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The Baseball Chronicle

Essays

Defending the Indefensible

By Michael Webb

Baseball, like life, is hard. Look at it from the batter’s point of view: A man wearing a mask is plotting against you, and everyone in front of you is trying to thwart you. Or, look at it as a pitcher: You have to throw this ball within this tiny little box, and it is bad for you if you miss, and it can even be bad for you if you succeed, because a man with a stick can knock it over a fence. The odds are tilted against you, it seems, no matter what side you’re on. Do you blame a player for taking liberties with the rules?

Cheating has been around about as long as there has been baseball, from King Kelly’s instant substitutions (crying out, “Kelly now catching for Boston,” and leaping off of the bench to catch a foul fly in the 1870s) in the prehistoric era all the way to the modern steroid age. Combine the best athletes, the highest competitive drive, and add money to the stakes, and you will get people willing to run afoul of the rules. Cheating, defined here as “tactics or schemes that violate the spirit or letter of the rules and are intended to gain a competitive advantage,” is as much a part of baseball as the baseball.

It is tempting to decry all cheating—“Throw the bums out! Suspend the lawbreakers! Zero tolerance!” But who is the most vivid character in The Godfather? Ocean’s Eleven? “The Sopranos”? “Weeds”? The Jason Bourne films? Kill Bill? The lawbreaker, the outcast, the thief—the one who lives outside the law, counter to the established order. Without lawbreakers, there is no color, no zest to life.

We cannot allow cheats, of course. Cheating deforms the rules of the game and upsets the competitive balance. Cheaters should be ejected from the game and punished—an advantage gained by cheating deforms the test of skill that baseball should be. But at the same time, the lineage of cheats is long and colorful—spitballs and scuffballs countered by hollow bats and musclebound swings. To throw them all out—like “The Sopranos” without Tony—is to lose part of the story itself.

So in the end, cheating is as much part of baseball as a backdoor slider or a takeout slide at second. We can’t allow it, and we can’t ignore it, but it won’t go away. And along with the battles of pitcher against hitter, management against labor, and Yankees against Red Sox, we will forever have the executives making rules to forbid cheating, and inventive players looking for more break on a curve, or the extra five feet on a fly. The cheaters will never win, but they will never stop trying.

—June 24, 2009

About the author

Michael Webb began his baseball fandom in 1978, which was a really great year to be a Boston Red Sox fan. Most of it, anyway. He now follows the Sox in South Jersey with his patient wife and son.