Correction: A previous version of this column implied that McGraw managed the Giants in the 1890s. He became the team’s manager in 1902. This version has been corrected.
Where do gamesmanship and looking for a competitive edge turn into cheating? Are there degrees of rule bending — including some that add flavor and debate to sports while others simply degrade it and deserve condemnation? Where do our latest Thanksgiving week pirates, Mike Tomlin and Jason Kidd, rank in the sketchy spectrum of play-for-pay?
Such debates have roared at least as far back as Orioles and Giants Manager John McGraw, who taught runners to go from first to third — without touching second base — when the small umpiring crews at the turn of the century (sometimes only one ump) were not in position to see them cut far inside the base. We’re unlikely to get a final answer today. But the fun’s back.
Tomlin and Kidd now enter, with full honors, one of my favorite realms of sports, those who tie the rules into a pretzel at the moment when the outcome of the game is at stake and have the gall to do it in broad daylight, with refs, foes, fans and cameras all aligned to nail them. When they get away with it unpunished, except for a $50,000 fine for Kidd and a similar punishment likely for Tomlin, where do we stand?
I’m not from the school of “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.” Tomlin and Kidd are not heroes. But Kidd’s clumsily spilled soda, done to get his Nets a vital break in play with 8.3 seconds left in a game Wednesday night, and Tomlin’s absent-minded sideline stroll Thursday night, three feet into forbidden territory and inches from the path of a Ravens kick returner, will make me grin for weeks — or maybe years — after 100 other games are forgotten. We all know they did it on purpose.
The Nets, out of timeouts, were down two points against the Lakers when Kidd said “hit me” to one of his players who was exiting the game, then bumped into him and splashed ice and soda all over the court; as he feigned shock and cleaned the mess, his assistants had time to set up the last-second play they wanted. It might’ve meant a win. But it failed.
The Steelers saved four vital points when the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones, zooming down the sideline for what might have been a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, veered slightly to avoid Tomlin and was instantly tackled from behind for a mere 73-yard gain. Tomlin was several feet into well-marked don’t-go-there territory for a coach; his toe was even on the field. Replays look like he knew exactly what he was doing. Whether he did or not, refs blew the call: either a penalty tacked on to the the run or a touchdown awarded to the Ravens. Those extra points almost led to overtime. But they didn’t. Pittsburgh lost, too.
My whole life I’ve taken guilty pleasure in such moments. Both are just barely inside my line. If you want to string up Tomlin and Kidd — that is, beyond Kidd’s fine and Tomlin’s likely discipline — the last iota of piracy in your soul must be dead. But everybody’s boundaries are different, especially, perhaps, if you’re a Lakers or Ravens fan.
Sport has dark crimes and colorful ones. Those who plot, then hide their sins, deserve a curl of the lip. If you spy on a foe’s practice, like the Patriots did under Bill Belichick, you’re just a thief of industrial secrets. If you buy a black-market performance-enhancing drug, delivered in secret, taken in hiding, I hope the best available drug testing catches you.
All nefarious acts in sport, however, are not so clear. Our feelings about those ethical gray areas tell us a good deal about each other and, sometimes, ourselves.
In the tradition of managers, hoping for a cancellation, who tell their grounds crews to (accidentally) dump a zillion gallons of water in the tarp onto the infield rather than in foul territory, Kidd gave an explanation that contained his own barely disguised confession.
“Cup slipped out of my hand,” he said via ESPN. “Sweaty palms. I was never good with the ball.” Right. Kidd is second in NBA history in assists. He has great hands. For me, if Kidd hadn’t tried to do something, he would have come close to neglecting his job. And it matters that he didn’t have an assistant or flunky do the soda fumble. He’s the boss. He did it. If it’s someday a data point in a Kidd firing, he’ll be the one who lives with it.
Tomlin may be right at the juncture between what entertains and what infuriates us. In sports it can be a wonderfully fine line. I confess: I enjoy that conflict.
Watching with family on Thanksgiving, we squawked that Baltimore deserved a touchdown. Replays of the Cheshire cat grin on Tomlin’s face left little doubt he knew what he was doing. He conceded that, though his back was turned to Jones, he was watching the play on Jumbotron. The better to time his last-second jump aside?
“I always watch the returns on the Jumbotron. It provides better perspective for me,” Tomlin said afterward at M&T Bank Stadium. “Obviously, I lost my placement as he broke free and saw at the last second how close I was to the field of play. I do it quite often, like everybody else in the NFL. I was wrong. I accept responsibility for it.”
Jones also played his postgame role perfectly. “I was running down the sideline, I promise you I’m looking at him the whole time like . . . ‘Is he going to move?’ ” Jones said. “I just weaved out of the way. It broke my stride a little bit, but I still shouldn’t have gotten caught. It is what it is. [The Steelers player] made the tackle. If I was him, I’d do the same thing. . . .
“Coaches are smart nowadays,” Jones added. “You gotta do what you gotta do. It’s hard to get a win out here on these streets.”
And it always has been.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.