Few men are more reviled in America than those who cheat at sports. Bill Clinton cheated at golf and on his wife, but the former sin lingers long after the latter has been forgiven. Thus the lesson would seem to be, If you find yourself behind a tree, illicitly stroking something with dimples, it had better not be a Titleist.
The only sure things in life, we're told, are death and taxes. But we read every day about people who cheat death. And for that matter, we read every day about people who cheat on their taxes. Some, like Darryl Strawberry, manage to do both. So it might be more accurate to say that the only sure thing in life is cheating.
It is certainly the case in sports. Cheating is to baseball as Bernoulli's principle is to fixed-wing aircraft: the invisible constant that keeps everything aloft. Hitters erase the back line of the batter's box; catchers "frame" pitches to induce called strikes; infielders occupy a different congressional district from second base when turning a double play; sluggers juice up on steroids till their forearm veins resemble bridge cables; and outfielders pretend that a one-hopper was in fact caught on the fly, holding up the baseball to the umpire like a prized tomato in a produce aisle.
"Cheating is baseball's oldest profession," wrote Thomas Boswell. "No other game is so rich in skulduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it." The game's greatest moment—the Shot Heard Round the World—was allegedly authored by a batter, Bobby Thomson, who knew precisely what pitch was coming, his Giants having employed a spy to steal the catcher's signs from centerfield.
And so you might have thought that Sammy Sosa's corked bat would likewise have been winked at—just another joke, the Rimshot Heard Round the World. So why was the Chicago Cubs' rightfielder, instead, all but arraigned before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands?
"Because they're hypocrites," former big league slugger Jose Canseco said of Sosa's critics, in a recent moment of lucidity. "The way they came down on him was just ridiculous. You don't talk about taking away his Hall of Fame credentials, taking away all the home runs he's hit. That is malicious, outright mean. How could you even say that over one corked bat?"
Corking isn't even the most egregious equipment modification in baseball, much less sports, as any pitcher who has loaded a loogie onto his fastball can attest. Gaylord Perry knows KY ain't just the postal code for Kentucky. Whitey Ford said he took an entire toolbox to the mound. Former journeyman pitcher George Frazier denied ever having applied foreign substances to a baseball. (He preferred, he said, domestic substances.)
To decry this cheating is to deny Bernoulli: It is to look down-like Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff—and fall. In sports suspended disbelief is all that keeps us...suspended. Which is to say we want our athletes to cheat, we need our athletes to cheat: an offensive lineman with a fistful of jersey, a basketball center stealing the jump ball, U.S. women's World Cup goalkeeper Briana Scurry leaving her line to make the tournament-preserving save of a penalty kick in 1999. "When I consider life, 'tis all a cheat/Yet, fooled with hope, men favour the deceit."
That's Dryden. The English poet John, not the Canadiens' goalie Ken, though hockey players—now that you mention it—do illegally doctor their own equipment, curving their sticks in a manner far more advantageous to them than corking is to a hitter. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Brett Hull can be seen in a 1998 NHL documentary shouting down the bench at his equipment manager, "I need my legal stick! I need my legal stick!"
The most extreme equipment modification in sports history? Dr. Richard Raskind's becoming women's professional tennis player Renee Richards (and suing for the right to play in the U.S. Open). It makes golf's current controversy over nonconforming drivers (page 66) seem comparatively rinky-dink.