Three Base Hit: Cheating in Baseball, The Asterisk, and a 2020 Subway Series

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In his classic book, Nice Guys Finish Last, Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher describes how he used to file his uniform belt buckle to a razor’s edge.

Then, when he’d visit the mound to speak to his pitcher at a key moment, he’d take the ball from the hurler and rub it in his hands while he discussed his desired strategy. When the mound visit was complete, Leo would hand the ball back to his pitcher and say “it’s on the bottom, buddy,” before returning to the dugout. A little extra movement on a fastball thanks to Leo’s scuff? Durocher viewed that as gaining an edge anywhere he could. Or was it cheating?

The Lip managed three teams to the World Series, winning one. He was also the shortstop and captain of the St. Louis Cardinals’ beloved Gas House Gang, World Series winners of 1934.

In the late-1950’s, journeyman long reliever Jim Brosnan wrote The Long Season, the first diary-approach to a year in baseball. The narrative takes place as Brosnan toils through the 1959 baseball season, first with the Cardinals, and then after being traded midyear, as a member of the Reds.

Among many tales, Brosnan tells of running into his old pal Ernie Broglio under the stands prior to a Cardinals-Reds matchup. Brosnan and Broglio, teammates and fellow Cardinals pitchers earlier that season, embrace and then make a pact that they’d only throw each other meaty fastballs when they batted against each other that afternoon. Cheating the game, or old fashioned baseball rhetoric (Brosnan does admit that when he first came to the plate that day, Broglio was scuffling and all Brosnan saw from his old friend were nasty curve balls)?

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Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, chronicling his time as a reliever with the expansion Seattle Pilots during the 1969 season. In it, he shares stories from his days raising hell with Mickey Mantle and the gang as a Yankee in the early-’60’s, which earned him pariah status around the league once the book was public.

Much of Bouton’s tome takes place during the lazy hours spent lounging in the Seattle bullpen, where the reader gets a glimpse into the mundane, often hilarious goings on of professional ballplayers. During one middle-innings conversation, Bouton reports how Diego Segui retires the side with the aid of a spitball, and that the consensus among the Pilots relief corps was that Segui had retired the hitter with a “good pitch.

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Spit balls, or baseballs doctored in any fashion, are against the rules of MLB. Yet Gaylord Perry achieved legendary status as “crafty veteran” in large part due to his reputation for applying foreign substances to baseballs over the course of his Hall of Fame career. In other words, this 300-game winner’s most noteworthy characteristic upon induction into Cooperstown was being a cheater.

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Toward the end of the 1973 season, Henry Aaron was zeroing in on Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 career home runs. A New York reporter asked the ever-quotable Tug McGraw how he would feel if he were on the mound with Aaron one homer away from immortality. McGraw’s too-honest answer was that it might be kinda cool to just “groove one for history.”

That answer earned Tugger a meeting with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to ensure that no such grooving would take place should McGraw and Hammerin’ Hank face off with history at stake. Kuhn was concerned about protecting the “integrity of the game.”

Now before everyone gets all worked up, this is not a lead-in to excusing the Houston Astros’ sign stealing scandal that is sucking up all of the air in Florida and Arizona as pitchers and catchers report to camp. However, I do have a question. Would we all be this exercised over Houston’s cheating if they’d done a better job of accepting their blame and doing a legit mea culpa for their sins as an organization?

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It seems to me that Houston’s organizational jack-assery is adding gas to this dumpster fire every day. Owner Jim Crane’s much-maligned press conference the other day being the rotten cherry added to the top of this shit-sundae for the team that is now easily the most despised in all of professional sports.

But it goes beyond the tone-deaf Crane. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and other Astros stars behaved like entitled and over-privileged frat boys throughout their now tainted World Series run of 2017. They only built upon that arrogance over these past two seasons, culminating in a run that came perilously to a second tarnished World Series victory in 2019. After denying and ignoring all charges these last few months, their hollow apologies today come off as scripted and insincere.

And now the baseball world is free to react with enraged impunity, leading to daily doses of vitriol heading in the direction of southeast Texas from every corner of the league. From the sounds of it, Houston is the only franchise that’s ever done anything illegal to influence on-field success. Or so it seems, based on the reactions coming from the training camps of their rivals.

But with one colossal misstep closely following another, Houston certainly has shown their moral compass is far more broken than any other franchise, perhaps in the history of the sport. Thus the beatings will continue.

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Like many baseball fans, I’ve now added Cody Bellinger to my list of favorite players, not because of his five-tool skillset that earned him the MVP last year, but because of his eloquent blistering of the Astros and the sainted Altuve when asked about Houston’s scandal the other day.

