From lawyer/baseball blogger Craig Calcattera we learn that Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount may have used a corked bat. Corking, in which cork is surreptitiously inserted into a hole drilled down the length of a baseball bat, is banned by the rules of baseball: it supposedly allows the bat to be swung faster and propel a ball farther and harder because of the properties of the cork. Get caught with a corked bat, and a major league player gets thrown out of the game, suspended and fined. Worse, he acquires the reputation of being a cheater. Those who are certain that former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa used steroids are bolstered in their belief by the fact that he was once caught using a corked bat.
Yet there are strong indications that the superiority of corked bats is imaginary. When TV’s excellent “Mythbusters” tested the matter, their tests rendered that myth as “busted.” So Robin Yount’s 3,142 major league hits were not aided in any way by the cork in his bat. Should we care that he used one, if he indeed did?
Yes. We should care that he was cheating. Using a corked bat violates the rules, and the fact that this cheating is not as effective as a player thinks it is, or effective at all, is absolutely irrelevant to an assessment of his character, integrity and sportsmanship. When the Delta House students in the comedy “Animal House” steal what they think are the final exam answers and use them on the test, they are still cheating, even though it turns out that their cheat-sheet had the wrong answers. A runner who cheats but loses the race anyway is still a cheater; so is a corked bat-user who never manages to hit the ball.
“No harm, no foul” is just another rationalization to make it easier for some to let unethical conduct go unrecognized and unpunished. The foul is the harm, or part of it. In cheating situations, there are two issues: was there cheating, and what were the consequences of it. The cheater is responsible for the results of his cheating, but often has less than complete control over them. An ineffective cheater is still just as unethical as an effective one.
Many have trouble grasping this. Even some professions have trouble grasping this: for example, the ethics rules governing lawyers generally only prohibit completed violations. An attorney trying to introduce falsified evidence in trial doesn’t count as cheating, in the construction of the Rules, if the attempt fails. A lawyer who tries to deceive his or her client with a slyly misleading statement may not be violating the ethics rules if the client isn’t misled. Admittedly, this weakness in the legal ethics rules has a lot to do with the logistics of enforcement, but it is still an embodiment of “no harm, no foul.” The unsuccessful attempt to break the rules would probably support a complaint that the lawyer exhibited conduct calling his character into question, but I can’t locate a case of a lawyer whose bar disciplined him solely for unsuccessfully attempting to break a rule.
When, if ever, baseball decides to permit corked bats, then using them will be perfectly fine, if probably pointless. For now, however, the anti-corking rule still serves a useful purpose. It helps identify who the cheaters are. In cheating, as in more honorable pursuits, there is no honor in being inept.