Commentary

Cheating done rather subtly in baseball nowadays

Originally Published: August 9, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

If you catch him in a quiet moment, Alex Rodriguez probably can understand why he was pilloried for hitting .103 in the 2005 and 2006 postseasons, or for entering a Toronto nightclub with a Las Vegas stripper and so-called "Playboy Bunny wannabe." These are the hazards of celebrity.

The fallout from some other transgressions must baffle him. Was Rodriguez that out of line for sunning himself while shirtless in Central Park? And weren't his competitive instincts in the right place when he stuck out his arm and tried to dislodge that ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove during the 2004 American League Championship Series?

The same goes for an incident in late May, when A-Rod yelled "Ha!" in an effort to distract Toronto third baseman Howie Clark from catching a pop fly. The Blue Jays were livid, and the outcry was immediate and harsh: Why would a player of Rodriguez's stature resort to little league tactics to give his team an edge?

Rodriguez might be heartened to know that one old-time ball guy is squarely in his corner. Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, who still follows the game closely from his home in Florida, read the newspaper accounts and was astonished at the bashing Rodriguez took for his actions.

Kenny Rogers
Jimmy DeFlippo/US PresswireKenny Rogers got away with having pine tar on his pitching hand during Game 2 of the World Series last season.
When Weaver was managing in Baltimore, he routinely told his third-base coach to yell "Cut it off!" to confuse opposing fielders when an Orioles baserunner was trying to score. He viewed Rodriguez's ploy in the same light.

"When he hollered at the infielders and they got mad, I don't understand [the criticism]," said Weaver, 76. "I don't care what he yelled; he's helping his team win when he does those kinds of things. That's what I call a ballplayer."

These days, every debate about "baseball and cheating" usually begins with Barry Bonds and ends with Neifi Perez. There's a round-the-clock focus on steroids, grand jury investigations and the lengths to which ballplayers will go to derive an edge. And as Bonds keeps swinging away amid allegations of chemical enhancement, we've become conditioned to judging a man's moral compass by his home run totals and his cap size.

But cheating -- or at the very least, pushing the boundaries of what might be considered fair play -- goes on daily at ballparks throughout America. It's a reflection of the nature of the game.

In contrast to, say, basketball or hockey, which feature constant action, or football, which is notable for massive bodies slugging it out in the trenches, baseball provides the perfect laboratory for dissection and analysis. No sport rewards the power of observation as much, or as strongly encourages thinking innovatively for the sake of the most trivial advantage.

Call it cheating, or call it gamesmanship. Baseball presents lots of ways to trump your opponent that don't involve your friendly neighborhood testosterone supplier. With the exception of a questionable takeout slide here and a Chuck Knoblauch decoy tag attempt there, here are the three most prominent examples:

Spy vs. spy
In his book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" ESPN's Tim Kurkjian devotes an entire chapter to the art of sign stealing. Former White Sox coach Joe Nossek was renowned for his ability to monitor the opposing team's third-base coach and detect if a hit-and-run play, pitchout, squeeze play or something else was in the works.

Mechanical trickery also is ingrained in baseball lore. Four years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the 1951 New York Giants fashioned their 13½ game comeback against Brooklyn with the help of a center-field telescope and a system of buzzers and signals used to steal catchers' signs. Mata Hari would have been proud.

Although sign stealing remains part of the game, some people think it's less prevalent these days. More signs are relayed directly from the dugout to individual players now, rather than through the third-base coach, and skilled managers are just as likely to rely on their instincts as on pilfered signs.

"All the talk about sign stealing is overblown," said Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta. "The people who believe that stuff are the most paranoid about it. They're always trying to steal signs, and they think the other team is stealing theirs."

Paranoia comes with a price. A manager who insists on routinely changing his team's signs runs the risk of rampant confusion in the ranks.

"The bottom line is, you want your guys to get the signs," said Buck Showalter, a former big league manager and now a senior adviser with Cleveland. "Sure, the other team isn't getting them [if you change signs often]. But it doesn't do much good if your guys aren't getting them, either."

Showalter thinks an experienced baseball man can discern as much from watching an opposing coach's body language as from the signs being relayed. It's the equivalent of spotting a poker tell.

