Saturday, June 18, 2005

Everybody's Doin' It

I confess: I am a life-long baseball fan. I love the game, love it to death, and have loved it since the day I blackmailed my older brother into taking me along with him to a Milwaukee Braves game on a school day when I was eight. That was over fifty years ago.

It's actually a simple game in many respects. Nine men to a side, a minimum of necessary equipment, universally accepted dimensions for the infield, general agreement on the size of the outfield. Throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. The players don't have to be seven feet tall or weigh four hundred pounds. The little guy with good hands and speed can do just as well as the large power hitter and can win just as many games.

It's also a symmetrical game, from the clean white lines designating the playing surface to the fixed batting order to the agreement on the rules. The pace of the game is intentionally leisurely. Watching a game from the stands , a cold drink in one hand, a hot dog in the other, a program with a scorecard in one's lap: what a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon or evening.

This year, however, has not been a good year for the game. Even before Spring Training, itself an all-American ritual, the news of steroid use among the biggest stars in the game exposed a side of baseball I had always preferred to ignore. The game had been infected with a "win at any cost" mentality. So embarrassing were the revelations that the player's union and the commissioner had no problems in arriving at a mutually acceptable change in drug testing policy.

Last week, the game suffered another blow:
[Angels pitcher]Brendan Donnelly was suspended for 10 games by Major League Baseball for having pine tar on his glove during a game against the Nationals, according to the AP. Donnelly appealed the suspension and will play until his case is heard.

Using pine tar to get a better grip on the baseball gives the pitcher an extra advantage over the batter. For that reason, there are rules against the use of 'foreign substances' by pitchers. It's in the rule book. As Yogi Berra would say, "You could look it up." And Donnelly was caught red-handed. The umpires examined his glove, found the pine tar, and tossed him from the game.

That's bad enough, but, wait, there's more:

The Angels said using pine tar is a longstanding practice and that managers normally don't ask umpires to look for it because their own pitchers probably have it on their gloves, too. The Washington Nationals said Donnelly was cheating.

"There's etiquette in the game and there's a lack of it," Donnelly said. "It's a safety issue. Would you rather have the ball slip out of my hand and smoke someone in the head? Go ask the hitters. I'm saying it's out there."

I was about ten years old when I discovered that the old "but everybody else gets to..." excuse just didn't work. My parents never bought it. I stopped using it after the third attempt. One would think that baseball players, all of them putative adults, would have learned that same lesson somewhere along the line. Apparently that is not the case.

The game has been spoiled for me right now. I hope professional baseball will once again try to clean up its act, and soon. I would hate to have this kind of cheating, this emphasis on winning at all costs leak into the non-sports world. The results could be overwhelming. We could have elected officials taking bribes from government contractors to ensure favorable contract awards, or officials lying about the reasons for going to war, or an administration deciding to ignore human rights treaties when dealing with prisoners of war.

And that would be very sad for America.


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