What Exactly is Cheating in Baseball?

Bud Selig is considering lifting the ban that keeps Pete Rose out of baseball and, consequently, out of the Hall of Fame.  Some see Selig’s potential action as something long overdue a man who, if individual statistics are all that matter, is one of the best ever to play the game.

Others are just plain horrified.

pete-rosePeople who love baseball tend to love the game because it doesn’t just mimic life, it is better than life. The heroes, the kids who worship them, the fantastic twists and turns of events on and off the field, are integral parts of the game. Movies like Field of Dreams and The Natural are successful because they are so believable. There are great truths in baseball, and we expect to see them played out between the foul lines.

When a player cheats, it’s a kind of rape – a theft of innocence from fans and other players alike. It’s obvious that baseball is driven by statistics, and anything that warps their collection and analysis affects the integrity of the sport. But even if a game isn’t thrown, even if points are not shaved, just deliberately engaging in any activity that is detrimental to baseball is a calculated affront.

So much for Barry Bonds and his bad attitude. So much for Mark McGuire and his lies. So much for steroid use by Jose Canseco or anyone. So much for Pete Rose and his penchant for gambling, whether he bet against his own club or not. Like Caesar’s wife, baseball must remain above suspicion – to be true to itself and to differentiate itself from other sports and the rest of the sad old world. Thus, if Pete Rose becomes a scapegoat, so be it. He made his bed, and many feel that baseball almost has to make him lie in it.

But hasn’t the game always been every bit as crass as Rose at his worst? Young writers, taking events far out of context, are quick to point out that Babe Ruth’s excesses were legendary, that Ty Cobb was a vicious racist, and that the Hall of Fame is full of people whose likelihood of beatification is slim and none. Yet, the cynics are wrong.

Once upon a time, the Black Sox notwithstanding, the greatest threat to the purity of the game came from pitchers who doctored horsehide spheres with everything from brilliantine to shoe polish. ’Way back in 1962, none other than Senator Jim Bunning was accused of notching the baseball with his belt buckle during a Tigers-Orioles matchup. When Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry won number 300, he peeled off his uniform shirt to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Old Age and Treachery will Overcome Youth and Skill.”

But there is artistry in that form of cheating.  There is skill involved in throwing a shine ball. Maybe you’ll get caught doing it. If you’re good, maybe you won’t.  If you’re very, very good, you’ll even be respected for it.

It is difficult to imagine earning respect for gambling success. It is difficult to imagine anyone chalking up points for shooting up steroids. Drugs and betting are foreign to baseball, a game with so strong a tradition of hope and innocence.

One rule explains the dichotomy between old and modern cheating. In the old days, the first and greatest commandment was that “thou shalt not place any foreign substance on theDizzy Dean baseball.” A new rule could as easily read, “Thou shalt not use any foreign substance to enhance a player’s physical power or engage in any activity that is foreign to baseball.”

So, were those old guys just as bad as the cheaters that play today? Can it honestly be said that Pete Rose is no worse than the guys who fudged the rules 60 or 70 years ago?

No way. There was innocence in the game at one time and still should be. Anything else is foreign.  And, for those determined to blur the line, we simply refer them to Dizzy Dean, who once pointed out, “Whut’s so foreign about spit?”