In which Derek Jeter should wipe that self-satisfied grin off his face

Jeter, cheater

Derek Jeter pretending to have been hit with a pitch. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

Baseball is built on rules. Unlike football, soccer, basketball, or hockey, baseball is not a game of possession. It is a game of elaborate conventions designed to ensure that both team have equal opportunity — both defenses must record 27 outs. Both offenses must field the same number of players. And so on.

But it’s also a game full of cheaters, men who would try to steal an out away from the opposing team by faking being hit by a pitch – it’s the exact opposite of “giving outs away.”

This tendency has a long history within the game, as Bill James reminds us in a fabulous article in Slate.

The central theme of Babe Ruth’s life, which is the fulcrum of virtually every anecdote and every event of his career, is that Babe Ruth firmly believed that the rules did not apply to Babe Ruth.

So he cheated. He used a corked bat. He also innovated, and because he believed the rules didn’t apply to him, he shook off convention and swung for the fences, forsaking the line drive.

But it’s another Yankee’s brush with the cheat that is grabbing the attention of Bruce Weber and The New York Times. Weber, no doubt tired of covering the cheating / steroid scandals of Yankees Andy Pettite, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez, wants to make the case that Derek Jeter pretending to have been hit by a pitch during a game is not the same as CHEATING. And he ought to know, right?

Yikes! First of all, can we please just call a halt to the professional-sport-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing? Morality is complicated and context-based, isn’t it?

Weber wants us to agree that cheating is a harsh accusation for a type of situational taking-advantage. And in the case of the infield fly rule, he’s right. There are situations when it applies, and situations where it doesn’t. And, of course, it is all up to the umpire to make that call.

Except that’s not what Weber thinks an umpire does.

Indeed, I’d argue that a prime function of officials is to relieve players of the burden of honor. After all, on a bang-bang play at first base, when the runner is called safe but knows in his heart he was out, he does not feel compelled to correct the umpire’s misimpression.

But in life there are no referees, no first base umpires.

That doesn’t matter in Weber’s construction.

I would describe the dividing line this way: If a player’s ruse is spontaneous, if it occurs in response to the action on the field, then it’s legit.

But Jeter still lied, and that lie produced a decided advantage. He didn’t feel the ball drill into any of the twenty small bones on the top of his wrist, nor did the pitch flatten a curled knuckle, pinching it against a bat.

Yet the problem isn’t even that cheating exists in baseball (cough, Kenny Rogers pine-tar-hand, cough) it’s that the accusations are leveled on a sliding scale. Derek Jeter can’t be a cheater, because he was just acting in the moment. But Mark McGwire can, because he planned his ‘roiding.

The problem is that we’re lying about the fact that there is lying, and it undermines the fundamentally unique premise of baseball: equality.

Jeter’s fake-out wasn’t just good television. It wasn’t just something every player should try once or twice. It slanted the field for the Yankees, giving them an extra base-runner when they could have easily ended up notching an out.

Baseball doesn’t have a game clock. Baseball doesn’t have the built-in possession war. Baseball has 27 outs, for each side, and stealing one is stealing one, Derek Jeter or not.

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Comments
9 Responses to “In which Derek Jeter should wipe that self-satisfied grin off his face”
  1. Kevin Mattison says:

    Babe Ruth was amazing. The Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa homerun chase was great television, and in the end most people forgive (or at least ignore) cheating as long as it’s entertaining. The key is not to get caught in the act.

    I think Jeter’s got such a “good guy” rep that people are making a bigger deal out of it than they would with most other players. Much like the NBA, if you’re a big deal you get the calls. I find it difficult to get angry about it at this point, mostly because cheating has become so ingrained in the game for me. It’s a shame, but the MLB needs to either crack down David Stern style or keep on keepin’ on. Are they going to do any more than slap Jeter on the wrist? If that.

    • AVGW says:

      For me, the question is really, what’s the point of having rules if it’s “part of the charm of the game” to make a mockery of them?

      In baseball, all you have are the rules. There are no larger guiding limits like possession changes (volleyball, tennis) or time (soccer, hockey, football, basketball).

      If the rule were, “The batter may have first base if he is struck by a pitch, or can convince the umpire that he was hit,” then fine. If that is allowable, make that the rule.

      But the problem is it’s not allowable, unless you’re a person who cheats to win. I don’t buy that there aren’t fans who have a distaste for cheating. I don’t but that there aren’t players who won’t fake a HBP.

      It’s not the same as not correcting an umpire when you think you’re out but are called safe. It’s a conscious lie by Jeter — he fakes the hit and writhes and shakes his hand.

      I also disagree that it’s like the NBA. There are no penalties or foul calls in baseball. You can’t get an extra base by pretending the shortstop charged you.

      Lots of things are prevalent, but that doesn’t make them right: poverty, politicians cheating on spouses, government corruption, environmental abuse. The rules matter. If they don’t, then do away with them.

      • Kevin Mattison says:

        I don’t disagree with you at all. I’m simply saying that when push comes to shove a lot of people will over look cheating, especially if it’s a big name/beloved player. That’s my only comparison to the NBA, where guys like Lebron can get away with travelling on a regular basis (Crab dribble, my ass) and Shaq can clothes line point guards driving the lane. People might boo, but what would Cleveland fans do if Lebron kept getting called for it and had to be benched?

        The rules should be the same for everyone. Jeter cheated, for sure. No passes just because he’s Jeter.

