You would like to think that just the possibility of being exposed a cheater would be enough. You’d like to believe that baseball players would learn from the example of how ostracized so many of the various cheaters of other eras and other scandals were treated and say to themselves: “Nope. Want no part of that.”
But there is a time-honored truth about this:
If baseball players’ feet aren’t held merely to the fire but to the red-hot coals, they will sometimes roll the dice. They are young and they are in the best physical condition they’ll ever be in. It is easy to feel bulletproof and infallible. So you can understand why baseball is going from zero to 160 enforcing the application of foreign substances on baseballs.
After all, eight members of the 1919 White Sox lost their professional livelihood by being involved in a gambling scheme, a fix so profoundly egregious that baseball has had an explicitly worded bulletin inside every clubhouse for the last 100 years. That didn’t stop Pete Rose from thinking he was invincible.
Spaldeens and corks and superballs have been surreptitiously jammed into the barrels of bats for years. In 1974 Graig Nettles hit a home run one at-bat and in the next broke his bat – and out popped a collection of superballs. Didn’t stop Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa, among others, from stuffing their bats like Thanksgiving turkeys before they got caught.
Steroids? Goodness, steroids. There came a time in the early part of this century when it became clear the sport was obsessed with paying its bills for past sins before there was a real policy in place. It was unambiguous: you use, you lose – 50 games, then 80, then 162, then a career, then your reputation and legacy.
Didn’t keep Alex Rodriguez clean. Didn’t keep Robinson Cano clean. Didn’t stop Manny Ramirez, or Jenrry Mejia, or Ryan Braun, or Miguel Tejada from loading up needles (Barry Bonds’ and Roger Clemens’ alleged transgressions took place before there were consequences).
And now, this.
Look, there was a time when you could almost laugh about it. Gaylord Perry wrote a whole book (on his way to Cooperstown) called “Me and My Spitter,” and was regularly undressed like a burlesque queen at the request of umpires seeking his secrets. Joe Niekro was once asked to clear his back pocket – and an emery board flew out. Rick Honeycutt was caught with a thumbtack in his glove. Kevin Gross was harboring sandpaper.
Heck even Whitey Ford, though never caught, spent many of his 52 years of blissful retirement clucking about how he may or may not have scuffed balls with his wedding ring, or with the help of his most helpful co-conspirators, his catchers.
So yes: if Gerrit Cole had taken truth serum before his infamous Zoom call last week, he might not have gone so far as to detail his own use (or non-use) of Spider Tack but he may well have said something to the effect of “People have made their living in baseball since 1869, and since 1869 those professionals have sought out every advantage they could – within the rules or without them. That’s 152 years. That a long tradition of sabotage.”
So, no: baseball players can’t be trusted, and they wouldn’t be intimidated by hard talk and tough words. This is the inevitable next step, this coming crackdown, this absolute enforcement of rules 3.01 and 6.02(c). As absurd as it may seem that umpires are now going to serve as human metal detectors now, and for multiple times in games – at least we know how they’ll occupy their time when the robots come for balls and strikes – baseball found itself in crisis.
And when baseball is touched by crisis, it is remarkable how quickly they jump. The Black Sox scandal nearly ruined public confidence in the game – so the owners immediately hired a draconian commissioner named Kenesaw Mountai Landis (who handed out suspensions like candy but somehow allowed the color barrier to exist until two years after his death).
When Congress started asking uncomfortable questions about steroids, it took about 15 minutes for Bud Selig to retain the services of Sen. George J. Mitchell to author a detailed report that dipped the sport in a mud puddle from which it’s never fully recovered.
Now this. Spin rates have gone up, batting averages and slugging percentages have gone down. The last time the balance of power was this extreme was 1968, and by 1969 the mound was lowered by five inches. There was no corresponding easy or innocent solution this time around, so now every baseball game will be accompanied by the distinctive “Bah-BOMP” of the “Law & Order” theme songs.
“It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else – an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field,” commissioner Rob Manfred said.
That’s true. And also an auxiliary point. Let’s take the sodium pentothal we gave Cole earlier and distribute it across the game, then ask: “If you could gain a competitive advantage without the possibility of consequence, would you?”
How many say yes? Fifty percent? Seventy-five? Ninety? More?