Another lost baseball skill: pulling off a believable lie

The Kickoff

October 25, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

ST. LOUIS -- Maybe I'm just being nostalgic, but it seems to me that the baseball players of the past were much better liars than the guys who currently populate major league clubhouses.

Babe Ruth didn't call any shot in the 1932 World Series, but he sure convinced everybody that he did and manufactured -- after the fact -- one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

The 1951 New York Giants were able to keep it a secret for more than a half-century that they were stealing signs during the game in which Bobby Thomson hit the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

The New York Yankees managed to protect the all-American reputation of party boy Mickey Mantle for years before Jim Bouton's tell-all book Ball Four ended baseball's age of innocence.

Even the infamous Black Sox, who fixed the 1919 World Series, somehow managed to persuade a jury to acquit them before commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them from baseball for life, anyway.

There is an art to lying successfully, but it seems to have become a lost art in the baseball world of the 21st century. The Kenny Rogers controversy is just the latest example of the ham-fisted way that today's ballplayers stretch the truth.

Rogers was caught brown-handed in Game 2 of the World Series and was ordered by the umpires to wash off the suspicious smudge that had been detected in the first inning by the wily cameramen from the Fox network.

So, what does he do when someone asks about the incident after the game? He tells a reporter on the post-game show that the umpires were talking to him about something else. Then he refers to the smudge as a "clump of dirt" and later "dirt and spit" and continues for the next two days to spin a tale that becomes less believable every time somebody sticks a microphone in the face of another teammate or opponent.

I really don't want to put myself in the position of advising anybody on how to be deceptive, but I think there are a few simple rules that most experienced liars and politicians find helpful:

Rule No. 1: It's best not to lie in front of millions of people when the truth is already apparent or is almost certain to be revealed.

Rule No. 2: If you're going to lie, be consistent. If you tell the same lie enough times, it eventually may start to sound like the truth. (In fairness, this approach did not work for Pete Rose.)

Rule No. 3: It is much better to reveal an unpleasant truth than to have it revealed by someone else after you are fully invested in a lie.

Rule No. 4: If at all possible, avoid grand juries and congressional hearings. If that isn't possible, try not to point your finger disapprovingly while you're lying and try not to look squirrelly when you're withholding the truth.

Rafael Palmeiro probably would have tested positive for steroids in May 2005 regardless of his performance in front of the House Committee on Government Reform two months earlier, but his self-righteous attitude during his testimony magnified the public outrage when his positive test was revealed later that year.

Mark McGwire, who still has a section of an interstate named after him in the St. Louis area, never uttered a falsehood during his testimony, but he looked so bad declining to answer questions that he ended up looking worse than if he had just owned up to whatever it was he didn't want to talk about.

The real lesson to be taken from that, of course, is that the truth really will set you free, but if that isn't your first option, then Plan B should be to construct a lie that is just close enough to the truth that it defies scrutiny.

The key, as illustrated in any number of Washington scandals, is what political handlers call plausible deniability. It's what Palmeiro tried unsuccessfully to create after his positive steroid test, and it's what Rogers quickly lost with his deceptive and inconsistent answers after Game 2. Now, his amazing 23-inning postseason scoreless streak will always be viewed through that prism of distrust.

I expect more from my role models. I expect them to either tell the truth or be skillful enough to make me think they are telling the truth. Is that really so much to ask?

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

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