Baseball lies to us. Baseball players lie to us. Baseball managers lie to us. Baseball owners lie to us. The game itself is built on deception and misdirection. But whoa there, tiger! Not too much deception. There are rules that protect some of the lies. There are rules to prevent different, worse lies. Sometimes we get upset when we are deceived and at other times are equally distraught when we are not. There are unwritten rules that players use to manage and police themselves but fans don’t always like that. And sometimes we like it too much. There are discrepancies in how such apparent infractions should be addressed and what, exactly, determines a violation.
Let’s make things more complicated. The deeply analytical approach to the game, designed to identify true skills and better manage rosters and wins, in its attempt to demystify things, might be ruining the rules. Crazy shifts. Three true outcomes. No more bunts. Hardly any steals. Openers? Thanks for that, Tampa Bay. Clearly, the metrics that drive the game now are not going anywhere, but perhaps we are unveiling a truth about baseball: it’s better with the deception, misdirection, and mystery.
Baseball Sits On a Throne of Lies
Let’s start at the very beginning. Baseball was invented one summer by eventual Civil War hero Major General Abner Doubleday in 1839 somewhere around Cooperstown, NY. That’s why the Hall of Fame is there, after all. Right? I mean, this is baseball knowledge 101.
Well, according to the staff piece “Who Invented Baseball?” at History.com, “Not only is that story untrue, it’s not even in the ballpark.” Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the use of the “ballpark” pun here. Ahh, the gentle comedy of historians. But if Doubleday didn’t invent baseball, then who did? Apparently, we don’t really know. But the article states:
In September 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them—volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright—would codify a new set of rules that would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines, and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them.
So thanks for inventing this awesome game, Mr. Cartwright, but can you imagine pegging runners to get them out? An outfield assist for taking the ball from right field and tossing a laser at the guy rounding second and heading to third, getting him straight between the numbers and that means he’s out? That’s hilarious! I mean dangerous. Thank goodness that didn’t make it in.
The perceived invention of this game is almost certainly a lie. A deception. A complete misdirection to sell a romantic story. Players should be enshrined in a borough of New York City, not a middle-of-nowhere town in New York state. The entire foundation of baseball is cracked, but maybe that’s exactly how it should be.
Scandals, Misdeeds, and Cheaters, Oh My!
Like a good soap opera or WWE storyline (Note: I recognize the redundancy here), baseball has had its share of nefarious characters and unsavory moments. Some you know, some you may not. Here’s a quick rundown of a few.
The Louisville Grays, a professional baseball franchise that folded in 1877 after a gambling scandal, saw four of its members banned for life: Jim Devlin, George Hall, Al Nichols, and Bill Craver. They had been discovered to be working with a criminal element to throw games and cash in. It was definitely not the first occurrence, and would not be the last. It’s worth noting that, in 1876, Jim Devlin started 68 games, finishing 66 of them. He threw 622 innings with an ERA of 1.56. His FIP was 2.08 and his WHIP was 0.96. Instead of becoming a dominant, amazing, awesome pitcher you’ve all heard of, he went on to become a police officer in Philadelphia and died of tuberculosis in 1883. Talk about a turn in one’s life.
In 1908, two things happened. The first was that an umpire was approached with a bribe to ensure that the New York Giants beat the Chicago Cubs in a one-game playoff. The umpire refused and a team physician for the Giants was eventually banned for life over it. However, there are some whispers that Hall of Famer John McGraw, at the time the team’s manager, may have been behind the whole thing. What we know: there was an attempt to bribe the umpire. What we don’t know: if McGraw was actually involved. The second thing we know? It’s called “The Merkle Boner” and you should definitely read this article about it.
