All the way back in April, I wrote about an incident in which A.J. Pierzynski faked being hit by a pitch and went to first base. Rob Neyer called him out for lying his way to first base — cheating — and suggested that baseball ought to have a punishment mechanism to punish players who succeed by lying. It’s worth thinking about, as I wrote: “It’s bush league, it’s unsportsmanlike, it delays the game, and it creates a major moral hazard problem, because it incentivizes every other player to lie.”
So guess who else was incentivized to lie? Derek Jeter. Last night, in the middle of the worst season of his career, Jeter turned away from an inside pitch which glanced off his bat and then brushed his uniform, then hopped away in pain, got checked out by the Yankee trainer, and then went to first base. In the clubhouse afterwards, Jeter admitted the ball hit his bat and he was “acting” for the benefit of the umpire, saying: “I’m not going to tell him, ‘I’m not going to go to first,’ you know? My job is to get on base.” Because he’s Derek Jeter, he has been mostly applauded for his bravado. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose team was victimized on the play, said, “I wish our guys would do the same thing.” ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian said it was brilliant, that whether you called it lying or cheating, Derek Jeter was simply doing his job to get to first base by any means necessary.
But wait a minute. By any means necessary? Haven’t we had to endure a decade’s worth of holier-than-thou sanctimony condemning the notion that “any means” are acceptable? Part of the praise is directed at Jeter because, of course, he’s Derek Jeter. Pierzynski is an unpopular player, so when he lied his way on base, he was called out for it by me and others. When Jeter did it, he was praised by the opposing manager. Jeter’s the kind of guy about whom ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski can write:
Jeter’s name is where I draw the line in the PED sand. He is the absolute last guy I’d ever suspect of juicing. It seems so, well, beneath him. He is the one player who I actually think would walk away from the game if he thought he had to cheat to compete.
Now, of course, we know that Jeter does cheat to compete. Look, I’m not trying to write yet another post complaining about how sportswriters turn their brains off when it comes to Derek Jeter. Instead, I think this illustrates, once again, that the way that we approach the notion of cheating is seriously misguided. The steroid era imparted two valuable lessons: everyone has the incentive to cheat, and unless you cheat with steroids, no one cares. Earlier this season, the Philadelphia Phillies were accused of cheating by stealing signs, and officially warned by Major League Baseball, and the furor died down more or less immediately.
As Bill James recently wrote, breaking the rules may not be the worst thing in the world: “We are not a nation of Hall Monitors; we are a nation that tortures Hall Monitors. We are people who push the rules.” Babe Ruth broke the rules. Everyone breaks the rules. But we should acknowledge that there are rules, and we should agree on what it means to break them. Cheating is when you do something against the rules for your personal gain. Steroids have been banned; so have corked bats, spitballs, emery boards, amphetamines, and outfield telescopes. Lying to an umpire is effectively cheating: it’s trying to take credit for something you didn’t do. And when two players cheat in exactly the same way — like Pierzynski and Jeter, or bat-corkers Babe Ruth and Albert Belle — they should be held to the same standard.
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