However, a couple of lockers down from Bellinger stood Justin Turner, the clubhouse leader of the outstanding Dodger clubs that have consistently fallen short of a title these last few years, most notably at the hands of the caught-cheating Astros in 2017.

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All Mets fans remember Turner as a light-hitting utility man during his time in Queens, who we now see putting up power numbers nobody in their right mind could have envisioned if you saw him perform early in his career.

That Turner is thirty pounds of muscle heavier today than he was as a Met rarely gets called into question. Yeah, maybe his discovery of a power stroke and the accompanying tens of millions of dollars in compensation he’s earned as a result, were truly because he was taught to uppercut the baseball by former Mets teammate Marlon Byrd. The same Marlon Byrd who, drumroll please, was suspended for steroid use in the very year he took Turner under his wing and helped him retool his swing. Hmmm…

So what do we do? As fans, the easy thing to do is sit back and enjoy this disastrous public relations ride the Astros are suffering through, and revel as they make bigger asses out of themselves with every choked response to a question about the sign stealing scandal. We can look forward to beanballs heading in their direction, knowing every team on the Houston schedule will approach even the most meaningless, dog days of August matchup as though it were Game 7 of the World Series.

But is it worth crying to the heavens hoping for Houston’s ill-gained 2017 World Series title to be vacated? No, because it’s just not going to happen. Remember, this is the league that juiced its baseballs to absurd levels a year ago, and denied it was happening all season long, despite their own players complaining about the alarming number of homers being allowed. Meanwhile, even the most casual fans among us shook their heads over seeing routine fly balls carry out of every ballpark with sickening regularity.

Will Commissioner Rob Manfred go back and bend to the public outcry and start suspending the Astros players implicated in the scandal? Of course he won’t. That question falls into the “asked and answered” basket, the primary reason being that Manfred wants nothing to do with such an ugly can of worms.

I mean, how would he handle issues such as the Astros’ late-season call-ups in 2017? Or the Astros pitchers? Or those that simply swear they weren’t a part of it? Not to mention that painfully obvious video of Altuve warning his teammates not to strip his shirt off after his ALCS-ending walk-off homer back in October. A promise to his wife? Or was it an unfinished tattoo? Or both, sure, that makes sense. Oy vey.

Nope, there won’t be suspensions, so your best bet is to just enjoy the “punishment” of Houston’s public scorn as Altuve, Bregman, Correa and others continue to prattle on about “moving forward” while their peers around the league take shots at their integrity and manhood, and denigrate every accomplishment earned by the Astros clubs of the past three seasons.

What about an asterisk on that 2017 World Series title if MLB is unwilling to expunge, you say? Wellllll…

That leads us to part two of this MLB Three Base Hit.

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Growing up, the numbers 714 and 60 were sacred to me as a fan of our National Pastime. Because they were The Babe’s numbers. Baseball started to matter to me during the 1970 season, one year too late to partake in the Miracle Mets 1969 title, but with most of those Amazin’ heroes still on the Shea Stadium field every day.

Only nine years prior to me beginning a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball, a power-hitting outfielder had caught fire in the Bronx and hit 61 home runs to eclipse The Babe’s single-season home run mark. Roger Maris won his second consecutive MVP following that 1961 campaign, and his career-defining achievement in the area of home run hitting was rewarded with its very own asterisk in the official MLB record book.

Why? Because Maris’ home run record had been set during a 162-game season, while Ruth had established his standard when the regular season concluded at 154 games.

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I would argue that the only reason I know what an asterisk is today, is because of that decision made back in 1961 by MLB Commissioner Ford Frick. We can debate all day long if Frick’s decision would have been the same if Maris’ more popular teammate (and home grown Yankees hero) Mickey Mantle had been the one to top The Babe, but Mantle ended the year with 54 round-trippers, and Roger Maris became the new, asterisk-attached, home run king.

One of the cooler baseball debates that raged throughout my formative years, into my teens and the decade of my twenties, was whether Maris’ accomplishment deserved that asterisk. Then a funny thing happened to baseball and many of its most hallowed records following the strike-shortened 1994 season. Several of the game’s biggest stars returned to the field noticeably bigger, and with homers flying off their bats at a record pace.

