The baseball world was rocked by scandal last week, when a complex tech infused cheating scheme by the Houston Astros was revealed. The MLB dealt one of it’s harshest penalties ever, suspending the Astros manager and GM, fining them $5 million, and docking several first round picks. The scandal ricocheted around the league, first to the Boston Red Sox and then the New York Mets, who’s managers Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran were both heavily involved in the scheme during their time in Houston in 2017. Twitter exploded overnight, with players and former players taking to burned accounts to snitch on each other, with fans and observers left unable to figure out what’s real and what’s just petty gossip.
The fact is that cheating is a fundamental part of baseball, despite what the MLB machine and it’s holier-than-thou pontification about tradition and the integrity of the game might lead you to believe. Boomer journalists and aggrieved former players love to get on their high horse and use baseball as some fucked up metaphor for the “American Dream. ” Yet they conveniently forget about the countless cheating scandals that basically rock the sport every 15 years.
Whether it was 50+ years of segregation, spitballs, ‘greenies’ (literally meth) in the 1960s and 70s, steroids in the 80s, HGH in the 90s, adderall and amphetamines in the current generation, people have been cheating at baseball as long it has been our ‘national pastime’. Cheating at baseball is as much of an institution in American as apple pie.
In the past 15 years or so baseball has lost much popularity, especially among younger generations. There are many factors at play, from the perceived slowness of the game to the rise of the NBA and NFL, that try to explain the phenomenon. But what’s becoming apparent is that baseballs place as an American institution is sitting on precarious ground.
With the MLB reeling, and the long term efficacy of baseball already a hot topic, I have five proposals that are guaranteed to save baseball and make it a more entertaining and viable sport for centuries to come.
Can anyone think of a better time for major league baseball in the last 30 years than the epic summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa dueled for the home run title? McGwire finished with 70 bombs and Sosa with 66, both breaking Roger Maris’ record of 61, a record that stood for 37 years. It was a romantic and exciting time for the MLB, which we now know, in retrospect, was fueled largely by steroids and PEDs. Look. It’s no secret pro athletes have been doping since time immemorial. As long there was a game to play, eventually somebody has tried to cheat in order to win.
Frankly, I don’t understand why the MLB is continuing to fight it PEDs and doping. By banning PEDs they have watered down their product immensely, and their popularity has clearly suffered as a result. Aggregate power numbers (HR, slugging %, RBI) are down at their lowest numbers since 1992. Whether this is a result of being in a golden age of dominant starting pitching, or there has been a marked reduction as a consequence of the PED crackdown is up for debate. What is clear is that ballpark attendance is down, TV viewership is down, and most importantly, youth participation is hemorrhaging to more exciting sports like lacrosse and soccer.
Self-righteous baseball purists will claim this shift is good for the game. They will point to increased strikeout numbers as a signal that the game is moving towards a more pitcher dominated style. However ERA, runs per game, and batting average aggregates are up, leading me to believe we aren’t in a golden era of pitching; we are in the second deadball era of baseball. Players haven’t gotten any worse at hitting; in fact they have got better. What has gone away is pop. Hitters just can’t put the ball out of the ballpark or hit with power. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good pitchers duel as much as the next guy. However pitchers duels are boring as shit to watch unless you have an appreciation for the subtle nuances of pitching. For the casual fan, which constitutes most of the people paying for and enjoying games, games become borderline unwatchable. And as much as the purists hate to admit it, the casual fan is what separates the MLB from the MLS.
The moment steroids are legalized, that pop comes back. The games become exciting and watchable again. The casual fan is once again engaged. People start caring about non-October baseball again. The youth is energized. Revenue is up. The league is healthy. Sure, steroids are unhealthy. And possibly illegal. However players continue to do it, despite the known health, legal, and career risks that go along with it. The MLBs policy of steroid deterrence is dubious at best and perpetuates the competitive environment they were trying to avoid in the first place. Because of the ban, doping is now an arms race. Those who can afford the most expensive treatments that will evade testing will come out on top not because of their skill on the field, but because the resources they have off of the field. In this regard, the ban creates a class of doping have and have-nots, which is precisely what the ban is intended to prevent. Instead, by opening the door to legalized doping, everyone is actually on a level playing field instead of a theoretical one.
Of course, there would still have to be a list of banned substances. However this list would be constructed strictly to protect the health of the player; the on-field implications and ‘fairness of play’ considerations would not be part of the calculus in determining what goes on the banned list. As long as the drug, substance, or treatment has been proven not to have dangerous effects on long-term health, it would be legal. This means rigorous scientific and medical trials. There would need to be a nonpartisan, independent panel of doctors, trainers, and health experts that would construct the banned substances list. One shortfall of the status quo is the relatively lax punishments that go with testing positive for banned substances. A couple games suspension and loss of game checks is peanuts compared to the long term potential for money that doping might bring. Were PEDs to become legal, the punishment for using substances on the banned list would engender an automatic 1 year ban for first time offenders and a lifetime ban for subsequent offenses. This leeway being given to players is substantial, and the consequences for abusing it must be an actual deterrent, rather than the slap on the wrist that is doled out currently.