In 1919, the Black Sox Scandal (dis)graced baseball, wherein the Reds beat the White Sox in the World Series. You have probably heard of this. You’ve also probably heard of a guy named “Shoeless” Joe Jackson whose alleged participation in the shenanigans is quite controversial. The big deal here is that members of the White Sox team intentionally lost the World Series to benefit themselves in a giant scheme with some unseemly fellows (likely mobsters). There were eight people who received lifetime bans from baseball. Of course, they denied their involvement and were actually acquitted in a court of law. But they did it. All of them. Except for maybe “Shoeless” Joe who actually played pretty well in the series. He made no errors and had 12 hits, a World Series record until it was broken in 1964 by Bobby Richardson of the Yankees. Jackson hit .375, which was the highest batting average on either team. Despite these facts, the ban forced Jackson’s hand, and “after the 1921 ban [he] played ‘outlaw’ ball under an assumed name.” Unfortunately, the gig didn’t last, and he had to retire to South Carolina where he died in 1951 without ever being reinstated.
Pete Rose is well-known to have gambled on his own team which is, in laymen’s terms, a giant no-no. We know the outcomes, but the saga continues. Pete Rose truthers talk about how he deserves to be in the Hall all the time. He had 4,256 hits, 198 stolen bases, 1,314 RBI, a .303 average, .375 on-base percentage, and 5,752 total bases over 3,562 games and 14,053 plate appearances. Does that guy belong in the Hall of Fame? Absolutely.
Unless, of course, he did something like gamble on his own team. And then, only if it was against the very clear rules of baseball prohibiting things like gambling on his own team. And then, if he did something like agree to a settlement in which he received a lifetime ban and literally signed it. Then, no. This doesn’t even acknowledge Rose’s potential predatory behavior.
Owner collusion in the 1980s was a huge problem. According to a Baseball Reference article, “After the 1985 season, at the urging of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, owners came to an unwritten agreement not to compete with each other over the services of free agents, and to reduce significantly the length of contracts they would offer.” This continued into the 1986 and 1987 seasons as well. The article continues:
Expos’ outfielder Andre Dawson was so disgusted by the situation that he basically offered the Chicago Cubs a blank check to sign him: desperate to get out of Montreal because of the pounding his knees were taking from the rock-hard artificial turf at Stade Olympique, he told the Cubs he would play for them in 1987 for whatever amount they were willing to pay him. Unable to claim poverty, the Cubs offered the ridiculously low one-year salary of $500,000 (less than a third of what Dawson would have been worth in a fair market), and Dawson signed. The Major League Baseball Players Association was furious about these shenanigans and filed a formal grievance in February 1986 (it would do likewise in February 1987 and January 1988).
This would eventually lead to a legal decision for the players that resulted in a $280 million award that had been negotiated between the MLBPA and the owners. Bad look for owners. Some would argue that, though tactics may be different, things haven’t changed much.
Performance-enhancing drugs became a major issue in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Players using banned substances to gain a competitive advantage had been able to skirt the rules with clever countermeasures to thwart the anemic MLB accountability protocols. We know the stories of Mark McGwire and his eventual admission, Rafael Palmiero’s finger waving at Congress while he flat-out lied to them (who was later suspended by baseball for doing the very thing he swore he wasn’t doing), Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and others.
You may also remember Melky Cabrera getting pinched, but you may not have the whole story on this one. While he carried a lesser profile compared to some offenders, what Cabrera’s story lacks in star power it more than makes up for in intrigue. We all know he wound up suspended for 50 games for PED use, but did you know he concocted an elaborate cover-up including fake websites? Doug Mead wrote about Cabrera’s associate, saying that “Juan Nunez paid $10,000 to take over a website and create the illusion that Cabrera had ordered a topical cream to use. Nunez was trying to take advantage of a loophole in MLB drug testing documentation.” The whole idea was to convince everybody that the Melk-man had unknowingly used a cream that contained the illegal substance. Of course, being part of a giant cover-up pretty much proves the exact opposite. Oops.
