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Blubaugh: Cheating in sports? Say it ain’t so

There’s a famous scene in “Casablanca" in which the local police captain, in closing down Humphrey Bogart’s gin joint, declares, “I am shocked — shocked — to find that gambling is going on in here!” (A moment later he puts his winnings in his pocket.)

That pretty much sums up how everyone should feel after the report came out about the Houston Astros stealing signs.

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Shocked doesn’t quite do it. Stunned, maybe? Astonished? Gobsmacked?

I mean, cheating in baseball? Say it ain’t, so.

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Major League Baseball issued a report last week detailing how the Astros used a combination of cutting-edge technology and old-school garbage cans to steal and relay pitch signs en route to their 2017 World Series title. It’s a lot easier to hit a changeup when you know that’s what’s coming rather than a 100-mph fastball.

Of course, baseball players have been stealing signs since long before Ty Cobb was sharpening his spikes.

According to reporting by The Athletic, way back in ’76 — 1876, that is — the Hartford Dark Blues of the National Association “placed a man in a small shack on a telegraph pole beyond the outfield wall to alert their batters to when that newfangled curveball was coming.”

It has long been said that the most famous home run in baseball history, Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” to send the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and into the 1951 World Series, came as a result of sign stealing.

Heck, teams routinely change signs and take other precautions every time a runner reaches second base for a simple reason: The baserunner suddenly has a nice view of the catcher’s crotch, where the signs are flashed to the pitcher indicating that he should throw a fastball, a curveball or something else.

Former All-Star pitcher Jack McDowell blew the whistle on his former team, the Chicago White Sox, in a radio interview Friday, saying that Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa had instituted a system in the 1980s when the team played in the original Comiskey Park whereby a hidden camera in a Gatorade sign in center field would zoom in on the catcher when someone hit a toggle switch in the manager’s office.

McDowell also called out La Russa for overseeing the OG’s of another of baseball’s cheating scandals, steroid era Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs to gain a significant, unfair advantage allowed career minor leaguers to become major leaguers, major leaguers to become All-Stars and All-Stars to put up video game numbers. Others put cork in their bats to get an edge. And then there was Sammy Sosa, who made good use of both steroids and cork.

This is a sport that didn’t just condone the cheating of spitballer Gaylord Perry, it celebrated it, giving him Cy Young Awards and putting him in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to bodily fluids, pitchers have been to known to use Vaseline or mud or pine tar to make the ball do funny things. Or they scuff it. Joe Niekro got thrown out of a game for bringing an emery board and sandpaper to the mound.

It’s not just baseball, of course, in which athletes take shortcuts to success. Rosie Ruiz once took literal shortcuts to win the Boston Marathon. A basketball team from Spain once won gold in the Paralympics with a roster filled with players claiming fake disabilities. An NFL player once used a contraption known as “The Whizzinator” to beat a urine test.

Lance Armstrong did, well, Lance Armstrong things. PGA player Patrick Reed recently got caught grounding his club in a sand trap by TV cameras at a tournament hosted by Tiger Woods, who has never cheated. (In golf, at least.)

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College football and basketball teams have been known to recruit athletes with hundred-dollar (and much more) handshakes. Soccer and NBA players perform Oscar-worthy flops. The New England Patriots are known for not only “Spygate," but also “Deflategate.”

The phrase, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” is mostly associated with NASCAR, but it can be applied to most sports. Sadly, the circumventing of rules trickles down from the pros to high school and youth sports, where using ineligible players in an effort to win is not uncommon.

So let’s not get too up in arms about this sign stealing scandal. Cheating is wrong, but it’s neither new nor limited to any particular sport.

Properly chastised, MLB teams will put away their high-def cameras and garbage can lids — and start looking for some other way to gain an advantage. Play it again, Sam.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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