"Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century."

Mark Twain

One day after a rain delay had left the diamond muddy, players from another team noticed that the Philadelphia Phillies' third base coach was, inning after inning, standing with one foot in a deep puddle of water. They also noticed that their pitchers were getting killed.

Why would a man deliberately stick his foot in a shoelace-deep puddle? Between innings, the suspicious players dug around in the mud. And unearthed a block of wood with a buzzer button. Next they tore up the underground wire connected to the box to see where it led. To the center field scoreboard.

There they found a Phillies player with binoculars, stealing signs, then relaying them to Cupid Childs, the coach who could feel the tipoff signal in the sole of his wet foot.

This happened in 1899, as it is related in a book called "Pitching in a Pinch," written by Christy Mathewson. As Heywood Broun put it, writing in the New York World in 1923, "The tradition of professional baseball always has been agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, 'Do anything you can get away with.' "

In many ways, that was the American rule of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of cartels and robber barons, Wall Street skulduggery, Elmer Gantry charlatanism and big stick foreign policy. Avarice and a will to power posed as philosophy behind names like Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny.

What goes around comes around, they say. So perhaps it is only fitting that in a decade that has given us Ivan Boesky and Jim Bakker, we should also see a full-scale revival of cheating in baseball. Why shouldn't scuffballs and corked bats be rampant in an age that glorifies leveraged mergers? Under our public pieties, the subtext of the '80s often seems to be: "Do anything you can get away with."

Ballplayers are a cross-section of society -- followers of the national mood. And they've heard the message. Make the umps catch you red-handed. And always maintain plausible deniability.

Yesterday, American League President Bobby Brown suspended 42-year-old Joe Niekro for 10 days for defacing baseballs -- the first such suspension in five years and only the fourth since spitballs and the like were outlawed back in the 1920s.

Niekro claimed the emery board and sandpaper that came out of his uniform when the umpire told him to empty his pockets were just there to trim his fingernails. A plausible denial, right? It's tough to find a manicurist between innings at 10 o'clock at night.

Everywhere you look these days it's scuff this and cork that, grease here and saliva there. The National League's 1986 Cy Young Award winner, Mike Scott, is almost universally assumed, within dugouts, to be a creation of illegal scuffed pitches, plus a new forkball. Rick Rhoden and Tommy John are reasons 1 and 1A for the Yankees' presence in first place; if they don't abrade the horsehide, then maybe the whole thing is just a UFO scare and nobody cheats.

Ask pitching coaches and veteran pitchers to guess how many hurlers cheat, at least occasionally, and estimates almost always range between one-third and one-half. The difference is that scofflaw behavior no longer seems to carry much stigma. As Cal Ripken Sr. has noted, pitchers now cheat on any count, not just on a vital two-strike pitch with men on base.

Hitters are just as brazen. After Howard Johnson was accused by St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog of corking his bat, the Mets third baseman tweaked the Cardinals by leaving one of his bats in the St. Louis clubhouse when he left town; the club was sarcastically plugged everywhere with corks. Very funny. "He's going to get bleeping drilled for this," said one Cardinals reliever.

Many fans feel considerable ambivalence around the sport's laissez-faire attitude toward the rule book. Something in almost all of us loves an outlaw, a rascal, if only his daring and style are sufficiently maintained. That's not to say that most of our nature approves -- just a part. A few generations ago, that passion for rapscallions was not so well hidden. America was half-proud of its desperadoes and gangsters, even as it printed wanted posters and organized manhunts. To run the little man out of business like old John D. Rockefeller or rouse the rabble like William Jennings Bryant or rejoice in war like the young Teddy Roosevelt was not inconsistent with being a national hero.

In our time, sports is one of the preserves within a civilized society where scofflaw emotions can feel at home and not be run entirely off the turf. We love to hear the story of Earl Weaver visiting a struggling Ross Grimsley at the mound and saying to the much suspected left-hander, "If you know how to cheat, start now."

Two old-timers give us what might be called the pure professional view of cheating in baseball. "I'd always have {grease} in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe off one. I never wanted to be caught out there without anything. It wouldn't be professional," wrote 300-game winner Gaylord Perry in his book "Me and the Spitter."

Former manager George Bamberger once put the issue perfectly for all the Niekros and Scotts: "We do not play baseball. We play professional baseball. Amateurs play games. We are paid to win games. There are rules, and there are consequences if you break them. If you are a pro, then you often don't decide whether to cheat based on if it's 'right or wrong.' You base it on whether or not you can get away with it, and what the penalty might be. A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor."

That is the old voice of 19th century baseball, full of rush and push, boom and drive, an age of energy and can-do certainty, not of conscience and ambivalence. It charmed us then and still seduces us today. It is a familiar voice, telling us that, if we only see things properly, dead wrong can be rationalized as perfectly all right.

The voice of Joe Niekro. And Oliver North.