Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Liar Wrote This

Baseball has always been a sport by and for the liars.  

For example, the popular origins of the game are manifestly a lie.   Albert Spalding, a former player who became wealthy by selling and packaging the game, invented the myth that the rules of baseball sprung into the mind of Civil War hero Abner Doubleday during his idyllic boyhood in the hamlet of Cooperstown, New York.  As baseball historian John Thorn put it in his excellent book Baseball in the Garden of Eden,  “If in the end no one invented our national game, and its innocent Eden is a continuing state of delusion, he,” meaning Spalding, “as unwittingly as Abner Doubleday invented baseball, invented its religion and its shrine.”  Continuing states of delusion are big business, and always have been.  Anyone who’s gone to Cooperstown can tell you this.  The place is beautiful.  On Hall of Fame Induction weekends, packed.  Does it matter that this place has nothing to do with the origins of the game?  Of course not, but it’s nice to think so.  We love the lie.  The lie feels comforting. 

Integrity is a another lie that baseball has always sold with great success.  After the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series, organized baseball hired Kenesaw Mountain Landis as its Captain Renault to announce they were shocked, shocked to find gambling in baseball, banning the accused players for life.  Of course, gambling was far more widespread than professional baseball has ever been comfortable admitting, and there is some evidence that Landis had less appetite to punish Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, true icons of the era, for similar antics.  That pattern has repeated itself, in recent times most famously with the steroid scandal.  Baseball willfully avoided what was an open secret until it was impossible to do so when a player finally went on the record about how widespread the problem was. 

The scandal over the use of cameras to steal signs has exploded across baseball and social media.  The Astros have been punished, and deserve it.  This scandal has several similarities to the historical scandals noted above.  Like the steroids scandal, there has been much hand-wringing over the effect of the players not participating in the scheme.  Whistleblower Mike Fiers said as much to Ken Rosenthal about his motivation for speaking up about the Astros malfeasance: “I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing… Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down.”  This echoes the lamentations about steroid use: clean players wouldn’t be able to make it in a game full of juiced players.  Like both scandals, MLB would clearly prefer to sell us a new lie: that this was the fault of a few, outed malefactors and to pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain:  it’s only AJ Hinch sitting on his hands while Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora cook the books. 

But an interesting thing is happening:  The mob wants to see what’s behind the curtain for itself.  Maybe it’s social media or the fact that most of us have grown up with a 24/7 news cycle, but we want everything out of any sensational story we can possibly get.  MLB’s refusal to give us that has led to a circus atmosphere on Twitter where everything could be, and might be, true.  Rumors from fake niece accounts are retweeted by respectable journalists.  The son of the Mariners’ former first base coach posts on Instagram that the MLB is hushing up the fact that Mike Trout uses HGH.  Circus, hell, there’s even confetti.

Maybe this is free-for-all is a symptom of us losing our patience for the lie.  As a manager told Ken Rosenthal in the original story, this issue “permeates” the whole league.  MLB doesn’t want to hear that, but Twitter definitely does.  But the truth might be that the Banging Scheme’s best corollary might not be Steroids or the Black Sox, but something more mundane and widespread.  What I’m speaking of is the widely-acknowledged fact that pitchers doctor the baseball, and have always doctored the baseball.  Like electronic sign-stealing, putting a foreign substance on the baseball is illegal.  However, the latter is winked and nodded at.   Rob Friedman, of Pitching Ninja fame, tweets out video of Pedro Martinez snapping off hellacious changeups while also tweeting videos of Pedro joking about Jheri curls.  No one is troubled by this, seemingly not Mike Fiers, but why? Aren’t the careers of young hitters potentially harmed when they fail to perform against pitchers throwing baseballs breaking more than they otherwise would if not slick with pine tar?  Couldn’t young hitters get sent down? 

I suppose the answer is two-fold.  As ESPN’s David Shoenfield has written, “Applying a foreign substance to the ball seems to be an accepted part of the game, unless you're clearly and obviously violating the rule.”  Meaning, it’s possible to cross a visible line to the point where the cheating is impossible to ignore.  This is a weird ethical scheme in which some cheating is okay as long as it’s possible for the other side to check on you that you don’t cheat too much.  The second point is that people have been doctoring baseballs forever, and the longevity of the practice lends it a certain acceptance. 

