Thursday, August 6, 2009

Crying in Baseball

With the induction of players in the Baseball Hall of Fame every July, the same two issues come up: Pete Rose and the folks who took performance-enhancing drugs. Hank Aaron recently asserted that Rose should be allowed in the Hall of Fame. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez join A-Rod in the club of folks outed for the 2003 failed tests despite promises of secrecy. What to make of all this?

I have a pretty clear view of Pete Rose and a less clear view of the PED guys. The difference is one of official/unofficial tolerance and the resulting incentives. Pete Rose gambled on baseball, something that has been taboo since the Black Sox scandal. It has long been clear that gambling on baseball would lead to severe consequences. So, while his personal demons--that he is a gambling addict--may have led him down this path, I find the consequences of exclusion from the Hall to be proportionate to the crime. He is a free man and can do what he wants, but we are not obligated to let him join an institution just because he really wants it. He did the crime, and I have no problem with a lifetime ban for those who gamble on the game. It is always a bit silly to speak of the integrity of the game since we don't have such high falutin expectations for folks elsewhere, but managers gambling on the game is a threat to the game.

What about PED's? Well, there is a big difference between Major League Baseball's attitude towards gambling and its stances on PEDs. It is pretty clear that all of folks involved looked the other way. This is problematic because it created essentially a multi-player stag hunt (typical game theory example): cooperation works as long as everyone cooperates, but the cooperative effort will fail if just one or two people bail out. Knowing that and having some basic distrust for one's partners, there is a strong temptation to bail out or else be left with nothing. [One could consider this to be a many player prisoner's dilemma as well]. The key here is that since there was no effort to find or sanction PED users, players who competed with them felt that they were at a disadvantage and would be penalized in the competitive marketplace if they did not do take the PEDs themselves.

Does that mean that juicing up is ok? Um, no. It was still illegal and still challenges the game's integrity, but the league has as much responsibility or more than the players. Organizations and governments are built to deal precisely with these situations--where individual incentives lead to collectively suboptimal outcomes. So, the burden here is not solely on the players, and so we need to consider how to penalize people for past behavior when that past behavior was expected and not sanctioned. Giving the PED-era players a special part of the Hall of Fame--perhaps the Tainted Wing--might be a way out.

And, of course, one of the strange-nesses of all of this is that baseball gets all of the attention, but football is a game of mutants. I guess despite baseball's fallen status as the national pastime we still have higher expectations. Somewhere, Kevin Costner is probably crying. Or planning another baseball movie. Wanna bet?

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