I’ve been after a good friend of mine to finally write a book he’s been thinking about for a long time: A book about sportsmanship. There are, of course, a lot of books about sportsmanship, many of them good ones. But my friend has a view I haven’t read much, a fascinating view. It isn’t a “tsk tsk” kind of view. His feeling is that we have so blurred the lines of sportsmanship that it’s hard to know the rules. We have become so divided on what is acceptable and justified and admirable when it comes to winning and losing that we are not entirely sure what to teach our kids. It isn’t that we have lost our moral compass or anything that severe … it’s more that the lines of fair play, like umpire strike zones, are ever shifting and uniquely individual. It changes sport to sport, level to level, year to year. There isn’t a clear line of thinking to follow anymore. I think it would be a good book.
And I think the Derek Jeter play on Wednesday would be a pretty good place to start. You know what happened — the Yankees were playing Tampa Bay, seventh inning, and the Rays were winning 2-1. There was one out, and Chad Qualls was pitching, Derek Jeter was batting, and Qualls threw the ball way inside where it hit something and bounced back into fair play. The thing that was unusual about the play was that even on television you could hear the ball hit something — it sounded like a very loud ping. “You could hear that from up here!” they said on the YES Network. That sound, you know, might indicate that the ball hit the bat. Ball hitting hand doesn’t sound like that. Instead, the umpire said it hit Jeter and awarded him first base. Jeter came around to score on Curtis Granderson’s home run, which gave the Yankees the lead.
Here was what made the play interesting — Jeter acted like the ball hit him.* He REALLY acted like the ball hit him. He held his forearm like he was in great pain, he hopped around a little bit. He held his left forearm close. Then the trainer came out and checked to make sure nothing was broken. It was quite a production. And it was all a farce. The ball didn’t hit him. The ball didn’t come close to hitting where he claimed it hit him (it came close to the elbow, but not the hand or forearm). On the YES replay (which was better than the replay they had in Tampa) it was clear that the ball hit the knob of the bat and indeed bounced into fair play.
*I’ve actually heard from a couple of people who say that Jeter wasn’t acting — he was reacting to the vibration of the bat hitting ball. Let’s just put that lunacy to rest right now. Jeter’s left hand (the one he would claim got hit) WASN’T EVEN ON THE BAT when the ball hit — he had already pulled it away. Our discussion here is built on the premise that Jeter was acting, it was all a performance, not unlike a soccer player diving. As the guy on the YES Network said, with a hint of chuckle in his voice, “Wow, Derek is some actor.”
Here’s what followed: Rays manager Joe Maddon came out to argue — he absolutely knew the ball hit the bat — and he stayed out there long enough to get tossed out of the game. The Yankees took the lead. The Rays came back and won the game. And life goes on. This sort of thing happens a lot in baseball, as we will discuss in a second.
But, what about Jeter’s acting? What do we make of that? Is it cheating? Gamesmanship? Is it simply playing within the accepted rules of baseball and society? Or, more, is it exactly what he SHOULD have done considering the structure and demands of baseball?
“My job is to get on base,” Jeter said plainly when it ended, and I think a pretty fair majority of people would agree. A fair majority would say that what he did was, as I put it in my poll, “shaky but part of the game” (at last check 61% checked that option). Even Maddon said that he would have applauded a player of for doing what Jeter did. Applause — now that seems a bit much. Part of me wonders if Maddon’s reaction (and the reaction of many) is built around that fact that it was Jeter did it … somehow if A-Rod had done the same thing or A.J. Pierzynski or Milton Bradley, I suspect that the word “applaud” would not have emerged from Joe Maddon.
Well, hey, Jeter has earned that. He has reached that point of his great career where he doesn’t follow standards, he sets them. When Hanley Ramirez loafs after a ball, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. When A-Rod steps on the mound, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. If Derek Jeter hops around and pretends the ball hit him when it did not, well, it’s a play even the opposing manager can admire.
But … please listen. I’m not saying what Derek Jeter did was wrong. I have an entirely different reaction. Because to me … what he did isn’t wrong, not in the baseball game I know. Isn’t a big part of baseball selling the umpire on stuff that didn’t happen? Isn’t that what a catcher does when he tries to bring back strike three? Isn’t that what an infielder does by holding up the glove even when he misses a tag at second base? Isn’t that what an outfielder does when he lifts up HIS glove after he traps a ball? Isn’t that what a batter does when he tries to act like he checked his swing? Doesn’t a base runner pretend to have touched home plate even if he knows that he missed it?
The old line about how if you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying — who said that, anyway? — is tied up in baseball’s rhythms. Golf prides itself on its rules; I don’t even need to ask Tom Watson what he thought about Derek Jeter’s play, I know he hated it. But golf is different. Baseball prides itself on its spirit. It began as a game of scofflaws, a cast of hard-core men who created the modern rule book by stretching the very limits of the game. Pitching as we know it grew out of pitchers refusing to just pitch the ball underhand to the batter as the original rules stated. The foul-bunt-on-two-strikes-is-a-strikeout rule came into effect because guys would just keep bunting the ball foul otherwise. The dirt-ball was outlawed. The spitball was outlawed. The corked bat was outlawed. The infield fly rule was introduced to keep people from dropping balls on purpose to get double plays. A rule was added that fielders were not allowed to stand in the batter’s sight-line and try to distract. The pitcher’s mound was lowered and more closely measured. Steroid testing began. Baseball is a sport in constant flux because the game itself encourages pushing the framework of sportsmanship, and the rulebook attempts to bring back some semblance of order.
Take stealing signs in baseball. There is no official rule in the rulebook against stealing signs. There was a directive from the commissioner’s office against using electronic equipment or various other kinds of unspecified technology for stealing signs, but that’s a different thing. The feeling in baseball seems to be that if you want to steal signs — and you are willing to have your best player plunked in the back in retaliation if you are caught — well, that’s your business. Baseball defines its own morality. Players and managers police their own game. And in that world, I think, stealing signs, faking tags, playing a ball you know went over the fence, pretending a ball hit you when it didn’t … these things are very much a part of baseball’s code of ethics.
In other words, if Derek Jeter had dropped the bat and started running to first base, it’s very possible that the umpire would not have said the ball hit him. It’s possible he would have been called out. And, inside the game, would that have been seen as the noble thing to do? I don’t think so. You take what you are given. You push for the advantage (because, as Jeter himself says, sometimes you DO get hit with the ball and the umpire misses it). No, Derek Jeter is not Leo Durocher, not at all, but I would argue that what Durocher said on the first page of his autobiography — a paragraph sent in by my friend Alex Belth — cuts closer to the heart of the game than anything in the rulebook.
“If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what’s the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he cant get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don’t, what have you lost? I don’t call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”
I don’t think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind of … sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter — do you realize the guy now has an 86 OPS+? — that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?
I think of the immortal words of Whitey Ford, who was well known in his later days for cutting the baseball: “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive.” I think that’s exactly right. There are very, very, very few people who bend the rules, push the limits, stray from good sportsmanship when they don’t have to do it. My favorite exchange in the movie Major League is a touching little scene where the old pitcher, Harris, talks about how sometimes he will put snot on the ball. Ricky Vaughn, the hard-throwing kid just out of prison, is disgusted.
Vaughn: “You put snot on the ball?”
Harris: “I haven’t got an arm like you kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.”
And that was what I thought about watching Jeter on that play. I thought someday has arrived. The morality of the play? Right? Wrong? Part of the game? That’s for you to decide. I have my own view; I hope to teach my own daughters to always play by the rules, and I would be furious if one of them did something like what Jeter did. That would lead to a DFL — one of Daddy’s Famous Lectures. But I also understand Major League Baseball is a lot different from kid soccer or tee-ball, it’s a competitive and furious game, played at a ludicrously high level with suffocating pressures and intensity, and winning is at the heart of it.
I guess in the end, what I take from it is this: I save my deep admiration for people who choose fair play over a momentary advantage. But that’s not how most people play big league baseball. That’s not how managers want people to play big league baseball. That’s not how most fans WANT people to play big league baseball. Rising above that, finding a higher sense of fair play in today’s era of sports, well, it’s a hard thing to do. It’s especially hard when you’re a great player hitting .260 for the New York Yankees.