baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Cheating: Always Wrong… and Always With Us

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First of all, cheating is wrong.  It was really wrong as the Minnesota Twins practiced it in the 1991 World Series: turning on the blowers when their guys were at bat to assist outward-bound fly balls.  (Recall that Kirby Puckett’s critical homer off of Charlie Leibrandt barely cleared the screen.)  It was wrong in 1954, when the New York Giants won most of their final forty games after positioning a spy with binoculars in the Polo Grounds clubhouse beyond the center field fence and running a telegraph wire to the third-base coach’s box.  (Bobby “The Giants win the pennant!” Thompson always swore that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch… but we’ll never know for sure.)  Yet the verdict of neither of those series was overturned.  So I’d like all the people who want the Astros and the Red Sox stripped of their titles to pipe down.  Should we dethrone the ’89 Athletics because a bulked-up Canseco and his new disciple, Mark McGwire, anchored their line-up?  How about retroactively awarding all trophies in the Nineties to last-place teams, on the assumption that their players were shooting up the least?

No, I’m not in any way condoning foul play.  On the contrary, I’m encouraging those who are most enraged at the current sign-stealing scandal to grow up a little and recognize that we who play fair have always contended with such issues—and have usually done so with little support from governing bodies.  The last formal ball game my son ever played was in a “Christian” college tournament whose participants, for the most part, had discovered a lost Beatitude: “Blessed are they who win at any cost, for nice guys finish last.”  I watched the whole team in the opposing dugout hang on the chain-link fence and howl like apes at the zoo with all the Red Bull running in their veins; I watched their pitcher drill our best hitter twice in an obvious attempt to knock him out of the game (and just as obviously on orders); then I heard one of their coaches tell a player, “We won—that’s all that matters,” as we exited the park. Did I give up on the game after that night? No more than I gave up on my religious faith.

Cheating… yeah, it stinks.  My first experience of coaching was when I was told that my seven-year-old wouldn’t have a team if I didn’t consent to manage it, because more kids were signing up than the league could handle.  A much-recycled line, that, as I would learn later.  Every season needed a couple of “punching bag” teams to provide easy W’s.  My fellow punching-bag nominee that spring told me later that he skipped draft night, assuming that the vultures would leave him better scraps just to cover up their scheme than if he showed up and tried to pick from a list of two or three hundred unknown names.  He at least knew what he was getting into.

I could go on and on about how imbalanced the MLB pay scale is… but I’ve never believed the premise of that particular gripe.  The Washington Nationals finally unload their superstar, Bryce Harper, who goes to a Phillies club with a “win or die” approach to check-writing… and the Nats win the Series, while the Phils stumble across the finish line just ahead of the Marlins.  Coaching, chemistry, luck—a lot of variables besides salary must be factored into the equation.

And, in any case… yes, I’ll say it: how do we know that the Nats weren’t stealing signs, as well?  And the Dodgers?  And the Yankees?  If two or three teams are doing it, why would we suppose that every squad in both leagues isn’t doing it?  Maybe the teams that get caught are the ones that are really bad—really clumsy, stupid—cheaters.  Come on, now!  If I’m a struggling 23-year-old, why wouldn’t I buy my girlfriend an iPhone and season tickets behind the plate?  She watches the broadcast, sees the signs from the center-field camera, and gives me a, “Let’s go, Rusty!” every time a fastball is coming… a, “Let’s go, Sixteen!” for the slider… a, “You can do it, Rusty!” for the change.  Do you really think ballplayers, individually and collectively, didn’t figure out a long time ago what electronics can do for them in this area?  Remember the Polo Grounds?

Some players don’t even want to know what’s coming.  I think it was John Roseboro who wrote that he used to drive Orlando Cepeda crazy by tipping him to the pitches.  Baby Bull would turn around and whine, “Stop that!”—but Rosie would keep it up, because it worked.  For that matter, I find it hard to believe that Jose Altuve gives a tinker’s damn (as they used to say in Ireland) about knowing the pitch in advance.  The man who has been baseball’s premier hitter in many categories over the past five years swings at pretty much everything, just like most of the .400 hitters of the Deadball Era.  How on earth did those oldtimers get away with that?  Because, like Cepeda, they were front-foot hitters.  Their default approach was to inside-out everything served up to them, dragging the barrel well behind the hands—which gave them more time to track the ball; and, if the pitch happened to break in on them, causing them to get out in front… well, they were “fooled” into pulling the ball, and the result was often a fouled-up defense and extra bases.

This is how guys used to approach at-bats, I’m convinced: get the barrel on the ball.  Wherever it’s pitched, get the barrel to it, even if you end up on your face or your back.  Some ugly, awkward swings… and some very confused defenses and very high averages.  Of course, those stickers and strikers of a century ago weren’t carrying 31-inch Little League shillelaghs to the plate.  The typical bat of our era almost requires that you single out a certain pitch in a certain spot while taking everything else.  Since all of our hitters today are guess-hitters, anyway… well, why not look for a little confirmation of your best guess?

How many pitchers, even at the Big League level, can consistently get three pitches over on any given outing?  Most of them are throwing two pitches 75 percent of the time.  And how many, besides, dare cross up the hitter’s expectations and throw a 3/2 breaking ball or an 0/2 fastball over the plate?  Realistically, pitch-stealing would provide one of today’s professional hitters little more information than he’s already figured out on his own (with the massive aid of far better scouting reports and video than you could get from Homeland Security).  The Astros, so the stats suggest, have become very good two-strike hitters.  So… how many hitters don’t know what they’re likely to get with two strikes from a given pitcher in a given count and in a given situation?

I’m sorry… but considering our day’s penchant for playing the victim and demanding that bullies be crucified up and down every highway and byway, I can’t find a lot of outrage to vent over this particular scandal.  We’re always on the lookout for another occasion to scream, “Unfair!”  And the MLB, of course (like the NFL, the NBA, and all other multi-billion-dollar industries), is always quick to do damage control when it can’t keep every detail of its sausage-making from leaking out before a gullible public.  If you “cheat smart”, then we up here in the penthouse see nothing; if you get caught… oh, boy, are we going to be outraged with you!  You’re fired!  You’re banned for life!  How dare you soil our sport!

Yeah, okay.  Okay.  Meanwhile… how about young hitters learn to hit something besides a single pitch that they know is coming?