“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”—Leo Durocher, longtime baseball manager.
When the so-called “Deflategate” scandal broke pre-Super Bowl, I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was a complete lack of surprise that the supposed perps were the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. The other was a wish that whoever was coaching my National Football League team, the Chicago Bears (the post has changed hands of late), had been devious enough to try something like that.
Belichick is the modern-day Durocher, a coach who will bend the rules to give his teams an edge. The main difference between them is that Durocher flaunted his roguishness while Belichick hides his behind hooded sweatshirts and a taciturn public persona. You might recall that he and the Pats were the focus of a previous NFL “Gate”-- the 2007 “Spygate”—wherein the team was caught videotaping the New York Jets’ sideline defensive signals with an eye toward using the info in future games.
That ploy mirrored Durocher’s placing a telescope-using spy in the Polo Grounds’ bleachers to steal opposing catchers’ signs during the 1951 season. Among other things, the effort tipped off Bobby Thomson that Ralph Branca would throw him a fastball on the pitch that led to Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the pennant for Leo’s New York Giants, a fact that didn’t emerge for several decades.
The curious thing about both episodes was that the act involved —sign stealing—was and is common in baseball and football, but the use of technology to implement it somehow broke the games’ covenants. That’s the sort of fine line we draw in assessing moral issues in sports, usually without thinking much about it. When an outfielder traps a line drive but then holds the ball aloft to convince the umpires he caught it, we applaud his presence of mind. When the Pats bleed a pound or two of air from some footballs to give its QB a better grip on a cold day before a playoff game, the parsons of the press box and the imams of the internet (and most fans who don’t live in or around Boston) scream bloody murder.
The jocks like to say “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’ hard enough,” and, usually, we fans agree. Most of us draw the line on things like steroids use by athletes, which involves altering one’s bodily chemistry in a potentially harmful way with substances illegally obtained, thus forcing other players to make the same Faustian choice. By me, though, playing with balls (tee-hee) is a lesser offense.
Indeed, the idea of using a game’s equipment to give a competitor an advantage long has been endemic in sports. Exhibit A in that regard is golf, whose self-policing ethos gives it the high ground in most discussions of sports morality. There’s been a golf arms race in progress forever, and the U.S. Golf Association, which polices the sport on these shores, maintains an equipment-testing program equal to that of the Federal Aviation Administration to keep competitors within bounds.
Golfers bring their own balls to tournaments, and these vary in composition, construction and dimple alignment. Abetted by equipment makers eager to push the rules in pursuit of expanding market share, players go to great lengths to find the ball they think might give them a few more yards off the tee or straighter flight than those of their competitors. If the difference is just 1%, that’s plenty; over 72 holes a 1% difference in score (about 2.8 strokes) can be worth several places on the leader boards, and many dollars.
“Deflategate” seems deflated, felonywise, when one notes what NFL teams are permitted to do with game balls placed in their possession. Before 2006 game balls were given only to home teams, but that rule was changed when teams complained it gave the homers too much of an edge. Now, each team gets a dozen new balls the week before each game and can do with them pretty much what they please before kickoff.
New footballs come out of their boxes hard and waxy, so teams typically brush them vigorously to take off the shine, then soak and/or apply conditioners (vitamin E skin cream is a favorite) to soften their “feel.” Putting them in a sauna reportedly also helps there. So does temporarily overinflating them to stretch their leather skins. It’s all OK.
The rules say game balls should be inflated to a range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. That’s an 8% difference right off, and sometimes it’s, uh, extended in both directions. “Everyone does it,” said Jeff Blake during Super Bowl week. He ought to know because he played quarterback for seven NFL teams over a 13-season career.
Kickers are tougher on their balls than QBs, repeatedly bashing them nose first into tables or other hard surfaces to increase their “give,” or placing them under boards and jumping up and down on them. The game balls kickers use are marked with a “K.” They’re supposed to be discarded after every game but, it’s said, kickers have been known to erase the league’s discard mark to keep ones they like in play longer.
Even at that football takes a back seat to baseball when it comes to ball manipulation. Baseballs are thrown into games new but they’re typically rubbed down by pitchers before they’re thrown to remove their “shine.” Any sort of scuff or irregularity can give a pitcher an edge and cause a ball to be discarded, so since time immemorial some pitchers have found ways to alter them surreptitiously.
The ones who do this best are widely admired for their guile. A celebrated baseball “doctor” was Gaylord Perry, who pitched in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons (1962-83). He was busted once (in 1982) with a 10-day suspension, and was patted down many times by umps, but otherwise won 314 games and gained Hall of Fame election in 1991.
Perry reveled in his rep, in mid-career writing an autobiography titled “Me and the Spitter.” He was widely suspected of using slippery stuff on baseballs, and once sought to endorse Vaseline (no kidding), but after retirement confessed that he found sticky substances like pine tar to be most helpful because they improved his ball grip and put more snap on his curve. He said that wiping his hand on the dugout pine-tar rag could get him through an entire inning. If that didn’t work he could make his own pine tar on the mound by mixing rosin-bag talc (dried pine tar) with sweat. He argued, not unreasonably, that batters were allowed to use things to improve their grips on their implements, so why shouldn’t pitchers?
Or, for that matter, quarterbacks?