Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball (Derek Zumsteg)

Derek Zumsteg wants to make one thing clear: in baseball, there are “cheaters,” and then there are cheaters. The difference between the two is often subtle, and things that most fans might consider cheating (think of that pine tar on Kenny Rogers’s hand in game 2 of last year’s Cardinals-Tigers World Series) are actually considered “cheating” by most of the players themselves (recall that Tony La Russa didn’t make nearly as much of a fuss over that pine tar as, say, Joe Buck did).

Sticky stuff on a pitcher’s fingers to get a better grip on the ball? “Cheating”—at least as long as the hitters don’t come back to the dugout complaining that the ball is doing crazy things. Stealing signs? “Cheating”—at least as long as the as the team doing the stealing doesn’t have a guy sitting behind the scoreboard with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie.

Zumsteg, in The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball, notes that that all sorts of things that are technically against the rules—a runner sliding far outside second base to break up a double play, a shortstop dancing across the base without actually touching it to make that double play, a catcher blocking home plate—are a traditional and accepted part of the game, so much so that many might be surprised to learn they’re illegal even in a technical sense (I know I was). And without players trying all sorts of rule-bending maneuvers early in the game’s history, the game would be less strategically rich today.

The distinction he makes between this sort of “cheating” and real cheating is a basic one: If everyone did this, would it fundamentally damage the game itself?* A hard slide into the opposing shortstop at second base does not. Throwing games (the 1919 Black Sox) or betting on baseball (Pete Rose) does. So does steroids, although the line here is less clear. (Does it damage the game when a pitcher takes steroids to help recover from an arm injury that, in the past, would have ended his career? Probably not—in fact, the game probably benefits. But what if those steroids, incidentally, also add a couple miles per hour to his fastball?)

Cheater’s Guide covers the broad and colorful history of cheating both with and without the quotation marks, from the win-at-all-costs approach of the 1890s Orioles (who routinely tripped and elbowed opposing players trying to run the bases and distracted and intimidated umpires, but also invented the modern hit-and-run and other strategies), to spitballers like Gaylord Perry and corked bats like Sammy Sosa’s, to the unexpected power groundskeepers have over visiting teams, to—yes—the notorious Black Sox, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds.

The book is informal and colloquial throughout—broadly informative, but not scholarly by any means—and full of weird and occasionally unfortunate sidebars based on extended riffs that don’t quite work (“A hypothetical conversation between the commissioner and a team stealing signs”; a whole series of “What a conversation with Pete Rose would be like if he hit your car while you were standing next to it and you caught the whole thing on video”; the almost non-sequitur-caliber “A discussion of Jason Giambi with Fulbright scholar Jeff Shaw”). But it’s a quick read on an interesting subject, and certainly worth picking up for anyone wondering exactly what a spitball does, what Will Clark has to do with pitchers covering their mouths during mound visits, and how they can finally start corking their own bats.

* A rule that brought back unpleasant memories of all-night arguments about Kant while studying for an undergrad philosophy final.

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