baseball ethics, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, pitching, umpires

Cheating: Creativity vs. Laziness

I believe I’ve already used in my blogging space the photo spread across two pages (62-63) of Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer.  This incredible gymnastic on the part of Ty Cobb received a pretty extensive commentary in my second edition of Metal Ropes (now complete except for a new cover).  I won’t rehash the whole discussion.  I’ll simply draw your attention to the troublesome fact—ignored by Mr. Honig, who’s more spellbound by catcher Ed Sweeney’s distance from the play—that Cobb will be far outside the batter’s box if he makes contact.  His rear foot is already even with the plate’s front edge.  Whatever in the world he’s trying to do here, he has given himself about a yard’s headstart up the first-base line.

Cheating?  Well, yes… and every ballplayer would do it if he could get away with it.  Policing such things as staying in the batter’s box and running in the baseline is the umpire’s responsibility.  Now, when baserunners were cutting across the infield grass and missing second base by twenty feet because the one umpire on duty was following a Texas-leaguer into the outfield, the infractions became mockeries of the game.  They threatened its very survival.  That’s why multiple umpires were put on the field in the 1880s.  Likewise, tripping a runner as he rounded second or third—perhaps even tackling him, as John McGraw was known to have done in his playing days with Baltimore—was about as subtle as corralling a high drive in a ten-foot butterfly net.  The game has always addressed trespasses that so derided basic protocol as to make disgusted fans decide to keep their ticket money.

How might we define the difference between what Cobb did in the photo above and what would-be linebackers like McGraw were doing?  It isn’t that “admissible rule-stretching” jeopardizes no second party.  Tyrus had also perfected a kind of slide which would kick up so much dust that a baseman trying to grab a peg and tag him would go blind for crucial instants.  This actually isn’t illegal at all, to this day (as far as I know—though it’s a good way to start a brawl).  Some fouls are allowed to strain the rules along the edges… and then, there are some that trample the rule book and exit the game’s bounds in both letter and spirit.  The distinction isn’t personal risk: it’s the words of the rules themselves—whether they have any stretch in them, whether the fog of war handled in them is left deliberately foggy in places.

The balk rule is an excellent example familiar to any casual baseball fan.  Coaches teach young pitchers that a good move is so close to a balk move that you’re bound to get called once in a while.  The dividing line is thoroughly scuffed.  In certain eras of the game, the rule might as well not have existed, so over-stretched was the flexible boundary.  I happened lately to be watching Bill “Spaceman” Lee pitch the second game of the 1974 World Series against the Reds.  Lee balked at least ninety percent of the time when runners were on base.  There was simply no detectible pause whatever in his delivery.  Not many years down the road, the umpires put their heads together and decided that enough was enough.  (Now, why Louie Tiant was called for a balk in Game 1 of the same series is a puzzler to me.  Apparently, a National League ump ruled that El Tiante did not step off the rubber before he pivoted.  Replay did not vindicate the verdict)

Were the Astros way out of line for transmitting the catcher’s signals to the hitter via electronic technology?  Judging from the reaction of fans and players alike (e.g., the typically taciturn Nick Markakis), I’d have to answer “yes”.  Yet this case, too, somewhat puzzles me.  I recall Paul Reddick writing when the scandal first exploded that, first and foremost, the Astros had simply acted dumb.  According to Paul, every pitcher at every level tips his pitches, and every coach at the big-league level should know how to crack the code.  Now, I believe that Reddick was marketing a video at the time which claimed to teach the dark art of predicting the next pitch… but the point seems well taken, all the same.  Hitters are reared on The Guess: they’re guessing even before they take their first shave.  After a few years of refinement, a good hitter, you’d have to think, would have gotten pretty adept at anticipating pitches just on the basis of the situation and the particular hurler involved.  Add to that a touch of finesse in reading body language… and you’ve dispensed with any need for complex cipher and semaphore.

I’m not belittling the distinct villainy of what the Houston malefactors did: I’m just concurring with Reddick that the crime seems weakly motivated.  Are hitters just lazy these days?  But then, the New York Giants were also being tipped to pitches throughout an elaborate binoculars-and-telegraph system when they reeled off their miraculous win streak leading to the 1951 pennant.  (Bobby Thomson always swore, however, that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch.  Who knows?)  A very similar racket seems to have been run in the Deadball Era, though I can’t retrieve the details at the moment.  An electrical line, I believe, run under the third-base coaching box buzzed in the dope from a remote observation post.

For my money, none of these incidents, dastardly though they are, equals the turpitude of “Blowergate” in the Metrodome.  I don’t see how Kirby Puckett’s soaring fly off Charlie Leibrandt would have cleared the partition in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series if the home team hadn’t enjoyed the extra thrust of the stadium’s blowers.  I’m reminded of how the host teams on my son’s “away” games in high school would always wait to turn on the lights until after we’d completed a half-inning at the plate in heavy shadow.  Whatever technological conveniences are available for a given game should be extended to both sides.  If there are industrial-fan units on hand for games on sweltering afternoons, then one such fan should be rigged up in either dugout.

If there’s any moral to this ramble, maybe we should look for a distinction between “zealous cheating”—creative, ingenious, energetic, pushing-the-envelope strain against the wording of the rules in search of a victorious advantage—and “lazy cheating”.  Perhaps the most obvious and repellent quality of high-tech cheating is its shortcutting across clever forethought and vigorous execution.  The lazy cheater has a gizmo to deploy his advantage for him; or even if he donates a degree of bodily exertion to the enterprise, he does so passively, almost stupidly.  He treats his body as a cog in an impersonal machine.  It seems to me that when José Canseco tried to mount a defense of steroid use in Juiced, he produced an argument that would justify the eventual introduction of artificial intelligence into the game.  If a fake human generates more and longer home runs, then give us more fake humans on the field.  That’s what the fans want!

I won’t moralize about cheating beyond the game—not today.  Some of you were already incensed, apparently, at my having taken a step or two off the reservation last week.  I’m too old to care, my friends… but I do agree that a baseball blog should stay focused on baseball (just as I do not agree that the MLB should be emblazoning bases with “BLM”).  Keeping entirely within the foul lines, therefore, I close with these questions.  Why do so many professional ballplayers want a rule requiring two infielders on either side of second base before each pitch is delivered… yet none of them ever gives a thought to shifting position in the box as the pitcher winds up?  Why are most of them comfortable with a baserunner’s wearing an “oven mitt” that may extend his reach to a base by almost half a foot… yet they gripe when a pitcher launches into an accelerated delivery, or else throws an delaying kink or two into his pump?

My questions are not intended to express sympathy with pitchers or defenses rather than with hitters or offenses.  I’m an offense-friendly guy.  I just wonder if our human intelligence, in this game and elsewhere, is backsliding into a mechanistic mode that resents having to go off the blueprint and be spontaneous or creative.  Cheating used to cover mostly those who, perhaps, grew a little too inventive.  Isn’t it now, as a category, coming more and more to feel out a distinction between good and bad kinds of mechanization?  When fielders have little pads on their wrists or in their caps (give it another year or two) which integrate the very latest data on Freddie Freeman’s contact with back-foot sliders, that’ll be just fine.  Everybody will be doing it.  And when another pad worn behind the elbow guard tells the hitter what the probabilities are that Gerret Cole will change speeds in this count… oh, that’ll be unbelievably cool!  But bugging your opponent’s locker room will remain reinlich verboten.

Machines, you know, have their codes, too.  But where has the purely human joy—and the distinctly athletic joy—gone of pressing one’s skills and genius to the thin edge of a rigid box?

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