Which Rules are Real Rules?
The Deflategate Report is out, and the NFL has suspended Tom Brady for four games and fined the Patriots a million dollars and (far more importantly) two draft picks. Those corners of the media concerned with such things are in the expected paroxysms. What interests me about this is the pattern in sports of some rules not being real rules, some are very serious rules indeed, and some fall somewhere in between. How do we decide which are what?
The Pine Tar Incident
To explain, first consider the Pine Tar Incident. (My examples will be from baseball rather than football because I am much more of a baseball guy. I imagine that similar examples could be drawn from any sport.) The Pine Tar Incident is an example of a rule which was not really a rule. Think back to July 24, 1983. The Royals are playing the Yankees, and behind by one run with two outs and one man on in the top of the ninth inning. George Brett comes up to bat, and pops a home run over the fence to give the Royals the lead. Or not. Yankees manager Billy Martin notes that Brett’s bat has excessive pine tar on it, and brings this to the umpires’ attention. The rule allows pine tar on the handle of the bat (to give a better grip) but not beyond 18 inches from the end. The pine tar on Brett’s bat went past that. The umpire, following the rules to the letter, called Brett out, ending the game with a Yankees victory.
The Royals protested, and American League president Lee MacPhail upheld the appeal. The grounds were that the reason for the rule was to prevent the ball from being discolored by the pine tar, and this clearly did not apply in this situation. But the grounds are beside the point. MacPhail was essentially declaring that the rule wasn’t really a rule, at least in any situation where it mattered. The rule is still on the books, but now the only penalty being that the umpire can order the batter to use a different bat. This likely is the extent to which it would have been enforced in 1983.
Next comes Merkle’s Boner: a rule that hadn’t been a real rule, but then it was. Fred Merkle is a victim of baseball history. He had a fine career of nearly two decades, but is remembered for just one play from his rookie year. The game was September 23, 1908 between the Cubs and the Giants, who were in a tight pennant race. The game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth. With two outs the Giants had two men on: Harry McCormick at third base and Merkle at first. Al Bridwell came to bat and hit the first pitch into center for a single, bringing in McCormick to win the game.
Or not. Merkle never ran to second base. He turned and went to the dugout. This was not due to sloth. The fans were swarming the field, and getting off quickly was the path of wisdom. Evers, the Cubs second baseman, retrieved a ball, which might or might not have been the one that Bridwell had hit, and tagged second base. The umpire called Merkle out, ending the inning. It was obviously impossible to finish the game at that point, and the game was ruled a tie and replayed later.
The thing is, Merkle had done nothing remarkable. He had followed the standard practice of the day. The ruling was wildly controversial, with many experienced and impartial observers supporting the Giants. The most cogent opinion I have see is that if the league wanted to bring enforcement into line with the written rules, that would have been fine. But the ninth inning of a tie game in a pennant race wasn’t the time to do this, and certainly not without warning.
The spit ball was the characteristic pitch of the early twentieth century, in which some foreign substance (not necessarily the eponymous saliva) is applied to the ball in order to make it curve more sharply. It was banned going into the 1920 season, with some pitchers grandfathered in. The last one playing was Burleigh Grimes. My father used to tell me stories about Grimes having a big chaw of tobacco and applying it liberally to the ball. Grimes retired in 1934, when my father was five years old, so I assume these stories were second-hand.
But of course Grimes wasn’t the last to throw the spitter. He was just the last to throw it legally. Many pitchers since have been thought, with greater or lesser plausibility, to use it. Gaylord Perry, who played from 1962 to 1983, was particularly (in)famous. His spit ball was an open secret. He titled his autobiography Me and the Spitter. He mostly got away with it. It was 1982 before he was ejected from a game for doctoring the ball. (He claimed that he put vaseline on his pants zipper, where the umpires never checked.)
