Baseball and Relativism

Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that I love baseball.  It doesn’t matter if its the Padres/Nationals or the Cubs/White Sox, I love to watch the game.  Since I was a little guy, I’ve loved to play the game as well – from t-ball and juice boxes to high school and sunflower seeds, it was an everyday part of my life growing up.  So its with baseball that I choose as my “arena” to test a belief system that many in our culture associate themselves with.  That belief system is relativism.  WordNet would define relativism as “the philosophical doctrine that all criteria of judgment are relative to the individuals and situations involved”.  Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them”.  So in summary: I am doing an “experiment” of sorts.  The guinea pig is relativism, and the maze that the guinea pig is tested in is called baseball.   Any questions?  anyone?  ANYONE??

Lets say that the Chicago Cubs are playing the Philadelphia Phillies. (this is a total random pairing, and has no relation to who is actually playing tonight, the teams and characters are purely coincidental…)   Pedro Martinez is pitching, and Derrek Lee is batting (again, purely coincidental).  Martinez throws a pitch, that hits the catcher’s mitt with a loud SMACK and the umpire gestures the third strike, effectively striking out Derrek Lee.  But Lee turns around to the umpire and says, “I don’t see it that way.  It may mean to you that it takes 3 strikes for a strike-out, but for me, it takes 5 strikes for a strike out.”  The umpire rolls his eyes, but lets Lee step back into the batters box.  On the next pitch, Derrek Lee hits a line drive, and the ball bounces off the center field wall.  As he is rounding the first base to head to second, Phillie first baseman Ryan Howard steps right in the baseline path, blocking Lee from getting to second.  As soon as the ball is thrown in to the infield, Phillie second baseman Chase Utley tags out Lee, who is still caught in the basepath behind Howard.  “That is fielder interference!” exclaims Lee.  Howard turns around with a chuckle and says “It all depends on what the phrase ‘fielder interference’ means”.  Hopefully you all get the picture.

At the risk of giving my “opinion” in a sports blog, I must say that relativism is a dead-end philosophy that would be contradicted in so many ways in our society.  In a world where no accountability is desired, “anything goes”, and it all depends what “is” means, a society cannot function without objective truths, in the same way that baseball cannot function without objective rules.  If you don’t believe me, then try telling me that all truth is relative.  Isn’t that an objective statement?  Anyone???


5 Responses to “Baseball and Relativism”

  1. Is there any philosophers still advocating for “relativism” per se? It seems that this is not where the debates are happening now. They’re revolving moreso on pluralism, it seems. But what would you say are the objective truths of Christianity? It seems that the only being really in the position to call out objective truths (and be certain of them) is God, isn’t it? As soon as we start saying we’re certain of this, we’re certain of that, we become like those who believe they can fully know God (when fully knowing God would insist one become God). I think Peter Rollins “How (Not) To Speak of God” is a fascinating look at this paradox, this mystery. It moves the discussion away from “truth vs. relativsm” and into the realm of God (and how we can know and not know God, all at the same time). There’s a tension here, and the trick is in living with this, rather than at odds with it (which seems to be what the majority of Christians end up doing). That’s what I thought of though. But yeah, in the game of baseball, you need rules. I’ll give you that. I just don’t think that life is precisely analogous to baseball. In the same way that rules aren’t exactly analogous to relationships.

  2. If you don’t believe me, then try telling me that all truth is relative. Isn’t that an objective statement?


    This sort of relativism is inherently self-contradictory. Postmodern thinkers are very good at obfuscating their ideas with convoluted writing, but they’re very bad at actually defining clear, rational positions.

    Of course, to be fair, this only applies to so-called “strong” relativism. Not all relativists claim that all perspectives are equally valid (though the ones that do are loonies).

    Like most issues, I think the real answer here is somewhere in the middle. I think there are shades of gray in morality, and I think standards of morality does change over time, for better or worse. That doesn’t mean we can write off morality entirely, however.

    For example, not too long ago you’d find plenty of people who would claim that slavery was perfectly moral (they might even quote the Bible to justify this, but that’s another issue). We know better now, but I’m not about to say “well, we just think slavery is bad.” Similarly, though, in a broader sense, I’m not going to say I believe 100% in any moral absolutes. Is killing people always bad? What about war?

    Here’s my assertion: Just like there are fundamental physical laws in the universe, there are some fundamental moral laws. We can argue about where they came from — I tend to think that we evolved our morality (see The Selfish Gene), but if you want to call it “god given” then whatever — but there are certain fundamental things that we more-or-less agree upon. About most big moral issues, like slavery or murder, I’ll say I’m 99.9% sure about their moral right-ness or wrong-ness. Not because I have any reason to doubt the 0.1% left, but just because I’m not comfortable making an absolute statement of fact like that about something which I do not know with 100% certainty to be objective.

    Hm. I didn’t expect to write this much. I’ll wrap it up now.

  3. Nate – a perfect post and example for what you’re exploring. What if Lee hadn’t insisted on five strikes, but instead asserted his belief that the called strike was, in fact, a ball? Or if the Phillies’ pitcher had insisted that the hit, was in fact, foul?

    Baseball is a perfect vehicle to illustrate the utter futility of relativism. And if we find it sacrilegious on the field, then logic holds that it would be sacrilegious elsewhere.

    Brilliant post. And that’s truth, not opinion.

  4. if you’ll humor me, i’d like to play a little devil’s advocate…

    according to your post, then, would you argue that every single umpire in the entire game of baseball calls the strike zone precisely the same?

    • Hey Gavette,

      Ha, you got me on that one. That is actually another blog post that I need to write on. The complete and utter subjectivity of professional refs and umps. Its particurly bad in MLB and the NBA in my opinion. That is one aspect of sports that would show subjectivity. Although ultimately, they still need to follow a set of objective rules (the existence of balls, strikes, outs, balks, etc)

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