Siberian Baseball

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cheating in moderation

Ted Williams' batting eye has become the stuff of legend - even coverage by his contemporaries in the media tended to border on Bill Brasky level storytelling.

Williams had some of the best vision of all pilots in WWII. Williams could see the seams on a baseball as it approached the plate. Williams could read the record label on a '45 as it played.

According to Leigh Montville's biography, Williams used to do a slow burn whenever he'd hear these stories. He'd prefer that people give him credit for hour upon hour spent honing his swing, not to mention all of the mental prep work he'd do to try and figure out what the pitcher would try to throw next.

The way Williams saw it, it wasn't superhuman vision, reaction time or strength that made him a great player, it was the work he put in. When people only focused on his vision, he felt it took away from everything he'd worked so hard for.

It made his efforts cheap.

I've been thinking of this story a lot as two storylines swirl this week. The ongoing Barry Bonds circus is a source of mild irritation, while the Jason Giambi drug test rumors serve only to highlight the remaining vestiges of the Steroid Era.

So where do the differences come in? What made Williams recoil from any hint that he had an unnatural advantage over the other players and Frank Robinson chastise Giambi for speaking for all of baseball?

Is it a matter of socially-acceptable cheating where you scuff a ball here or there to try and control the breaks in the game versus an intensive, premeditated cheating regimen? Stories of catchers scuffing balls with sharpened buckles on their gear or helping to wet down balls for their pitchers are now looked at with a wistful smile, while old-timers like the late Buck O'Neil never believed in the existence of a split-finger fastball - contending that it was the same old spitter with a new name.

That's still cheating, right?

I know that baseball, more than the other sports, holds dear its past and is subject to more nostalgia than the average, but when did the game cross the line from players who took personal offense to any type of shadow cast on their stats to where we are today?

If it's true that Bonds began to bulk up following the hype generated during the chase for Roger Maris' home run record, where was that issue of pride in modern baseball?

I've had a couple of days to mull this over and I suppose that's my best guess about why I think Bonds' act has gotten so old. It's a case of trying so hard to do something that there's no stopping to think if you really should. It's not gaining an extra edge as needed for a pitch or two, it's seen as trying to kill a housefly with a handgun.

past a hitter - he was doing it to be better all the time, without discretion.In short, Bonds wasn't allegedly cheating to beat the Dodgers in the 9th or to slip a 3-2 fastball It's pretty American logic - it's fine to cheat, but only for as long as I need to win.

If nothing else, it opens a new can of worms to the argument that the only reason no one took steroids in baseball before was because there weren't any.

Granted, in the heydays of Williams and Robinson there's a case to be made that just showing up sober most days meant you held an advantage. At the end of the day, is an illegal spitball any better or worse than a post-workout injection? You tell me.

(Photo from



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