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Catching Them Cheat Might Be Bigger Feat, but It Is Time to Try

July 31, 1989|MIKE DOWNEY

Mike Scott leads major league pitchers in victories.

Howard Johnson is third among major league hitters in home runs.

And both of them are being called cheaters, behind their backs and right to their faces.

Orel Hershiser and a couple of his Dodger cronies were the latest to do it, actually using the C word after losing to Scott and the Houston Astros recently.

Once again, allegations are surfacing that Scott scuffs the baseball, same as when some of the New York Mets--Howard Johnson among them--took it upon themselves to confiscate baseballs while facing Scott in the 1986 National League playoffs.

Johnson, himself, has been accused of using a "corked" bat more often than any player in modern times, particularly because his home run output has gone up and up and up. Whitey Herzog, the St. Louis manager, says he would like to see an X-ray machine near the on-deck circle, so umpires can examine bats immediately, with no waiting for results from the lab.

Next time the Mets and Astros meet and Scott faces Johnson in the ninth inning, maybe the umpires should call in the baseball police. Have them conduct a thorough search. Maybe call in that Dowd guy the commissioner hired to grill Pete Rose.

On the night Scott defeated the Dodgers, it marked his 16th victory of the season--and it was still only July. And Sunday, on three days' rest, Scott won again, for No. 17. It was the 112th win of his career.

By now, if this guy really was cheating, wouldn't you think baseball would have done something about it? After all those hundreds of baseballs the umpires have studied and saved, shouldn't somebody have concluded by now that Scott is doctoring the ball, and that he ought to be suspended?

Guess not. Joe Niekro was in his 40s, or thereabouts, before somebody dug up any evidence against him. Poor Joe tried to hide that emery board of his by flipping it right past the umpires' eyes, but their eyes are not as bad as all that.

Kevin Gross also got nabbed "cheating," as did Rick Honeycutt before him and Jay Howell after him. Gaylord Perry, well, he got away scot-free. They didn't catch him with spit.

Most pitchers play by the rules. But pitchers do cheat, and they do get caught, and if Mike Scott is so obvious about it that somebody with the integrity of Orel Hershiser is willing to say so publicly, isn't it about time somebody cracked down on Scott before the guy pitches the Astros into the World Series?

When the Dodgers first reacted the way they did, our first thought might have been the same as that of the Astros: Shame on them. They were just sore about losing and needed a scapegoat. The more we thought about it, though, the more we thought about the reluctance of major leaguers such as Hershiser to say such things without provocation. How often do major leaguers criticize other major leaguers? Not often.

Hershiser had little to gain by speaking out. He irritated the Astros, who in the future, if they felt like it, could request that the umpires search him every time one of his breaking pitches drops more than six inches.

We can still picture Johnson and some of the other Mets, showing some of the baseballs they collected after facing Scott, baseballs that they dumped into a duffel with the intent of taking them to league officials. League officials didn't care to see them, though. There was no way, they claimed, they could prove that the Mets didn't scuff those balls themselves, just to get Scott in hot water.

One thing we do know is that Mike Scott has struck out close to 1,300 batters in his career, a lot of them with fastballs. The man has talent. He is 34 years old, so it is not as though he started striking out batters yesterday.

Part of the rap against both Scott and Johnson is that they improved so considerably "overnight." Scott was a 5-10 and 7-13 pitcher with the Mets and a 5-11 pitcher with the Astros until the 1985 season, when suddenly he went 18-8. He won 18 again the next season, then 16 more, then 14, and now appears to have 20 in the bag. Maybe 25 or 30.

Johnson was a guy who never played more than 126 games in a season in the majors during 1982-86, then smacked 36 homers for the Mets in 1987. All anybody seemed to remember was that with Detroit, HoJo couldn't even get off Sparky Anderson's bench during the 1984 World Series. What some people forget is that Anderson got tired of Johnson's fielding errors, and also was so into platooning that he practically refused to let his switch-hitting third baseman bat right-handed. Johnson had been a hitting fool all his life. In Clearwater, Fla., he is practically a Little League legend, and in triple-A ball in 1982, he clubbed 23 home runs in 98 games.

So what's the big deal about Johnson becoming a homer hitter? Maybe he got his confidence back. Maybe he got a chance to play. Maybe he changed his swing, went for power instead of average.

Maybe somebody, as Pete Rose recently joked, should stop checking to see if Howard Johnson's bat is corked and check to see if his arms are corked.

HoJo's bats have been checked again and again. Besides, a hitter still has to hit the ball, which ain't that easy.

A pitcher, though, can do whatever he wants with the ball. Mike Scott is innocent until proven guilty, but maybe somebody should start trying harder to see if he can be proven guilty. Enough of this scuff stuff. This is the year to investigate baseball people who break the rules, so come on. Investigate.

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