One of the best relationships you need to have is with your home groundskeeper. Whether it's length of grass or the texture of the dirt, there are a lot of things teams try to do to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Former big league manager Buck Showalter

And if you want to confirm something fishy is going on, there's a surefire method: Just flash a "decoy" steal sign when you have no intention of sending the runner. If the opposition throws a pitchout, you know someone is stealing your signs.

Detecting "tipped" pitches is also an art. A perceptive hitter can discern whether a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a curveball based on the way he holds his glove. At the same time, a runner on second base has the perfect vantage point to relay pitch location to the man in the batter's box.

It's not always worth the risk. If a hitter leans over the plate in anticipation of a curveball on the outside corner and gets smoked by a 95-mph fastball high and tight, he might tell his buddy at second base not to bother the next time.

In 1991, then-Cincinnati reliever Norm Charlton drilled Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia with a fastball because he was upset that Scioscia had been stealing signs from second base. "He'll be lucky if I don't rip his head off the next time I'm pitching," Charlton said later.

After receiving a suspension and a fine from National League President Bill White, Charlton admitted he might have been best served keeping his opinions to himself.

Field tinkering
When Maury Wills stole 104 bases for the Dodgers in 1962, the Giants countered by opening the floodgates. The San Francisco grounds crew watered the field until it became a sloppy mess and so unnerved Willis that he was ejected for complaining about the playing conditions.

It would be tougher for that kind of fiasco to take place today, if only because of the media attention.

"You used to have one game on TV a week," Acta said. "Now, every game is on TV every single day, whether local or nationally. You can't show a game on TV where there's a spot at first base where it's all dark because it's so wet. Somebody will be investigating."

Teams still do, however, tailor field conditions for their benefit. It makes sense for a speed-oriented club, such as the Angels, to slope its foul lines inward so bunts and infield choppers stay fair. For years, the big knock against Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg was that he benefited from the extraordinarily high grass at Wrigley Field.

Hitters routinely try to scratch out the back of the batter's box to buy an extra fraction of a second. And when Dodgers sinkerballer Derek Lowe is on the mound, do you think the guy in charge of watering the infield doesn't linger just a little longer around home plate?

"One of the best relationships you need to have is with your home groundskeeper," Showalter said. "Whether it's length of grass or the texture of the dirt, there are a lot of things teams try to do to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses."

Equipment doctoring
Gaylord Perry won 314 games while mastering the spitball, and Don Sutton and Mike Scott were among the pitchers who resorted to creative scuffery.

Gaylord Perry
Tony Tomsic/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesGaylord Perry was widely adored for throwing a spitball.
Strangely enough, it's considered almost quaint when a pitcher applies a foreign substance to the ball to gain an edge. Maybe it's the perception that pitchers need all the help they can get, or that a certain degree of skill is required to make a baseball dance even when it has a torn seam or is slathered in Vaseline.

The public isn't as forgiving of bat doctors. When Sammy Sosa's bat shattered and cork flew all over the infield and Albert Belle's model failed the X-ray test, the two sluggers were branded as cheaters. Who'll be next? Some observers contend that the advent of harder maple bats -- which apparently break more easily -- has made corking a no-win proposition.

"Fun with Pine Tar" is required reading for pitchers and hitters alike. Kenny Rogers smeared it on his left hand to give him a better grip in the 2006 World Series, and Craig Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez routinely stride to the plate beneath gunk-laden helmets. Maybe we should thank them for saving time. When they grab their noggins for a better grip, it eliminates a trip to the on-deck circle for another dose of pine tar.

The question is, how far does a team go to bust an opponent stretching the bounds of propriety? In 2005, the umpires checked Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly's glove for pine tar on a tip from former teammate Jose Guillen. The two are not close friends. Then there was St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, who refused to make an issue of Rogers' dirty hand and was criticized for being too deferential to his old buddy, Jim Leyland.

These days, if you give an opponent a pass for playing such games, an attentive blogger might fill the void. Derek Zumsteg, a Baseball Prospectus writer and author of "The Cheater's Guide to Baseball," caused a stir in May when he posted photographs of Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez mysteriously reaching for his cap before each delivery.

Rodriguez explained that the foreign substance beneath his brim was simply accumulated rosin, and Major League Baseball let the matter drop after a cursory investigation.

But the message was clear: If you plan to do something outside the norm, exercise due caution. Somebody out there is watching.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer