The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball: A Review

If I could ask Derek Zumsteg one question, it would be “Can I call A-Rod ‘Slappy McBlue Lips’ and still praise Jason Varitek for his excellent ability to frame a fastball an inch off the outside corner?”

Zumsteg is the author of The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball, a fabulous new book that covers the history of cheating in our national pastime. The book is well-researched and full of historic anecdotes, but what stands out is Zumsteg’s sardonic and perspicacious commentary, which transforms the book from a history to a commentary.

The book’s provocative title might put off readers who don’t condone cheating, but Zumsteg adeptly argues that cheating and baseball have been linked since we first started playing the sport. In fact, we as fans condone many types of cheats today: framing pitches, sliding hard into second to break up a double play, the hidden ball trick. If anything, today’s cheaters are quite mild compared to those of the first days of professional baseball.

In the 19th century, when a ticket to a game didn’t cost a day’s salary and many professional clubs were owned by breweries, fans would often violently heckle players, throw all kinds of objects, and in some cases, come to blows with the opposing team. Umpires were in constant danger, and crowds were often one close call at the plate from a riot. So much for the good old days.

But as the professional leagues became more professional, they cracked down on such behavior, adding umpires and security, and subtracting liquor, if not completely. Further, the major leagues banned pitchers from doctoring balls and base runners from recklessly trying to injure fielders.

And thus, the art of cheating was born. Spitballs, phantom tags, corked bats—all became legitimate parts of the game, as long you didn’t get caught. Zumsteg persuasively argues that these kinds of cheats made the game more enjoyable; after all, who doesn’t love the hidden ball trick or a manager who gets tossed out so that the next close call at the plate will favor his team?

Cheating makes baseball into more of an art, performance art in the case of a manager frenetically touching and adjusting each part of his body in order to relay a sign to the base runner or batter. It adds a certain sophistication—as long as it doesn’t go too far.

On this, Zumsteg is clear. Certain types of cheating—say, betting on baseball games or using steroids—are out of bounds, and Zumsteg not only refuses to condone them, he comes down hard on the players who engage in those activities.

Steroids or betting on baseball threaten the integrity of the game; they add nothing to our enjoyment of it, but they bring into question the purity of what we are seeing on the field. Hard slides and spitballs are time-honored traditions. They add to the complex strategy of our national pastime, and make it fun to watch. Steroids do neither.

Zumsteg is especially hard on Barry Bonds, though not unfairly so. He shows some spectacular statistical evidence of Bonds’ steroid use, using research from the Game of Shadows, whose authors wrote that Bonds used steroids in three-week cycles, and complained of feeling awful in the week he took off after each cycle.

Looking at game-by-game data, Zumsteg finds those cycles with the help of Indians statistical analyst Keith Woolner. Starting with the first day of each season in which Bonds used steroids according to Game of Shadows, Bonds showed clear patterns of three weeks of great play followed by a huge fall-off in power followed by another three weeks of hot hitting, and so forth. In seasons prior to that, Bonds showed no patterns like this.

Basically, Zumsteg finds that if Bonds had not been using steroids, he would have hit half as many home runs, giving him a still-impressive career total, but leaving him well behind Hank Aaron.

And while the steroids chapter is my favorite in the book, much of The Cheater’s Guide is much breezier, a celebration of the game rather than an indictment. True to the title, Zumsteg includes many hilarious (and informative) sidebars, like “signs you’re about to be ejected” or “tampering through temperature.”

The sidebars can be distracting, but I’m not one to complain about extra content, especially in a book as good as this one. If anything, I wish Zumsteg had thrown in a few more anecdotes, though he has written that the publisher wouldn’t let him make the book any longer than it already is.

Luckily, Zumsteg has started a blog to share tidbits he came upon while researching the book and to comment on cheating in today’s game. Zumsteg already made the news when he accused Francisco Rodriguez of doctoring the ball, sparking an MLB investigation.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the Cheater’s Guide is to tell you how eminently readable it is. I literally couldn’t put the book down (and no, not because I had rosin on my hands); it was that good.

The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball is entertaining and thorough, and will make you a smarter, more knowledgeable baseball fan.

It’s a must read.

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