Coffee with Derek Zumsteg: The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

Spring Training is exciting for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, the new season is about to start, which ignites dreams of glory in all but the least ardent fan. A close second is that we get treated to the latest round of baseball books. This year has been no different with a bevy of books hitting the shelves. One such title is The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball by Derek Zumsteg.

Zumsteg, for those who haven’t come across his work, used to write for Baseball Prospectus and, along with a couple of other folks, now runs perhaps the best fan blog on the Internet: USS Mariner. I asked him if he fancied catching up and talking about his new book over coffee. Unfortunately he was in Seattle and I was in London (England) so we had to settle for the medium of e-mail. Needless to say that made my bar bill slightly less expensive.

This is what he had to say.

The Interview

John Beamer: First, congrats on the new book. It is a fascinating subject that you are touching on especially with the Bonds/Aaron ding-dong and the Rogers pine tar incident so front of mind. So, tell us what was the inspiration behind the book?

Derek Zumsteg: I wanted to write a baseball book that I wanted to read. It needed to be something interesting that I could do research on and turn up interesting new information, but it also needed to be something that would fit my style, where I could do some jokes, take time to go on some crazy tangents, as well as do pure research.

I’ve always been fascinated with sign-stealing, groundskeeping, and the career of Gaylord Perry and other famous baseball cheaters who do as much to shape the game as the Commissioner’s office by forcing rules changes, so a history of cheating with some how-to and a good helping of humor seemed like a great project.

JB: Some how-to, eh? So, in theory could a player pick up your book and learn a thing or two about illegally gaining the upper hand—or will they know all this stuff anyway?

DZ: They’re definitely exposed to it, but there’s something for them in here—one of things I talk about is how the successful cheaters generally spend some time working at it. They don’t cork a bat, see that it doesn’t work, and then discard it. If it’s worth trying, it’s worth experimenting with. You’re right, they’re likely exposed to most of this stuff as they come up through the minors: pitchers, certainly, are going to experiment with a spitball at some point, if only because they’ve got so much time to work on it.

But reading through how past cheaters have worked at their craft and experimented, and looking ahead to point out where opportunities might still lie—substances pitchers could use, crazy ways batters might yet find an advantage, and so on—I think even a jaded player might have a lightbulb go on over his head while reading.

JB: I like the cover too. Did you have much input on the design?

DZ: Not really. I sketched out some ideas I had for cool covers, and this looks nothing like any of them.

JB: I’ve got to be honest I didn’t think I’d ever see a baseball book cover with a tub of Vaseline on it—you’d be more likely to see that on … err, never mind. Anyway, what’s the story with the Vaseline then?

DZ: Yeah, the petroleum jelly on the cover does conjure images entirely not baseball related. But, whatever, if people are curious and it gets them to crack the cover open, I’m all for it.

Vaseline’s the most famous substance used by spitballers after baseball made a series of rule changes that made it increasingly difficult to get saliva on the fingers while anywhere near the mound. In the book, I talk about who was ahead of the curve and who adapted quickly, but like nearly every rule change that’s ever been made, it didn’t have entirely the intended effect.

When put on a ball, it can really do two things. There’s the traditional spitball method, where you throw the pitch with a normal grip and a tiny dab of jelly under the two fingers, so that the ball comes off the hand with very little spin, almost like a knuckleball, and then it takes a dive as it approaches the plate. Or, if you smear a little on the side of the ball and throw it using a normal fastball grip so the smear remains on the same side as the ball rotates heading to the plate, it’ll veer towards the side with the smear on the way to the plate.

There’s a more detailed explanation of the why in the book. Vaseline and other greasy substances also have the additional advantage of being easily concealable on the uniform or skin—which makes for all kinds of hilarity.

JB: You must have heard about some pretty outrageous shenanigans in the course of researching the book. Can you briefly shed light on the most audacious?

DZ: I don’t want to give away all the best parts of the book of course, but many of my favorite discoveries involved Billy Martin. Most people really only know that Martin was a clubhouse tyrant, who whipped teams into contention before he’d lose control of them, but Martin cheated like crazy, and he worked the umpires and the system like nobody before or since. He’d bleat about opposing spitballers while egging his own staff to wet ‘em up, he’d charge every opposing club of stealing signs on the thinnest of evidence while trying to steal signs and cheat himself.

