THE BIG HIT | The Legacy of Cheating

by Ken Napzok

Baseball.

Cheating.

The timeless game and the eternal sin.

Since the dawn of the game, no matter how rudimentary of a state the sport was in, cheating has been present. In fact, it just might be fair to say that baseball and cheating have one of the longest, most functional relationships in history. Love gurus and relationship therapists should whip out their notebooks and take notes. As we mentioned in the last column, there is almost a collective romantic gaze at getting an unfair advantage in baseball. 

One could run down a long list of events and players celebrated, but that’s actually not necessary. We all know the stories. We have all celebrated the great cheats of the game. So has baseball. Many are in the Hall of Fame. 

The cheating always came down to three categories: doctored baseballs, altered bats, and the fine art of stealing signs. 

We all come of age as baseball fans at different times, but for me the 1986 season was my first exposure to the very idea of cheating in baseball. I was ten years-old and until then I assumed playing at the big league level was about the same as little league. You got dropped off by your parents, did some warm-ups in front of your coaches, and then everyone had a lot of fun trying really hard to win. (At some point I guess everyone got to enjoy some orange slices and a juice box.) It never occured to me that a player or team would do something untoward in an effort to win. Quite frankly, I didn’t even know what the word untoward meant. But then came the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Enter Mike Scott.

Now I’m not accusing the Houston Astros right-handed ace and 1986 NL Cy Young Award winner of cheating. But the New York Mets sure did! Mike Scott went from a scuffling (not scuffing) pitcher with the New York Mets and Astros from 1979 to 1984 to an 18 game winner in 1985 to a next level of dominance in 1986 at age 31. His strikes out jumped from 137 in 221 ⅔ innings during his ‘85 campaign to 306 K’s in 275 ⅓ innings in 1986. He said the turnaround came from learning the split-fingered fastball from that pitch’s guru Roger Craig. The New York Mets claimed it had more to do with the weird scuff marks they were finding on the baseballs, particularly in game one of the series after Scott shut them down with a 14 strike out, complete game effort. The Mets were vocal. This had to be cheating. 

Mike Scott won again in Game 4 with his second complete game of the series on three days rest. 

Accusations be damned. 

Scott was never proven to be a cheater, mind you. Despite bags of allegedly scuffed balls from that ‘86 season and every person in the Mets line-up loudly complaining that there was no way the ball could dance like that on its own, Mike Scott stood in the clear. The closest he came to admitting it — if you so choose to believe — was in a 2014 interview in which he said, “I’ve thrown balls that were scuffed but I haven’t scuffed every ball that I’ve thrown.” 

Mike Scott and his dancing fastball remain part of baseball lore, but, for me, a young baseball fan on the cusp of adulthood, it was the first time I had heard about the idea of cheating in baseball. 

From there the floodgates opened. 

The more one takes a deep dive into the game, the more cheating you uncover. I was always mesmerized by the classic image of Burgleigh Grimes about to put two wet fingers on the baseball (giggity) and the well-known fact that Grimes was the last pitcher allowed to legally toss a spitball. 

That blew my mind. The pitch was outlawed in 1920, but Grimes and 16 other pitchers were allowed to keep throwing it until the end of their playing days. Grimes retired in 1934. (So I guess that wrapped up the idea of illegally doctored pitches, right?) I just couldn’t believe that 17 pitchers were allowed to keep their cheating ways for so long. As if baseball was saying, “Eh, keep doing it, we’ll look the other way.” 

From there I learned about superballs flying out of hollowed out bats or cork being stuffed into the lumber I believed were the hallowed tools of heroes. Pitchers often had emery boards, pine tar, or thumb tacks in their gloves. (Hall of Famer Don Sutton was once asked by MLB.com if he cheated. He answered, “No, I never got caught cheating.”) Then I learned about Gaylord Perry. 

Wow. 

Just wow.

It was a game within a game. Steal a sign. Get an edge. You might get caught or just might roll all the way into the Hall of Fame. Either way, it makes for a nice story or a sub-chapter in a Ken Burns documentary. 

Yet here we are in 2019 and the age old relationship between baseball and cheating just took a confusing turn. The Houston Astros stand accused of cheating on a new level and, if we’re being honest, outed by their former pitcher Mike Fiers. (Himself accused of having a weird amount of pine tar on his glove during a no-hitter) The investigations are still on-going and nothing official has been found or announced.

