavior in a human society vanish with it.
There has always been cynicism. There will always be cynicism. It is the default mode of human nature. It is what happens when moral systems fail, when the drumbeat of moral reminders vanish. We have a president now, Donald Trump, is undoubtedly the most cynical person ever to occupy the White House. He didn’t get there alone. It was decades of growing cynicism and collapsing moral systems that made him possible.
Every single religious and philosophical system exists, or ought to exist, to expressly and directly oppose cynicism. If it embraces cynicism instead of opposing it, it has become corrupt, and should be thrown out.
The Astros cheated in 2017, because they had a pervasive culture of cynicism. They believed everyone else was cheating, and therefore didn’t see any problem with cheating better than anyone else. And they lacked leadership which would hold and communicate a strong moral code.
The Astros hired Dusty Baker as their manager because he is, besides a good baseball manager, a good man, a walking moral reminder. If you want to correct a culture which enabled cheating to grow like a cancer, you need to bring in a man like Baker, who has a wider moral perspective on life than most people. But unfortunately, Baker got thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes. The walking moral reminder left the room. And then the Astros within minutes reverted to that culture of cynicism.
A’s manager Bob Melvin is also a man of some integrity. The A’s could have taken revenge on the Astros for their cheating. He held that the best revenge is just to defeat them, honestly. And so they did. The A’s kicked the Astros ass all weekend, legally, on the baseball field. They did not hit a single Astros batter all weekend.
The Astros, on the other hand, hit five A’s batters during the series. Interestingly, all five hit batsmen (Robbie Grossman 2x, and Laureano 3x) were former Astros players. Perhaps that’s all a coincidence. Perhaps not.
Nevertheless, when Laureano got hit by a pitch for the third time in this series, and the second time in this game (the first being by the person he was traded to the A’s for from the Astros, Brandon Bailey), Laureano had some opinions he wanted to express as he walked to first base. And he did, and he went to first base, and all was fine, until Alex Cintrón inserted himself into the proceedings.
Cintrón stood at the top of the dugout and started chirping at Laureano. Why he would do this is unfathomable. He’s the hitting coach, not a pitching coach defending his pitcher. He took some steps toward Laureano and signaled him with his arms to a fight. Laureano claims Cintrón then said something unmentionable about his mother. Laureano charged him, and the skirmish was on.
Cintrón, of all people in that dugout, the one coach most involved in the scandal that made things tense to begin with, should not have been chirping at Laureano. Your team just hit him three times. Shut up and let him vent.
Meanwhile, Laureano should not have taken that bait. There’s a moral context here, the pandemic, that both people forgot about in the moment. If someone in the dogpile of people who ran in to break up the fight happened to have COVID-19, it could spread through both teams like wildfire. Someone could get seriously sick, or die. A brawl in a pandemic is an immoral act. Both of them should face punishment as a result, and rightly so. But what kind of punishment?
This kind of behavior could be fatally dangerous. If I were in charge, I’d have kicked both of them out for the year. But you can’t do that in arrears. You have to declare in advance that this kind of behavior is immoral and intolerable, and let them know in advance exactly what the punishment will be.
MLB has this bad habit of defining punishments ad-hoc in arrears. This does nothing to ward off cynicism, but in fact breeds it. If you don’t know what the punishment will be, if there even is one, it’s easier to believe others are cheating. And when you fail to define a punishment for breaking a rule, you also fail to define exactly how immoral the act is considered to be. So you’re neither reminding people about moral standards, nor are you fending off the idea that others are breaking the rule, which leads to cynicism.
It’s too late now for that. If MLB in arrears invents a suspension of these two men for the season, it will be be too much. Especially since the Astros sign-stealing scandal resulted in no discipline at all for their players. They have little choice, I think, but to do something in proportion to their other brawl suspension this year of Joe Kelly, which was 8 games. Otherwise, they’re just making stuff up that makes no sense.