King Kaufman’s Sports Daily
Derek Zumsteg, author of "The Cheater's Guide to Baseball," on the "calculated deliciousness" of rules being bent and broken.
Topics: Entertainment News
Derek Zumsteg, Seattle Mariners fan, software designer and, according to his author bio, winner of the 2004 World’s Smartest Human title in 2004, loves a good cheat. That blurb, which appears at the end of his new book, “The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball,” notes that he flimflams at “baseball, football, basketball, golf, poker, and his author bio.”
The “Cheater’s Guide,” which the Los Angeles Times called “cheerfully amoral,” will teach you how to cork a bat, doctor a baseball and steal a sign, but what it’ll really do is give you a history of the underhanded, the illegal and the downright dastardly in baseball, from groundskeeping gamesmanship to the Black Sox scandal, from the hidden-ball trick to the steroids mess.
Zumsteg, 33, is one of the coauthors of the popular Mariners blog U.S.S. Mariner, but it was through a smaller blog for his book that he found himself on the edges of the national spotlight last week.
Zumsteg posted stills from MLB.tv video of Los Angeles Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez that he said showed a white blob on the underside of Rodriguez’s hat brim as he pitched against the Texas Rangers. He noted that before certain pitches, K-Rod rubbed that white spot with his thumb, and then he argued that those pitches showed unusual movement.
Major League Baseball got wind of the charges, said it would investigate, then quickly cleared Rodriguez. “There was nothing to investigate,” Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said discipline czar Bob Watson told him. The Angels had argued that the white spot was just rosin residue, transferred to the cap from K-Rod’s fingers, not vice versa.
“It’s easy for a guy sitting at his desk, watching television, to put pictures on the Internet,” Rodriguez fumed to the L.A. Times. “But I hope he has something better to do than to mess with people. He has no clue what he’s writing about. I don’t even know who he is.”
He’s a guy who lives in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, writes about baseball and is looking for his next gig in the software field. I talked to him by phone Tuesday.
Between the time you and I scheduled this interview and now, you went and got famous with the K-Rod thing. There was some talk that Major League Baseball was going to investigate him, and then they weren’t going to. They were satisfied there was nothing untoward there. What do you think of that?
I think it’s funny. I think this is a case where the league doesn’t want every fan anywhere in the country, every time they see a spot on someone’s uniform, complaining. It would just be chaos. They don’t want to start an investigation over this. There’s a really huge incentive on their part to kind of look at it and go, “Eh, there’s nothing there. This guy’s crazy.”
That said, I was disappointed. I’m not pointing it out to go after K-Rod. I pointed it out because I wrote a book on cheating and I think this stuff is fascinating. But you can see there’s something under his hat brim that’s not supposed to be there. And the argument that it’s rosin just doesn’t wash. You’re not supposed to have a personal stash of rosin under your cap so you can just use it when you’re on the rubber.
You say you’re not going after K-Rod here, but it did seem like you were playing cop a little bit. And what I find interesting is that I think you’re a pretty unabashed admirer of Gaylord Perry.
You write in the beginning of the book, “Everything that’s called cheating is not cheating” and “all cheating is not morally objectionable.” I’m wondering, how do we define cheating, and do we just define it as what the other team does?
[Laughs] That’s an interesting question. I’ll try to answer it in a couple of parts. One is, I would have loved to have the technology available that we have now to look at Gaylord Perry. That’s bad because it would have made Gaylord Perry’s job that much tougher, but I’m fascinated by the lengths that people went to when Gaylord Perry was active to try and figure out where he was stashing stuff, which pitches he’d throw were spitters. I think that comes across in the book.
The question about how we define cheating is another one I explore in the book, and I talk about whether or not, if everybody did it, the game would be irreparably harmed. This is a case where it’s not. In the book there’s an interview with Craig Counsell. He says that as a hitter he doesn’t really mind. If a pitcher’s up there and they’ve got a little pine tar and they’re just using it for grip, it’s not a big deal to him. It’s when they start getting unusual movement that it’s bad.
But even then, if all the pitchers were loading the ball up with a ton of rosin and getting it to do loop-de-loops on the way to the plate, that’s not necessarily evil cheating in the way that, say, game fixing is. We saw before 1921, when the spitball was banned, pitchers threw all kinds of crazy pitches like the emery ball and the shine ball, in addition to the spitball and the tobacco juice ball. The game went on. It was different, and pitchers had a lot of different pitches and trick deliveries that they could use, but baseball as a competitive contest retained its integrity.
Then you get into areas like steroids. Why is steroids cheating but Tommy John surgery is not? Or genetic engineering, or whatever’s next. It does seem to be a movable line.
Yeah, it’s always been a big, big gray area. One of the things that baseball’s going to have to face is the same thing the Olympics have had to face, and every other competitive sport. It’s that the advances in training and medicine technology allow players to do things that they would not be able to do normally, and in some cases you say they’re good, like Tommy John surgery.