However, I mean, none of it looks good. High tech cameras, real time feeds straight into dugout monitors, loud noises to indicate the pitch that is coming, and an elaborate web of ill-gotten information that was ordered from above. 

None of it sounds good and some say the Astros aren’t the only ones. 

But, again, I believe in letting investigations take their course. 

I say all this to say that this is most definitely a problem and this fan is happy Major League Baseball will have to deal with it. This all goes beyond the simple gaming of the game where the thought was if you could crack the other team’s on-field code then you could have the knowledge. They’ll just put different fingers down next time around. This isn’t even Willie Mays passing on his knowledge of stolen signs and tipped pitches to Barry Bonds in late ‘60s. This isn’t some low level scout in centerfield with binoculars and a two if by sea, one if by land signal back to the dugout. This is almost real time information and watching some of those video clips going around — again NOT official MLB investigation material — is stunning. Lean in the for the sign, garbage pail sound for offspeed pitch, offspeed pitch comes in. No pounding, fastball. Pounding, offspeed. It’s… well… very different than any kind of on field cheating before it. 

This isn’t a player on second base cracking a code, turning his head in a predetermined way, and hoping the batter gets the scoop. This is a system put in place to take out the guesswork and it looks like it came from above. 

The Steroid Era is being brought up a lot these days and it’s a fair comparison. That wasn’t just the simple use of greenies or big gulps of the clubhouse coffee, that was an unfair advantage that tipped the scales in favor of those who did it simply because the rules on it weren’t clear or weren’t even present at all. (So is it even cheating then… or just a straight up cracking of one’s own moral code?) This is a potential new era of scandal. 

But what can be done?

It has already taken place. It already is. It exists and this is not a sci-fi movie. We can’t go back in time and there is no other plane of existence of alternate dimension. Players have already thrown the spitballs. They have already swung corked bats. They’ve ingested substances to alter their bodies, keep them healthy, and launch balls further and throw them faster. And now they may have stolen signs in the most cold, sterile technological way. 

How do you punish them?

You keep hearing talks of the “most stringent” punishment to date in Major League Baseball in regards to this. This happened (or started in earnest) in 2017. The Astros won the World Series that season. Two people heavily involved are now both managers for other teams. Players benefiting from the system have won awards and hit historic home runs. You can’t erase it all. Just like you can’t erase the wins of teams in the past known for being great at gaming the game. Just like Don Sutton, Tommy John, Gaylord Perry, and countless other pitchers wins still count. Just like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire’s home run totals still stand. Just like every stat from that era still stands. 

You can suspend. That’s been done before. You can freeze someone out of the Hall of Fame years from now. That’s being done currently. Or you can add to fabled list of those for whom their careers and involvement with the game were taken away. Shoeless Joe. Charlie Hustle. And now… AJ Hinch? 

Seems harsh, (and I use Hinch here as more of a fall guy than anything. One name in power picked from a hat.) but then again harsh might just be what Major League Baseball will be going for. I say it happened, you deal with it, you try to prevent it and you move on as best you can. 

Baseball is always about the next pitch or next at-bat. It has to be. 

Whatevers happens, one thing remains clear, the history of cheating in baseball will go on. This will be the biggest chapter of them all and maybe — just maybe — that will have to be more closely examined. It doesn’t excuse it — mind you — but if you’re presented with a new space age way of breaking the sign code of the other team, it’s hard not to think for one second as you mull it over in your brain — and more importantly your heart — that it’s ok. Because this is baseball and this is cheating. And that is, after all, just part of the game. 

M-V-P! M-V-P!

Due to travel and a sickness that seemed to last longer than a Mike Hargrove at-bat (deep cut!), I didn’t get the chance to comment on the Most Valuable Player awards for 2019. So… you know… here’s my comment…

Both awards were pretty close races and I’m not sure the right players won it, but the wrong ones didn’t win it. You know? While that makes it sound like the no doubt friendly ghost of Yogi Berra is dictating this column to me, let me explain. Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger are absolutely worthy award winners. This isn’t a case of Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan. It’s just that the second place finishers had some downright compelling cases for being the winners.