What interests me here is the reaction by both the fans and officials. It was more admiring than anything else. The rule would be enforced, but there was no sense of moral outrage at its violation. Sure, he would take his lumps if he got caught, but it was all part of the game and no one held it against him. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.
Would the reaction be the same today? I don’t know. The glory days of the spitter are past, lost in the jungle of multiple angle, super slow motion, high definition cameras.
Greenies and ‘Roids
Amphetamines (“greenies”) were a part of baseball since World War II, when the greatest generation sometimes needed a pick-me-up. They weren’t much talked about until Jim Bouton’s tell-all Ball Four was published in 1970. Since then, anyone paying attention knew about them, but the topic was not particularly controversial.
Anabolic steroids in baseball are more recent, but not as much so as many imagine. Most people think of the “steroids era” as being about a ten year period starting in the mid-1990s. In reality, some ballplayers had been using steroids since at least the 1970s. The 1990s is when steroids became a topic of public discussion.
What interests me here is not whether or not we should be outraged. (I am agnostic and/or wishy-washy on that question.) What I find striking is the outrage itself: how it is both deep and broad. You can find players, sportswriters, and endless numbers of fans who get spitting angry at the mention of steroids. This extends to keeping out of the Hall of Fame players who otherwise are obvious shoe-ins. This punishment is symbolic, but significant within the greater baseball community.
Why is this? More specifically, why are ‘roids a huge deal while greenies are a non-issue? (Baseball has cracked down on amphetamines, but this is recent, and clearly out of embarrassment of the discrepancy.) Some people make a distinction between steroids as being performance enhancing drugs while amphetamines are merely performance enablers. The rest of us, including myself, think this smells of implausible post hoc rationalization.
I think we need to turn to broader culture. Sport is often treated as something apart from culture in general, but of course this is ridiculous. Sport is embedded in the culture, and absorbs the culture’s values.
I think that greenies were accepted because of when their use in baseball became generally known. 1970, when Bouton’s book came out, was just a few years past the Summer of Love. The younger generation was hardly likely to be offended by greenies. We might expect the older generation to take offense, but they remembered the pick-me-ups from the war, where they were widely distributed. The spirit of the age was primed for them to be a non-issue. Steroids, a quarter century later, were different. This was the era of the War of Drugs, and people associated them with those strangely mannish East German swimmers.
I also think that the players using them–at least at the beginning–were caught by surprise by the backlash. Consider Mark McGwire. The substance he was using was neither controlled under federal law, nor banned by Major League Baseball. His use became public after a reporter found an open container in his locker. He might be a huge idiot to leave it lying around in the open, but really, why shouldn’t he have?
It is difficult to construct a principled argument for why steroids are a gross violation of standards meriting pariah status, while amphetamines are a venial sin hardly worth a raised eyebrow. But some rules are real rules and some aren’t, and it is important to know which is which.
This finally brings us to Deflategate. Stipulating to the conclusions of the investigation, what interests me is the penalty and the reaction to it. It is, depending on who you ask (and in many cases who they root for), either about right, or outrageously out of proportion to the crime. No one really knows how much the air pressure really matters. There is a plausible argument for low inflation giving the team a significant advantage, but this argument is far from universally accepted. Since no one, including the NFL Commissioner, really knows whether the cheating was egregious or trivial, the penalty is effectively divorced from any such consideration. It is purely a cultural construct.
So why is it so severe? Many claim that it is anti-Patriots bias. There certainly is Patriots-fatigue among that portion of football fans located outside New England, and Brady’s public persona is not notably winsome. So I won’t say that this isn’t part of it. But I think that we are, in some respects, in a more puritanical era than in past decades. We saw Gaylord Perry as a lovable rogue, sort of like Han Solo, where today we are more likely to respond with moral indignation. I’m not saying this is good or bad. Sometimes indignation is called for, sometimes not. But this is a bad time to be caught playing fast and loose with the rules. Come back in forty or fifty years. Things might be different then.