But players using HGH [human growth hormone], for instance, is considered performance-enhancing drugs and cheating. But then you’re just replacing the normal level of hormones that decrease over time. That’s clearly a little strange. If a baseball player could stay at age 27 for a whole life, or even younger than that, and then just grow wiser as their body never aged, you’d have the greatest crop of immortal baseball players ever. And that really unsettles people in a very understandable way.
And at the same time, you look at creatine. Creatine’s a great example of that. Players use creatine to build up great twitch muscles. Raw strength. How fast can you swing the bat. You could get as much creatine as you get in a supplement by eating many, many pounds of meat every day. So you could do it naturally, but it’s much easier in a supplement. Does that make creatine an unacceptable performance-enhancing drug? For some people the answer’s going to be yes. Clearly the FDA and baseball have drawn a line.
You devote a large section of the book to “the underhanded but not illegal.” It’s about a third of the book. You talk about groundskeeping and stealing signs, that sort of thing. Is that what you meant by not all cheating is illegal? We talk about “cheating” when the shortstop moves closer to the bag.
Groundskeeping is a great example of this. The rule book lays out the dimensions of the field and says the pitching mound has to be this high and this large, and within the parameters that the rule book sets for the field, you’re allowed to go nuts.
Maury Wills provides a great example. When he was in his prime and stealing bases like crazy, teams would water the base paths, they would put sand out there so he couldn’t get a good jump, they’d do anything they could to make it harder for Maury Wills to run. Then at home, the Dodgers were rolling the first to second base line with a bulldozer to compact the earth. So you sort of get an unfair advantage, right? They’re using their control of the home field to help or hinder a specific player in a way that’s not part of level competition. It takes something away from “Is this team more athletically talented than this other team.”
But groundskeeping is awesome! It’s an amazingly cool way that teams build a home field advantage, in the case of teams that do a super-good job of it. You hear tales of the Bossards in Cleveland [in the mid-20th century] setting up the field in order to take advantage of the opposing team’s weaknesses on an almost game-by-game basis; that’s really cool, and it’s a storied part of baseball.
Why do you think baseball, in this corporate era, hasn’t followed the NFL’s lead, the No. 1 sport, and said, “No, it has to be uniform, and we’re going to have surveyors making sure the baselines are flat”?
I think part of it goes to baseball’s long history of uniqueness. Fenway plays much differently than PNC Park. Yankee Stadium plays different than Dodger Stadium. So teams are able to have a personality. Like the Dodgers are said to be built on pitching and defense, but Colorado has had problems ever since their inception with solving how you play in that field.
Umpires are tasked with enforcing rules like that. They’re supposed to measure the mound a certain number of times each year and make sure the field is playable. In reality, the umpires don’t really care if bunts always roll foul, or always stay fair, because it’s just part of the game.
I think that adds a calculated deliciousness to the game, and I think baseball doesn’t want to mess with that. I think if something was entirely egregious, like if you built a spiked trap in center field to get Ichiro, then baseball would step in and do more enforcement. But as long as it’s largely within the rules, baseball wants to preserve that part of its personality.
You give their own chapters to Gaylord Perry and Billy Martin, whom you call the cheater’s cheater. Is there anybody today who stands out to you, aside from K-Rod last week, as the consummate cheater?
No. I know that’s a depressing answer.
Is it a dying art?
Yeah, I think there’s a lull in it. Video has made it so much more difficult to get away with cheating. I think we also don’t have the kind of, for lack of a better term, rules warriors. Guys like Paul Richards and Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog. Guys who knew the rules inside and out, to the point where they would do things like, “Hey, I’m going to start five first basemen and then do a bizarre substitution routine in the bottom of the first.” There’s no one who does that kind of crazy, loopy stuff.
And I think that’s also in part due to the vastly increased media pressure. There’s a huge, huge incentive for managers to manage in the most by-the-book, conservative manner possible.
Managing has become so conservative that we don’t see the kind of rules innovation we saw under a guy like Billy Martin, who would spend most of his off time drinking and considering how other managers were going to cheat and get the best of him, and then he would go use those tactics to get them first.
Is there a next great frontier of cheating in baseball?
I think there are many great frontiers in cheating. Video makes a lot of this much harder, but I think you can be like the Allies cracking the Enigma code. You can have a bunch of production interns taping the visitors dugout and the coaches and then just running this entire thing that says, “Hey, every time the third base coach touches the left side of his chest and then wipes downward, they attempt to steal.” And then hand that information to the manager.
Part of that is managers just don’t want to do that, because it’s just not sporting. But the incentives for an extra win on the books are so, so huge. If you read fiscal analysis of how much revenue a win returns to a team, it’s easily $1 million, even for the worst teams. That teams wouldn’t be trying that kind of stuff is a little surprising.
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