Introduction: Toward a philosophy of cheating
Is cheating wrong? Should you even read this book? Isn’t this topic so controversial and heated that you should purchase several copies of this book in case one or more suddenly combust? Or, if you’re of a moralistic bent, so that you’ll always have a copy to throw on the next bonfire?
You certainly should.
But this is a more serious question that deserves a longer and more considerate answer. While the realists among us may recognize that if cheating isn’t your game, then baseball is not your sport, many look at cheating of any kind as distasteful, and it turns them away from the national pastime.
This is unfortunate because it overlooks some of the subtlety that makes baseball and its long, fruitful relationship with cheating so interesting. For instance: Everything that’s called cheating is not cheating.
All cheating is not morally objectionable.
A particular act of cheating may not be entirely right or entirely wrong — there is a great deal of room for personal interpretation.
Where a person draws the line between cheating and not cheating tells us as much about that person as whether they draw a line at all.
For much of baseball’s history, baseball was war. A player would run over his own mother if she was blocking home plate — and not help her back up. For a long period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was no trick so dirty that it didn’t occur to someone. Whole stadiums colluded on elaborate cheating schemes. Visiting teams were lucky to win and luckier still if they could get out of town before the locals caught up to them.
The will of the players fueled the rough play. For much of baseball’s history, nearly every player was on a year-to-year deal, and the slightest sign of weakness meant a cut in the next year’s salary. More important, a player might more than double his salary by getting to the postseason, and each team faced each other team trying to take food off their table sixteen times a year. That kind of familiarity bred hate. The most heated team rivalries today don’t compare to the kind of brutal conflicts fought on the diamond in the 1890s, when pennants were won with pitching, defense, timely hitting, and blood.
Baseball has changed as it has cleaned itself up and become more professional. Today, only the players making the league minimum might even look at the extra money they’d receive from a World Series win and think “free car.” With more teams in each league, and with interleague play, most teams play each other for only three short series over the course of a season. A hard slide into second in one game is unlikely to be remembered when they next meet.
As baseball has evolved, it’s become a much slower, thoughtful affair. Fans watch not only the duel between pitcher and hitter, but also the positioning of the fielders as they try to move to where they think they’re most likely to be able to make a play on a batted ball. Spectators also try to anticipate what strategies might be employed by each side, from the modern substitution of pitchers to gain the best matchup to the kind of coordinated base-stealing that came out of the dead ball era. While still based on the almost unbelievable physical skills of the participants, baseball’s become smarter and more sly, and it has never forgotten its roots.
Even as we watch the more gentle game played today, we can see that baseball’s been fraught with cheating since its inception and that cheating has done much to shape the game we know.
Copyright © 2007 by Derek Zumsteg. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.