Legalizing All Cheating… with a Caveat
The latest tech-infused cheating scandal is a little bit different than the other myriad baseball scandals, in that it was happening in real time. These would only be possible thanks to technology, and frankly I am impressed by the creativity and commitment on the part of the offenders. I propose that all cheating of this kind be legalized, as long as you can get away with it.
Here’s the caveat. You can cheat as much as you want, using any means necessary. But the other team is allowed to call you out on it in the game. If a manager suspects the other team of cheating he can stop the game for an official review, where a designated Cheating Umpire will review his case. If the other team is caught cheating, they automatically lose the game in forfeit. However if they aren’t cheating, the accusing managers team forfeits.
This will introduce a whole new dimension of cheating strategy. For example, if your team is up 8 runs in the 9th inning, and you think you’ve caught the other team cheating, maybe you just wait until next game to call them out. Or if you catch them in the first inning, maybe you wait until an opportune time to call them out.
It will also introduce a whole new level of psyche outs and feints and mind games. Teams will have to constantly evolve their cheating strategies, and only deploy them at the most effective and opportune times. Much like cyberwarefare, teams will have “zero-day” cheating strategies that are guaranteed to be a huge boost, but once deployed and figured out, will become obsolete. Front offices will have to employ spymasters and computer hackers and cyber security people, which whips ass.
No, I am not talking about that kind of pegging. There were few feelings as a kid more satisfying than pegging some helpless runner in kickball. There is simply nothing more emasculating for the pegee and nothing more empowering for the pegger than the cartoon boing of kickball rubber meeting preadolescent flesh. I propose we allow pegging baserunners at the major league level. You might be thinking “baseballs are really hard” and that this will result in more injuries. You are correct on both accounts. Baseball players have developed a reputation in sports circles as hypochondriac headcases. While this might be true in many cases, the few bad apples have ruined it for the barrell. In short, they have a lot of work to do in the PR department if their reputation as prissy divas will ever recover. What better way to rehab their image than adding a new element of excitement and perceived danger to the game?
Upon implementation the peg immediately becomes one of the most exciting and athletically impressive feats that could be achieved on the baseball field. Anyone who has tried to hit a streaking receiver with a football knows how difficult the accuracy and timing needed for a good pass is. Now imagine that will a ball three inches in diameter and the target is not only running full speed, but is actively trying to dodge your throw. Pegs farther than 20 feet, a relatively short distance on the baseball diamond, will be an incredibly difficult and impressive feat in of themselves. Let alone a 250 foot hose to the plate from a left fielder.
I know all the suburban helicopter parents and player safety alarmists will cry foul at the inevitable increase in injuries that will result. To this, I ask what makes this any more dangerous than a batter stepping into the box against a pitcher? People get hit by pitches every single day. Although some beanballs end in serious injuries (Giancarlo Stanton in 2015 comes to mind), the vast majority of hitters just walk it off and take their base no more worse for wear. What changes once they take the bases? Fielders can’t throw as hard as pitchers, and hitting a moving target from distance is virtually impossible. The point here is that pegging probably wont be as common as one might think and is much more difficult, athletically speaking, than it might appear. Additionally, getting hit by a thrown baseball, even at speeds topping 90 MPH, doesn’t hurt that much.
Logistically, the rule would work the same way pegging did in elementary school kickball. If you’re on the base, you are safe. However if you are between bases you are fair game to get pegged. It adds a whole new dimension to fielding and baserunning strategy, the two most boring and least appreciated areas of the game. Although the player safety consequences will be negligible, there are still precautions that must be taken. Base runners will have to wear facemasks in order to protect them from head-on pegs, such as those that might occur during a double play attempt.
Abolish the DH
For the most part in sports, dividing leagues in two serve as an easy way to organize league. Virtually every major american sport has some kind of 50/50 divide for this precise reason. The NBA and NHL have the eastern and western conferences. The MLB and NFL have an ‘American’ and ‘National’ league distinction. However what makes the MLB unique is the rules differences that go along with that American/National league organization. In the American league, teams can use a designated hitter in place of their pitcher, and in the National league pitchers must bat like any other player.This distinction is mostly trivial…. Until its not. Strategically using the pitcher and pinch hitters is something almost exclusive to National league games, and affects strategy immensely, especially in during crunch time.
I propose that they standardize the rule across both leagues, and that in both leagues pitchers will have to bat. In other words, abolishing the DH. For the simple reason that there is a significantly more amount of lineup strategy and manipulation. Managers actually have to manage. They can’t just plug in their worst fielding hitter into the DH spot and be done with it. This will become even more of a factor in late game situations when trying to balance pitching changes and pinch hitting or running situations. Games will become more exciting and strategic simply as a result of managers having to reckon with that pitchers hitting slot. Additionally, in recent years, we have seen an influx of players like Bryce Harper, Madison Bumgardner, and Shohei Otani who are both talented pitchers and hitters. These rare players become that much more valuable and their talent can be properly showcased and utilized. And there will be an extra incentive for them to learn how to pitch.