The Cheatin’ Knucklehead, Part 1

“Is it the rule that the fellow who pitches the ball aims to pitch it in such a way the batter cannot hit it? Gives it a twist—what not—so it slides off, or won’t be struck fairly?… The wolf, the snake, the cur, the sneak, all seem entered into the modern sportsman—though I ought not to say that, for the snake is snake because he is born so, and man the snake for other reasons, it may be said.”

Thus spake Walt Whitman. And he actually liked baseball.

The question Whitman begs here is not an easy one. Essentially, Walt wants to know if it’s possible for a modern gent to raise a Knucklehead who is both ethically-minded and a baseball fan. It’s no simple question, and one that encompasses far more than the current PED scandal. Baseball is a competitive enterprise, and as in all competitive enterprises, the line between “cheating” and “doing what it takes to win” is… well, it isn’t really a line at all. Or if it is, it’s as clear as the line between love and madness. Consider the following, from May 30th, 2007:

The Yankees are in Toronto, playing the Blue Jays. With two out, Hideki Matsui is on second, Alex Rodríguez is on first, and Jorge Posada stands at the plate. On a 3-2 count, Posada pops up between second and third, an easy third out. As the ball is in flight, Matsui, running from second, rounds third on his way home, and Rodríguez nears third as the ball comes down. It plops on the ground between two fielders, and Matsui scores. How did the Blue Jays’ defense miss this easy play?

Because, it is immediately alleged, A-Rod cheated. Apparently, on his way to third, Rodríguez yelled out, “Ha! I got it!” The fielders, each thinking the other had been called off, let the ball pass between them. You can see the play here:

What A-Rod did probably can’t be technically considered cheating, because there’s no specific rule against it (if he did it at all, which he’s cagey about). In fact, Mr. Rodríguez may argue that what he did constitutes free speech (and since he was playing in Canada, international law may apply). Nevertheless, outside the Yankee fan base, he was immediately vilified. What a cheater. Outrageous. What kind of degenerate stoops so low, insulting Our Game?

Except that in his autobiography, I Had A Hammer, Hank Aaron almost gleefully describes doing nearly the same thing himself. The only difference is that Aaron used the “I got it!” trick to call off the fielders to get himself a single, after he himself had popped up near first base. Aaron didn’t seem to think himself worthy of vilification, and neither has anybody I ever heard of since Aaron wrote his book. I’m sure his opponents didn’t appreciate it, but they were probably more angry at themselves for falling for the trick than they were at Hank for attempting it.

So does that make Hammerin’ Hank the moral equivalent of A-Rod? Hardly. Hardly. Aaron’s the guy who opened his book wondering whether he hadn’t wasted his life playing baseball when there was so much else going on. A-Rod is, well, A-Rod. My point is there’s a huge gray ethical area in baseball that allows you to call one player a cheater and another a clever competitor for doing exactly the same thing.

Over the Movie Season*, from time to time I’m going to write about the ethics of competition as it plays out in baseball, and how that applies to Knucklehead-rearing. Discussion, as always, is welcome.


*For the Knucklehead and me, a year can fairly be said to be marked by the Baseball Season and the Movie Season.

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