  2. Gavin Craig says:

    Reading this post, and chatting about it, I’m reminded of two things:

    1. Baseball has always been a game where there’s been a great tension between the rules and gameplay, and more than most other sports, that tension has actually been productive. William F. McNeil’s dry but extraordinarily informative book The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball outlines how pitching, as we know it, didn’t exist in the early game, in which it was illegal both to throw overhand and for the pitcher to snap his wrist while delivering the pitch. The purpose of the pitcher was to put the ball in play, not to get the batter out. Pitching changed because an individual pitcher learned to hide a wrist snap, and because pitchers continued to push the limits of what sidearm motion was acceptable.

    2. Baseball has at least two sets of rules, the official rulebook, and the unofficial “codes” that dictate behavior within the game. I can only speak for myself, but these gray areas are a big part of what I enjoy about the game–George Brett furious when Billy Martin complains about the Pine tar on his bat–when it suited Martin to do so and not a minute before–A Rod slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove as he ran to first in the middle of Boston’s historic 2004 ALCS comeback, and being called, rightly, for interference.

    I don’t see any reason to throw out the rulebook. AVGW is right that the game couldn’t be played without it. But I think it’s meaningful not just that Jeter went for an Oscar, but that Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was ejected for arguing the call, said that he would have applauded any of his own players for doing the same.

    Jeter’s a crybaby. And A-Rod is a douche, but so is Billy Martin. I love that the game includes all of them, and Ruth, and Rogers, and Brett. And Pete Rose (who should never be admitted to the Hall of Fame, but should never be forgotten, either).

    • AVGW says:

      We can take a survey, but I am betting I am the only one of us who played the sport (albiet softball) past Little League. I am fairly certain I am the only one of us reading this, or writing/commenting on The Idler, who still plays.

      And I can tell you that the night my Summer League team got crushed by a team we mercied earlier in the season, after said team added three illegal players (college athletes playing on the superb local school’s team) to their roster, I didn’t think that was part of the charm of the game. I didn’t think that “made” the sport, and I didn’t love it.

      Billy Martin choosing WHEN to bring the pine tar to the attention of the official is not the issue, either. That’s a sort of tertiary interest. The fact is Brett was cheating. It doesn’t matter whether Martin called him on it then, or ever. You are breaking the rule whether you are caught or not.

      There’s a big difference between pushing the limits and cheating, and Gavin, I think you’re purposely ignoring it. Going as far within the rules as allowed is one thing — pushing boundaries, such as using a timeout to freeze a kicker, visiting the mound to give the reliever more time to warm up, or training your batters to stand in such a way as to obscure a runner breaking from second without actually interfering with the play.

      Then there’s crossing the line of scrimmage early. Faking an injury to induce a delay in the game. Getting in the way of the catcher. Putting tar on the barrel of the bat, pine tar on the hand, sunscreen on the ball. Against the rules. Plain and simple.

      Those behaviors aren’t about the evolution of the game. And I think that points to a problem with your example — while it’s fascinating, it’s not applicable. Pushing the limits of pitching is not the same as breaking the rules of baseball. While it is certainly true that transgression can lead to evolution, esp early in the development of the game, I think we can agree that steroids and faking it and cheating don’t lead to an evolution — they leave people with a sense of having been cheated, cheated to have roted for Big Mac or Sosa or Bonds, when in reality, none of those men were playing by the rules.

      No one is forcing these guys to play ball. They volunteered. It’s not oppression to be made to adhere to the rules of the sport they willingly play. It’s an agreement, a contract between players and teams, something forged in good faith but undermined, consistently, by the argument that cheating is just part of the game.

      If it were, there’d be a rule declaring it.

      • Gavin Craig says:

        While I’m not willing to concede that only an active player can comment meaningfully on the rules–were that the case, why would we ever read baseball writing? None of us are or have ever been major leaguers–I would like to state for the record that I’ve spent more years on a baseball team than off, with people well beyond little-league age. (The birth of my first child didn’t knock me out of the league, but the second one did.)

        I disagree with your dismissal of both the pitcher X (I need to look up his name, I checked the book out from the library and don’t have it) and Brett/Martin examples. Pitcher X is a clear example of unambiguous cheating that pushed the game forward. Snapping the wrist during delivery was against the rules, pitcher X snapped his wrist (he just did it sneaky). As a result of this, he was nearly unhittable. Other pitchers learned how to do it, and then the rules caught up. He wasn’t giving the pitcher extra time to warm up, he was jumping across the line of scrimmage early, and I don’t think any of us are eager to go back to late-19th/early 20th century pitching.

        Secondly, it’s worth noting that MLB ruled, in effect, that Martin’s judicious invocation of the rules was cheating. Martin objected to Brett’s bat only when it allowed him to change Brett’s home run into the final out of the game–stealing both an out and a victory. MLB supported the Royal’s objection to the game, and demanded that the two teams play the rest of the game from Brett’s home run. The Royals won. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Tar_Incident

  3. AVGW says:

    Kevin,

    The point isn’t what the fans would do if LeBron were held to account for breaking the rules. It’s what HE would do, which is FOLLOW THE RULES.

    If he were made to follow the rules via enforcement, he would dribble properly. It’s just because he doesn’t have to that he refuses to. It’s laziness and the Babe Ruthian “that doesn’t apply to me” attitude.

  4. Beerzie says:

    It was a dick move, which are usually committed by, well, dicks.

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