C'mon, guys. This is getting embarrassing. Major League Baseball used to be a place where cheating was an art form, an heirloom, something passed from old to young like a family recipe. From spitballers to bat corkers to sign stealers, cheaters' nefariousness is part of baseball lore.
Embedded in the sport's culture is an underlying lawlessness borne of its early days, when rogues, rapscallions and syphilitic vagabonds did whatever the hell they wanted to a baseball. Think about these pioneers' tool kits: nail files, emery boards, globs of Vaseline, hair tonic and, of course, the gift that made an in-season chest cold welcome – the magic loogie.
When television cameras caught Miami Marlins pitcher Alex Sanabia hocking a goober on a new baseball in the immediate aftermath of a Domonic Brown home run Monday night, it marked the second time in three weeks a pitcher had done the baseball equivalent of robbing a convenience store while smiling at the security camera. Sanabia should be ashamed that he so grievously disrespected the legacies of fine cheaters before him with such a plain-sight spit. Any pitcher worth a damn knows if you're going to spit on the ball, do it inside the glove.
Between that and Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz hitting the mound with hair that looked straight out of a Soul Glo commercial and a shiny patch on his arm – he had greased both up with sunscreen that, when combined with rosin, makes baseball super glue – the absolute disregard for proper cheating protocol is troublesome.
Kids these days.
They seem not to understand the beauty is in the subterfuge, the ability to cheat without getting caught. You want a better grip on the ball? Fine. Spray your uniform – particularly home whites – with the sunscreen and it's perfectly camouflaged. Spit without so much vigor that the expectorate literally bounces off the ball. Hide pine tar on a belt of similar color. Do not be Buchholz or Sanabia or Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, whose blatant glob of pine tar on the brim of his cap practically invites opposing managers to rat on him.
Only they don't. And that is why cheating has gotten so sloppy: players know they'll get away with it. Rule 8.02(a)(2) explicitly says: "The pitcher shall not expectorate on the ball, either his hand or his glove." The penalty is immediate ejection.
While most focus on the clarity of that rule, they forget the caveat beneath it: "If a pitcher violates either Rule 8.02(a)(2) or 8.02(a)(3) and, in the judgment of the umpire, the pitcher did not intend, by his act, to alter the characteristics of a pitched ball, then the umpire may, in his discretion, warn the pitcher in lieu of applying the penalty set forth."
By vigorously rubbing the ball after he spit on it, Sanabia may have broken workplace health-code rules, but he didn't exactly break baseball law. Unless the league wants to make an example of him and encourage smarter cheating, chances are he avoids suspension despite the world watching him load up a ball.
Part of the problem with today's cheaters is that they haven't evolved in lockstep with technology. Instant replay barely existed when Gaylord Perry was inventing potions to make the ball dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. The cheaters aren't nearly as clever or resourceful today, and they've got HD cameras, DVRs and much more intelligent fans ready to play eagle eye on anyone who disturb the cheating gods.
Look, life as a pitcher is tough, beyond the million-dollar salaries, first-class travel, copious women and altogether awesome existence. They've got to deal with hitters who want to pummel them, fielders who make errors, managers who ask them to give a solid six. It's not like hitters, who can cheat so much more easily.
What, you think it's just pitchers? No, no, no. Hitters still cheat like mad, only they respect their predecessors' accomplishments enough to avoid doing stupid things like getting caught. One bat manufacturer recently described the advances in bat corking technology. Clubhouses place an order with a special code – usually an X following the usual model number. So if John Doe regularly swings a model 999, a group of corked ones – usually $125 a pop because of the extra labor – would be 999-X.
The point of corking a bat is simple: the heavier the wood, the harder it is, and the harder it is, the better it is for hitting. The problem with heavier wood, of course, is that batters can't catch up with fastballs swinging it. So to get the benefits of the strongest wood with a regular weight, the manufacturer drills through the top of the bat and sprays expansion foam inside.
"It never comes out," he said. "It's sticky and tacky and filled the gap. Expansion foam took out hollow sound. Rubber filament or bouncy balls – there are still gaps. Almost sounds hollow when you hit it solid. With expansion foam, none of that happens."
See that, pitchers? It isn't difficult to cheat well. It just takes ingenuity, know-how and some old-fashioned hard work. Don't be like Sammy Sosa, corking a maple bat when anyone with a sliver of knowledge knows maple bats fracture in the middle of the barrel, exactly where the cork is. Be like the major league pitcher who, when in the minor leagues, recognized a two-umpire crew behind home plate and second base couldn't tell where on the mound he was standing, so he moved up about 2 feet toward the plate on two-strike counts and made his fastball surprisingly explosive.
Innovation will save the cheating industry from extinction, and even though underhandedness has given baseball some of its worst moments – throwing games and pervasive steroid use didn't exactly reflect well – players must combat the couch-bound five-o with fresh artifice.
Just because it is accepted that both sides are engaging in tricks to get better grips merely renders a false sense of security. Because one of these days, in an important game, an opposing manager is going to ask the umpire to check Kimbrel's cap and Buchholz's arm and Sanabia's ... OK, scratch that last one. Pitchers have lulled themselves into a false sense of security. It's just a matter of time before someone punctures it.
In the meantime, strikeouts pump through at an all-time high, fielders are better than ever and the era of pitching – only the second league-wide sub-4.00 ERA season in the last 20 years – rolls along one grease spot, tar glob and magic loogie at a time.
Even though they're terrible at it, the old chestnut hasn't changed: In baseball, cheaters always prosper.
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