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Lying a sport unto itself


We all know the physical tics or poker "tells" that suggest a person is lying. The liar habitually looks to the left, or covers his mouth to cough, or scratches his nose. If that nose also grows 12 inches and sprouts a trembling leaf, there's a high probability that at least some of what he's saying is not entirely true.

In sports, there are similar tics or "tells" or subtle signs that a person is lying. That person is promoting a boxing match, for instance, or testifying in a Congressional steroid hearing. He may be wearing a neck brace and a Razorbacks hat while describing his solo misadventure on a motorcycle. Perhaps he is trying to sell you his Charlotte Bobcat tickets at face value, or laughing politely at one of your golf jokes.

If he's Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and he has just drilled Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels -- shortly after Hamels drilled Nats rookie sensation Bryce Harper -- then he is saying the errant pitch was an accident. "I was trying to go away," Zimmermann told the Washington Post, while coughing, looking to the left and scratching his nose-leaf. "And I cut a fastball really, really bad and hit [Hamels] in the knee." At which time Zimmermann's uniform pants burst into flames, and suspended themselves from a telephone wire.

Nobody believes what Zimmermann said, least of all Zimmermann. But neither is anyone expected to. We all know the context and recognize the tells. And so what? These are the harmless lies that grease the gears that spin the globe. If you ask someone how he's doing, and he says anything other than "fine," you sigh, brace yourself for a detailed recounting of his latest surgery and resent his honest answer to your empty question. Who wants to live in a world of absolute truth telling?

White lies -- "Your call is important to us"; "We appreciate you flying with us"; "I'd love to but I have a thing on Tuesday" -- sand down the sharp corners of reality. In sports, coaches get a vote of confidence before they're fired, athletes express a desire to spend more time with their family before spending more time with their golf clubs, and men who coach the Miami Dolphins categorically rule out coaching the University of Alabama immediately before coaching the University of Alabama.

Diogenes set off with his lamp in search of an honest man. Journalists ask questions. Some questions, however, have no expectation of a truthful answer: "Does this dress make me look fat?" is the obvious one from everyday life, but sports are full of these interrogative dead-ends: "Which of your players is injured, Coach Belichick?" "Was there any way of avoiding that incident, Mr. World Peace?" "What makes you tick, Tiger?"

One of these questions has always been: "Were you throwing at that batter intentionally?"

When Cole Hamels admitted that he hit Bryce Harper on purpose on Sunday night, he was suspended not for the act itself but for his astounding frankness. By answering in the affirmative, he told an unnecessary truth that upset the natural order. If everyone answered as Hamels did, honesty would beget anarchy.

Imagine a sports world on sodium pentothal. Much of it would be refreshing. The Giants would have to acknowledge that they are indeed looking past their game against the Colts, a team they regard lightly. Owners would announce that failure to publicly finance a new stadium would leave them little choice but to build a new stadium themselves -- or better yet to remain in the old place. Baseball announcers would concede that viewers may do whatever they like with the accounts and descriptions of tonight's game, with or without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.

But many of these truths would be needlessly deflating. Your "personal seat license" would suddenly become a "stupidity tax." Student-athletes instantly turn into . . . athletes. Every October, the champions of the American and National Leagues meet in the United States-Plus-A-Bit-Of-Ontario Series.

Deep inside, we want members of the Miami Heat to say, upon winning the NBA title, "Nobody thought we could do this!" It's better than the more honest and far more prosaic: "Everyone believed in us, and we have proved them right!"

Mostly, we need the sheen of civility that lying provides. Polite society demands situational dishonesty. No one believes the cable guy will be there between noon and 2 -- least of all the cable guy. But we hold tight to the illusion like it's Linus's blanket. The lie gives us hope where none is warranted.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel understood all of this when he said of Hamels: "I wish he'd been a little bit more, what do you call it, not-so-honest, or dishonest, or discreet, that might be the right word."

Put another way: We know you hit him on purpose. He knows you hit him on purpose. But don't ever say you hit him on purpose. Lying would have set you free. The truth will get you suspended.