“Say It Ain’t…”

Remember this.

Spring training is two parts performance and ten parts injury avoidance. The only score that matters after each game is number of players injured. The closer the Padres stay to zero the better.

The other iron rule of Spring Training is what happens before the games — the pick-off moves, the bunting drills, the fluidity of situational infield movements, the refinements of angles outfielders take to fly balls in the gaps — matters more than all box scores combined. Other than injury tallies, game statistics are rubbish.

This is a time of anticipation, anxiety and hope — for all fans, not just us; we do have much more experience with anxiety than most, some experience with hope and almost none with anticipation.

It is therefore time to ponder deeper issues with the great game of baseball.

It is suffering its greatest crisis since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. It’s hard to make sense of history when you’re living it. Trust me, the time I am spending now in Washington will be recorded in books for decades to come. I drown daily in history’s deluge, unable to catalog or comprehend it all.

Baseball is changing before our very eyes. A World Series Trophy is worth less than a garbage can lid; lawsuits allege career-altering cheating; Mike Fiers, the courageous whistle-blower, fears in-game retaliation or worse; the commissioner’s office keeps revising its account of unearthing the unholy mess. Spring is not supposed to smell. This season dawns in stench.

Conspiracy. Cowardice. Deceit. The Astros lead the league in all three. Listen to the game’s best players – Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger – and you know it’s not over. Before apologists cloud the issue, the question is not whether stealing signs made the Astros World Champions. The question is what defect made the Astros so contemptuous of baseball, its fans, its history and their own honor to systematically defraud all of them and then cynically celebrate as deserving innocents?

Say it ain’t so.

While we are on that topic, let’s clear up another matter. “Say it ain’t so, Joe” never happened. It was never said. It is a part of baseball lore, a poignant and poetic refrain too good to ignore and therefore too good to correct. Just like “Nice guys finish last.” That wasn’t said either. Baseball fans know them as well as lyrics from a favorite song or a Bible verse. What we know isn’t always true. What we knew about the 2017 World Series wasn’t either. What we know about the 2018 World Series might not be either, hear that, Boston Red Sox?

Unspooling both of these myths might help us put some of today’s history in context. That is my effort here.

Back to “Say it ain’t so.” In his lovely book, Nice Guys Finish Seventh, Ralph Keyes dissects the artful deception that gave us “Say it ain’t so” and “Nice Guys Finish Last.”

Quick review of the first. The Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for payoffs from gamblers. There was a trial in 1920 in Chicago. As Keyes writes: “The baseball players’ sin cast a pall over America’s secular religion. Not just baseball but the American sense of self was on trial.”

As the story goes, Joe Jackson, known widely as “Shoeless Joe,” exited the courthouse after testifying before a grand jury. There was a crowd. Jackson pushed through. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton filed this account of Jackson:

“He did not swagger. He slunk along between the guardians, and the kids, with wide eyes and tightening throats watched, and one, bolder than the others, pressed forward and said:

‘It ain’t so, Joe, is it?’

‘Yes, kid. I’m afraid it is.’

And the world of faith crashed around the heads of the kids. Their idol lay in dust, their faith destroyed.”

Over the years, “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” morphed into “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Keyes also notes Jackson forever denied saying anything to anyone other than a deputy sheriff who escorted him through the throng. But the legend and the fallacy persist.

Same with “Nice Guys Finish Last.” This supposed bit of baseball wisdom has transcended the sport to become a cautionary warning about playing by the rules, living decently and falling steadily behind — inevitably and as if by some writ of Darwinian justice. It was never said. It was barely implied.

In July of 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, as cussed a skipper as there was in the game, was running down the crosstown rival New York Giants. The Dodgers’ radio announcer, Red Barber, leaned on Durocher to ease up. “Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change?”

As Keyes writes:

“Durocher leaped to his feet. ‘A nice guy?’ he shouted. ‘I been around in baseball for a long time and I’ve known a lot of nice guys. But I never saw a nice guy who was any good when you needed him. Go up to one of those nice guys some time when you need a hundred to get you out of a jam and he’ll always give you that, ‘Sorry, pal. I’d like to help you but things are not going so good at the ranch.’ That’s what they’ll give you, those nice guys. I’ll take the guys who ain’t nice. The guys who would put you in a cement mixer if they felt like it. But you get in a jam and you don’t have to go to them. They’ll come looking for you and say ‘How much do you need?’

Durocher pointed at the Giants’ dugout, saying ‘Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than (Giants manager) Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!’”

The point wasn’t that being a nice guy made you a loser. Durocher said his experience with “nice guys” taught him they were phonies who never came through in tough times. But gritty guys who knew hardship, who scrapped and clawed and got mean doing it, did. Nice wasn’t about losing. It was about hypocrisy.

In the Shoeless Joe Jackson story, if it is to be believed, a question was asked of the fallen hero that tried to get to the heart of the entire mess: “It ain’t so, Joe, is it” is not asking Joe to deny something already believed that is crushing; rather it is asking the player at the center of the storm if this terrible thing is as real and genuinely terrible as it sounds? “Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Durocher did not say being nice made you a loser. He said being undependable, weak and two-faced did.

In this modern crisis wrought by the Astros and possibly others, it’s time to remember the importance of that question to Jackson and Durocher’s denunciation of two-bit phonies.

Baseball will be saved by players and front offices who remember these stories — the accurate versions — for what they say about scandal, hypocrisy and lying first to yourself and then the world.

Major Garrett was born and raised in Clairemont, is Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News, host of “The Takeout” podcast and author of the book “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams and Occasional Blackouts of His Extraordinary First Year in Office.”

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