Few experiences can capture the essence of summer in the sensory-smorgasbord manner of a baseball game: The rich aroma of roasting peanuts and popcorn (and overpriced beer); the crack of wooden bats and the trill of campy organ music; and of course the visual thrill of being caught up in "the wave" with hundreds of other fans, or watching a humdinger hit soar right into your section of the stands.
What we fans usually don't get to see is baseball's seamy and unseemly underbelly. Long-cherished as "America's pastime," the internationally practiced sport lays claim to a number of less-than-wholesome, outside-the-rulebook traditions. In fact, long before baseball was tarnished by the steroid scandals around the turn of the latest millennium, dishonest players and their enablers have engaged in a slew of questionable activities that affected game outcomes.
Baseball, like any other endeavor, is filled with imperfect human beings, so it's only natural that the sport would have its share of rule breakers. Money, as you might guess, often motivates them. As we all know, winners are paid more money than losers. They get higher salaries, fatter endorsement deals and maybe even a place in the record books. So there's a powerful incentive to reach for any advantage available, even if it means violating the rules everyone else honors.
The steroid era of Paul Bunyon-esque batsmen brought renewed focus on baseball cheating but it perhaps overshadowed some of the lower-tech, time-(dis)honored techniques that don't require pills or a hypodermic syringe. "Juicers," or people who rely on performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids, have a high-tech army of biochemists, doctors, and other brainy people on their side to help them cheat. That's a completely different article by itself. In this piece, we'll focus instead on more traditional baseball cheats -- the old-fashioned, genteel kind of dishonor, if you will.
So grab your contraband snacks purchased outside the stadium and keep your binoculars handy to watch for furtive movements on the field. It's time to play (dirty) ball!
Some people love to gamble. There's a certain rush that comes with putting your hard-won earnings in the hands of fickle fate -- with the chance it could come back multiplied several times over. Or so we've been told. Sports betting offers the chance to experience that rush, but with the possibility that gamblers can influence chance, using their knowledge of team rosters, playing styles and even the weather, to predict the outcome of games. Sports gambling is a huge business, whether it takes place in legal, government-authorized betting parlors or through, shall we say, less official channels.
The problems start when the people involved with the game -- players, managers and the like -- are also involved in some way with the wagering. Whether or not team members bet for their own team to lose, or to win by a certain point spread, the whole idea of betting within one's own sport has an awful stink about it. Bar none, the most infamous baseball example was the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Playing against the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series, several cash-strapped players for the White Sox agreed with figures in the gambling underworld to throw the series -- to lose on purpose. The tainted team was dubbed the "Black Sox," in part for the way in which a few players' actions sullied the team's -- and the game's -- reputation.
This sordid event rocked professional baseball and resulted in the installation of baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The shadow of the "Black Sox" betting scandal continues to haunt the major leagues and fascinate fans even to this day.
More recently, in 1989, Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life, after it was discovered he bet frequently on professional baseball games. Even though he says he never bet against his own team, the penalty stands. It appears likely to exclude former star player Rose from receiving many official career honors. However, I guess we can't feel too bad about Rose missing out on induction into baseball's Hall of Fame. Word has it that he'll be doing a reality TV show soon with his Playboy model fiancée, Kiana Kim [source: New York Daily News].
If you were brand-spanking new to baseball, you could be forgiven for thinking a thrown ball will travel in a straight line. If you wanted to get all high-school physics class about it, the ball travels in an arc -- straight ahead on the horizontal axis but pulled down by gravity through its vertical axis.
In reality, things are a bit more complicated. A baseball has aerodynamic properties influenced by its speed and direction, and by wind resistance to the surface of the ball. By scuffing the ball to give it a rough surface or wetting it to present a slicker surface, a pitcher can make the ball do all kinds of interesting maneuvers when he throws from the mound. For a batter, trying to predict where the ball will go during its flight can be maddening, and detrimental to one's season batting average. (For a detailed breakdown on how this works, check out this article on the Physics of Baseball.)
Officially, "doctoring" a baseball in this way is forbidden by the rules. But in practice, pitchers skilled in the arts of subterfuge and misdirection can still perform plenty of flight-altering modifications to baseballs during play. Here are a few variations:
- Spitball -- also called a spitter, mud ball, shine ball, and other colorful names. Banned from professional baseball after 1920 (with exceptions for a few pitchers at the time), the spitball relied on saliva, tobacco spit, petroleum jelly or other wet or viscous substances applied over a section of the ball to upset the airflow -- causing the pitched ball to deviate sharply, or "break" in flight.
