Cheating in Major League Baseball (MLB) is as old as baseball itself. Over the past 30 years we have gone from the steroids scandal to the sign stealing scandal to this current scandal. Why is cheating so endemic in baseball (or perhaps you name the sport)? Is it the desire to win? Is it the desire to compete at the highest level of your sport? Is it the desire to have a job? Could be it, something as simple as ‘if you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em.’ Perhaps a combination of all of the above and a host of other factors.
Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt in their Sports Illustrated (SI) piece, entitled “This Could Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports”, cited to one un-named “NL reliever who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because he believes that is cheating. “Because it seems to have created these basically impossible-to-hit pitches.” Some pitchers “understand that they are being evaluated in an environment in which everyone else is using it. Four minor leaguers have so far this season been caught with substances, ejected and suspended for 10 games. (After one of those incidents, says a player who was there, relievers on both teams headed to the clubhouse to switch out their gloves.) Those punishments are supposed to send a message, but players hear a louder one. “The calculus is whoever gets outs better gets to play major league baseball,” says the NL reliever who says he uses Pelican. “There’s some guys that might have a moral dilemma about it, but I’m not one of those guys. It’s not bad for your health. Steroids … could kill you. That’s different than washing your hands of stick at the end of the game.””
Jeff Passan, writing in ESPN.com, noted that New York Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole basically answered for the vast majority of MLB pitchers with his non-answer to the question of whether he used the sticky goo to cheat. Passan wrote, “Gerrit Cole, the New York Yankees’ ace and owner of the biggest contract for a pitcher in baseball history, paused for an extremely awkward five seconds Tuesday and didn’t answer a yes-or-no question about whether he had ever used a foreign substance. And in the process, amid his Elaine Benes dance around the truth, he told on the entire sport. By not denying that he had dabbled in Spider Tack, the viscous grip agent that has become the substance du jour for those looking to improve the spin they create on pitches, Cole validated the concerns that have increasingly dominated conversations around the sport in recent months. For years, the use of foreign substances has been not so much a “dirty little secret,” as St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt called it, as an open one.”
But this is not simply the players who want to pitch in ‘The Show’ who are driving this or even in on it. This current epidemic of cheating is found on every level of baseball. Apstein and Prewitt also reported on this same cheating in the minor leagues so that they can get to the big leagues. They wrote, “Three minor league pitchers tell SI they use sticky stuff and they don’t feel guilty about it. “We’re all trying to make the big leagues, and if that’s what it takes to get there, that’s what it takes,” says one. “They want the guys with the best stuff, and the guys with the best stuff are using something.””
Additionally, this scandal could not have occurred without the complicity of all levels of MLB, from the players to the Field Managers to the General Managers (GMs) and MLB itself. This has institutionalized the practice. As MLB dawdles, and batting averages dwindle, the use of substances has become all but institutionalized. “One NL reliever, who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because sticky stuff disrupts the feel of his sinker, says his pitching coach suggested this year that he try it. An AL reliever, who says he uses a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, recalls a spring-training meeting in 2019 in which the team’s pitching coach told the group, “A lot of people around the league are using sticky stuff to make their fastballs have more lift. And if you’re not using it, you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.” Moreover, every manager should know everything going on in the clubhouse and training room. “The clubhouse attendants of at least one minor league team, according to a player, stock cans of Tyrus Sticky Grip, another product intended to keep hitters from accidentally flinging their bats, and distribute them to pitchers who ask. The NL reliever who uses Pelican says he played for a team that hired a chemist—away from another club—whose duties include developing sticky stuff.”
Finally, there is the moral aspect as this “tacit approval leaves everyone doing difficult moral math. At the moment, umpires generally rely on managers to request that they check a pitcher. Managers largely refuse to do so, in part because they know their own pitchers are just as guilty, and in part because they worry their team may someday acquire the pitcher in question. Executives and coaches who personally abhor the practice do not see much benefit in telling their own pitchers to knock it off, knowing that will accomplish little more than losing games and angering their employees. Fringe pitchers tell themselves that everyone is doing it—indeed, that the league’s clumsy management of the game all but requires it.”
Imagine if a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) faced this type of conundrum. The policy and procedures are in place but everyone from the lowest level employee up to the regulators sat by and watched as the rules were broken on pitch by pitch basis. After all, it is not as if MLB does not know it has a problem.
Join me tomorrow as I look at some possible solutions.