I found one instance where Martin threatened to bring a trained dog to sniff out where Gaylord Perry was hiding his grease. Perry threatened to shoot the dog, and Martin dropped the subject. And then of course later, when Perry joined a Martin team, Martin was quick to say that Perry never did anything illegal, and had been wrongly persecuted, because now Perry was his cheater.

Researching the Billy Martin stuff was the scariest and most amazing work. I don’t know that there’s ever been a better baseball manager on the field, but the problem was that you couldn’t just hire that guy, you had to hire the guy who traveled with the team, and the clubhouse guy, and the brawl-at-the-bar-after-the-game guy too.

JB: Obviously it is hard to talk about cheating without opening the steroids can of worms. Did you get into that and if so did you have any new thoughts?

DZ: There’s a whole chapter on steroids. As to what’s new—taking a cue from a section of Game of Shadows where Bonds is supposedly so annoyed with the difference between being on and off that he threatens to stop cycling off his drugs—I went through some of Barry Bonds‘ game logs to break down his performances to look to see if there were, through the course of a season, three weeks of awesome performance followed by a week of off performance, and… well, the short answer is that the results made my eyes pop out.

I’ll be writing a lot more about that when the book comes out—I’m going to put all my data on The Cheater’s Guide site for general argumentation. As a hypothetical exploration of what effect steroids might have on player performance, it’s a strange step sideways.

JB: Also, what about HGH, blood doping and other designer performance-enhancing drugs. Are those prevalent in baseball?

DZ:I don’t know—and really, until we have reliable, frequent HGH testing we won’t know how prevalent use is, but it does seem true that if players swap from the crazy steroids to what’s more or less a turn-back-the-clock drug, that’s going to seem a lot less egregious to fans.

But we all have to realize that no testing and no rule change will ever eliminate this avenue of cheating (or any). Pro cycling is regarded as hugely dirty, but it probably has the most stringent testing policy and penalty schedule of any professional sport. As much as they attempt to keep up, there are also rules where they say “well, no matter what else we’re testing for, you’re not allowed to have a red blood cell count higher than x, because there’s no way you wouldn’t be on something and have that count” and as a result, every pro cyclist tests at x-1.

I don’t understand why saying that some players will move on to other drugs, legal or not, is particularly controversial. A few years ago, if I’d said that there were football players using undetectable steroids while being tested by the NFL, would that have been equally scorned? But when BALCO broke, and they went back to test NFL player samples for THG, a bunch of them turned up.

We already know that some baseball players who previously used steroids move to HGH. It’s entirely reasonable to assume some players moved on to other, as-yet-untestable or even as-yet-generally-unknown drugs as well.

All of that said—steroid abuse was never the scourge it was made out to be. Fifty percent of players weren’t on steroids. Even the worst-case numbers based on guesses (the year baseball had penalty-free testing) and so on put the number of users at two, maybe three on any given team. And from what we know about usage patterns, it was mostly the marginal major leaguers trying to fight for jobs or ensure an injury didn’t end their pro career who were using … and, obviously, a set of the most elite hitters.

JB: So steroids and PED aside, how endemic do you think blatant cheating is in today’s game? Was the Kenny Rogers pine tar incident an isolated case or is every player striving to illegally gain the upperhand? Also do you think cheating has changed by era … is it harder to cheat these days than in the past?

DZ: It’s far, far harder to cheat today than it’s ever been, especially for pitchers. Kenny Rogers is a great example of why: if you’re a pitcher today and you grease the ball—or have pine tar on your hand—every game is televised, possibly in HD for even more incrimination, with multiple angles for the league to review if anything’s challenged. Even Gaylord Perry didn’t have that kind of post-cheating exposure risk. When Rogers was caught in the World Series, people were able to go through all of the footage for the season and find other instances where he had the same kind of thing on his hand, making his implausible dirt clod excuse even less believable.

