Lincicome: Let's be honest, sports fans don't ask for much

  • Umpire Joe West tosses St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt after he complained West made pitcher Giovanny Gallegos switch hats in the seventh inning of a game against the White Sox May 26 at Guaranteed Rate. West said the hat contained a substance that wasn't allowed.

    Umpire Joe West tosses St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt after he complained West made pitcher Giovanny Gallegos switch hats in the seventh inning of a game against the White Sox May 26 at Guaranteed Rate. West said the hat contained a substance that wasn't allowed. Associated Press

 
Updated 6/11/2021 2:40 PM

There is no exact date when baseball lost its innocence or even if it was ever innocent at all. In fact, we can't be sure if any sport we take on faith is not partly fiction.

Baseball is having one of its periodic identity crises, publicly concerned that there is cheating going on.

 

The usual suspects -- corked bats, juiced balls, dead balls, steroids, sign stealing -- have new companions. A show of hands. Who knew what "spin rate" was? Or how it is measured? How about "Spider Tack?"

Major League Baseball, ever alert, is very interested in these things because it has come to its attention that something dishonest is afoot, or more to the point, coming out of a pitcher's hand.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, like Captain Renault in "Casablanca," is shocked, shocked, to find such betrayal. There is cheating going on here. Cheating!

This is not a new occurrence, of course. Pitchers have been doctoring baseballs for years. Vaseline, my favorite, and sunscreen and pine tar and sandpaper and scuffed baseballs, even old-fashioned spit have each taken their turn in the barrel. And yet dozens of pitchers in the Hall of Fame got there by using any or all of the above.

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But an alarm has been raised, so baseball must perk up. It may have taken it 10 years to sort out the performance enhancement enhancers, but it got there, leaving the record book in a shambles and a generation of steroid suspects behind.

When baseball makes a show of being upset that America's pastime may not be entirely on the level, we are expected to applaud. Baseball will do the minimum and we will forgive it for being human.

If there were no rule breakers, there would be no need for rule books. In almost all modern sports cheating is taken for granted. Guilt is assumed and innocence must be verified. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the way of all of modern life, as any airline passenger will tell you.

Where it was once considered admirable to give the other guy a sporting chance, it is now considered weak and pathetic not to exploit every advantage.

Still, we hang on, looking for better angels. And Astros. And Yankees. And Patriots.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sportsmanship is a real thing. Like Justice Potter, we know what it is when we see it. Sports needs referees and umpires to enforce the rules that shouldn't be necessary. It creates penalties for violators and shrugs when they do it any way.

Why should we bother? Who can we trust? Baseball joins a long line of sports regrets. The Kentucky Derby winner was taken down this spring, no fault of the horse, of course, of course.

How many of Tom Brady's Super Bowls were on the level? We must wonder.

Lance Armstrong, maybe the most agonizing of recent deceivers, turned inspiration into humiliation.

Are we witnesses or accomplices? Without us sports is an echo in an empty room. We learned that during the pandemic. This weekend Wrigley Field is allowed to be full again, commerce by invitation.

We remain hopeful because sports have value beyond entertainment, beyond escapism. The lessons of games enrich our lives. We see in the rules of play the necessary order of existence. We witness the cooperation of individuals for the good of all. We understand fair play and civilized competition. We imitate the discipline required to achieve goals.

We continue to believe that the athletes who play games at the highest level have the highest regard for the foundation on which our allegiance is based. We call ourselves fans.

Most athletes suffer the privileges of their talent with aristocratic insolence, accepting wealth and fame as payment for the genetic accident that allows them to throw or run or catch better than the rest of us.

We put up with this and participate in the fantasy that it all matters, that muscle skills and intricate strategies are important, and we reward those who do it best with our affection and our money.

We ask very little in return, except the assurance that the game gives us an honest count.

Good luck with that.

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