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We smiled and rejoiced in the goodwill created by the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa chase to 61 dingers in 1998, and were touched when McGwire celebrated with his young son when Maris’ record came down. Maris’ family was even flown in to see the record fall, and baseball reaped all the PR rewards of the feel good story. But this one didn’t end well. Sixty dingers became the new forty, and other unnaturally large sluggers began to take aim at what once was a legendary level of home run hitting, considered by many unlikely to ever be reached again.

We all know where this one ended up, with a jealous Barry Bonds deciding to juice his already superior skills in an effort to surpass Big Mac, Sosa, and all the others who’d turned the ’90’s into a full on Home Run Derby.

So now I suppose the single season HR record is 73? I could look it up to confirm, but I’m really not that interested anymore. Because the number, whatever it is, is tainted, just like Bonds career home run record total of 762 is tainted. You can’t find many baseball fans outside of the Bay Area that feel good about either of those records today.

And nobody talks about Maris’ asterisk anymore either.

Bonds and his steroid-cheat brethren remain on the outside of the Hall of Fame looking in (at least for now), and there is some satisfaction in that, but there are no asterisks on any of the steroid-enhanced records. And there won’t be. In fact, in time Bonds and fellow cheat Roger Clemens will likely take their place in Cooperstown (SportsAttic aside — will their Hall of Fame busts have sculpted, oversized heads in honor of how they finished their baseball careers?), and the game will go on.

Just like the 2017 World Series champion will continue to be listed as the Houston Astros. No asterisk, no vacating the title, just acknowledgement that it happened, while MLB plays the long game waiting for its fans to “move forward.” Sound familiar? It should, because “move forward” is what everyone in Houston is asking us to do right now during those painfully staged, over-rehearsed press conferences on the sign stealing scandal.

And will we move forward? Yeah, we will, because we are baseball fans, and today’s scandal will become tomorrow’s folklore (Shoeless Joe Jackson, anyone?). Why does it happen that way? Three words:

Pitchers and catchers.

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And that’s where we will end today’s MLB Three Base Hit segment.

The ballplayers are back in camp. For this Mets fan, Agee, Seaver, Harrelson and Koosman have been replaced by Alonso, deGrom, Conforto and Syndergaard. But that orange, interlocked NY insignia on the royal blue cap remains the same as the one I fell for back in 1970. And I’ll be there at Shea (yeah, I know, but I still call it Shea) when the Mets take the field at the end of March for our 2020 home opener.

Right now, in February, baseball fan optimism is at its most delightfully illogical zenith. Especially in New York City, where one set of fans is already parade-planning, after stealing (no pun intended) the AL’s best pitcher from those cheating bastards down in Houston (guess what folks, Gerrit Cole had no idea about any of this sign stealing stuff, because, you know, he’s a pitcher, and, you know, didn’t get to Houston until 2018, and, and, and…).

And as if Yankees fans needed more reasons to smile, their arch-rivals up in Boston just traded their best player to the Dodgers, and appear to be in a level of disarray usually associated with the other New York baseball club.

What of that other New York franchise, you ask? Well, here in mid-February there is really only one reasonable conclusion to be drawn about the blue and orange. And that is that the Mets will be representing the Senior Circuit in the 2020 World Series, where they will take down the Bronx Bombers, evening the all-time ledger in Subway Series between the two clubs at one apiece.

Sure, I’m an unapologetic homer, but this isn’t as preposterously far-fetched (remember, February is the month of unreasonable optimism) as it may appear at first blush. The Mets are loaded with talent. Probably the best every day lineup they’ve put on the field since that cheating demon, Carlos Beltran, watched strike three go by with his bat on his shoulder to end our 2006 title dream. On paper, the bullpen could actually be one of the NL’s best (I know, cue the laugh track), if only their top relievers bounce back after horrendous years a season ago (the way relievers sometimes do, I might add).

But it is the starting rotation that makes the New York Mets the team nobody will want to face come October, just like the Washington Nationals were last fall. In fact, while everyone is rushing to anoint the Dodgers as the only team capable of possibly derailing title number 28 up in the Bronx, can anyone really take a hardline stance against a Mets team that will throw deGrom and Syndergaard for four starts in any seven-game series?

Yes, they are still the Mets, so all of these projections must be made through the lens of “if something shitty is bound to happen, well, it probably will” (wild boar chases star outfielder? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up), but if you took the Mets collection of talent and inserted it onto any other run of the mill ball club’s roster, say the Orioles or the Padres as an example, wouldn’t you have to view them as title contenders?

Put it in the books, folks. Your 2020 World Series will conclude with Jacob deGrom taking down Cole in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, and the Mets will raise their championship trophy while celebrating on their crosstown rival’s infield.

Play Ball!

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