Sports in America. Sports teaches us teamwork. Sports teaches us sportsmanship. Sports in America teaches us to be better people. But there has always been a dark side to sports. Both professional and amateur. At the collegiate level — the point-shaving scandals in college basketball. The hypocrisy of what constitutes the true amateur. The self-entitlement of the big men on campus. The recruiting violations. In the pros, the unmitigated greed of both owners and players. The longtime refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of head injuries. The performance-enhancing drugs. The gambling addiction that brought down one of baseball’s biggest stars. The willful insensitivity toward violence against women. The feeling that maybe the dark side has overwhelmed anything good about sports. And now at a time when the thought of spring and the coming season is supposed to lift us out of the doldrums of winter, a cheating scandal hangs over baseball to remind us of the sometimes awfulness of the win-at-all-costs mentality in organized sports.
To understand the uproar over what the Houston Astros have admitted to and the Boston Red Sox as yet have not, you have to understand the darkness that lies at the heart of competitive sports. The edge. Everybody associated with games wants an edge. Whether you’re corrupted by that desire is determined by how you seek that edge.
Early in the last century, gamblers sought the edge by paying Major League Baseball players to fix games. In 1919, Arnold Rothstein famously fixed the World Series. The White Sox became the Black Sox. Rothstein became a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY and the innocence of America’s game was stolen from us.
In the late ‘90s, players — some of them big stars — discovered performance-enhancing drugs. Players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the very heart of the game. The revered historical records of the game, such as the home run record, were turned into a freakish joke. The game survived, but with its players and their performances now constantly under suspicion.
Today, the game has been rocked by the revelation that one (and perhaps two) of its most dominant teams of the last five years cheated by using electronic means to steal signs. The outrage is real, but also as naïve as thinking that Norman Rockwell paintings depicted the real America.
Stealing signs is NOT a violation of baseball’s rules. In fact, stealing signs has been a time-honored tradition in baseball. But in 1961, Major League Baseball decided to define HOW you could permissibly steal signs. It outlawed the use of “mechanical means.” I will leave it to ethics classes to determine whether how you steal signs, rather than the act of stealing signs, is the issue.
Not too long ago, it was revealed that one of the most famous events in the history of baseball — the Bobby Thomson home run that brought the New York Giants the pennant in 1951 — may have involved his team using a telescope to tip him off to the Ralph Branca fastball he hit into the left-field stands. Thomson denied that he was tipped off. But the Giants admitted to stealing signs during the game. Would the use of a telescope in 1951 be considered “mechanical means?” This old-time Brooklyn Dodgers fan hopes that the Big Commish in the sky has forced the two teams to replay that ninth inning.
While the cheating Astros used information gained in their video replay room, I wonder if their banging a trash can to relay the pitch selection to their hitters could be construed as high tech? On such minute details, we are forced to measure the ethics of the latest baseball scandal.
The anguish among both players and fans is as great as it was during the steroid-fueled home run era. That surprises this longtime fan. Understandably, some of the players most angered by the Astros’ cheating are those who played on teams that lost to the Astros in tightly contested post-season series. These players and their fans are calling for Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, to strip Houston of its world championship and American League title. The scandal has cost the Astros $5 million in fines and the forfeiture of the team’s first- and second-round draft picks in 2020. Both the general manager and manager of the team were fired by ownership. In addition, two other managers lost their jobs because they were implicated in the scandal while players on the Astros.
We insist on clinging to the myth of the game’s essential innocence, but sports in general, and baseball in particular, have always embraced one form of cheating or another. A catcher in baseball is celebrated for the way he “frames” his pitches, but “framing” is merely the art of deceiving an umpire into thinking a ball is actually a strike. The spit ball is outlawed, but at least one of the Hall of Fame members elected in my lifetime admitted using the spit ball. An outfielder who traps a ball always attempts to convince an umpire that he has, in fact, caught it. In hockey, “taking a dive” is a tactic used by players to fool a referee into thinking they were tripped so the opposing team is penalized and placed at a disadvantage.
The cheating scandal will eventually be forgotten. Baseball will move on. We will move on, too. As we always do. And once again, we will believe in the “innocence” of the game.
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