Malcolm McMichael

There’s a fascinating drama unfolding in Major League Baseball – with a sign-stealing scandal that is still expanding in its scope like a tsunami rolling down the coast. It is calling into question the achievements and ethics of leading players and managers, leading teams and a few World Series champions.

For those who have been focusing on less weighty matters, like impeachments, shooting wars and apocalyptic wildfires, the gist of the story is that the Houston Astros got caught using video feeds to steal catchers’ signs, and relaying those signs to their batters using a coded system of bangs on a trash can. In a sport where cheating has long been part of the game, this strategy is generally being viewed as “over the line.”

In response to pressure from fans and media, supported by unmistakable video evidence that had been circulating on Twitter, MLB officials were forced to act. And they acted forcefully, leading to the firing of coaches and tarnishing of players’ and teams’ reputations. This scandal is likely to expand as fans and the MLB widen their probe. However, thus far players and owners have been spared.

Cheating for an “edge” is nothing new. Stealing signs is as old as giving signs. And the league has long tried to straddle a gray area on the question of sign stealing: a little bit is okay, but using technology to do so is not. It’s as if they tried to freeze the fine line at whatever was OK back in 1963 (with the invention of instant replay).

Pursuing an edge is not always cheating. MLB groundskeepers earn reputations for their mastery of the art of managing grass length and dirt moisture to control the speed of bouncing balls, minutely tuned to the comparative fielding and base running skills of the teams. Less savory practices include altering the height of the opposing team’s bullpen mound, an extra inch or two aimed to throw off the opposing pitcher’s aim after warming up.

I was coming of age back when the “steroid era” scandal broke, and the most exciting home-run rivalry of contemporary times was undone and soured by revelations of performance enhancing drug use. It turns out that Mark McGwire did not blow up like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man solely due to his weight lifting routine. As a result of this scandal, we learned once again about the waves of open secrets that periodically pervade these endeavors, rumbling under the surface until they erupt (hello, New England Patriots).

“Everybody” does it and everybody knows (on the inside at least), until eventually the dam bursts. Of course, not everybody in fact does it. It’s a dance; many players feel like they have no choice but to join in, or risk getting left behind. Nevertheless, not everybody was banging on trash cans. The ebb and flow of the extent and types of cheating, and the line that distinguishes it, is a game within the game.

Cheating is not restricted to baseball of course, and youth sports are by no means immune, whereby ambitious coaches pursue a variety of shenanigans in pursuit of winning at all costs.

Players themselves are often more sanguine about the cheating, and express disdain for complainers and whistleblowers among their ranks. There’s an unwritten code of silence, with perhaps a machismo culture against whining, which tolerates these practices and suppresses open debate; until somebody goes too far. The rumors and speculation and resentments might simmer for years until a tipping point is reached, a team cheats too brazenly, or takes it too far, or gets too good at it. Then all hell breaks loose and somebody gets thrown under the bus.

Fans are generally more fickle about this question than players. Lance Armstrong learned an expensive lesson about the fickleness of public opinion, whereby the cover-up is viewed more harshly than the crime. Americans are only interested in bicycle racing for a couple weeks each year, and only when there’s an American in the mix. But steroid use is something we understand. We will tolerate a certain amount of gaming and gamesmanship from our performers, but have a low tolerance for lying and hypocrisy (at least after our heroes are caught).

The once-beloved Cub Sammy Sosa never recovered from getting chewed up in the maw of the scandal machine and media frenzy, and now he is relegated to the role of banished outsider, his face pressed to the window along with Pete Rose, who is paying the ultimate price for crossing the line of betting on his own team. Sosa’s crime was not steroid use per se, it is his insistence on being stridently unrepentant.

The scandal is not limited to sign-stealing though; the other storied art of baseball cheating is a pitcher altering the ball with substances like jelly or tar or abrasions. Look closely at the brims of their hats, sometimes it’s blatantly obvious. This practice also ebbs and flows as an open secret, that everyone tolerates because everyone does it, but occasionally a pitcher gets called on it anyway.

This story was inevitably going to break. Too many people knew or suspected it. The players and managers are too mobile to keep the knowledge contained for long. Yet some players rode this wave of cheating anyway, until it broke over them, and is now sweeping careers and records away like peanut shells under the bleachers.

I won’t pretend to know what it is like to operate at the professional level of performance. The unimaginable pressure and competition, the struggle to gain an edge and then keep it.

But I do wonder what goes through a player’s mind when he steps up to bat with a beeper taped to his chest, or faces down a pitcher knowing that those banging sounds from the dugout are actually a coded message. Is this how he pictured himself back when he first swung a bat in his local Little League?

Maybe he doesn’t think much about it, telling himself that everyone is out there looking for an edge. Or maybe he thinks, “I bet that son of a bitch is throwing a spitball.”

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. In his occupation, caffeine use for performance enhancement is not only tolerated, it is expected.