In general, I think cheating by players is at an ebb. Pitchers don’t throw spitters nearly as often as in past decades, and improvements in bats make corking much less frequent. The rise is in things we don’t get to see: there are a lot of rumors of sign-stealing using increasingly advanced systems that float around each season, if you’re listening, and there’s a way teams can get an advantage using technological means that are also a lot harder to catch.

I get into this repeatedly in the book, but I think there’s a lot of territory ripe for exploitation by teams, and the potential returns on investment are just too high not to think that someone’s not going to work on it.

JB: So as you look back do you think all your hard effort was worth it? Tango said after The Book that he’d hang up his book-writing boots.

DZ: The effort was worth it in that it meant that I ended up with a book I’m happy with, and that I think reflects the amount of work I put into it. I hope other people agree. But I entirely sympathize with Tom—when I was doing research and writing (and re-writing) the manuscript, I had essentially no social life: I didn’t go out with friends, I’d go to a wedding and duck out early, and each time, it’s easy to say “well, I hate to run, but chapters 3-6 are due tomorrow” but the cumulative effect is huge.

If I took on another book project, I’d want to work full-time on it, rather than come home from a day job and put in another shift. I quit my job in July so I could spend a couple of months working all the time on the re-writes and copy editing, and I’m so happy with how much good that did the book.

JB: What’s next then? Is there another book on the horizon?

DZ:I’m working on some proposals for other books, but I don’t have anything lined up now. A lot depends on how the book does. I wanted to come out in trade paperback in large part because I want to get into as many people’s hands as possible—I understand that as my first solo book project, I don’t have Stephen King’s-name recognition, and my publisher’s lawyers told me J.K. Rowling would sue me into a crater if I titled the book “Harry Potter and the Greaseball Pitcher”. I really wanted people to be able to pick it up in their local bookstore, flip through it, read something interesting and something funny, and go buy it. And I think there’s a difference in how likely you are to take a chance on someone’s recommendation if it’s well under $20 compared to, say, a $30-with-tax hardback.

If I’m right, and it sells a ton, that could make the next book project lucrative enough I could write full-time. If I’m wrong, and it doesn’t, any follow-up project I sell will have to be something I can do part-time over a year or two years.

JB: How long does it take for a project like this to go from concept to finish?

DZ:The total time from having the idea and pitching it to holding a copy of the final version ended up taking over three years.

JB: You’re not selling authorship to me! It must be a massive thrill to see your book in print. I’m glad you went for the trade paperback release too—I’m convinced that will boost total volumes. Anyway, thanks for answering my mundane questions on cheating.

Now I have you here I can’t resist asking three quick questions about the Mariners. 1) Will Ichiro Suzuki leave next season? 2) Will Felix Hernandez ever fulfil his potential? 3) When will the Ms next contend?

DZ: I love having a book out, though I’ll say that when I read the book for the 79th time I was horrified at how bad it was, and my editor had to convince me not to do another total tear-down re-write with all-new anecdotes. But it’s worth going into this with open eyes.

Anyway, my answers:

1) Ichiro wants to play in the World Series, and the M’s are dedicated to being “competitive” and not winning championships: they’d rather have a top-third payroll, win 85 games every year and bank $30m in profit than spend more, win the World Series, and potentially make much more than that.

If they contend this season, they’ll have a chance, but I think he’ll leave through free agency for someone who can convince him they’ll make a run at a title while he can still participate in it. Theo’s probably practicing his sales pitch in Japanese as I type this.

2) Yes.

3) They could well contend for the division title this year. I don’t think they’re going to put out a legitimately great team that reels off more than one good season until we see vast organizational changes, from who runs the team representing ownership to getting a new GM. Bavasi’s one of the nicest guys in baseball and it tears me up that I want to see him lose his job, but the team needs it.

JB: Well, thanks for your time. I appreciate it. Oh … one more thing? Are the DZ caps for sale yet? I want one.

DZ: My editor had one custom made for me when I got selected for BASW! It’s so cool! I’m not sure how to go about making them to sell.

References & Resources
Obviously a big thank-you to Derek Zumsteg for agreeing to do this interview with me. The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball is available in all good bookstores (and no doubt plenty of bad ones too). It’s a great read, so make sure you go buy it and support a budding baseball writer.

You can check out the book blog here.

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