Friday, June 3, 2011

Posey, Twin Towers & the Moral Ambiguity of Revenge

Following the home plate collision play which resulted in the season-ending injury to Buster Posey on the evening of May 25th's game with the Florida Marlins, I wrote a blog in which I indicted Scott Cousins for foul play and recommended that the league fine him $50,000 and suspend him for the balance of the season.

In the intervening days, debate has raged around this incident, with the sides equally split between those who--following the usual macho principle that it's a traditional part of the game--described Cousins's behavior as "a good clean play" and those who felt that an injustice had been done, since Cousins clearly went out of his way (out of the base path) to hit Posey, perhaps thinking that since the throw was probably going to beat him, the only chance he had to improve his chances of scoring was to knock the ball from Posey's mitt. As it turned out, Posey didn't catch the ball. If Cousins had simply slid far to the right of home plate, reaching out to swipe it with his hand or foot as he went by, he'd have scored without incident. As videos of the play show, he didn't even attempt to tag home plate until after the collision, lunging forward to hit the plate with his hand, as Posey lay in agony beside him. Despite what people have been saying about "good clean play" Cousins chose the route of greatest risk, a choice supported by the atmosphere of violence and jeopardy which seems so attractive to a large segment of the male population in this country. Players interviewed right after the game who hadn't seen the video, and did not know the extent of Posey's injury, chose to side with the "good clean play" verdict. Since videos of the play have been available, and Posey's serious injuries have been revealed, sentiment has moved considerably against Cousins.

Yesterday, in a radio interview by Ralph Barbieri on KNBR 680, Brian Sabean, the Giants General Manager, broadsided Cousins, stating that the hit was "malicious" and "unnecessary" and that the evidence showed Cousins's hit was "premeditated." Posey has stated publicly that he has no wish to hear from Cousins. Sabean added "If I never hear from Cousins again, or he doesn't play another day in the big leagues, I think we'll all be happy. . .there's no love lost and there shouldn't be. . .we'll have a long memory." Strong words.

Sabean has a personal bias in this matter, since his team's chances for success this season have been seriously hurt by Posey's season-ending injury. He has every right to be bitter. Whether his anger, expressed publicly this way, is an appropriate use of his authority, is another matter. Big league general managers usually are not expected to voice their concerns publicly, at least about matter such as grudges and clan-wars, which sometimes develop between teams and teams or between teams and individual players. League authorities and umpiring crews are notoriously anxious and watchful to prevent negative sentiment like that from affecting play. Vendettas and pay-backs and feuds are dangerous and destructive aspects of any sport.

I think it's probably ill-advised, at this point, for Sabean to make the direct comments he did on the air. Either he's lost control of his emotions, or he's treading out on the very edge of his authority. He could even lose his job over those remarks. Even though I agree with Sabean, that Cousins's shot was a cheapie, and unworthy of a big league player, I know that as a private citizen I have a freedom of expression which permits me to criticize him, in a way that a man in Sabean's position doesn't get to have. If Cousins had stood up and punched someone, then Sabean would be justified in "going public" with his frustration. Sabean could even write a note to the Marlins owner, or to Cousins himself, to express his opinion. He didn't have to make a public display.

Sabean's behavior feels precisely like revenge. What he's said has been interpreted--rightly--as a threat of reprisal--that at some point down the line, Cousins might expect to be thrown at in a game. But it's unlikely that anything such as an attempted beaning would be tolerated by the league. If a Giants pitcher were to deck Cousins, that pitcher, and the manager, too, would certainly be ejected, suffer fines, and possibly even suspensions.

So--all this lead-up to address the question of--revenge. What is revenge, and what is its use in human relations? In our justice system, revenge involves punishing perpetrators of crimes. We use the expedient excuse that punishments "deter" crimes in the future, but we know in our hearts that deterrence is not the real reason for punishments. Punishment exists to make the guilty suffer, to some degree, for the harm done by a criminal act. The more severe the crime, the more severe the suffering required to make everyone involved, including the observers, feel as if "justice has been done." But what is justice? Justice is a public demonstration of revenge. Poetic justice, frontier justice, private justice. An eye for an eye. The old Biblical revenge of pay-back and recompense. The release of the tension created by a loss or injury. The hunger, the itch for revenge. It's a very real human emotion.

Earlier, in my post "Incident in a French Country Churchyard" I posted a poem I wrote about seeing an inscription on a granite plaque in a small French country town in Normandy, which rendered the rancorous bitter memory of German occupation during WWII, in no uncertain terms. What I understood about that monument, was that a fine, "Biblical" revenge is a very human emotion, not confined to choleric Scotsmen or Appalachian hillbillies. We all feel it, even the most pacific among us--those who would turn the other cheek, or genuflect to naked domination. Some people take too great a pleasure in revenge, thinking of it as a kind of game.

Following the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, and the related events of that day, I can still remember the mood of the nation. Some of us--we Americans--have wanted to forget--have probably even convinced ourselves, indeed, that we probably didn't really feel it--but we did. We all felt a strong sense of injustice, that someone, something, needed to pay for this crime of terror, perpetrated on our whole nation. Someone, we knew, was to blame, but we all felt that revenge. We all wanted to do something, to hurt someone, to bring some kind of equivalent destruction or pain. We thrashed about emotionally, trying to come to terms with the loss and grief and anger and bitterness the event engendered.