Christian Yelich (last year’s N.L. MVP) seemed to be single handedly pulling the Brewers through to the finish line until that fateful foul ball ended his season. Forget the stats — and they are impressive — Yelich was having one of those MVP seasons I love. The ones in which the player is the clear emotional core of the team. The one in which the very winning attitude of the franchise swirls around. Like Kirk Gibson in 1988 or Dustin Pedroia in 2008, Yelich was the true most emotionally valuable player. He was the Brewers heart. Yet, as fate had it, Yelich did get hurt and even he had to admit that pretty much sealed his chances for winning the award though others felt differently. 

Yelich finished the season with a career high 44 home runs, pole position in average, on-base, slugging, OPS, and OPS+, and with a hunger to come back healthy and motivated to do it all again but better (and that includes hitting off Yu Darvish.) He received ten first place votes. 

Cody Bellinger got 19 first place votes and he did, in fact, earn every one of them. 

It wasn’t like he was quietly going about his business while Yelich was making headlines. Cody Bellinger was the concrete base on which the Dodgers 106 win season was built on. The former Rookie of the Year (and 24th ROY to go on and win an MVP) absolutely had a breakout year statistically. The jump up in his slash line stats was jaw dropping and many of his 47 home runs seemed to come when it counted the most. 

And that’s where the focus should go for this award. Bellinger and his uppercut swing were at the top of the highlight reel time and time again. It’s sometimes easy to overlook how clutch a team (and player) are when a team wins so many games, but the 2019 Dodgers were pure magic at times this season. Come from behind victories, walk off dramatics, and a sense that it all had a greater purpose. (Which it did until they ran up against the Senators and their own play-off demons.) 

Bellinger was also a revelation in the field and should be considered a top notch right fielder. Not just a first baseman looking for another gig. 

In the end, Bellinger had a season to remember, was rewarded for it, and should be in the award mix for years to come. But it will be hard not to forget Christian Yelich and the injury that ended his chances. 

Which is weird… because… an injury did not affect Mike Trout and his pursuit for award glory. 

The Angels star took home his third MVP trophy with an impressive season. He smacked a career-high 45 home runs, lead the American League in on-base percentage for the fourth straight season, and was on pace for so much more until it was decided to shut him down. 

So, was the competition that far behind Mike Trout that he could just coast to the award despite his team finishing 18 games below .500? No. No, it wasn’t. The award finalists were Marcus Semien and Alex Bregman. Semien was an exciting new addition to the conversation and only 28 himself (like Trout) should be one to watch over the next few seasons. Yet it was Bregman — the 25 year-old cornerstone player on an already stacked Houston roster — that made a strong, strong case for the award. 

Bregman got 13 first place votes. Trout 17. 

The stats were there. 122 runs, 41 home runs, league leading 119 bases on balls, and an 8.4 baseball reference WAR which just edged Trout’s 8.3. The baseball cards will show this season as a great one for Bregman without a doubt. 

However, like Bellinger (and Yelich), Bregman seemed to be at the center of the victory storm for those 107 win Astros. In September alone, Bregman seemed to be addressing his MVP jury like Tom Cruise in a courtroom scene. He smacked 9 homers, drove in 22, and registered an OPS of 1.239. It was like he was saying, Trout is down, but I’m still here and I am the horse pulling this cart. He came up short, but will be back in it and will hopefully emerge as a positive force for an embattled Houston franchise. Regardless, he seems like he’ll be ok.

When the votes were cast, Mike Trout is just too damn good. He is the current Best Player In Baseball and these awards will continue to find him no matter what record his teams finish with. (His 2016 award came with a similar 74-88 record. 2014 was 98 win season, though.) Yeah, there is always that argument for a Player of the Year award to go alongside the MVP award, but that’s another conversation for another time. The phrase “most valuable player” can be interpreted many different ways. There has never been a rule that a player’s value has to lead his team to the postseason. The Angels finished 2019 with 72 wins and without any doubt, Mike Trout was the reason for many of those wins and now history will testify to that. 

Here’s to the winners! It’s all history from this point on. What matters most is that next at-bat. 

Transaction Mania

The offseason has been quiet in terms of actual transactions and none of those big free agents have made their moves, but here’s a quick leak at some teams making good moves.

