Choose Your Own Outrage

On Wednesday, Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk posted a brief transcription of an appearance by former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone on Mad Dog Radio, a SiriusXM station. Apart from providing the first empirical evidence that someone has actually listened to Mad Dog Radio, the interview contained this bombshell: the great Braves pitchers of the 1990s doctored the ball.

Actually, John Smoltz is the only person Mazzone directly implicated, as he related a story of Smoltz trying to hide pine tar wherever he could for ball-smudging purposes. But Mazzone also mentioned a ball bag that contained "all kinds of goodies to take care of a baseball and give it a little more movement," leaving one with the impression that Smoltz wasn't the only one of his charges who benefited from this bag of tricks. To defend his actions, Mazzone played the "everyone was doing it" card, which is probably true, although not everyone captured 14 straight division titles while doing it.

Calcaterra ultimately comes to the conclusion that, even if Mazzone's story is 100 percent accurate, there's not a whole lot we can (or should) do about it now. I suspect he might feel a little differently if we were talking about a team he didn't root for. However, I do agree that there isn't much to be done about it, nor should there be, and I highly doubt that this story will gain much traction. As of this writing, a Google News search brings up a grand total of three articles on the subject. This just isn't the kind of thing that gets the average baseball fan too upset. Most, like Mazzone, shrug it off by saying that everyone cheats in some way.

The only problem I have is, the sports press has been wringing its hands and rending its garments about the "stain" of another form of cheating for years; namely, performance enhancing drugs. If steroids and the like are so evil because they give certain players an unfair advantage, why isn't there an equal amount of outrage over this kind of cheating?

The rules against doctoring the ball have been on the books for far longer than any edicts against PEDs. In the nigh-lawless days of the early 1900s, when it was rare to use more than one baseball per game, pitchers would load up the ball with any dark substance they could, hoping this would keep a batter from seeing the ball come out of their hand. Then, during a game on August 16, 1920, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a Carl Mays fastball that was scuffed into virtual invisibility by foreign agents. He died the next day from his injuries, and his untimely death led MLB to officially ban the "spitball."

The outlawing of the spitball had two purposes. The first, obviously, was to promote safety; Chapman died because he couldn't get out of the way of a ball he never saw. The second reason was to give the game a greater sense of fairness. A spitball was unhittable not because of the skill of the man who threw it, but because it was altered so it would move in a way a baseball shouldn't. Removing that from a pitcher's arsenal restored a competitive balance that had been thrown unfairly out of wack. Though it may have just been a coincidence, once the spitball was banned in the early 1920s, home runs exploded.

If anything, doctoring the ball seems far more unfair, far closer to the idea of cheating, than steroids. Because a mediocre pitcher could, presumably, learn how to doctor the ball and get away with it, and suddenly become unhittable. Mike Scott certainly did. Gaylord Perry vaselined his way into the Hall of Fame. By contrast, steroids will help you recover from injury to work out more or get back on the field sooner than you would be able to without them. But they won't enable you to time a major league fastball, or to throw one better. They don't compensate for lack of talent, but enable talent to perform at its best.

I believe one reason Mazzone's brand of skulduggery doesn't garner much outrage is because it seems to fit within a grand tradition of bending the rules in baseball. The game has always contained an unwritten edict that anything you can get away with isn't cheating. That's why Perry loading up the ball and Joe Niekro's emery board are seen as whimsical, almost old-timey, rather than sinister. When Tony LaRussa suspected Kenny Rogers was smudging the ball with pine tar during the 2006 World Series, he had every right to demand the umpires inspect his hands and equipment. Instead, LaRussa just asked that Rogers wash his hands, because in old-school baseball circles, it almost seems uncouth to call out an opponent for such gentlemanly rule-bending.

The modern, lab-created, science-filled world of steroids and other PEDs, on the other hand, does not have the same veneer. You can't imagine a pitcher in a flat-top hat and a handlebar mustache using them. They're artificial, and therefore bad, even though the trajectory a scuffed or smudged ball takes out of a pitcher's hand is no more natural.

More than anything else, though, I believe the dichotomy most people feel about these different forms of cheating stems from a difference in the way we feel about hitting vs. pitching: Home runs are simple and sacred, pitching is complicated, almost magical.

We're often told that numbers are revered in baseball, but that's not entirely true; hitting numbers are revered, home run totals in particular. We can recite them off the top of our heads: 714, 755. Now, try and think of Cy Young's win total. Nolan Ryan's strikeout total. It's much harder.

Hitting is simple: You swing a bat, and sometimes the ball goes far and sometimes it doesn't. All hitters have different approaches and different stances, but the pure act of hitting varies very little from hitter to hitter. Hitting coaches tend to be former hitters, whose advice usually boils down to "hit the ball."

Pitching is the exact opposite. There are as many approaches to pitching as there are pitchers. We categorize different kinds of pitches, but Pitcher A's curveball is nothing like pitcher B's curveball, which is nothing like pitcher C's curveball, and so on. We've all swung a Louisville Slugger in little league or a batting cage, but you probably don't understand pitching unless you've actually done it. And even then, you would only understand your pitching.

Pitchers struggle to repeat their motion, find their arm slots, struggle with their landing point. Pitching involves an enormous amount of moving parts in that unreliable machine called the human body. Pitching coaches are mysterious mages like Dave Duncan, borderline autistics like Mazzone, or crunchy new age types like Rick Peterson. More often than not, they never pitched a day in their life.

Pitching makes no sense. Of course pitchers doctor the ball. Wouldn't you? It seems like the only thing you could control. But hitting seems so utterly simple that to mess with that by taking PEDs is like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Consider this: With the exception of Roger Clemens, who has positioned himself as a heel ne plus ultra ever since the Mitchell Report came out, all of the anti-steroids ire from the public and the press has been directed at position players. There were plenty of pitchers other than Clemens named in the Mitchell Report, and yet none of them faced the scorn and hate the hitters did. Andy Pettitte said he only did them to recover from injury and everyone was fine with that, while Mark McGwire had to go into hiding.

Consider Bartolo Colon, a pitcher who looked shot until he received a bizarre, Frankensteinian operation involving stem cells this past offseason and is suddenly pitching like he's 10 years younger. While this has raised a few eyebrows, nobody's seriously called it cheating. Now consider Jose Bautista, who has never tested positive for anything or been linked to PEDs by even a whisper of a tangible way. But a batter who all of a sudden hits as many as home runs as Bautista must be on something, right? We're allowed to speculate out loud about Bautista's "purity," but for pitchers, the question isn't even asked.

All of this is to say I understand why, at the gut level, people do not get as upset about ball-scuffing as they do about steroids. But examined up close, I can't find any true differences between the two. As such, I believe a person can choose to be upset by both or neither, but not choose one to scream about and shrug off the other. Especially since only one form of "cheating" gets the lion's share of the outrage.

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