But how effective are these distinctions? To the first, it seems that players have been policing electronic sign-stealing, monitoring the opposing teams for what is deemed as excessive and obvious behavior.  Perhaps that’s why the rumors of the Astros wearing wearable buzzers have triggered paranoia by even hitters, because this would take an acceptable form of cheating entirely under the table.  After all, even if you use an camera to crack the signs, you still have to get to signal the hitter.  If the other side can’t monitor your signals, all bets are off. And let’s be honest on this Astros fan blog: no one would, or should, put the use of buzzers past them.  It’s notable that in this scandal, it’s mostly been pitchers who have been vocal critics of the Astros' tactics.  The hitters know how widespread this practice has been, and that they have benefited.  Before Fiers went on the record, electronic sign-stealing seemed to be an increasingly accepted part of the game.  Heck, Lance McCullers Jr. openly tweeted about it a year ago.  One of the most honest responses by any player to the Astros scandal came from Logan Morrison, who admitted that he viewed electronic sign-stealing as a “tool in the tool belt” for sign-stealing.  Do we honestly think Logan Morrison is alone in his sentiment among current players?  It’s possible to view Mike Fiers as breaking an unwritten rule of engagement in the Cold War between hitters and pitchers: “We don’t talk about goo, you don’t talk about sign-stealing.” 

But what about the second point, that doctoring baseballs has always been a part of the game, and electronic sign-stealing has not?  That’s not entirely true.

One of the most famous moments in baseball history, one that’s lionized throughout the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, is the “Shot Heard Round the World.”  In 1951, in the third game of a three-game playoff to decide the National League pennant between the Dodgers and Giants at the Polo Grounds, Giants third baseman Bobby Thompson hit a three-run walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning off of the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca to send the Giants to the World Series.  Broadcaster Russ Hodges hysterical radio refrain of “The Giants win the pennant!” is embedded in baseball lore.  But according to Joshua Prager in his 2008 book The Echoing Green, Thompson knew the pitch was coming.  The Giants third base coach was hidden in centerfield with a telescope, and once he cracked the Dodgers signs he pressed a button to signal the Giants bullpen with a buzzer.  One buzz was a fastball, two buzzes was an off-speed pitch.  The Giants backup catcher relayed the sign to the hitter.  Interestingly, Prager reported that when he first wrote about the sign-stealing scheme in 2001, he was accused by old guard sportswriters of messing with the myth of the American game.  Bobby Thompson never had to worry about a Jomboy.  In the aftermath of Rob Manfred’s punishment of the Astros, we are starting to see more veteran baseball players admit that using cameras to steal signs is way more wide-spread than previously thought. The 2017 Astros were not a team of scheming millennial ballplayers unwise to the unwritten rules of the game: they were led by widely respected veterans, including one infamous for policing those unwritten rules.  This begs the question: if using cameras to steal signs was part of the game in at least the 1950s,  1980s, and 2010s, when was it definitively not being used? Can we say that any particular dramatic moment on a professional baseball diamond didn’t feature electronic sign-stealing?

I’m not writing this to absolve the actions of the Astros.  Despite the fact that it’s widespread and been part of the game for years, electronic sign-stealing is against the rules, and rule-breakers should get punished.  I suppose you could reduce what I’m doing to “adding context.”  But maybe that’s a lie, too.  Even if what the Astros did was not unique, it seems clear from that, as McCullers pointed out: the tech is too far ahead.  The game has slowed down as the diamond has become a presumed surveillance state.  In the end, it’s probably for the best that Rob Manfred came down hard on someone, even if it happened to be the Astros.  Maybe now the owners, general managers, and managers who allowed electronic sign-stealing to permeate will get serious about self-policing a game that is becoming admittedly slower and harder to watch. 

And maybe the only utility of this article is to tell a story to myself about the actions of players that I genuinely like, about one of the best sports moments of my life, to give me the space to feel better about what they did and achieved.  It’s comforting to live in that space, like Cooperstown is comforting.