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Breaking the rules: Code of conduct

Blowing whistle on a cheat a matter of gamesmanship

Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:05PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 2:08PM
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Jose Guillen may have left the Angels on sour terms, but the whistle he blew on a former teammate allowed him a measure of revenge when he was with the Nationals.
Jose Guillen may have left the Angels on sour terms, but the whistle he blew on a former teammate allowed him a measure of revenge when he was with the Nationals.
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By Derek Zumsteg, Special to SI.com

When is it OK to fink someone out?

In baseball, the decision to accuse someone of cheating is simple: If the perpetrator of the "crime" is on the other team, go for it. But the crime generally has to be significant before an opponent will speak up. No one wants the game to get to the point where the bench coach doubles as a rules lawyer, so players generally don't care that the other team's uniforms don't exactly match, for instance, because they want to be able to wear a long-sleeved shirt without holding a clubhouse meeting on it. Similarly, pitchers rarely complain that a hitter is standing outside of the batter's box, because, while annoying, the advantage gained is tiny and raising a stink about it would mean his own hitters would see the rule enforced, and then they'll be annoyed. It's this social pressure that keeps much of the minor rule violations from becoming issues.

Once in a while, though, a player will break the unspoken agreement if they think it's worth it. For instance, Omar Vizquel complained that reliever Arthur Rhodes' diamond earrings distracted him. Vizquel's argument was valid, but he didn't make that complaint about other players wearing chains, and he didn't argue that some of the players behind Rhodes had pant legs past the heels; he wanted to rattle Rhodes, and it worked. Rhodes flipped out, almost got in a fight with Vizquel, and was ejected before he threw a pitch.

But when it comes to more significant violations, baseball has a long tradition of making accusations against other teams. Some of it approaches lobbying; creating suspicion that another staff is doctoring the ball can focus the attention of umpires on them to your advantage. Spitballers have never hesitated to throw each other under the metaphorical bus; I recently wrote about noted cheater Phil Regan, who sometimes denied accusations he got that miraculous drop on his pitches by illicit means by saying that while he didn't do it, his old roommate Jack Hamilton sure did. And dutifully, the pack of fedora-clad reporters would turn around and hustle off to go hear Hamilton's denial.

If there's finger-pointing to be done on the team's behalf, the manager will take that on, as well as the task of defending his players from similar, but entirely baseless, attacks made by other skippers. Managers will accuse opposing teams of using signaling devices in the scoreboard to tip off hitters to what pitch is coming, and use the postgame press conference to review what they thought was suspicious about that play at second. But the transaction wire sometimes can put them in an uncomfortable position: Billy Martin wouldn't stop complaining about Gaylord Perry until Perry joined his team, whereupon. Martin immediately declared he'd been wholly wrong about Perry, and the spitballer was entirely clean.

Traded players, though, face an interesting dilemma. New players are debriefed like Cold War spies for possibly relevant information, including, naturally, the old team's sign system. Every good player wants to help his team win, and since teams almost always change their signs after a trade anyway, there's no harm in cooperating and making a good impression. But they often give up more than that: which batters are corking their bats, which pitchers hide what where. Players even have ratted out their former employers for stealing signs using those aforementioned signaling devices in the scoreboard, which their manager then files away for a future complaint.

After Jose Guillen, now of the Mariners, left the Angels on bad terms to join the Nationals, he supposedly told his new bosses in Washington where reliever Brendan Donnelly hid his stash of pine tar on his glove. In July, when the two teams met through the miracle of interleague play, Nationals manager Frank Robinson set the umpires on Donnelly, who was ejected and suspended. Donnelly, now with Boston, is still mad at Guillen, and so are the Angels.

There's one player that will almost never give up information after a move: catchers. Their work with a pitching staff depends so much on their working relationship it's almost unheard of for a catcher to say anything about a former battery-mate, not if they doctor their pitches or even if the pitcher tips his glove forward when he prepares to throw a fastball. Such discretion is vital in building the level of trust with their current battery-mates that is necessary to freely attack hitters.

Derek Zumsteg is the author of The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, a how-to guide and history of rule bending and breaking in baseball. "Derek Zumsteg should be ashamed to have such comprehensive knowledge of the history of cheating in baseball. Pete Rose gave me two to one odds this book would become a classic." -- Allen Barra, bestselling author of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant