Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball

book jacket The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball by Derek Zumsteg. I loved this book. How can you not love a book that promises to teach you how to “hurl a spitball, cork a bat, steal signs and throw a world series?” And Zumsteg actually carries out on his promise and shows you how to cheat in these and many other nefarious ways. But it’s all in good fun. Honest. Really.

Zumsteg, who writes for Baseball Prospectus, believes that cheating is what made baseball the game we have today. He argues that over the game’s long history, cheating has compelled the authorities to write new rules, change existing rules, and otherwise adapt to create the wonderfully complex, compelling game that we have today. As a former Boy Scout I’m not sure I buy this. Cheating is cheating. Still Zumsteg’s presents a hilarious history of the game through the rules and those who tried to circumvent them.

My favorite example of his theory is physical contact on the base paths. Now, originally, baseball was not envisioned as a full body contact sport. However, the fact that there was only one umpire on the diamond encouraged some players to trip, hit, or otherwise impedes base runners.

When it came to such physical contact the 1890’s Orioles and Reds were the teams to watch. In one game “Harry Vaughn, the Reds first baseman, is blocked by McGraw [the Orioles first baseman and manager] as he tries to round third and go home. McGraw uses both arms to restrain Vaughn at his neck, but Vaughn escapes and scores. McGraw later spikes Vaughn in a play at first base. The two exchange words, and when McGraw walks to the dugout, Vaughn throws the ball at him and hits him squarely in the back.” Now many people would simply take home the lesson that turning your back on the opponent is potentially painful and should be avoided. The baseball powers-that-be decided to add additional umpires.

The Cheater’s Guide is broken into chapters covering the history of doctoring the ball, corking the bat, stealing signs, and creative groundskeeping. The last two chapters deal with gambling and steroid abuse and are the only two chapters devoid of any humor.

Zumsteg reserves his vitriol for these two crimes because, in the case of gambling, the game is rigged from the beginning and “if the outcome has already been determined, it’s all pointless. [The fans] might as well take their entertainment dollars and check out what’s playing at the community theater.” As for steroids, “no one would say that an athlete who spends his career honing his skills to reach the highest levels of competition should then be told that he can either take a devil’s cocktail of drugs to keep moving up or remain clean and fail.”

Regardless of whether you were a Boy Scout, you’ll find The Cheater’s Guide funny and a little thought provoking. Honest.

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