Cheetahs Never Prosper?

The recent return of Manny Ramirez from a 50 game suspension for getting caught using PEDs engendered a fair mount of comment, most of it negative. In recent years various former icons like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, have been savaged for their (suspected) use of PEDs. But this dreadlocked Dodger returns to nothing but adulation, at least from the fans of LA. What's going on here?

It's a question that's been asked and commented on by everyone from Jayson Stark to Keith Olbermann to Matt Coyne. Why the love for Manny, who just got nailed for cheating? The two-part answer is ultimately pretty simple. First, cheating in baseball is an old and honored tradition, at least, honored by the fans of those doing the cheating. Second, it's apparently a lot worse to get caught (or to admit to wrong-doing) after the fact (and after you're out of the game) than it is to get caught while you're still playing. If you get nailed in the act, and accept some form of punishment, you can still come back to a heroes' welcome by your home town fans, especially if there's a good chance you can lead your team to the World Series.

The case for the first part goes all the way back to the very roots of the game, to when baseball was first organized on a large scale into clubs, in the 1860s. Although there was no reserve clause or contracts at that time – there weren't even all-professional teams until 1869 – you weren't supposed to jump from team-to-team for whatever reason (although the reason was usually that you were getting paid under the table in some fashion.) It was called "revolving" and it was banned by the National Association of Base Ball Players. Didn't matter, players did it all the time, and since they obviously found places to play when they jumped their original teams, the clubs themselves were all for it… as long as revolving involved a player revolving to your team, as opposed to revolving from your team. The practice was, in fact, quite common, especially after Jim Creighton became the first paid player, leaving Star of Brooklyn for Excelsior of Brooklyn, and Al Reach became the first player to change cities (from Brooklyn to Philadelphia) in pursuit of $$$. Yes, Reach (and the Athletic Club) was cheating under the NABBP rules, and he did indeed prosper, becoming a great star and a sporting goods mogul in his new city . (The only fashion in which Reach didn't succeed was that he's never been voted into the Hall of Fame, though it's unlikely that his revolving has been the cause of that snub.)

There were plenty of other situations wherein the rules were bent in the 19th Century. King Kelly, perhaps the most beloved player of the 1800s, was famous for his ability to get around the rules by such means as going from first to third without bothering to stop off at second on the way (the game's single umpire couldn't follow the ball and the runners at the same time, not without eyes in the back of his head). Then there was perhaps the most famous Kelly anecdote – about the time he was on the bench and a pop foul struck by an opposing batter came his way. Seeing that his teammates couldn't make the catch, Kelly leaped off the bench and shouted something like, "Kelly now catching" and snagged the ball for an out. While there's no telling if this really happened (the story is told both with Kelly playing for Chicago and Boston ) or not, it was true that the rules at that time did not specify that substitutions could not be made while the game was in progress.

And King Kelly wasn't the only 19th Century player to skirt the rules. For that matter, the most beloved baseball figure in the first half of the 20th Century, Connie Mack, wasn't above a little "gamesmanship" when he was a catcher in the 19th Century. Little tricks like tipping the bat, or mimicking the sound of a foul tip when the rules stated that any caught foul tip was an out.

Cheating (or evading) took other forms in the 19th Century, including the fine old tradition of sign stealing. Just to prove that high tech was in use more than 100 years ago, the Phillies got nailed for sign stealing in a game against the Reds in 1900. A Cincy infielder caught his spikes on what he thought was a vine, except that it turned out to be an electrical wire, running from the center field clubhouse in the future Baker Bowl to the third base coaches box. At one end of the wire was sub catcher Morgan Murphy and a telescope, at the other, a metal plate in the coaches box, for the coach to pick up electrical impulses through his spikes, impulses that signaled the coming pitch. Although his team wasn't directly involved that day, Brooklyn Superbas manager Ned Hanlon was highly agitated by this discovery, calling Phillies manager Bill Shettsline a crook. In conjunction with Phillies co-owner John Rogers (the other co-owner was none other than Al Reach) commenting that this maneuver was fair and legitimate, Hanlon's diatribe only proves the basic truth of cheating – it's fine, as long as you're the one doing it. Hanlon's Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s were infamous for such tricks as hiding extra baseballs in the long grass of the outfield and holding a runner's belt when he tried to tag up on a fly ball (that was John McGraw's specialty.)