Of course, these are all the kinds of emotions which the terrorists wanted us to feel, knew we would feel, were perfectly delighted and confirmed in their intent and prayers that we would feel. Because they knew, as certainly as they felt the need to do the act, that the anger and sense of revenge we were feeling, would produce the reaction they sought to bring about.

The wars we began in Afghanistan and Iraq were precisely the result which bin Laden and his Al Quaeda lieutenants had dreamed of. They sought nothing less than the rising up of Islamic nations against the presence of America and the other foreign powers in the Middle and Near East, and our invasion of, and continuing entanglements in, the countries of that region, accomplished precisely what the Islamic militants could never have done by themselves. They created an enormous dialogue of conflict, pitting imaginary interests (Islamic versus Christian, Western commercial and diplomatic priorities against regional domestic nationalities) against each other.

The Islamic terrorists depended upon the reliable old function of emotional revenge to fulfill their ultimate purpose in attacking America, as well as other targets (such as the Spanish train terminal)--to galvanize Western resentment and uncontrolled fury. As we in the West thrashed about, trying to figure out a way to "get even" Al Quaeda was licking its chops at the unfolding narrative. Bush II Administration planners--who had dreamed of a chance to wage a Middle Eastern war--jumped at the opportunity. The military industrial complex went into high gear, as all the Pentagon war game rituals were set into motion and the Congress and the United Nations were duped into compliance with America's revenge scenario.

Was America wrong to invade Afghanistan? How about Iraq? There is no doubt that we lied to everyone, even lied to ourselves (if knowingly lying to oneself in public is really a lie at all), that we had been harmed by Iraq, and so were justified in invading that country too. As history will show, the U.S. was methodically carrying out its own selfish revenge for being attacked, without provocation, by the people of a nation which was completely innocent of any of the charges we thought to bring against it in our determination to hurt someone, as reprisal, retribution, vengeance, redress, vindication, a score settled--whatever one may call it--for the injuries suffered on 9/11.

In "fair fights" the injuries suffered by the participants are accepted as "honorable scars" of combat. We mourn our dead in wars, because the soldiers, or innocent civilians, made the ultimate sacrifice, in a determination of some outcome--whether we believe in the necessity of the conflict, or not. Blows suffered under the rules of the game, are blows honorably taken, honorably born. Yet we may still feel revenge for hurts such as these. But in sudden, secret, unprovoked attacks, no such honor obtains.

In professional football, quarterbacks are now protected by rule, from deliberately aggressive, malicious hits by opposing players rushing towards them to stop a play. "Unimpeded" aggression towards the quarterback is recognized as an unfair advantage to the rusher, because the quarterback's attention is focused elsewhere; he's completely at risk for serious injury. He's "unprotected."

Rules and regulations--like laws and statutes--are designed both to discourage criminal acts, and to fulfill our sense of revenge or retribution. In sports, we know that it's only a game, but we also know that being injured isn't the point. The point is competition. In international relations between nations, we have the rules of the game too. There's the Geneva Convention rules, which dictate what warring nations and armies are allowed to do to each other. We don't use poison gas (at least not publicly--Saddam apparently used it on the Kurds). We don't use disease agents. We're not supposed to torture or murder captive prisoners (though we've seen that tactic used lately). We're not supposed to harm civilians who have nothing to do with the prosecution of a war. But we live in a RealPolitik time, when the rules tend to be ignored in favor of pragmatic considerations. We can justify just about any kind of bestiality, as long as it serves a pragmatic end--such as national security. It's back to the old eye-for-an-eye business again.

It's my belief that Cousins was acting on precisely this pragmatic basis when he bowled into Posey, hoping to upset him (and knock the ball loose), willing to risk serious injury, because it fell well within the boundary of traditional behavior about violent options in the context of a necessary evil. Posey was "the enemy" and the Marlins were trying to win an important game. Winning was everything. Winning required taking that extra edge. Winning required smashing into a defenseless player. Winning required a cheap shot.

But major league baseball isn't war. Games aren't wars, and shouldn't be played as such. Acts like Cousins's don't belong in major league baseball. But does revenge? Is revenge a proper expression of human behavior, in a game? Sabean apparently feels it is. You can call what he said an act of courage, an act of over-emotional uncontrol, or an act of stupidity. But it's undoubtedly an act of revenge.

There are undoubtedly many Americans who still feel, now, after ten years of violence and death and failure, that America's demonstration of vengeance and reprisal in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified, and have no regrets. Me?--I'm not so sanguine. I think Iraq was a complete debacle, from beginning to end, something for which we'll be paying and paying and regretting having done for a century or more. Afghanistan is a different situation, but no less destructive in its consequences. Like Russia, we have discovered the illusion of false "victory"--and I have no doubt that, within six months of our departure from there, the situation will deteriorate rapidly into chaos, or some equally repugnant condition, probably a dictatorship, or a collection of mini-dictatorships. It's inevitable.

