THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
From spitballs to sign-stealing, cheating has always been endemic in baseball, says Mike Carlson
This year in baseball's spring training, a couple of young Met fans greeted every appearance at the plate by the Astros' Alex Bregman by banging fiercely on a plastic trash bin in the stands. While it reassured me to know that a new generation would carry the historical grace of New York fans proudly into the future, it also reminded me that when the Astros' sign-stealing scandal first broke, I had imagined fans at every Houston road game banging on metal bins brought from home and banging them like the Thunder Drums from China. Of course security at Port St Lucie is pretty loose and the Mets would hardly let them carry garbage cans into Citi Field, would they? And are Mets' fans really the most accurate measure of the depth of anger about baseball's latest hi-tech (at least about from banging on the garbage cans) cheating scandal?
It seems we (particularly the sports media) hold baseball to a higher standard than other sports. Back in the Nineties, papers started baseball attendance in terms of capacity filled; this was not done with other sports. The steroid scandals ripped baseball apart; in football, despite the attendant CTE/concussion problems, few people were claiming the game itself was tainted. Most sports can easily survive scandal. Even in England, where the phrase 'it's not cricket' describes something unfair, implying cricket is above cheating, when the sport itself suffers scandal as serious as match-fixing with gamblers, the game stays sacrosanct. And of course cricket's most prevalent cheating is one with direct links to baseball: 'ball tampering' where players trying to 'lift' the one seam of a cricket ball, recall generations of pitchers who sharpen their belt buckles or nails, palm sandpaper or emery boards, and hide Vaseline, KY Jelly or just plain spit.
Because cheating has always been endemic in baseball, and we celebrate or are amused by baseball cheaters. The spitball was banned after Carl Mays killed Ray Chapman with a tobacco juice coated ball that got away from him, but after ball tampering was banned it turned into a fine, if nominally illegal art. Gaylord Perry loading the ball, Phil Niekro with his emery boards, Whitey Ford with the sharpened belt buckle all made the Hall of Fame. Opposing them, batters hollowed out their bats; Graig Nettles filled his with super balls, Albert Belle with old-fashioned cork. Indians' pitcher Jason Grimsley then crawled through the ceiling space of the umpires' room and switched the confiscated corker with a normal bat. Everyone thought this was a gas.
'If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying' appears to have originated not with baseball, but with NASCAR driver Richard Petty, as adapted by James Coburn as a rodeo rider in the 1972 film Honkers. Really, it should have been said by Leo 'The Lip' Durocher, most famous for explaining that 'nice guys finish last'. Leo didn't like rules. “'How to play the game' is for college boys,” he explained. When you're playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in sports and I'll show you an idiot...I don't call that cheating, I call it heads up baseball”.
It was Durocher who, while managing the New York Giants in 1951, came up with the scheme to steal signs by putting coach Herman Franks in his office behind the center-field fence, armed with a telescope and a buzzer whose other end was in the third base coaches box. When Franks saw the sign for a breaking ball, he would buzz, the coach would signal and the batter would know he had extra time to swing. Ralph Branca gave up the Shot Heard Round The World to Bobby Thompson on a pitch which most likely was signalled to him at the plate.
Of course sign-stealing is probably about a day younger than signs themselves in baseball, but was restricted by the view you have of the catcher's crotch when he signals the pitch he wants. Most commonly signs are stolen by a runner on second. When I worked for MLB, I met Bob Miller, who'd pitched for the Mets in their early days. One day he came in from the bullpen with a runner on second. Catcher Choo-Choo Coleman signalled for a curve, Miller threw it, and the batter hit it to the wall. Run scores, batter now on second. Miller calls time and motions Coleman to the mound. 'What is it, Bob?' 'Chooch, we have to change our signs. He knew the curve was coming.' 'OK Bob,' says Chooch, holding up two fingers. 'We take the second sign'. He turns around, but Miller calls him back. 'Chooch, you just told 20,000 people we're taking the second sign'. Choo Choo thinks on it. Speaking behind his glove he whispers 'OK Bob, we take the third sign'. He goes back, squats behind the plate, and decides he wants a fast ball. He puts down one finger, then one finger again, then one finger a third time. Miller swore he laughed so hard he stepped off the mound and was called for a balk.
The question with the Astros is not that they stole sign, but that they used technology to do it. It's a bit like the Patriots 'spy gate' scandal, except the Astros were recording and stealing in real time, using both a vantage point in the outfield and the tape equipment just alongside the dugout, and therein lies the rub. Baseball allows tape to analyse pitchers and batters motions: you can watch in slow motion for the kind of giveaways that 'tip' a pitch: holding the glove higher for a fast ball than a curve, changing the grip earlier on the ball, things like that. It seems to be the idea that technology is 'telling' you something of immediate use that makes it wrong. Especially since the means of delivery to the hitter, banging on garbage cans, is about as low tech as it gets.
Being of the pre-tech generation, but also an early fan of Bill James and sabermetrics, I'm of two minds. Video and computers mean baseball is so overly-analysed (pitch rotation, arm angle etc.) that half of me says put earphones on the players and let the coaches tell them what pitch they think is coming; or put a communications system for pitcher and catcher so they don't need signs. But should the Astros lose their title? The players lose their awards? Or is simply knowing you did wrong and have to live with the shame punishment enough for the players (who, unlike the GM, manager and bench coach Alex Cora, later of the Red Sox, did not lose their jobs).
Being America, of course, journeyman pitcher Mike Bolsinger sued the Astros, since a pounding he received in a game at Minute Maid Park proved to be his last in the majors. Think about that. Could the ghost of Ralph Branca sue Leo Durocher because he spent the rest of his life being the guy who gave up the biggest home run of all time?