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Gene Therapy: What?!? Cheating? In baseball???

Friday, June 06, 2003

Priests are having sex with young boys, corporations are laying off thousands while finagling their taxable income down to zero and accountants are fashioning one mathematical lie after another to artificially inflate stock prices.

Lobbyists are spraying cash around Congress to maintain a health-care system in which millions of senior citizens are forced to choose between buying medication and buying food, writers at respected newspapers are copying off someone else's paper, and this week we've begun to see the framework of a political scandal that could eventually show that military intelligence was doctored to fit the Bush administration's pro-war agenda, meaning that young men and women gambled their lives for the primary objective of getting the president elected in 2004.

But Sammy Sosa corking his bat, now that's where America draws the line.

We are shocked. We are saddened. We are indignant. And, as ever, we are clueless.

There's cheating in baseball? Are you kidding? Why should baseball be different from everything else? As you read this, hundreds if not thousands of high school kids are cheating on their final exams. The twin towers of inevitability are not death and taxes. Enron paid no taxes for five years. Death and cheating are the only certainties.

In any endeavor, there is a certain percentage of participants who are convinced the rules are not for them. Anyone still driving at the speed limit?

The Internal Revenue Service freely admits it can't keep up with tax cheats. There are just too many. The Securities and Exchange Commission is in the same situation. The cop-to-crook ratio is highly unfavorable.

How does anyone expect Major League Baseball, which can't so much as produce a winner in the All-Star Game, to clean up a culture of deceit that has existed since even before Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes?

Hitters cheat. Pitchers cheat. Fielders wear gloves big enough to catch a live turkey. Hell, the grounds crews are cheating, over-watering infields to the benefit of their sinkerballers, counterbalancing baselines so that bunts stay fair or roll foul to suit the home team's purpose, unsettling the mechanics of the opposing pitchers by making sure the visiting bullpen mound is not the same height as the real one.

Baseball has demonstrated only a passing interest in enforcing its own rules against such things. Every couple of years, someone will be caught with a corked bat or a Sears Craftsman power sander in his back pocket on the pitcher's mound, and then a great officious show of jurisprudence will follow, and within a month or so, the basic deception quotient is restored.

Baseball hates the sinner, not the sin. More specifically, it hates the sinner who is stupid enough to get caught.

What Sosa did the other night in Chicago was just plain stupid. It was an act of desperation. Ever since Salomon Torres threw a feckless fastball right into his helmet at PNC Park in April, Sosa's famously good karma has curdled. He stopped hitting. He went onto the disabled list. He was striking out time after time after time upon his return. I think he finally pulled his corker from the bat rack thinking, "What the heck; I'm taking this one. I probably won't hit the thing anyway."

So when his bat splintered and its cork crumbled forth, faces reddened in front offices coast to coast. Baseball leaped into action by examining 76 other Sosa models, finding 100 percent wood. So it claims. Anyone ever consider examining bats before they're taken to the plate?

Forget that. Enforcement in this game is strictly an ephemeral notion. Twenty years ago, a George Brett home run against the Yankees was disallowed because the pine tar on Brett's bat was presented too far from the handle. Today, you can see a similar violation 10 times per game. We're not enforcing that one anymore.

Anyone ever measure the pitching mound anymore? In 1969, the pitcher's mound was lowered to 10 inches from 15, but everyone in baseball knows that no two mounds are the same. After the 1983 World Series, Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer once remarked that he wished he could put the mound at Veterans Stadium into his trunk. You can be sure the differences were not explained by the vagaries of measurement. They're explained simply by somebody trying to cheat.

At Cincinnati's new Great American Ballpark, 90 home runs were hit in the first 30 home games. Pitchers say the mound looks more like a pimple than a hill. That mound has been tailored toward the entertainment value of the home run. Baseball officials and players association officials have measured it and determined that it was "regulation." Pitchers say if that's the case, every other mound is not. Do tell.

This is a sport that can't even enforce the rule that says a strike is a pitch that crosses the plate. Surveillance cameras are in 13 of the 30 ballparks specifically to provide evidence that umpires no longer insist on it.

Steroids? Human growth hormone? Amphetamines? You expect baseball to come up with a policy to address those issues?

Within 10 years, Sosa will be in the Hall of Fame with something like 600 homers, alongside Gaylord Perry, who was a perfectly ordinary pitcher until he learned how to cheat. Baseball is to some extent a gentlemen's skullduggery.

Maybe we should relax and enjoy it and save our outrage for something that matters.

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