A culture of cheating has always been present in the game we love.
Gaylord Perry was lauded, celebrated, and rewarded for his genius at sliming his pitches.
Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” in 1951 came in part because his coaches had developed a system to steal signs from the opposition at The Polo Grounds.
A short list of players proven to have “corked” their bat includes Norm Cash, Craig Nettles and Sammy Sosa.
Sosa leads us to the predominant cheating methodology. Performance enhancing drugs loom over the record book, and even the current standings in the National League West.
Melky Cabrera’s 50-game suspension this week brought baseball’s cheating culture back to the conversational fore. Cabrera had been a serviceable pro, until greatly improving last season in Kansas City. This year he’s a star in San Francisco, and may still win the batting title.
His ascension to excellence is now insidious.
I believe people can change. I believe athletes can improve. My favorite players, in all sports, are those who recognize their weaknesses and attack them with success.
I believe a hitter can grow up; he can mature, tending to his craft with unprecedented vigor. He can incorporate new ideas, utilizing the wisdom and personality mesh he may have luckily found with a good hitting coach.
But having an open mind to that is getting increasingly difficult. Lazy, knee-jerk cynicism gets rewarded, time and again.
I’ve always been angry at steroids.
I’m angry at the damage they have done to my baseball conversations. Comparing players from era to era is always tricky, but never more so since the slugging bulked up, injected and exploded. The record book is a frustrating, complicated mess.
This week’s Cabrera news made me realize how my anger has metastasized. The mid or late career improvements I love to celebrate are doubted with loud ferocity. A.J. Pierzynski is having a career year at 35? Start the whispers. Curtis Granderson has turned into a straight up slugger in the Bronx? Millions quickly assume the worst.
I personally think both of those men have worked hard, gotten smarter, changed their focus as hitters and deserve their successes.
But if you stand up and scream that they must be juicing, how can any of us stop you dead in your tracks?
It’s downright sad.
The sins of recent decades mean that there are certain to be men now wrongly accused. They are the collateral damage of what McGwire, Bonds, and others have wrought.
So we struggle to assimilate this pervasive doubt into our love of the game. How do I continue to feed a passionate lifelong affair when it is now imbued with understandable mistrust?
Here’s what we do: We don’t turn a blind eye.
But we don’t simply give in and assume the worst either. We learn to credit the improvement, and admit to the darker possibilities.
Dissect individual situations, patiently. Granderson worked with N.Y. coach Kevin Long to open his stance, move his hands back and keep those hands on the bat longer. Is there some needle or a cream? Maybe. But don’t dare deny the former.
Pierzynski always was caught between hitting for average or for power. He’s made his choice clear this year, and has had some good luck with a consistent flyball rate as well.
I will continue to believe in the possibilities of pure improvement, and firmly fight dismissive closed-mindedness.
But players have to understand the difficult position their colleagues have put us in.
Love affairs are just not simple. And they never were.
Ÿ Matt Spiegel co-hosts “The McNeil & Spiegel Show” 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday on WSCR 670-AM, and The Score’s “Hit and Run” at 9 a.m. Sundays with his Daily Herald colleague, Barry Rozner. Follow him on Twitter @mattspiegel670Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.