When Tampa Bay reliever Joel Peralta was tossed last week for entering a game with pine tar on his glove, the arrogance of the act said a lot for where baseball has gone since the steroids era: Nowhere.
While sports invite and always will invite a certain amount of gamesmanship, there's a difference between sliding wide of second base to take out an infielder and sneaking outside instruments into battle for the purpose of gaining an advantage. Peralta's subsequent suspension, an eight-game ban, shows that while baseball is averse to cheating it's also unwilling to dole out penalties harsh enough to eliminate dishonesty from its ranks.
The most unsettling aspect of the Peralta caper was in the response of his manager, Joe Maddon, who tried to justify the incident by calling it a "common practice." He labeled Washington manager Davey Johnson "cowardly" for requesting umpires inspect the glove of the former Nationals reliever.
"Joel is using pine tar and had pine tar in his glove," Maddon said. "I'm saying to suggest he's the only one that's doing it is inappropriate."
It's common practice for a manager to back his players. But Maddon went further than that. What he's telling us is that cheating exists within baseball. Now that steroids are pretty much out of the picture apparently it's acceptable to revert to more traditional ways of hoodwinking opponents. Like doctoring baseballs. And corking bats. Whatever it takes to inflate the numbers, extract maximum value out of contract negotiations and win a few extra games along the way.
Baseball has lived for decades — or, more likely, throughout its existence — in a culture of see no evil, speak no evil. The post-incident focus within the Rays dismissed Peralta's breaking of the rules and, instead, centered on who might have ratted him out. Peralta spoke of feeling a certain reassurance when former teammates approached him to say they played no part in the unmasking.
Gangland mentality — coming soon to a diamond near you.
Contrast the culture within baseball with that within golf. There are no guaranteed salaries on the links. No one cashes checks while spending time on a disabled list. Either you perform or you don't get paid, and how well you perform determines how well you're paid. Given its structure, no sport would appear more prone to cheating than golf.
Instead, golf takes the flip side and pursues integrity's extreme. The expectation is that if a golfer breaks a rule — or even falls victim to a rule — he'll turn himself in. Recent U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson lost last year's Zurich Classic in a playoff to recent Masters winner Bubba Watson after incurring a one-stroke penalty four holes from the finish.
In golf, honesty's the norm. Graeme McDowell took a two-stroke penalty in May when his ball moved while he located a wayward drive that landed in a precarious position. McDowell later brought it to the attention of officials who viewed television footage and deemed him correct. In essence, McDowell penalized himself twice. It's enough to make you wonder which sport should be considered our national pastime.
Or, at the least, which sport should not be.