The Extremely Selective Outrage Around Baseball Cheating

Not every pitcher is thrilled about being checked constantly for foreign substances, as Max Scherzer illustrates. Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Last week, I was at Citi Field watching the Major League debut of Tylor Megill, a Mets non-prospect called up to the bigs to make a spot start because of the cavalcade of injuries afflicting the team (and MLB in general) this season. Megill pitched well — not great, but good enough for the Mets to win — and when manager Luis Rojas came to yank him from the game, he was met with appreciative and sustained applause from the Citi Field faithful. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the crowd began to boo lustily. Why? Because, as Megill left the field, two umpires stopped him and did the now-requisite checking of his hat and belt for foreign substances. Ever since June 21, when the MLB instituted its crackdown on “sticky stuff” — the foreign substances that pitchers have used to gain an upper hand against hitters — this has become a nightly occurrence at every ballpark in America. Home team pitcher leaves the field, umpires check him, fans boo the umpires. It’s actually kind of fun.

I found the Megill episode particularly hilarious, considering his MLB debut came just two days after the new rules went into place; I can’t imagine a dumber decision than a rookie putting Spider Tack on his hat for his debut, the very week rules were introduced to stop him from doing so. But I wonder what would have happened if the umps had found something on Megill. What if they cold busted him right there, ejecting him from the game and assuring he’d be known as the guy nailed for using banned substances in his first-ever MLB game? I bet fans would have still booed the umps. I bet they would have booed them louder.

The new MLB initiative has led to a fresh round of recriminations for “cheating” players, with the league saying it’s trying to clean up the game and pitchers arguing it’s unfair to start banning things, midseason, that have been legal (or at least accepted) throughout the entirety of baseball history. (One pitcher, the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow, explicitly blamed the new rules for his arm injury.) There’s a whole debate to be had about the efficacy of the new rules; whether they’re less about “cheating” and more about trying to assign blame for a strikeout-heavy gameplay that many believe has ossified into something dull and repetitive; and whether it’s necessarily the best idea to antagonize half the players in the league just a few months before a potentially apocalyptic labor struggle. But I suspect the whole idea of “cheating” is a red herring here. Because I don’t think fans care about cheating much at all.

Oh, sure, they claim they do. Baseball’s last big “scandal” revolved around the Houston Astros and their infamous “banging scheme,” which allegedly helped them steal signs from opposing teams. I’m on record as finding that whole thing rather silly — and there’s very little evidence that it even provided the Astros much of an advantage — but it rocked the sport two years ago, and fans will be booing the Astros off the field for the next decade because of it. But it’s worth noting that Astros fans long ago moved on. The same is true of the Patriots’ SpyGate scandal in the NFL, or the Cardinals’ hacking scandal in MLB, or, uh, the Patriots’ Deflategate scandal. Fans of those teams have hardly turned on their franchises; they have circled the wagons to protect them. But fans in Boston, Houston, and St. Louis aren’t inherently less “moral” than anyone else, and it’s not like they’re predisposed to embrace cheaters — however you want to define such a broad term — any more or less. They just love their teams. Maybe the cheating troubles them; maybe they do care a little. But no matter what, they care about their team more. The act of winning is more important than how you get there.

The most illustrative example of this is MLB’s steroid era. The collective wisdom is that when we look back at Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Manny Ramirez (who actually retired rather than face punishment for his second positive PED test), we see villains. But those players’ fan bases don’t. Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco, McGwire was recently elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame, and there isn’t a fan in Boston who doesn’t get a smile on their face when Manny’s name comes up. But it’s not just local fan bases. Fans often decided how angry they were about a player’s supposed “cheating” based on how much they liked the player in the first place. Alex Rodriguez was awkward, unpopular, and overpaid, so when he got caught up in the Biogenesis scandal, Yankees fans couldn’t throw him overboard fast enough. But Andy Pettitte, who (unlike A-Rod or Bonds) actually admitted to his HGH usage, was quickly forgiven, with his “I just tried it that once” defense accepted at face value. Why? Because fans like Andy Pettitte. He may have been a cheater, but he was their cheater. Other examples in this vein include David Ortiz, Bartolo Colon, and Nelson Cruz; NFL examples include Julian Edelman, Will Fuller, and Mark Sanchez, who will be forever known more for his butt fumble than his 2018 PED suspension.

This is not to excuse cheating, though I will note that bending the rules has been an integral part of sports since there were sports, and the idea of some sort of “level” playing field has always been an illusion and a fallacy. (And it’s hardly something limited to professional leagues. I can confirm firsthand that cheating is extremely common in Little League baseball; playing by the rules is a great way to look, to other coaches and parents, like a goddamned sucker.) It’s just that our standards for what counts as cheating, and how much moral outrage we gin up about it, are forever shifting. The only thing that’s consistent is that we want our own teams to win. We’d rather them not cheat. But if they’re going to cheat, we’d rather not know about it. Just don’t get caught. As long as you win.

Do you think Yankees fans are really outraged over the moral turpitude of Gerrit Cole? The ace starter, who is signed to a contract that will pay him $36 million a year through the 2028 season, was specifically fingered as a “sticky stuff” suspect earlier this month. You may remember his response when asked about it. It was … not reassuring.

Cole made his first start last Tuesday since MLB put in the ban on foreign substances, and while he was effective against a poor Kansas City team, it was obvious that his stuff, and his spin rate, was way down. He was quite clearly not the same pitcher.

In his next start, Sunday against the Red Sox, Cole got shelled, giving up five runs in five innings and allowing three homers. His pitches had less bite and movement than in any start over the last several years. Is he a different pitcher in an age of banned substances? Did the Yankees sign him for the next decade without considering that foreign substances were powering his rise?

It sure seems that way. But how do you feel about that? If you hate the Yankees, this is surely hilarious to you: Serves them right. But if you’re a Yankees fan … don’t you wish he was still using the stuff? Wouldn’t you like him to figure out a way to start again? Be honest.

Sports fans claim to dislike cheating. What they really mean is that they dislike when the other team does it. When their favorite player is the offender? Well, they’d rather just not hear about that. This isn’t meant to be an indictment of sports fans. This … well, this makes them just like everybody else.

The Extremely Selective Outrage Around Baseball Cheating