- Scuff ball -- this worked on the opposite principle of a spitball. Instead of lubing up a side of the baseball, the pitcher would use an abrasive to make part of the ball's surface rougher. The aerodynamic imbalance would, again, alter the ball's handling characteristics in flight.
- Mud ball -- a variation of the spitball, mud balls are what you got when formerly white baseballs were stained earthen brown after soaking in a cocktail of tobacco juice, spit and infield dirt. In addition to their unique aerodynamics, mudballs were very hard to see, and highly dangerous, when thrown.
After such techniques were banned, certain pitchers elevated their application to something of a stealthy art form. Pitchers would hide nail files in their belts, glue sandpaper to their fingertips or apply Vaseline to their pants zippers (presumably the last place an umpire would ever inspect). What might appear to be an innocent groin adjustment could in fact be a pitcher discreetly dabbing lubricant onto his finger.
While such doctoring is against the rules today, you'll still occasionally see a pitcher get caught performing orb surgery (or preparing to), like when Tampa Bay Devil Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected from a June 2012 game against the Washington Nationals. Officials booted Peralta after they found "a significant amount of pine tar" in his glove [source: Mercury News].
Some have stepped forward in defense of doctored balls. Elwin Charles Roe, aka "Preacher" Roe, a former star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, outed himself as a spitball thrower in 1955, after his retirement. Over the years, he insisted that the pitch was ethical and not inherently unsafe [source: Goldstein].
Despite appeals to legalize the spitball from people like Preacher Roe, who died in 2008, Major League Baseball continues to ban the practice of ball altering. Considering the gross-out potential, this perhaps isn't a bad idea. How scarred for life would you be as a fan if you caught a home run ball that had been marinating in Vaseline, loogie juice, tobacco spit or any combination of such goop?
Major League Baseball has rules to make sure the game doesn't become an arms race of ever-bigger and badder bats. The idea is to keep the game as much as possible about the (drug-free) players, rather than the equipment. Specifically, all bats for use in MLB games must be made of solid wood, not metal, which would cause a ball to travel farther when hit. Some players attempt to get around the rules governing bats by messing with the bats' insides.
For instance, a lighter bat, say, one with a material less dense than solid wood, would allow a batsman to swing faster. A faster swing means more time to react to pitches headed your way at close to 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). But what if someone were to drill out the heavy wood center from a regulation bat, insert a plug of made of lightweight cork, then masterfully seal the top of the bat so no one could tell it was tampered with? From a physics standpoint, it probably wouldn't help the person hit much farther, if at all. Force equals mass times acceleration, and by reducing the bat's mass, you take away a major ingredient for hitting screamers into the stands and beyond. Right?
Well, on the other hand, the faster swing and increased reaction time could help you optimize your swing and make better contact -- which may explain why players still use corked bats, despite their forbidden status in the eyes of MLB [source: Porter].
Home run hero Sammy Sosa was infamously nabbed in 2003 with a corked bat during a regulation game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Such incidents are almost impossible to explain away, given the way the evidence reveals itself -- by exploding all over home plate. For his part, Sosa said use of the illegal lumber was an honest mistake -- he said he picked up a bat intended for use only in practice and exhibitions [source: Associated Press/USA Today].
"You can observe a lot just by watching." -- Yogi Berra
Stealing signs sounds like something a bunch of delinquent kids might do late on a weekend night to alleviate boredom -- back before World of Warcraft was invented, anyway. Applied to baseball, however, stealing signs refers to the gray-area practice of intercepting the opposing team's body language signals and using the information to counter your adversary's tactics.
There seems to be some confusion as to whether this one is properly considered "cheating" or just being observant of your surroundings. The closest thing to a definitive answer is, "it depends." In the most common scenario, a runner on second base watches the well-choreographed movements of the opposing team's pitcher and catcher, attempting to crack their code of what pitch will be thrown next. The man on second, in turn, figures out a way to communicate this to his teammate who is up at bat.
Pitchers don't appreciate this silent eavesdropping, and they might retaliate by "accidentally" hitting the opposing batter with a throwaway pitch. Stealing signs as just described isn't exactly forbidden, officially. Lots of players do it. The idea, though, is to do it artfully and without getting caught.
