Darek Jeter, Rob Neyer, and Baseball’s Traditional Deceptions

ESPN blogger Rob Neyer has once again called for baseball to punish “cheaters” which he defines as, among other things, “lying to an umpire” and faking an injury, though there are no rules against either. His impetus was an incident in last night’s Rays-Yankee showdown, in which Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter convinced the home plate umpire that he had been hit by a pitch, when replays showed that the ball actually hit his bat. The subterfuge led to two runs for the Yankees and the ejection of Rays manager Joe Maddon, who argued the call to no avail.  Jeter later admitted that he had fooled the umpire, and seemed to be rather pleased with himself.

This has Neyer rather confused. He writes that Jeter ought to be punished for his dishonesty, because ” it wasn’t fair that Jeter was awarded first base. It wasn’t fair to pitcher Chad Qualls, or to Qualls’ teammates or his manager or to the thousands of Rays fans watching and listening to the evening’s dramatic events.” Yet then Neyer immediately points out that Jeter did “nothing wrong.” So Jeter should be punished because he did nothing wrong? If what Jeter did is in fact dishonest and unfair, of course it is wrong.

But it’s not, any more than bluffing in poker is unfair and dishonest. Baseball is a game that permits fooling the umpires, like trial law allows lawyers to slip inadmissible hearsay into evidence, or improper questions into direct examination if a judge allows them to do so. Baseball’s rules could dictate sanctions for stunts like Jeter’s, but they don’t because it is just one of many deceptions that are accepted tactics established and validated by tradition, entertainment value and common sense.  Other player deceptions include:

  • An outfielder pretending to catch a fly ball that was really trapped.
  • The “phantom double play.”
  • A first baseman pounding his glove before the ball reaches it on a close play, when the umpire is watching the runner’s foot hit the bag.
  • A catcher “stealing a strike” by pulling the ball into the strike zone after he catches it.
  • A batter allowing a pitched ball to hit him when he could have avoided it.
  • An outfielder “deking” a baserunner into thinking a ball can be caught, causing him to hesitate  advancing on the bases.
  • The “hidden ball” trick.

If Jeter’s fake hit by-the-pitch move  needs to be punished, then all of these do too. Good luck trying to stop a catcher from turning a ball into a strike  by sneaking it into the strike zone.

When baseball decided that a form of deception hurt the game, it made a rule against it. Example: the balk rule, which is designed to prevent a pitcher from deceiving batters and baserunners. Deceptions that made the game more interesting and competitive were allowed. If they are allowed to both sides, by definition, they are not unfair.  If they are allowed, then they definitely are not cheating. They are part of the game, the inhabitants of baseball’s moral gray zone, where what seems strictly unethical is permitted in the culture because it works, with  minimal harm.

For whatever reasons, Rob Neyer doesn’t like gamesmanship in baseball. But it isn’t unfair, and it shouldn’t be punished. He’s wrong.

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