The player grinned, said, "This is off the record," and showed me his baseball cap. Underneath the bill was a smear of pine tar. "Just for a little extra grip," he said, and grinned again.
I won't reveal the identity of the player, because the conversation was, indeed, off the record, but a prominent major league pitcher felt comfortable displaying the method by which he attained a better grip tells you a lot about cheating in baseball, and in all sports.
For much of modern sports history, cheating bordered on the quaint. Maybe a hockey player played with a slightly too-curved stick, or a cornerback's hands dripped adhesive goo. Maybe a pitcher added a dab of Vaseline to the ball to make it dive, or a catcher deftly scuffed the ball before throwing it back.
Hitters corked their bats, which is not scientifically proven to produce better results. Football players attained unprecedented combinations of speed and power by taking performance-enhancing drugs, and nobody seemed to care much, because, you know, both sides did it and, man, look at those guys run.
Unless a player or team was conspiring to throw a game, cheating in sports rarely seemed to matter much until inflated versions of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds destroyed baseball's single-season home run record. That was the tipping point for most fans: Obvious cheating leading to the toppling of glorified records.
We should be reaching another tipping point.
The Houston Astros won a World Series while cheating.
The New England Patriots have won multiple Super Bowls while cheating.
Here in Minnesota, we have the perfect precedent for punishing cheaters. Take away their trophies.
The 1996-97 Gopher men's basketball team qualified for the Final Four, was found to have cheated academically, and had its accomplishments erased.
The Astros are accused of stealing signs electronically, and their ability to hit pitches they knew were coming led to a World Series title and a reputation as the smartest organization in baseball.
If Major League Baseball finds them guilty, they should have their championship erased, and they should be punished in a way that damages their ability to compete. Fines will not do. They need to be penalized many draft picks, as well as forced to forfeit their title. They must become a symbol of the perils of consequential cheating.
If you saw the video of the Patriots' employees filming the Cincinnati Bengals sideline while pretending to do a feature on a New England advance scout, you were left with two thoughts:
• They need to cheat to beat the Bengals?
• If they're willing to cheat to beat the Bengals, think of all the other ways in which they must cheat, and how extensively they must cheat when they have to play a good team.
Earlier this season, Bills coach Sean McDermott escorted Patriots coach Bill Belichick's son, Brian, and another Patriots staffer off the field when they lingered before a game to watch the Bills warm up. The team that brought you Spygate and deflated footballs will do anything to gain an advantage.
When the New Orleans Saints were accused of setting a bounty on Brett Favre, Saints head coach Sean Payton, who may not have known about the bounty, was suspended for a year.
If the NFL finds the Patriots guilty of cheating again — and if the league doesn't, it should never be trusted again on any topic — Belichick should be suspended for two.
The NFL won't do that, of course. It's not a league built on ethics. It's a league built on selling violence to an eager audience, and the Patriots draw an audience.
The Astros and Patriots are proven cheaters. In an industry where any microscopic advantage can provide the difference between victory and defeat, it's fair to ask whether they would have won without cheating.
Both should be punished. And the only punishment that will mean anything to them will be the shame of having their championships vacated.