Cheating Cheating or Not Cheating Cheating?

This past week, it came to light that the Boston Red Sox were using apple watches to steal pitch signs from the New York Yankees, which was corroborated through an investigation by Major League Baseball. This sounds more like an overt product placement ad than an actual scandal, let alone a practical way to relay signs in the time it takes a pitcher to deliver a fastball to the plate. Whatever, I don’t really need to understand the texting speed of bullpen coaches on a device conceptualized by Dick Tracy. The Red Sox, much like my grade school child when caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar, tattled right back claiming the Yankees have been using their YES Network to do the exact same thing. Here’s the deal, there is no baseball commandment stating THOU SHALL NOT STEAL SIGNS. In fact, if it was baseball-illegal, there wouldn’t even need to be signs at all. The whole idea of signs is so that the opposition doesn’t know what you’re communicating, because they are permitted to look. All of this finger pointing does make me think about a what is and isn’t considered cheating, particularly in a sport that has lots of written and unwritten rules, and has the sports world’s richest tradition of bending and sometimes dropping a bomb on said rules. I think there are four basic types of “cheating.” Not all of them are bad. After all, if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.

First, there’s “Not Cheating Cheating.” Not cheating cheating is all the crap that people call cheap, poor sportsmanship and bad form that gives a team an actual and/or psychological advantage. This is where sign stealing lives. However, I will say that while I’m in the camp that doesn’t mind this practice, it should be reserved to the human eyes of the players and coaches on the field. Using broadcasts, telescopes, and other James Bond tech doesn’t pass the smell test for me, and gives distinct advantages to the home team specifically.

Another aspect of Baseball that I would consider “Not Cheating Cheating” involves the ground crew. One of the things I absolutely love about baseball is the ball parks. Each one is unique and has its own distinctive features. From the Liberty Bell in Ashburn Alley, to the Green Monster, to the outfield swimming pool in Arizona, to whatever the hell is in the outfield in Miami. What goes unnoticed by a lot of casual fans is the way the ground crew can manipulate the field itself to give an advantage to the home team. Your club’s sinker ball pitcher is starting? Maybe we won’t cut the grass so short to slow the onslaught of ground balls the opposition is bound to hit. Does your team like to bunt for base hits? Let’s lay the chalk foul lines thick to keep those rollers fair. This is the definition of home field advantage and is something that makes baseball special.

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

Somewhere in the “Upside Down” between not cheating cheating and cheating you’ll find creepy cheating. Creepy cheating is technically not cheating in a between-the-foul-lines sense, but it does blur the line of what we’ll call “moral acceptability.” The best example of this is Lenny Dykstra. Dykstra, despite his despicableness, knows his baseball, and one of the fundamental principles of the game is that with a favorable balls/strikes count, your chances of getting on base increases dramatically. To exploit this to the maximum, Dysktra would hire a team of private investigators to dig up dirt on umpires. He would then use any below-board information uncovered by Sam & Max between pitches to casually let the men in blue know he was aware of their gambling habits, extramarital affairs, or whatever. The blackmail wasn’t for cash though, instead Dysktra needed those borderline calls to be balls. This gives an already good player, on steroids (more on that later), an advantage no other player could enjoy. It’s no surprise Dykstra, for a period of time, was among the league leaders in walks as well as on-base percentage.

Next up is Charming Cheating. This is the type of rule breaking that is definitely cheating. It gives a player or team an unfair advantage that seems super shady, but at the same time is woven into the fabric of the game. I’m putting spitballs and sandpaper in this category. I’ll let fictional Cleveland Indian Eddie Harris tell it best:

Major League (1989)

Eddie Harris: Crisco. Bardol. Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curve ball. Of course if the umps are watching me real close I’ll rub a little jalapeno up my nose, get it runnin’, and if I need to load the ball up I just……wipe my nose.
Rick Vaughn: You put snot on the ball?

Eddie Harris: I haven’t got an arm like you, kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.

While it’s clearly cheating, there’s such an intangible charm to it. I classify hiding sandpaper, patches of Vaseline or bodily fluids more as shenanigans than violating the sanctity of the game. I’m going to include corked bats here as well. Corked, pine tarred, or otherwise altered bats are the hitter’s rendition of the spitball. Plus watching a corked bat explode during an MLB game is such an amazing moment of comedy and disgrace.

That brings us to the fourth and most vile, disgusting form of cheating. The kind that doesn’t just cheat the opposition, it cheats teammates, fans and history. This is the “Go to Freakin’ Hell You Scumbag” form of cheating, and there’s three violations that I can think of that fall into this category.

  1. Gambling/Tanking: This is weird because when we think of cheating we think of trying to get an advantage, not allowing the opposition to waltz to victory, but that’s exactly what eight members of 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of doing, in the World Series no less (I personally reduce that to seven members of the Sox as I’m a Shoeless Joe Jackson truther, except when portrayed by Ray Liotta). It’s the unspeakable: intentionally losing for gambling purposes. Unless you’re a fan of the New York Yankees, your team doesn’t win championships all that often, if my team intentionally lost even a World Series inning, I wouldn’t be angry or disappointed, I would be destroyed to my core, and I can honestly say, I would never be the same again.
  2. Performance Enhancing Drugs: We all had a blast watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smash us through the summer of 1998, but at what cost? We opened the flood gate to watch records that have stood for generations tumble annually like houses of cards. The ghosts of Ruth, Maris and Aaron should haunt the homes of these false idols for all eternity. This defacing of the history and tradition of America’s pastime cannot be understated.
  3. Performance Enhancing Drugs and Denying It: Go to hell. Do not pass go. Go directly to hell. Go directly to hell and rot for all eternity. You took something special, something millions of us love and have loved for our entire lives and used it like a toilet bowl. Not only that, you won’t admit you did it in the face of overwhelming evidence. This writer will never forgive you, never recognize your records or hall of fame inductions if they ever come.

So where does Apple Watch-gate fall? I’m not sure, maybe there’s a fifth category, Cheating Cheating? Techno Cheating? Maybe it’s up to personal opinion, but it is worth thinking about how exactly cheating is cheating? While I’m on the topic, maybe an entire dissertation based on the New England Patriots is in order.

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