Sign stealing becomes more morally fraught when people or equipment outside the diamond enter the act. It's considered highly unsportsmanlike for people in the dugout or the stands to steal signs and use that knowledge to help the person at bat. The Toronto Blue Jays found themselves amidst controversy in 2011 when a mysterious "man in white" in the centerfield seating area was reported to be using arm signals that correlated with specific pitches. Blue Jays players and management, naturally, denied any involvement [source: Nelson].
MLB is more specific when it comes to using "equipment" to steal signs, reminding teams each year that use of items such as binoculars, telescopes and video equipment to interpret other teams' signals is off-limits.
Some of baseball's most colorful stories involve the practice. The 1951 World Series-winning New York Giants allegedly won that pennant with the help of a sophisticated, electric buzzer sign-stealing system. It was a story that would not attain widespread public knowledge until nearly half a century after it happened [source: Prager].
Technology, in some ways, makes the potential to cheat a lot easier. Think of the possibilities, for instance, of stationing sign spotters equipped with Bluetooth or other small wireless headsets (that's one theory of how Toronto's "man in white" accurately predicted pitches from way up in the centerfield stands).
And yet, it sometimes helps to slow down and appreciate the simpler things in life -- like a few good ol' underhanded baseball basics. Even within this realm of cheating, the perpetrators have something that could be considered a code of honor: Keep the cheating inconspicuous, and if caught, act contrite and stop -- at least for a little while. All the same, you probably won't find many parents too happy about it if you coach any of the following tactics to their little leaguers:
- Assorted bat-shenanigans -- shaving and weighting; disguising altered, "juiced" bats as legal bats; "triple dipping" bats in varnish to make them harder
- Hiding foreign materials and substances -- as mentioned earlier, it takes some amount of cleverness to disguise one's ball-doctoring intentions. How about taping a thumbtack to your finger? Or hiding a nail file in your waistband? Catchers have even been known to use their belt buckles to sneakily scuff balls.
- Wetting the baselines -- under the pretext of "grounds maintenance" to slow down the opposing team's runners; also, shady groundskeepers can "tilt the field" to keep visiting teams off-balance, literally.
As we've seen, people have found numerous ways to try to "get one over on the system" in baseball. A certain amount of rule bending, it seems, is acceptable, but there are obviously practices that cross the line. The victims are the players who actually do play by the rules, fans who pay to see games they expect to be played fairly and honestly and the integrity of the game itself. Close to a century after the ignominious "Black Sox" debacle, we're still talking about the place of ethics in baseball. It's probably a safe bet that as long as the game is played by human beings, cheating techniques and the scandals that erupt from their use will remain a part of the greater drama that fascinates us with the sport.
Foul balls rocket into the stands, hitting fans on the way. Are MLB teams liable for injuries they might cause to fans? HowStuffWorks investigates.
Author's Note: 5 Ways to Cheat in Baseball (That Aren't Steroids)
There's no crying in baseball, except maybe when a cheating scandal blows up in a player's face -- threatening his career, his livelihood and his reputation. The baseball-adoring public has a remarkable ability to forgive its heroes for a wide (and wild) range of indiscretions. But collectively, this group that can remember the most obscure and esoteric of sports statistics never forgets when a player violates their trust. Records are revised with dismissive asterisks. Sure, cheaters' names become immortal, but in infamy. We may never know how many players and staff in the majors and minors have cheated and gotten away with it. For those who were caught and branded as cheaters (and those who will be) it's a label that never goes away.
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- Prager, Joshua Harris. "Was the '51 Giants Comeback a Miracle, or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?" The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 31, 2001. (Aug. 4, 2012) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB980896446829227925.html
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- Silicon Valley Mercury News.com (via) Associated Press. "Baseball: Tampa Bay's Rays reliever ejected for pine tar on glove." June 19, 2012. (Aug. 2, 2012) http://www.mercurynews.com/other-sports/ci_20895511/baseball-colorado-rockies-switch-four-man-rotation
- Treatmentsolutions.com. "'Oil Can' Boyd Admits to Cocaine Abuse During Baseball Career." Feb. 13, 2012. (July 31, 2012) http://www.treatmentsolutions.com/oil-can-boyd-admits-to-cocaine-abuse-during-baseball-career/
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