The Game Itself
The modern game of baseball is full of contradictions, quirks, and untruths. A pitcher can fake a throw to any base except first; it’s fine to deceive a runner on second or third, but if you deceive the runner on first, everybody gets to advance a base. The “hidden ball trick” is also fine, but not if the pitcher is on the mound and also it almost never works. Teams are allowed to use secret signals to communicate, but if you try and crack the other team’s code, one of their hitters is likely to get drilled in their next at-bat even though pitchers aren’t allowed to throw the ball at hitters, but they kind of are, and tons of fans love it when they do. Except when they throw at a guy’s head, then it’s clearly bad, but the hip is fine and there is no conceivable way that a guy throwing a baseball 98 mph could accidentally miss a hip and get the head.
After a home run, a hitter can flip your bat such that it demonstrates his dominance and overall baseball superiority. This just in: no they can’t. THIS just in: yes they can because the league says Let the Kids Play! Batters can use pine tar to get a better grip on the bat but pitchers can’t in order to get a better grip on the ball. Guys can’t use performance-enhancing drugs except those that aren’t on the list of banned substances.
And speaking of lies, it’s not just World Series cheaters or gamblers who deceive. There are lies in the game every single day. Guys who have “flu-like symptoms” but are just hungover. GMs who have the “utmost” confidence in their managers and then fire them the next day. Anytime a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher goes on the IL. When a player says they aren’t upset with being on the bench and just want to do what’s best for the team. When anybody says it doesn’t matter who they play in the playoffs. Most stadium “sell outs.” When the league says the ball isn’t juiced. How owners cry poor and say they can’t afford to pay players their due, especially minor leaguers. When a player is an “integral part of the team” and then gets traded a week later. And while not exactly a lie, the cost of anything associated with MLB is basically robbery: tickets, food, beer, apparel, streaming. And if it’s not, it’s still shady like we see with market blackouts and service time collusion.
So What Does It All Mean?
Baseball, likely invented a century before we were all led to believe and almost definitely not anywhere near Cooperstown, NY, is still the greatest game ever created. It may be built on deception and misdirection, but this perfect imperfection might just be what makes it so great. A game could theoretically last forever. Each ballpark has the standardized 90-foot basepaths and 60 foot, 6 inch distance between the rubber and home plate, but also has its own outfield dimensions among other idiosyncrasies. This is not true of any other team sport where parameters, field markings, distances, boundaries, and the like are all exactly the same. No matter where you play in the NHL, the rink is the same size. Same for the NBA. No matter where an NFL game is hosted, it’s 100 yards from end-zone to end-zone.
Maybe the real takeaway here is that baseball has been and always will be a microcosm of life itself. Most people play by the rules, a few cheat to try and get ahead, and others make colossal messes of things from time to time. Sometimes we forgive and forget and other times the harsh hand of the law comes down on the backs of only a few, doling out justice in ways that can feel unjust. Things can always be better and they will only improve when the people with the power choose to make it so.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Players struggle. Some persist while some give up. Others have opportunities taken from them or are readily replaced by a system that is so focused on winning and what can be accomplished today that it forgets to stop and think about what could really matter and how that impacts tomorrow. Every season starts with nothing but promise and every season there are disappointments and missed chances. It sometimes feels like the same teams win season after season but every now and then the underdog jumps up and takes a bite out of the competition and we love it.
Why? Because we love baseball and we always will. No matter what, the game is in our blood and we can’t quit it. There is still nothing more exhilarating than walking through a concourse, up a gangway and into the stands at Fenway Park, seeing the Green Monster, and taking it all in. Most every park offers a similar experience. And when the day comes that the cardboard fans are once again replaced by real-life, flesh-and-blood, breathing humans, we look forward to going again, perhaps with new respect, a new perspective, and a new appreciation, but the same old reverence for the game.
Baseball is great because it’s not perfect, just like the rest of us. I’d love to tell you it has no flaws.
But that would be a lie.
Featured Image by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)