Who dares call it cheating?

When Gaylord Perry passed away as December began, there were almost inevitably those who snarked about his actual or reputed virtuosity with the illegal-since-1920 spitball—or, in his case, the grease, wax, petroleum jelly, or even oil ball. (Maybe even a lard ball, since Bobby Murcer once sent Perry a gallon of the stuff as a gift.) Who knew for dead last certain?

Show me someone outraged that such a cheater got to pitch 22 major league seasons, never mind go to the Hall of Fame, and I’ll show you one who still ROFL over this or that story of Perry’s subterfuge. Maybe he used one, some, or all those substances on his pitches. Maybe he merely planted enough suggestions to live rent-free in over half of baseball’s heads, at the plate and elsewhere.

But when further evidence is adduced that baseball’s government not only can’t but seemingly won’t settle on a consistently-manufactured ball, and doesn’t think anything’s untoward about sending certain livelier balls to be used for certain games—or even on behalf of certain milestones—the response is about the size and volume of a wounded amoeba.

Oh, they howled over pitchers trying to get a grip on inconsistently-covered balls with that good new-fashioned medicated goo. Will anyone howl likewise over the balls themselves having more than inconsistent covers . . . like inconsistent insides that impact the likely play of the game even more?

It’s almost a full week since Insider‘s Bradford William Davis, by way of astrophysicist and Society for American Baseball Research member Meredith Wills, Ph.D.’s research, revealed that MLB enabled baseballs of three differing weights for official game usage, even before commissioner Rob Manfred swore to God and His servants in the Elysian Fields that this, folks, is a one-ball season.

Players who noticed and were unamused by the differences were either waved away (Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, to name one) or all but ordered to sit down, shut the hell up, and be done with such nonsense. At minimum. When Giants outfielder Austin Slater wanted to collect balls for Wills to analyse, Slater was answered with a memo from the Major League Baseball Players association saying baseball’s government threatened to fire anyone sending aiding and abetting him. 

A year earlier, Davis disclosed Wills’s research revealing the 2021 season featured two balls of differing weights, not to mention the possibilities that a set between two tankers might get a lead ball while a set between two contenders or longtime rivals might get a Super Ball. This year, with the third ball apparently in play, a ball somewhere between 2021’s deader and livelier balls, MLB still can’t play ignorant and get away with it, though not for lack of trying.

“[W]e do know that the league keeps track of information that would permit it—if it wanted—to know which balls get used in each game,” Davis wrote last week. “According to two sources familiar with MLB’s ball shipment process, the league not only directs where its balls are sent, it also knows which boxes its game compliance monitors–league employees tasked with ensuring each team adheres to league rules–approve and use before each game starts.”

There’s a word for that kind of subterfuge. You know it. I know it. Few if any dare say it in this context, though they love to deploy it in others.

Assorted batsmen have been caught with or confessed to using doctored bats, usually but not exclusively corked. Albert Belle, Norm Cash (who copped to using a loaded bat winning the 1961 American League batting title), Wil Guerrero, Billy Hatcher, Amos Otis (another confessed scofflaw), Graig Nettles (master of the Super Mini-Ball stick), Chris Sabo, and Sammy Sosa were a few denounced with that word.

Assorted pitchers not named Gaylord Perry have been suspected powerfully or caught outright putting more on their pitches than their fingers. Some got laughs first: Lew Burdette (tobacco juice swamp next to the rubber, applicable when he bent over to adjust his shoelaces), Whitey Ford (late-career mud balls and ring balls, the latter balls cut on the rasp in his wedding ring), Mudcat Grant (soap balls, until he rubbed too much soap inside his gray road jersey and the sun finked on him), Joe Niekro (emery board balls), Don Sutton (sandpaper and other things, plus notes he left in his glove fingers for umpires frisking him: “You’re getting warmer, but it’s not in here”). Some avoided the laughs: Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley (greasy hair), Kevin Gross (sandpapered glove pocket), Michael Pineda (pine tar balls), Phil (The Vulture) Regan (sweat balls), Mike Scott (sandpaper). They all got denounced with the same word, too.

Assorted actual or alleged users of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, on both sides of the ball, didn’t get half the laughs drawn by the second-story men at the plate or the embezzlers of the mound. But such actual or alleged users—Sosa, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramírez, Álex Rodríguez, others—did (and still do) get hammered with that word, too.

When teams set up off field-based sign-stealing operations—from buzzers underground (the 1899 Phillies) to telescopes behind the outfield (the 1951 Giants most notoriously), inside the scoreboards (the 1948 Indians, the 1961 Reds), and high behind the ballpark (the 1910s Philadelphia Athletics); from rifle scopes in the seats (the 1941 Tigers) to illegal real-time cameras feeding an extra clubhouse monitor next to which the pilfered intelligence is signaled to batters (the 2017-18 Astros)—they got denounced for that word. Even if only one got disciplined by baseball’s government while the predecessors got disciplined merely by history.

If those ex-cons real or alleged can be judged accordingly, why the hell can’t baseball’s government be judged likewise over the Three Ball Blues? Hitters altering bats and pitchers scuffing balls earn the verdict. Teams engaging off field-based electronic intelligence gathering earn it. Why can’t baseball’s own government and the official ball manufacturer it co-owns earn it for inconsistent manufacturing and seemingly willful, selective deployment?

Some dare call it what then-Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti denounced when he ruled that Gross’s appeal of his ten-game suspension wasn’t all that appealing:

Unlike acts of impulse or violence, intended at the moment to vent frustration or abuse another, acts of cheating are intended to alter the very conditions of play to favour one person. They are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist . . . Cheating is contrary to the whole purpose of playing to determine a winner fairly and cannot be simply contained; if the game is to flourish and engage public confidence, cheating must be clearly condemned with an eye to expunging it.

Aaron Judge went to the plate last season unaware he’d be swinging at three different-consistency balls, unaware that he might have been given a little surreptitious assistance, en route breaking the American League’s single-season home run record. Now-retired Hall of Famer in waiting Albert Pujols went to the plate last season unaware he, too, might be swinging at differing balls, en route finishing his career with over 700 lifetime home runs.

They and everyone else at the plate last season deserved to know they were being pitched consistently made baseballs, not balls of differing makeup depending upon whom was at the plate reaching for which potential milestones. The pitchers who faced them deserved likewise to know going in that the games’ integrity was unimpeded, and to know that they or the other guys were just better, not that they were unknowingly throwing lead balls or Super Balls at any given time.

If you’re looking for denunciations of cheating toward the Manfred administration for its Three Ball Blues, from the same fans, observers, and chroniclers who would have and did scream bloody murder when confronted with actual or alleged cheating players and teams, save your energy for the time being. At this writing, their overall silence is louder than a heavy metal concert.


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