Saturday, February 26, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Playing By the Rules

After a brutal winter in the New York City area, it takes the beginning of baseball spring training to get the blood coarsing through my veins again.  So I thought I'd rerun a slightly edited version of this post from 6/3/10 that united my interests in politics, law and baseball:

I don’t hold it against conservatives too much for messing up the political world because, from my perspective, that’s what conservatives are for. I’d like in innumerable respects to mess the world up even more from their perspective. But I draw the line when it comes to baseball.

Today all baseball fans who’ve heard about how a manifestly bad call robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game are asking themselves a question: should baseball records be corrected on the basis of unimpeachable video replays and the umpire’s open admission that he made a terrible mistake? That’s a difficult question because it involves making an exception to the well-established baseball rule that judgment calls made by umpires on the field are final.

Granted, it’s a bad idea in general to punch a hole in any rule that confers benefits on every player over the long run by being consistently applied. But under these very special circumstances, making an exception to an otherwise authoritative rule would cure an especially egregious injustice by conferring a rare distinction on Galarraga that he manifestly deserves without depriving anyone else of their just deserts. And it wouldn’t create any uncertainty about how the game would come out absent the bad call since the right call would have ended the game and the next batter made the 27th out anyway. The only person who’d have a colorable complaint would be the batter who really made the 27th out but was incorrectly awarded a hit. He can’t quite say that he got what he deserves, but he could make the case that he’s entitled to his hit anyway under the applicable rules. I think that the balance of equities clearly favors awarding Galarraga his perfect game, but I won’t deny that this is a matter that invites reasonable disagreement.

When Fred Schwarz tries to make Galarraga’s misfortune into an object lesson about the wisdom of political conservatism, however, he’s letting ideological reflexes get the better of him (my emphasis):
“Putting it in “movement” terms, video review is not conservative. The sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for reform rests on a handful of dramatic cases, while ignoring the wider problems that it would create; it shows a touching faith in the capacity of experts and rules to remake the world and eliminate all difficulties (video reviews would be kept “expeditious” by fiat, and “unnecessary delays” would be eliminated by magic, just like cutting “waste and fraud” from the budget); and it seeks to i. the e. (for you readers, that’s NR slang for “immanentize the eschaton”) by piling on layers of bureaucracy and fancy techno-fixes that will only burn up time, add expense, and create confusion.

“In other words, video review is the Obamacare of baseball.”
Now that pisses me off. Who here is showing a “touching faith in the capacity of experts and rules to remake the world and eliminate all difficulties”? In fact, making reasoned exceptions to general rules when their mechanical application would generate inequitable results is a normal and necessary feature of any morally defensible legal system for people, like us, of limited intellectual capacity and foresight. We rely on judges, for example, to toll an otherwise applicable statute of limitations under circumstances (e.g., fraudulent concealment on the part of the defendant) that would deprive a plaintiff of a fair chance to vindicate his rights in court. Over time, ancillary common law principles and statutes emerge that define the scope of those reasonable exceptions. But the legal codification of the exception necessarily follows the discovery that new exceptions to old rules need to be made. That's how the rule of law has to work among people who lack the omniscience it would take to think up a fool-proof set of rules all at once.

But what makes an exception “reasonable” under the circumstances? Don’t expect an answer in the form of a rule that tells you when not to follow rules. The pertinent criterion of reasonableness would have to be something like this: it’s reasonable to make an exception to an otherwise authoritative rule when not making it would defeat the general purposes of having these rules in the first place. The point of baseball rules is to make baseball into the game that its players aspire to play and its fans aspire to watch. The best argument for making an exception in this case is that the 27th batter would probably be ashamed to claim his hit under these circumstances and that the fans would regard it as shameful if he did.

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