But revenge has been served. We've killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers, guerrillas and civilians. We destroyed infrastructure, burned hundreds of billions of dollars in materiel and military hardware. And for what?



J said...

I think Iraq was a complete debacle, from beginning to end, something for which we'll be paying and paying and regretting having done for a century or more.

Iraq was not merely a debacle but a well-orchestrated media hack--beyond Orwellian bad dreams-- on the part of the Bush Admin (and many leading demos), with help from Fox news, neo-cons, Limbaugh, Coulter, and other talon-clawed pundits (including that glib British nihilist, Hitchens).

It was difficult to resist some flagwaving once the supercarriers and jets were flying, but by 2003 I was convinced the War was unjustified and that BushCo had misrepresented the dangers of WMDs, Hussein and AQ (not to say the tenuous connections to 9-11), and that we watching a GOP Operation Mindfuck in action, with boo-coo help from liberal hawks (like DiDi Feinstein)--not to say a profitable operation--the stocks and future markets were rolling, as is the case with most wartime economies. Bush's cronies in the oil rackets made millions.

The Pelosicrat House should have pushed for investigations and ...possible charges, but they...pussied out. Similarly for Obama, that centrist hypocrite--not a word against his GOP pals.

(That said I don't think the parallels to MLB work so well).

Curtis Faville said...


The Posey incident has mushroomed into a scandal hereabouts--with Sabean going bonkers. I agree with him in principle--Cousins is a jerk looking for cover from "tradition" etc.

But the revenge thing is pertinent. I think it's a universal emotion, which we tend to accept when it's convenient, then condemn when it's not.

Everybody felt just fine about our Middle Eastern wars for a while. Then they got religion and figured out how dumb it all was. By that time, though, Bush and Company had already dragged us into intractable and inextricable complexity. So much for checks and balances. Even Kerry has sold out.

The sooner we leave the Middle East, militarily, the better. China's been moving in on the oil leases. We should definitely put a stop to that.

And make that "billions" made for Bush cronies.

Kirby Olson said...

Just War theory from St. Augustine through our day has argued that while vengeance is important and even necessary it must also be "proportionate."

I think when you lose a game and turn around and try to break someone's skeletal structure so that they can no longer walk, it's disproportionate.

Unlike you, I think there should be sentencing that goes beyond monetary penalties and deals in actual jail time for malefactors in the professional sports world.

Punching a player while they are leaping toward a lay-up from the top of the key should be considered an assault, and treated as an assault.

This might wind up with many professional athletes doing time in penitentiaries, but it might also protect those who are playing in those leagues.

Another category of criminal I'd like to see prosecuted are fans who hurl racial abuse at players. I'd like to see this prosecuted as a hate crime. In Seattle I had to stop going to see the Mariners play because the fans were beyond vicious.

It ruined the game for me.

I think fans who yell the n word at a player only twenty feet from them deserve to spend at least a year in a federal penitentiary.

Yelling something like that at a person should fall into the category of an assault.

Then of course we would get around to net perpetrators such as your long-term contributor, J.

All I can say is that something should be done.

There is such a thing as freedom of speech, but it doesn't extend to fighting words, or to libeling a person. There should be more arrests.

Curtis Faville said...


Of course I object to your characterization of J as a "long-term contributor." He's someone who post comments. Neither of us--I wager--would be willing to consider it anything more. We rarely agree about anything.

The legal, condoned kind of violence we see in professional sports is considered by many to be an "outlet" for the pent-up frustrations and aggressions of the mob. I think people like drag-racing and track-racing because they get stimulated by crashes and the potential for serious injury or death. Obviously cock- and dog-fighting serve a violent purpose.

Prize-fighting has a long history. Should boxing be outlawed? These men (and women, apparently) hurt each other in serious ways in nearly every match. It's madness, when you think about it. And yet, if you watch it for a while, it gets into your blood. You begin to be fascinated by it. The thrust of a heavyweight's crushing blow is enough to shake the brain loose from its moorings in the skull. Most fighters eventually become demented or paralyzed in some way. Look at Mickey Roarke.

As far as people spewing expletives from the stands, well, that's almost impossible to control. Guards, if they see this happening, do throw people out, but beyond that. . . .

I think you underestimate the potential for violence among country people. It may be that because they don't experience enough interaction in society, their passions get bottled up. Then rape and incest and reckless violence become the expression of that frustration. Ted Kaczynski lived as a loner for years in a tiny cabin in Montana. He had a real bad case of cabin fever.

J said...

Or consider know-nothing conservatives such as Kirby, calling anyone who doesn't vote republican "marxist" or satanists (shall we look at his ridiculous reading of Rorty again?), labelling writers he doesn't undertstand as racist (yet then joining in the crypto-klansmen of Althouse in calling Obama "Little Zero", Hillary and Pelosi whores, etc), making endless false accusations, etc.

Yes something should be done: like KO terminated from his teaching position, and his blog shut down. In fact, others--including CUNY students--have said as much.

(and to think this clown studied with Burroughs & Co. Burroughs is not one of my fave writers--but if any scribe ever hated police state tactics, that was WSB).

And Ive got an attorney as well, little sunday schooler.