Baseball is Broken (For Now)

When Laboring Under the Law, People Cheat

David Clay / 6.23.21

Following the infamous 1919 World Series, which had been fixed by gamblers, Major League Baseball was in a mood of stern moral reform. In 1920, the sport outlawed the practice of applying saliva or other foreign substances to the ball, i.e., the “spitball.” Spitballs move erratically and are thus devilishly hard to hit, which is why pitchers have continued to apply all manner of concoctions to the baseball long after the official ban, albeit surreptitiously. 

Serious baseball fans know that many pitchers “doctor” the balls before throwing. George Frazier, a highly effective setup reliever active through most of the 1980s, once denied putting foreign substances on his baseballs. “Everything I use is from the good old USA,” he insisted. For his classic book on the game, Men at Work, baseball enthusiast and sometime political commentator George Will interviewed the legendary Orel Hershiser. The topic turned to doctoring baseballs. Hershiser, a devout Christian, remarked to Will that he never scuffed up baseballs (which has similar effects to applying sticky substances) for fear that God would respond by drying up his talent. On the other hand, Hershiser noted, if he were to come across baseballs already scuffed up — well, one must earn a living somehow. 

Over the last few seasons, however, cheating by pitchers has become increasingly blatant and its effects on the game ever more outsized. A recent Sports Illustrated article by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt describes how it’s now common to find foul balls with the MLB logo torn off the leather due to “sticky stuff.” An American League manager claimed that “you hear the friction” when pitchers throw these doctored balls. Sticky substances, write Apstein and Prewitt, are the new steroids. They make the ball spin more rapidly, resulting in a record number of no-hitters for this point in the season, as well as a remarkably low league-wide batting average. Baseball fans everywhere are bemoaning the sport’s further slide (no pun intended) into little more than strikeouts and home runs. 

At a recent press event, Gerrit Cole, ace starter for the New York Yankees, was asked point blank if he used Spider Tack — a compound originally designed to help competitors in strongman competitions grip large objects — to manipulate the ball. Cole hemmed and hawed and finally stumbled upon the answer of, “I don’t really know how to answer that question, to be honest.” He then embarked on a lengthy, vague digression about “customs and practices” that have been passed down from generation to generation of pitchers. 

It’s actually a little funny, since Cole is so obviously not being “honest.” Had I given a similar answer to my mother upon her asking me some pointed “yes or no” question about a suspected transgression, things would have gone rather poorly for me. Cole knew exactly what the right answer was, but at that particular moment he did not have the gumption to tell the truth nor the audacity to tell a boldfaced lie. It’s a moment we can all empathize with. 

There is, however, a question behind the very straightforward one posed by the reporter. It’s likely true that Cole doesn’t quite know how to answer this deeper question, which goes something like, “Is it okay to break the rules if your competitiveness in the game depends on it?” In their Sports Illustrated piece, Apstein and Prewitt quote an American League reliever who was told by his pitching coach, “If you’re not using [sticky stuff], you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.” They later interview a minor league pitcher who is forthright about applying foreign substances to the ball: “We’re all trying to make the big leagues, and if that’s what it takes to get there, that’s what it takes.” Like speeding, people do it because everyone else is doing it, such that it is actually a little dangerous not to. 

Batters tend to be a little less understanding of the necessity of cheating, and even some pitchers worry about the integrity of the game. But the reality is that professional pitchers find themselves operating under two, mutually-conflicting laws: the stated rules of the game, of course, but also the pressure to perform at staggeringly high levels, in public, and on a consistent basis. 

The need to strive for excellence has inevitably created a culture where cheating is the norm. No one should be surprised. Friendly competition makes games enjoyable to play and watch. It’s a feature, not a bug. But when fame and literally millions of dollars are on the line, the beauty and fun of the game can be marred by sin like anything else in life.

Even those of us who aren’t professional athletes can understand this predicament on some level. In every human culture and subculture, there are expectations regarding personal integrity, vocational competence, community involvement, self-actualization, and being fun at parties. Hitting all of these expectations is impossible, as they all make stringent demands on our limited time and energy, a situation that contributes to various kinds of cheating on the one hand, and various kinds of self-righteous misery on the other.

For all of our hurrying and striving and cheating and judging, this world still manages to offer an abundance of beauty and fun — including in baseball. For all of its problems, I keep coming back to baseball anyway because it remains a break from the otherwise incessant logics of productivity and performance in my life. Baseball is broken, but it won’t be so forever.

Despite all odds, baseball is still fun sometimes. I derive real joy from watching, say, Adam Wainwright, the 39-year-old starter for the Cardinals, strike out batters barely over half his age with his looping 71 mph curveballs (Wainwright, incidentally, recently admitted that he used sticky stuff for a couple of weeks many seasons ago but didn’t like the way it felt). Sometimes when I watch baseball, I get to spend some time watching a beautiful thing done beautifully, and my own fretting ego is silenced. 

After this particular problem, there will be others, a perpetual arms race between maintaining the integrity (and watchability) of the game on the one hand, and doing what it takes to actually compete in the game on the other. Even still, it will continue offering fans both a source of and an outlet for frustration, heartbreak, joy and love. Like all good gifts from the Father, it liberates us for a bit from the relentless pressures that are imposed upon us and that we impose on ourselves. It is a glimpse (among a million others in this world) of the promise of the good news of Jesus, that those whom the Son sets free are free indeed.

Graph image via the Ringer.

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