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Ron Kaplan

Ron Kaplan

Posted: September 17, 2010 04:42 PM

If he's on your team, it's "cheating."

In the seventh inning of the Sept. 15 game between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, legendary stand-up guy Derek Jeter hoodwinked home plate umpire Lance Barksdale into believing he had been hit in the wrist/forearm area by a Chad Qualls pitch and was thus entitled to first base.

Replays -- unofficial, of course, since baseball doesn't use them for anything other than disputed home runs -- clearly showed the ball hit Jeter's bat. But the Yankee captain and face of the franchise for more than a decade was jumping up and down like he'd just been stung by a nest of bees. The trainer came out, I guess for moral support since there was no injury, and the ump sent the Yankees' role model on his merry way. (Barksdale also kicked out Rays' manager Joe Maddon for voicing his opinion about the situation). Curtis Granderson immediately followed with a home run to put the Yankees up, 3-2.

See for yourself:

Fortunately for truth and justice, the Rays' Dan Johnson hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the frame to give Tampa Bay the 4-3 win.

I don't usually listen to sports talk radio, but once in awhile I hear Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN, which is where this situation came to my attention. Mike Golic, a former pro football player who admitted to taking steroids, believes what Jeter did is no big deal, and even admirable. Mike Greenberg sort of took the other side of the argument.

Cheating? Gamesmanship? The program played an audio from the post-game interview in which a reporter asked Jeter what the ball hit. "The bat," he said. "And..." prompted the reporter? No response. To paraphrase Jeter, if the umpire was kind enough to award him first base, it would be impolite to refuse the invitation.

Golic and Greenberg compared this to other bits of sports trickery, such as an outfielder claiming to have caught a ball that actually short-hopped into his glove, or a soccer player taking a dive to get a penalty call. Golic suggested that if an athlete actually declined a gift such as the one Jeter received, honing up by saying something along the lines of "Mr. Umpire, Sir, I cannot tell a lie. That ball didn't hit me," said athlete would not be long for the pro ranks. (They also agreed that if it had been A-Rod instead of Jeter, there probably would have been a lot more discussion, given Rodriguez's past indiscretions, but that's another story.)

That's what really got me thinking: where is the ethical ledge that one steps off from youth sports into the higher levels? We try to teach our kids to be good sports and do the right thing... but only up to a point. Does that mean it's okay to follow the rules as long as the games don't really count for anything?

Many words have been written about this fine line. Joshua Prager based his 2006 book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World on whether baseball's most dramatic home run was abetted by an elaborate system of stealing signals. Dan Gutman devoted a whole volume to the many ways to circumvent the rules in It Ain't Cheating If You Don't Get Caught (1990), a veritable primer on how to get by.

There's playing the game on the field as it's meant to be done, and then there's playing the game by looking for the loopholes. Who's going to step up and determine which is the right way to play "America's Game?"