“You’ve Got To Cheat”

What’s been largely ignored in the furor over baseball players’ illegal use of steroids is the crucial fact that cheating of one kind or another has always been an important part of the game. It wouldn’t be baseball as we know it without cheating.


Listen to Rogers Hornsby, the late Hall of Fame member who played and managed Major League teams for a half-century: "You’ve got to cheat. I cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game."


This is not to say that illegal steroid use should be excused or tolerated. But it is to say that many – if not all – of the players who turned to steroids undoubtedly saw that as just another way to gain an advantage for themselves and their teams. It was just another form of the cheating that’s part of the game.


Consider last year’s World Series, won four games to one by the St. Louis Cardinals over the Detroit Tigers.  It might have been 4-zip if Detroit‘s Kenny Rogers had not illicitly smeared a bit of pine tar on his pitching hand to help the Tigers to their lone series victory. Pine tar is one of those  "illegal substances" that baseball’s rule book bans, but that some pitchers nevertheless use to make the ball twist and turn in baffling ways as it heads toward the batter.


Surely the best of those cheaters was Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who peeled off a sweat-sodden Seattle Mariners jersey after winning his 300th game to bring the world, watching on television, this vital message, printed across a brilliant yellow T-shirt in bold black letters: "Old Age and Treachery Will Overcome Youth and Skill."


The 43-year-old Perry had admittedly won many of those 300 games – if not all of them – by throwing balls doctored with saliva, Vaseline, suntan lotion, baby oil, fishing-line wax and who knows what other illegal substances.


Rubbing the ball with sandpaper or an emery board can also do the trick. So can scraping or cutting it with a sharpened belt buckle or maybe a thumb tack hidden inside a pitcher’s glove. Many pitchers have tried those illegal variations – and more – though few have been as candid about their indiscretions as Gaylord Perry.


Batters also have tricks. You might remember the fuss a few years back over the alleged corking of bats by slugger Sammy Sosa and others. Slipping a little cork or sawdust into a partly hallowed out bat to make it lighter, and thus capable of driving a ball farther, has been done for years by an undetermined but significant number of players.


One of the most creative was former New York Yankee Craig Nettles. He was found out when his bat shattered in a game against Detroit and out on the diamond skipped a half-dozen of those lively little Super Balls kids had such fun bouncing around.


There’s also that hitters little trick of rubbing out the rear chalk line in the batter’s box so they can get a little father away from the pitcher, one of the many petty infractions of the rules that are so common, some of them merely attempts to deceive umpires or opposing players.


Don’t forget, either, the constant attempts of teams to decode the hand and finger signals – signs – used by managers and coaches to direct their players and by catchers to tell batters what kind of a pitch they want and where they want it pitched,


Stealing signs is an art. Watch first and third base coaches especially, bending at the waist to tell batters that a curveball is coming, for instance, standing upright to signal a fastball, or shouting out code words to tip off a pitch.


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