One of the great charms of baseball is its constant innovation in the field of cheating.
In some eras, the pitchers get ahead of the hitters by nicking up the ball with turpentine, Vaseline, thumbtacks and anything else you can hide on your person.
Joe Niekro, a veteran scoundrel, once got caught on the mound with an emery board in one pocket and a piece of sandpaper in the other.
Niekro claimed he needed the emery board to file his nails between innings.
And the sandpaper?
"Sometimes I sweat a lot and the emery board gets wet," Niekro explained, straight-faced. They still suspended him.
"[He] was so blatant," one of the umpires on duty said later. "It was like a guy walking down the street carrying a bottle of booze during Prohibition."
At other points in history, hitters assume the unfair advantage with pine tar, corked bats and performance-enhancing drugs.
It wasn't until the last of those became a problem that people got really upset because, let's admit it, the idea of 43-year-old Niekro loaded down with more paraphernalia than a drug-store shelf is pretty amusing.
But PEDs marked a new line in the sand. Suddenly, cheating wasn't roguish fun. It was taking the food out of pitchers' mouths and putting the game in disrepute.
That created an atmosphere of paranoia that has outlasted the steroid era. Every breakout year or mid-career power surge is still trailed by whispers – 'How do you think he managed that?' – and a raised eyebrow.
Of course, it's a brave pro who will publicly malign a colleague without proof (or even after the proof has been provided). Going after individuals is still seen as poor form.
So when things go sideways now, you do the 2017 thing: Blame the elites in charge.
This season, major-league baseball is on pace for a historic high in home runs hit.
That's good for hitters and fans, and less so for pitchers. After a few months of feeling badly about themselves, some of them have come to the happy realization that they're not to blame for their own poor play. It's the baseball's fault.
In recent days, several players have claimed this year's ball has changed, that it's harder and more likely to flatten on its way to the plate. They can't explain exactly what's different, just that it is.
"I don't have anything to quantify it, but the balls just don't feel the same," reliever Brad Ziegler told USA Today in a piece citing a few major-leaguers saying roughly the same thing.
"I'm staying away from my candid thoughts," Tampa Bay's Chris Archer said.
Aside from pitching, most quoted one thing in common – they're having down years. Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and others who have continued to perform at the highest level have yet to mention that the ball now feels like a shot put.
The dark inference from the complainers is that Major League Baseball, working in cahoots with its manufacturer, Rawlings, has conspired to sabotage the ball in order to engineer more big, crowd-pleasing hits.
Like most conspiracy theories, this one is rapidly spreading so that it can explain all sorts of things, such as blister injuries. The stitching on the ball is now sewn tighter, they say, giving it a lower profile and an unfamiliar grip.
Aaron Sanchez of the Toronto Blue Jays didn't say anything about the ball when blisters afflicted him in April.
But after Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman developed a blister during Monday night's game in New York, he became the latest ball truther to go public.
"It's not a coincidence that it's happening to so many guys right now," Stroman told reporters.
Yes, it most likely is. And how can I be sure? Because the story being hinted at by the paranoiacs not only lacks evidence, but defies common sense.
MLB has pushed back on the players quoted in the USA Today story by issuing an exasperated memo to all of its teams. It concludes: "There is no evidence that the composition of the ball has changed in any way that would lead to a meaningful impact on on-field play." MLB says it has done the empiric work to back up that claim.
So MLB's command structure is now on the record. Could it be wrong? It's certainly possible. Could it be lying? Well, people lie for all sorts of dumb reasons.
But is there any scenario in which it would make sense to lie? Absolutely none.
If MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, club owners and Rawlings want to change the ball, they can just do that. It doesn't require prior approval by the Illuminati. All they need to do so is an amended work order and a news release. Because they run the game of baseball.
If something about the manufacturing process has changed inadvertently, the only smart thing to do would be to admit it. Since all teams must pitch with the same balls, I'm not sure who the genuinely aggrieved party could be here. There is no rule that says pitchers must be advantaged by the composition of the ball. In other sports – soccer, for instance – the ball is constantly being redesigned. Goalkeepers occasionally complain and everyone tells them, "Tough." Then they adapt.
What is being covertly suggested here is that MLB – a league that understands better than any other that cover-ups are bad for business – has embarked on a secret plot involving dozens of people that will end many careers if it's ever unravelled, when they could achieve the same result by saying what they want to do out loud. This is a good point at which to apply Occam's Razor.
Clearly, something has changed in baseball. Maybe it is the ball. Maybe it's an unusual uptick for hitters, an especially poor year for pitchers, better training methods, a resurgence in PEDs, improved scouting or just a plain fluke. It could be (and probably is) a lot of things.
You know what it isn't? A conspiracy.