Baseball's dirty little secret: `Cheating' is relative term

The Kickoff

October 24, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

St. Louis -- There's cheating and then there's cheating, or so everybody seemed to be saying as the 102nd World Series devolved yesterday into something that can best be described as Smudge-gate.

Was Kenny Rogers flouting the rules of baseball if he had pine tar or some other dark, sticky substance on the palm of his left hand in the early innings of a strong Game 2 performance at Comerica Park?

The rule book would answer clearly in the affirmative, and the prescribed punishment would have been a suspension if St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had asked the umpires to check Rogers' hand and they had, indeed, found something other than infield dirt.

La Russa chose instead to send a message to the Tigers' postseason hero through the umpiring crew:

Whatever you're doing, stop doing it.

The decision not to make a federal case out of it put La Russa on the hot seat in St. Louis, because he might have passed up an opportunity to get Rogers out of a game he absolutely dominated for eight innings. But the fact that La Russa had no appetite for gamesmanship in that situation might have been because he knows something you don't want to know.

There is an acceptable level of rule-bending in major league baseball that is largely overlooked because it is almost universal.

Tigers closer Todd Jones came right out and admitted yesterday that he has - in the past - used a little pine tar to improve his grip on the baseball under certain conditions. I guess if you're going to admit to substance abuse at the World Series, this probably is the best way to do it, but Jones chose his words just carefully enough to shed some light on the situation without incriminating anyone.

"I had a guy I played with go to another team," Jones said. "He came back and said, `If you guys check me [for pine tar], I'm going to drill every one of you because you didn't mind it when I was here.'"

La Russa said during yesterday's news conference at Busch Stadium that "pitchers use some kind of sticky stuff to get a better grip from the first day in spring training to the last side session of the World Series." And even though he claimed the Cardinals' coaching staff had seen video evidence that Rogers might have had sticky fingers in a couple of earlier outings, La Russa said he didn't consider it "over the line."

In short, there is cheating and then there is cheating, a distinction that seems harmless enough when a pitcher is just trying to get a better grip on a cold night, but represents the kind of moral relativism that can justify just about anything.

Clearly, using anabolic steroids is cheating, but there is a school of thought that some athletes could be forgiven for using performance-enhancing drugs because they were doing the wrong thing for the right reasons - trying to be the best they could be for the paying customers.

Nobody is comparing a little pine tar to a shot of stanozolol, but there is a subculture of duplicity in baseball that actually is sanctioned in the rulebook, which might explain how the umpires could send Rogers into the clubhouse to wash a presumably illegal substance off his hands without invoking any disciplinary action.

The rules are written so that a baseball player is allowed to do almost anything unless the opposing manager makes an official challenge to the umpiring crew. Albert Pujols could hit a triple tonight and leap completely over first and second base, but it's still a triple if nobody on the other team registers an appeal.

The umpires have more latitude when it comes to matters that reflect on the integrity of the game, but they were satisfied to send Rogers to the washroom instead of the suspended list. In short, what's a little Stickum among friends?

Rogers probably made things worse by denying during a post-game television interview that the umpires had spoken to him about the smudge on his hand. He contended that they were talking to him about the pace of the game. He said yesterday that he didn't need to be told because he was aware that the Fox broadcast crew was making a big deal of it on TV. He, and almost everyone else involved, spun a web of misinformation that only caused more antennae to go up.

Nothing like a little dissembling to make you wonder if his inspiring, 23-inning postseason scoreless streak is really on the up and up, but keep in mind that he continued to dominate the Cardinals long after he had washed his hands.

"The sad thing is, people are going to talk about dirt on his hand instead of the way he pitched in Game 2 of the World Series," Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke said. "There's a player in Cooperstown [Gaylord Perry] who wrote a book about how he cheated. I'm not saying that Kenny cheated. That's not what I'm saying."

I think what he was trying to say is that there is cheating ... and then there is cheating.peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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