Baseball Hall of Fame 2013: What constitutes 'cheating' in baseball?

Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

This year's Hall of Fame class is clogged with players accused of "cheating" by using performance-enhancing drugs. What does it mean to be a cheater?

You've probably heard by now that today is induction day for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Around the internet, newspaper sports pages, and water coolers, people are discussing which players should be in the Hall of Fame, and which ones shouldn't. This year, with the inclusion of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on the ballot -- two players dogged by performance-enhancing drug suspicion / evidence through their careers -- the argument that "Player X should not be in the Hall because he used PEDs" is louder and more vehement than ever, it seems.

When a player uses a substance banned by Major League Baseball, they immediately get labeled a "cheater", someone who breaks the rules of the game in order to give themselves or their team an unfair advantage. But many players have done this over their careers ... many of whom are in the Hall of Fame. By their own admission, both Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt have used "greenies" ... amphetamines that are considered performance-enhancing drugs. Players like Gaylord Perry threw spitballs, a pitch deemed illegal by the rules of the game.

These players don't seem to be considered with the same type of venom as Bonds and Clemens, both of whom will likely not reach the Hall this year. But aren't these players, by definition of the term, "cheaters" as well?

What makes a player a "cheater?"

I'd like to throw a few hypothetical situations your way. And I'd, honestly, love to hear reasoned opinions on them. I'm keeping an open mind.

Player A uses a banned, performance-enhancing substance once, over the course of his entire professional career. (No explanation is given as to why.) Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

Player B uses a banned, performance-enhancing substance consistently, over the course of his entire professional career. (No explanation is given as to why.) Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

My opinion on this is pretty straightforward. Knowing what I know, and not knowing any reasoning behind the use of the drug (Was it accidental? Was it to come back from injury rather than truly improve performance? What kind of drug was it?), I say that Player A "cheated," and that Player B is a habitual "cheater."

As for the Hall of Fame discussion, well, I'm of the opinion that performance trumps all. If it happened on the field of play, it counts. So I'd say both have the right to be in the Hall of Fame ... but Player B deserves that his cheating (if proven or admitted) be recorded on his plaque, and as part of the public narrative about his career. The line "Yes, Player A won four MVPs or whatever, but he cheated to do it," is good enough for me.

Is it more acceptable when a player only cheats once, than when he makes it a consistent part of their career? Twice? Where's the line? Is it motive?

Let's try another line of reasoning.

Player A, a pitcher, uses an banned substance (vaseline) on a baseball in order to affect the ball's flight, but just once over the course of his entire professional career. (No explanation is given as to why.) Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

Player B, a pitcher, uses a banned substance (vaseline) on a baseball in order to affect the ball's flight, and does so consistently over the course of his entire professional career. (No explanation is given as to why.) Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

The only substantive difference that I see here, is that instead of "cheating" by changing their own body, the player is "cheating" by changing the objects used in the game. In both instances, the players are breaking rules instituted by major-league baseball. As such, I use the same reasoning I used in the previous example, where Player A isn't considered a "cheater" so much as someone who "cheated once", and Player B gets labeled a habitual cheater.

Here's an absolutely REAL example.

Player A, Hall of Famer George Brett, violates an MLB rule by using too much pine tar on his bat during the July 24, 1983 game against the New York Yankees. Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

The Pine Tar Game is a pretty interesting situation. Brett broke a rule, but in the end, was not penalized for doing so. Does he qualify as a "cheater," despite Lee MacPhail's assertion that Brett didn't violate the spirit of the rules or deliberately alter the bat to improve the ball's distance factor? I think most people would argue "no, George Brett wasn't a cheater."

So, uh, what's the spirit of the rule to not use performance-enhancing drugs? Ostensibly, I assume it's to prevent a player from gaining an unfair advantage ... to deliberately alter a player's physiology to improve performance.

So ...

Player B, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, violates an MLB rule by using HGH in 2002 to (reportedly) recover from an injury faster -- NOT to improve performance. Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserver to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

Well, Lee MacPhail asserted that Brett didn't violate the spirit of the rules, and in some ways, one could say that Pettitte didn't either. I mean, if we take Pettitte at his word, the same way we would take Brett at his, then the two incidents are similar, right?

Now let's get weird.

Player A, a catcher, violates one of baseball's express, written rules by blocking home plate to prevent a runner from tagging the plate and scoring a run. (No explanation is given as to why.) Is this player a cheater in your eyes? Does he deserve to be kept out of the Hall of Fame as a result?

Okay, so Player A is, by definition, "cheating" here. He violates a rule of the game in order to earn a competitive advantage. The "problem" here, is that the rule is not enforced. This behavior is accepted by those who play and watch the game. So one could, in fact, label nearly all catchers "cheaters," if one were so inclined. And this is a behavior that directly affects play on the field. So is it really that different than the example above?

The thing is, "cheating" in baseball is rampant. In fact, cheating in every sport is rampant. I mean, that's why there are fouls in basketball, penalties in football and hockey ... to prevent rule-breaking and to punish those that do. Baseball is no different.

I think we need to be frank with ourselves as to what we consider "acceptable" cheating and what we consider "unacceptable cheating" ... and why we consider certain events more respectable or better than others. I'm not saying there aren't substantive differences between, say, PED usage and doctoring a baseball, but I don't think these differences should go unsaid.

We can afford to be rational and objective about this, rather than just defaulting to arguments based on morality and ethics. Those arguments have their place too, but there's room for this one as well.

[Edited: It must be noted that Rob Neyer's Baseball Nation piece here touches on these issues as well, and I think it's excellent.]

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