Much as it hushes up its players' performance-enhancing drug use, Major League Baseball now is hushing up an even more widespread form of cheating. Or so the sports columns have it today. Where is the outrage? they want to know. Or more precisely: Where is Tony LaRussa's outrage?
In case you haven't heard, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Kenny Rogers apparently doctored the baseball with pine tar during Game 2 of the World Series. Early on, Fox's TV cameras spotted a suspicious-looking brown spot on the meaty part of Rogers' thumb; they also captured him repeatedly touching his fingers to the bill of his cap. Yet LaRussa, the opposing manager, refused to press the issue, even though doing so would have helped his team (had the umpires confirmed that Rogers was indeed cheating, they would have ejected him from the game). Various reasons have been proposed for LaRussa's odd passivity here: That he was acting (or rather not acting) out of respect for his friend, the Detroit manager Jim Leyland. That he wanted to spare baseball yet another scandal. That he's a crappy manager.LaRussa may have simply been protecting his own players. Though the spitball was outlawed after the 1919 season, some pitchers—St. Louis pitchers among them—continue to tamper with the baseball whenever possible. In the 1988 NLCS, umps booted Jay Howell from a game after they found pine tar on his glove. In September 2004, LaRussa's own pitcher Julian Tavarez served an eight-day suspension when he was revealed to be stockpiling the same substance under the brim of his cap. In June 1995, Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly served a 10-day pine-tar suspension. And pine tar ranks as only one among many materials pitchers use to influence the ball's flight. For instance, David Wells regularly wears unscented shaving cream and/or suntan lotion on his forearms, the one because it can't be detected except by taste (nobody wants to lick David Wells), the other, presumably, because it can't—except during night games—be gainsaid.
As a kid, I used to love watching the great spitballer Gaylord Perry. You knew he was cheating, but you couldn't catch him in the act. Even opposing teams' play-by-play guys were tickled by him; you could hear the bemused admiration in their voices. Like some sort of card shark shuffling the deck in eight different ways, Perry had perfected an intricate series of pre-pitch tics among which you couldn't pick out the incriminating touch. A line on his Hall of Fame plaque discreetly pays tribute to his illicit expertise: PLAYING MIND GAMES WITH HITTERS THROUGH ARRAY OF RITUALS ON MOUND WAS PART OF HIS ARSENAL.
Sportswriters compare throwing the spitball to juicing, but they're not at all alike. One you do privately, in shame and fear. The other you do boldly and artfully, in front of an audience of millions. If you can get away with that, as Gaylord Perry did, I salute you.