Our Cheatin' Hearts

July 13, 2003

Few men are more reviled in America than those who cheat at
sports. Bill Clinton cheated at golf and on his wife, but the
former sin lingers long after the latter has been forgiven. Thus
the lesson would seem to be, If you find yourself behind a tree,
illicitly stroking something with dimples, it had better not be a
Titleist.

The only sure things in life, we're told, are death and taxes.
But we read every day about people who cheat death. And for that
matter, we read every day about people who cheat on their taxes.
Some, like Darryl Strawberry, manage to do both. So it might be
more accurate to say that the only sure thing in life is
cheating.

It is certainly the case in sports. Cheating is to baseball as
Bernoulli's principle is to fixed-wing aircraft: the invisible
constant that keeps everything aloft. Hitters erase the back line
of the batter's box; catchers "frame" pitches to induce called
strikes; infielders occupy a different congressional district
from second base when turning a double play; sluggers juice up on
steroids till their forearm veins resemble bridge cables; and
outfielders pretend that a one-hopper was in fact caught on the
fly, holding up the baseball to the umpire like a prized tomato
in a produce aisle.

"Cheating is baseball's oldest profession," wrote Thomas Boswell.
"No other game is so rich in skulduggery, so suited to it or so
proud of it." The game's greatest moment--the Shot Heard Round
the World--was allegedly authored by a batter, Bobby Thomson, who
knew precisely what pitch was coming, his Giants having employed
a spy to steal the catcher's signs from centerfield.

And so you might have thought that Sammy Sosa's corked bat would
likewise have been winked at--just another joke, the Rimshot
Heard Round the World. So why was the Chicago Cubs' rightfielder,
instead, all but arraigned before the international war crimes
tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands?

"Because they're hypocrites," former big league slugger Jose
Canseco said of Sosa's critics, in a recent moment of lucidity.
"The way they came down on him was just ridiculous. You don't
talk about taking away his Hall of Fame credentials, taking away
all the home runs he's hit. That is malicious, outright mean. How
could you even say that over one corked bat?"

Corking isn't even the most egregious equipment modification in
baseball, much less sports, as any pitcher who has loaded a
loogie onto his fastball can attest. Gaylord Perry knows KY ain't
just the postal code for Kentucky. Whitey Ford said he took an
entire toolbox to the mound. Former journeyman pitcher George
Frazier denied ever having applied foreign substances to a
baseball. (He preferred, he said, domestic substances.)

To decry this cheating is to deny Bernoulli: It is to look
down--like Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff--and fall. In
sports suspended disbelief is all that keeps us ... suspended.
Which is to say we want our athletes to cheat, we need our
athletes to cheat: an offensive lineman with a fistful of jersey,
a basketball center stealing the jump ball, U.S. women's World
Cup goalkeeper Briana Scurry leaving her line to make the
tournament-preserving save of a penalty kick in 1999. "When I
consider life, 'tis all a cheat/Yet, fooled with hope, men favour
the deceit."

That's Dryden. The English poet John, not the Canadiens' goalie
Ken, though hockey players--now that you mention it--do illegally
doctor their own equipment, curving their sticks in a manner far
more advantageous to them than corking is to a hitter. According
to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Brett Hull can be seen in a 1998
NHL documentary shouting down the bench at his equipment manager,
"I need my legal stick! I need my legal stick!"

The most extreme equipment modification in sports history? Dr.
Richard Raskind's becoming women's professional tennis player
Renee Richards (and suing for the right to play in the U.S.
Open). It makes golf's current controversy over nonconforming
drivers (page 66) seem comparatively rinky-dink.

What is cheating, and who's to say? The New England Patriots, in
1982, had one swath of their field snowplowed (by a parolee on
work furlough), helping them to kick a fourth-quarter field goal
in a 3-0 win over the Miami Dolphins. It was the first time that
a leveling of the playing field had exactly the opposite effect.

Speaking of New England: In Boston a cheater is a spotted cat,
while a cheetah is Rosie Ruiz, who in 1980 "won" the Boston
Marathon without running it. Which proved that people will do
anything to win, including--gasp!--nothing. As former Minnesota
governor Jesse (the Body) Ventura once said, "Win if you can,
lose if you must, but always cheat."

While he was still in office, I played golf with Ventura, and
twice during the round, citing "executive privilege," he took a
mulligan. Once, he fluffed up the grass beneath his ball and
announced, invoking Caddyshack, "I'm improving my lie like Judge
Smales."

Ventura had come from pro wrestling, where there are no rules and
where cheating is thus impossible. Which makes it, come to that,
the most honest racket in all of sports.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

If you find yourself behind a tree, illicitly stroking something
with dimples, it better not be a Titleist.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)