Major-league baseball is incomparably dirty — and it’s almost comically bad at it

Officials are now talking about cracking down on what some experts are calling an epidemic of pitchers doctoring baseballs.

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Third base umpire Joe West, center, tosses Cardinals manager Mike Shildt (8) as home plate umpire Nic Lentz, catcher Andrew Knizner and relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos watch during a May 26 game against the White Sox. West had confiscated Gallegos’ smudged cap.

Third base umpire Joe West, center, tosses Cardinals manager Mike Shildt (8) as home plate umpire Nic Lentz, catcher Andrew Knizner and relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos watch during a May 26 game against the White Sox. West had confiscated Gallegos’ smudged cap.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Somebody out there please help a man whose faith in the honor and uprightness of our national pastime is close to gone. If a fuel gauge measured trust in baseball, I’d be walking along the side of the highway, red gas can in hand.

What is there to believe in when it comes to the game, other than 30-plus years of exuberant cheating?

Hitting? Steroids poisoned baseball in the 1990s and 2000s, if not beyond.

Catchers’ signs? Stolen like catalytic converters by the Astros in a scandal that ruined the 2017 World Series.

And now … pitching? I thought there were a few rogue spitballers out there, perhaps a small group of dedicated glue-under-the-cap cheaters. What an innocent I was! Major League Baseball is now talking about cracking down on what some are calling an epidemic of pitchers doctoring baseballs. Not a few people coughing, but a plague. A recently retired pitcher told Sports Illustrated that “80 to 90%’’ of major-league pitchers are using sticky substances today.

They’re using it to increase the spin rate on their pitches. The greater the spin rate, the more movement on breaking balls. The more movement, the more hitters who look hopelessly lost. As of Friday, the big-league batting average was .236, which, if the season had ended that day, would be the lowest in history.

Baseball is the dirtiest major American sport. That’s not to say the others are the picture of virtue. Some NFL linemen did not get to be 330 pounds of muscle solely on hard work. The “lesser’’ sports are pure, you say? I’m sorry to interrupt your fantasy of golf being a gentleman’s game, but there are some gentlemen on the PGA Tour who are hitting the ball ridiculously far. Too far. I smell a polo-shirted rat.

But major-league baseball is the dirtiest sport, and that’s not even the main story here. It’s that baseball is bad at cheating. So let’s call it the dirtiest, dumbest sport. The Astros’ system for stealing signs from opposing catchers involved video cameras and someone in the dugout banging on a garbage can if an off-speed pitch was coming. Why not use smoke signals? Or two empty soup cans attached to a string? That’s how dumb the Astros were.

The reason pitchers believe they can get away with doctoring the ball is because they almost always have. Think about it. They are throwing incriminating evidence in the direction of law-enforcement officials (the home-plate umpire) every time they throw a sticky ball to the plate. It would be like a home invader leaving his driver’s license on a table at the house he burgled 10 days in a row.

The difference is that MLB officials have looked the other way for years, thinking … thinking what? What could they have been thinking? They were not thinking, which brings us back to dumb. If that many pitchers are cheating, it’s because officials didn’t want to do anything about it. And that’s the essence of stupidity.

MLB ignored a burgeoning steroid scandal because it liked the idea of lots of home runs. What they received instead was the cartoonishly muscular Barry Bonds, he of the incredibly expanding noggin. They got Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and a big, fat stain on the game.

You think officials would have learned, but, no, not even close. When the Astros’ cheating scandal happened, it was an opportunity for MLB to send a message to the world that cheating in any form would not be tolerated. It was a chance to exhibit some backbone. The way to do that was to relieve Houston of its World Series title. Instead, MLB fined the Astros $5 million, took away some future draft picks and suspended the team’s manager and general manager for a season.

The moral? Crime pays, dummy.

(I’m still enjoying the White Sox’ excellence and the Cubs’ surprising success. But do I trust that either team is as clean as folded laundry? Not on your life. Definitely not on mine.)

At this point, I’m guessing that many baseball fans don’t care about any of this, including the latest scandal. Did you see how much break there was on that pitch! Crazy! It’s like watching movie stars who have had tons of work done on their bodies. You like gazing upon them. Your gaze doesn’t care how they arrived at their looks.

But at what point does the concept of fairness kick in? We can spend hours debating whether steroids are a worse sin than doctored baseballs, or whether stealing signs is worse than using performance-enhancing drugs. Some of you will chalk all of it up to “gamesmanship,’’ which is a euphemism for “cheating one’s ass off.’’ None of the scandals that have hit baseball are the equivalent of stealing a pack of chewing gum from the convenience store. They all can affect the outcome of games. So let’s call it what it is: fraud.

The stupidity of the whole thing is what’s so stunning. You don’t think you’re eventually going to get caught using PEDs when you look like a circus strongman? You don’t think you’re going to get caught after the curveball you just threw Super Glues itself to the catcher’s mitt?

And MLB doesn’t think it’s going to come off as dumb for looking away for so long on so many things?

You want really, really dumb? A work stoppage could hit baseball for the 2022 season. Owners will cry poor from the effects of the pandemic, and players will remember how past agreements have favored owners and teams. Go ahead and roll your eyes.

Welcome to our national pastime, where dumb meets dirty. And nobody wins.

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