Gamesmanship Remains a Beloved Part of Major League Baseball

Photo: AP

In the wake of the NFL’s deflation scandal, Major League Baseball must continue to embrace gamesmanship.

I’m a Patriots fan, trying to enjoy my team’s sixth Super Bowl appearance in 15 years. Unfortunately, all anyone wants to talk about is the air pressure inside a couple footballs during the Patriots 45-7 AFC Championship Game victory. I’m not enjoying myself. This whole issue did get me thinking though; if we’re trying to outlaw gamesmanship in sports, we may as well cancel baseball season.

We don’t know all the facts about this deflated ball issue (which I will not be attaching -gate to, because I know how word roots work). We do know some things, though. We know the Patriots supposedly used balls with lower air pressure than is allowed, thus theoretically giving them an advantage in the wet, rainy conditions they faced. We also know they are far from the only team to do this; Aaron Rodgers freely admitted he over-inflates his football, while Brad Johnson admitted he paid $7500 to ensure the balls used before Super Bowl XXXVII – which he won – were scuffed up to his liking. Now, reports are coming out that many throughout the NFL are upset – not because the Patriots “cheated,” but because something that every team does is now under intense scrutiny.

Long story short: The Patriots broke a rule that everyone breaks, and now people are outraged that it has come to light. As a baseball fan, I’m all too familiar with this. Technically, the Patriots cheated. There is a rule, which the Patriots appear to have knowingly broken. I think a better word for it, however, is gamesmanship, and baseball loves gamesmanship. If people are outraged about this, we might as well cancel Major League Baseball.

Where do I even begin? How about with Hall of Famer pitcher Gaylord Perry, who openly threw spitballs his entire career, despite the fact that it is a blatant violation of the rules. He didn’t even hide it; everyone knew he was throwing them. The guy even wrote an autobiography in 1974 – nine years before he retired – titled Me and the Spitter. A 300-game winner and MLB Hall of Famer, who people look back at fondly despite – no, because of – his blatant cheating.

Gaylord Perry AP

Perry took his spitball all the way to the Hall of Fame. Photo: AP

Perry is hardly the only one, by the way. Just off the top of my head, I can recall Clay Buchholz, Michael Pineda, and Kenny Rogers all having ball-doctoring “scandals” that were nothing more than anecdotes. Pineda was suspended, but was only called out on it for being painfully obvious against the same opponent for the second start in a row.

Ball-doctoring may be the most notable form of baseball showmanship, but it’s hardly the only one. Teams steal the signs of their opponents all the time. Hell, players feel a need to talk through their gloves to prevent it. Runners on second try to steal signs and report them back to man at the plate. The Blue Jays took it next-level, sitting a team employee in the bleachers to read the catchers signs and report them back, instantly, to the dugout. Stealing signs, while not technically “illegal” is a frowned-upon, yet highly-used, technique; it’s the card-counting of Major League Baseball.

I can keep going. How about this gem, one of the most famous cases of rule-breaking in baseball history:

George Brett got caught breaking a rule. He was punished for it (they called him out). That was that. Now, people look back at this incident and laugh. Major League Baseball considers it a goofy part of its history, not some sort of permanent black eye on the game, or the Royals, or Brett.

How about Sammy Sosa and his corked bat? People mocked him afterward, sure. But if Sosa hadn’t been tied to steroids, and this was the only knock against him, it would be a funny story he could tell at his Hall of Fame induction, not something to be ashamed of for the rest of his career.

Sammy Sosa Cork

Photo: AP

The point is this; every single case of gamesmanship elicited the same reaction: How did you get caught? That is the reaction every time. No one is appalled that pitchers were putting foreign substances on the ball. Nobody thinks the Blue Jays deserved to lose draft picks or have their manager suspended because they were stealing signs. George Brett’s infamous “Pine Tar Incident” is part of baseball lore, and is fondly remembered by just about everyone involved. Sammy Sosa’s corked bat – while admittedly overshadowed by far worse offenses – would have been a small asterisk on his career had the other stuff not been involved.

What the Patriots did was cheating. There’s a rule that exists, and the Patriots broke it. Whether it was the head coach, a ball boy, Tom Brady, whoever; the Patriots broke a rule. That said, they broke a rule that everyone out there breaks in one way or another, and now all the sudden people are outraged?

This is what makes baseball America’s Pastime. Gamesmanship is an integral part of the game, as it should be with any sport. As long as there are corners, teams and players will cut them to gain an advantage. The reaction shouldn’t be “I can’t believe this happened,” or “How dare they break this rule.” The reaction should be “Next time, be a bit sneakier. Don’t get caught.” This is why I love baseball. Small rules – both written and unwritten – are there to be broken. The second that stops being the case, we might as well cancel Major League Baseball. It would never be the same.

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