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War Crimes: Baseball, Politics and the ‘Who’s-to-Blame’ Game

Can we hold baseball managers responsible when their teams underperform? Usually not. Terry Collins gets a pass while the Mets flounder: everybody knows a team with a largely triple-A lineup can’t win. Donnie Mattingly is a different story. He can be excused for overseeing the performance of an injury-depleted Dodger team. (How long the front-office honors the excuse is something for Donnie’s many fans to worry about.)

The toughest recent case of a manager held to account for a team’s flop was the saga of Bobby Valentine, hired over the new GM’s wishes in Boston last season. Asked to preside over a dysfunctional team that would be dismembered halfway through the summer, Bobby was fired a year before his contract ended. Surely part of a shared-blame situation, he nevertheless had to take the fall for what happened.

Unlike in baseball, high-level team personnel involved in lethal games - warfare - are normally held responsible for the actions of players under their command. Justice in such cases, as rendered by a Commissioner-like office, the UN War Crimes Tribunal in Holland, has been consistent: commanders were deemed partners in their subordinates’ crimes. Consistent until now, that is.

Recent acquittals of several top Croat and Serb commanders charged with atrocities committed by their players in the Yugoslav wars of 1991-95 is causing a ruckus in Europe. Why? Because judges on the tribunal say Team Obama brought pressure, forcing the not-guilty decisions, which contradict the U.S. stance at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Marlise Simons, of the NY Times, broke the story in the International Herald Tribune. Her Trib colleague Willam Pfaff sees the significance of what happened this way:

“It reflects the long-standing American (and Israeli) concern that their officers or government figures might one day find themselves before the court on charges of breaking international law or as bearing responsibility for war crimes…Most democracies are seen as threatening to these American and Israeli stands…They are the states which (can) challenge these efforts to destroy the established norms of international conduct, as proclaimed by the Nuremberg Tribunal – which amounts to an effort to abolish one of the principal moral achievements of the second world war.”

A mysterious bi-play to the story, originated by Simons, is this: Why did it not appear in stateside editions of the NY Times?

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John Richard Starkey

John Richard (Dick) Starkey, a former International Herald Tribune sports editor, writes a twice-weekly politics and baseball blog at

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