Atlanta Braves

The 97 win club has been quick to shore up their bullpen with new contracts for Will Smith, Chris Martin, and Darren O’Day. Martin and O’Day are returnees designed to keep that bullpen deep, but Smith comes over from San Francisco with 34 saves, an All-Star nod, and an impressive 13.2 SO/9 inning ratio. Smith is currently pegged to help set up Mark Melancon, who set him up in San Francisco before a stretch run trade to the Braves, but that just fancy depth chart talk now. Smith is coming home to Georgia and odds are he’ll have plenty of chances  to close out Braves’ wins. 

One of the catchers Smith will be tossing to is Travis d’Arnaud. With Brian McCann retiring, there was a spot for someone to share the backstop load with Tyler Flowers and the former Mets prospect should prove to be a great fit. Moves like this get me excited for fantasy baseball. d’Arnaud is an overlooked name. Injuries and struggles have taken his name from sleeper lists to avoid at all cost lists. If you did that, then you missed out on 16 bombs, 69 RBI, and consistent at-bats at a position that often needs them when it comes to your fantasy roster. d’Arnaud finally seemed comfortable and healthy in Tampa Bay and at 30, might just be taking that late blooming vibe with him to Atlanta. The Braves already have the core they want and now they’re getting ahead of the rest by filling out the edges of their roster quite well.

Chicago White Sox

Speaking of catchers, The Pale Hose made a big move to bring in Yasmani Grandal and a lot has already been said on Grandal “betting on himself” with that one year contract with the Brewers last offseason. Betting on yourself is a good thing. It’s natural. We all do it. It’s not a sin at all. And Grandal bet and won, signing a four-year, $73 million dollar contract with the White Sox. (He had turned down a four-year, $60 million dollar with the Mets) 

Grandal brings a big bat (don’t overlook his 109 walks — seventh highest total ever for a catcher.) and a solid glove. All the new age stat heads are pointing to his ability to frame pitches. And, yeah, we can all poke a little fun that is a stat now, but it is an insightful one. Grandal is worth the money, a two time All-star, and an early offseason win for Chicago.

The White Sox are being heralded as a team on the rise and this deal shows some aggressive moves towards making that bright future and a sunny reality. They’ve also resigned Jose Abreu, part of the Cuban powered core that Grandal joins, and making sure his 123 RBI and leadership skills stay put is just as big of a move as any out there. Get ready, Southside. 2020 could be interesting. 

This week in baseball history…

On November 24th, 1982, Cal Ripken Jr was named the American League Rookie of the Year for the ‘82 season. He hit a modest .264 but smacked 28 home runs back when that meant something, and drove in 93 runs. (How many of those were Al Bumbry scoring is what I want to know) It was a solid freshman campaign for the future Iron Horse. 

But I chose to highlight it for the destiny that Ripken had. Beyond the awards, World Series wins (‘83 champs) and the once unheard of smashing of Lou Gerhig’s consecutive games record, Ripken became to be the Man Who Saved baseball. 1982 was just the start of that fateful journey.

As we deal with big, reality-based baseball problems now like the aforementioned brewing storm of high tech cheating, opioid problems, the controversial restructuring of the minor leagues, and the early whispers of future labor problems, seeing Ripken’s name in the history books for this simple award brings back those pleasant memories of 1995 when the baseball fandom still reeling from the strike collective looked to the guy that showed up every day to play as a beacon of what the game was, is, and could be. 

The 2019 Major League Baseball season was a great one. There was a passion for the game felt on the field and it was matched in the stands. Attendance numbers and ratings are always going to be studied and questioned, but don’t Statcast this one. Go with your gut. It was a great season.

However, there are some nicks and cuts on the game’s face right now and we could be facing some black eyes very soon. When the strife hits and the fans start to go cold, who will be our Ripken? Who will be the modern day equivalent of the workman-like hero that puts the sport on his back to carry us through to the next age? The first award came this week in baseball history in 1982. The great purpose emerged later. In 1982, no one thought it would be the “big for a shortstop” student of the Oriole Way. So who is it now? 


Walk Off Quote

“Restore the spitter? When did they stop throwing it.” — Pee-Wee Reese, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1955 – Thirty-five years after the spitball was banned

***

Ken Napzok  had trouble understanding his own third base coach’s signs, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.