And that was just in the 19th Century. The 20th Century was the heyday of altered bats and balls. The list of players known to have in some fashion altered their bats by such means as plugs, cork, driving nails into the bats, and gluing several pieces of wood together, is a long one, and includes Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Norm Cash and many less talented hitters. And, who knows how many pitchers got away with altering baseballs after the ban on such was promulgated in the 1920 season. Preacher Roe, Whitey Ford, Lou Burdette, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton… those are just some of the better known miscreants.

Yes, cheating has been around a long time, and note that, outside of Morgan Murphy, all of the parties previously mentioned herein most definitely prospered. What's really interesting though is the public reaction to cheating. Face it, over the long course of baseball history, the public only gets upset about cheating if it's being done against their team. It's the baseball writers who more typically get on a high horse on the subject, since many baseball writers, like many sportswriters, have an inflated sense of their own importance. Starting with the Brooklyn Eagle's Henry Chadwick, and going all the way through the New York Herald's Dan Daniel (David Halberstam said he considered himself the official oracle of the sport – as did Chadwick, it might be noted), the New York Daily News' Dick Young, the Boston Globe's Peter Gammons (who has since gone electronic on ESPN) and the Philadelphia Daily News' Bill Conlin (who has been known to start out columns with the wishful thought… "When I'm King of the World") many baseball writers have, consciously or otherwise, considered themselves bigger than the game, or at least bigger than the subjects they are writing about. Pontificators, if you will. Judges of morality.

Guys, I hate to tell you this, but the general public pretty much doesn't give a damn. They still love Barry Bonds in San Francisco , just like they love Manny in LA. Hitting .370 over the course of a half-season will do that. And, both of these guys apparently broke the rules in a most egregious fashion. Now, Bonds may have gotten some serious booing outside of the Bay Area in his last couple of years, and Manny may well hear the same outside LA for the rest of his career (imagine what he might hear in Boston this fall in a highly likely Dodger/Red Sox World Series, especially after his behavior in Beantown last year), but Gaylord Perry was just as popular with his hometown fans after the release of "Me and the Spitter" as he was beforehand.

However, there are a couple of things you don't want to do… don't offer up a confession for money after your playing days (Roe was widely blasted for the magazine article that revealed his use of the spitter after he retired), and don't get caught lying, or seeming to lie. This latter faux pas may well keep McGwire and Palmeiro out of the Hall of Fame for a very long time, despite the fact that there is no physical proof that they cheated (recall that andro was legal when McGwire was taking it.)

Now, maybe that's not right, and maybe that's not fair (as Scar observed in "The Lion King," life's not fair). But it's a fact. And raging against public indifference isn't going to do any good, and isn't going to change anything. There is, in fact, only one thing to do… get over it. Move on. Along these same lines, what Sammy Sosa did in 2003 is over and done with. He's not playing anymore, and he's not going to play anymore, anymore than McGwire or Palmeiro are. Get over it. It's all part of baseball history now, and there's no way you can change it, either by railing against these miscreants or by not voting any of them into the Hall of Fame. No matter how much you may dislike Bonds or Roger Clemens, et al, what are you going to do, leave an entire generation of players out of the Hall? Everyone who played the bulk of their careers between say, 1993 and 2005, just because they might have used PEDs? That would be absurd. As equally absurd as kicking King Kelly, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, etc., etc., out of the Hall.

Maybe everybody didn't do it (whether "it" is altering the ball or the bat, PEDs, or evading the rules in some other fashion), but it appears as if enough hitters and pitchers did PEDs that the playing field was fairly level, at least in the sense that the best players were still the best players. Did the juice make any mediocre players superstars? Not bloody likely, anymore than corking his bat made Billy Hatcher a star. PED's may have put Barry Bonds in an artificial stratosphere, and they may have kept players like Pablo Ozuna in the majors a year or two longer, but the effects are ultimately all relative and, in the end, the fans, the people who pay the freight, really don't care. The reaction to Manny's return is just the latest manifestation of that truth. The more vocal fans (like the ones who call in to talk radio) may sound like they're really ticked off, but, bottom line is, it's not that big of a deal. Sure, go ahead and do your best to police the sport, whether it's suspending Nelson Potter for spitballing or suspending juicers, (better for a year than 50 games, but not for false positives), but, other than that, get over it and move one. It's part of a culture in baseball (and all sports, for that matter) that's been going on for a long time.



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