There was a time in this nation’s history when baseball was considered the national sport. A game that brought out the good in Americans who played and watched. It’s integrity was never in doubt.

Of course, there have always been cheaters, even in America’s pastime. Right from the very beginning. Since it is a game about hitting a ball with a bat, the most obvious areas in which tampering could take place would be with those two inanimate objects.

The spitball used to be legal. When Major League Baseball did away with it in the 30’s, a number of pitchers were actually “grandfathered”, permitted to utilize the offending pitch until their final days. Still, it is an irony that one of the top purveyors of the doctored ball throughout the 1940’s was a man named Preacher (Rowe).

There is a long list of cheaters up throughout the ages- Gaylord Perry, George Brett, Sammy Sosa, Rick Honeycut, Albert Belle, Joe Niekro…. well, you get it. These guys committed the crime of doctoring balls or corking bats.

Just like common criminals, when these offenders got caught, they were punished, usually with an ejection, in the most egregious cases (such as Perry’s) suspensions and fines. Rarely was the case argued, because the evidence against the offender was so clearcut as to make it downright silly for one to deny guilt. After all, a corked bat is a corked bat and nothing else. Pine tar is well, illegal if placed on a ball. I’m talking to you, Kenny Rogers.

In the 90’s cheating changed. Now, it was possible to cheat with one’s body, making it bigger, stronger and faster with anabolic steroids. Guys could build bigger muscle mass and recover faster than ever before. The little bottle that could created the behemoths of the age, Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds. To counter, pitchers cheated in the manner of Roger Clemens.

This was a different kind of cheating, one of quiet hearsay. Without a urine test to prove doping, the only evidence was circumstantial; deliveries of “vitamins” from sports labs to a “client’s” door. Stories of watching trainers shoot up athletes behind closed doors.

With such shadowy conspiracy comes the denials. Lies are inevitable, if one is banging a banned substance into one’s veins, there is only a single course of action that can be taken to retain the facade of integrity. Rafael Palmeiro, who was outed by teammate Jose Canseco in a tell-all book, testified in March, 2005 that he had never used steroids before a Congressional Committee. By August, he had tested positive for steroids and was suspended from the game.

Even though Barry Bonds was never caught in the act, he will always be labelled a liar and a cheater. Indicted for perjury in the BALCO scandal, he denied knowing that the substances he was using were sophisticated steroids designed to cheat the tests. Plenty of others involved had no problem rolling over and implicating him in the sordid business. Charges were dropped, a conviction overturned, but the damage done.

Barry Bonds has hit more home runs than any other human being in history. Chances are he will never achieve the pinnacle of baseball glory, induction into the Hall of Fame.

Baseball is like that. It can be maddeningly sluggish to react, but in the end it usually gets it right. At least it tries to, without any nod to apologists, because cheating ultimately ruins our trust in the game and then the game itself.

America used to be like that.

Then there’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

They are the head coach and star quarterback for the NFL’s New England Patriots, in case you’ve been on another planet for a couple of decades and needed that exposition. Belichick and Brady are one of the winningest combos in sports history. Under Belichick’s guidance, and with Brady at the helm for most of the millennium, the Pats have won fourteen division titles and appeared in seven Super Bowls, winning five. No one has been better than them… because they cheat.

In 2007, the Patriots were caught filming the New York Jets defensive practice at Gillette stadium. It turned out that this had been a regular practice- stealing the other team’s defensive signals. It doesn’t take a great deal of mental gymnastics to associate knowing what your opponent is going to do before they do it with a perfect 16-0 season and a trip to the Super Bowl. Fortunately, the football gods believe in karma and delivered Eli Manning to poke a hole in New England’s ill-gotten perfection. That they were playing at a neutral site for the first time in the playoffs and unable to use their secret weapon may have also factored in.

The result of being caught cheating? Belichick was fined $500,000, the Pats $250,000 and a draft pick. There was a lot of tearing of sackcloth on the part of Darth Belichick and bellowing on the part of the league but also a lot of looking the other way by sportswriters and fans. What wasn’t given up was the treasure gained by the Patriot’s cheating- not a single game was forfeited, the Pats were able to keep all of their playoff wins, the Super Bowl appearance, and all of the corresponding revenue from TV and memorabilia sold. A very calculated tradeoff that is now fading into the nether of history.

Proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, in a 2015 playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts for the American Conference Championship (and yet another trip to the Super Bowl) it was found that New England was using under-inflated footballs. This had the effect of allowing for a better grip (especially in bad weather) and a distinct competitive advantage over the other team.

New England took a commanding lead before being found out just before half-time, when one of the Colt’s defensive players happened to notice that it was extremely easy to hold onto the football in the cold, snowy conditions. New England coasted through the second half and into the Super Bowl. Brady and Belichick devoted a great deal of time in feigned indignity and ignorance while answering reporter’s questions about the obvious cheating during the two weeks leading up to the big game. The NFL offered to investigate… after the Super Bowl. New England cheated their way in again… and lost again. Was it because of the pressure from reporters’ scrutiny or the now restored pressure in the football?

The post-season investigation revealed that Tom Brady had instructed two of the Patriots staff members to under-inflate the footballs he would be using, something they did for him at least for that entire season. Further, he tried to get them to take the fall for him, offering baubles in return for their admission of guilt to the league. Super-genius Brady left a trail of text messages for investigators to follow along the way to his being caught red handed. The NFL fined Brady and suspended him for four games the following season.

Unlike Belichick’s mea culpa eight years prior, Tom Brady’s reaction was to take the NFL to court and block the suspension. He refused to admit he had committed any crime against the game, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Instead of handling the matter internally as had been done within the NFL for years with respect to disciplinary actions, he chose to use the federal judicial system to kick the can down the road.

Also unlike 2007, this time Brady had half of America on his side. Pundits and fans alike argued that, despite the evidence before them, he had been the victim of a jealous league, trying to tarnish his reputation and success. Others admitted Brady’s guilt and acted as apologists by claiming even if he had cheated, what was the big deal? So what if he had made the ball easier to grip and throw? He was still the great Tom Brady and this indiscretion wouldn’t have any affect on the outcome of the games he played anyway.

Tell that to all those who bet the spread.

When the court granted a temporary stay of the suspension, Brady and his proponents declared vindication- proof that he had been a victim of a smear campaign and his reputation had been railroaded by the league. The victory was short-lived. Once the court had seen all the evidence, it ruled against Brady, who had delayed enough to play the entire 2015-16 season.

Brady sat the first four games of 2016-17 and then used the premise of being wronged to rally his team, its fans and even the media to a Super Bowl win. The moral of the story- when being a winner is all that matters, cheating is justified. When caught, lie and deny, because the rewards will always outweigh any punishment.

Just ask Bill Belichick and Tom Brady of “America’s Team” playing America’s Game.

Now comes Donald Trump.

In our age of cheating and lying, it appears that Trump did whatever he needed to win the ultimate prize on the planet, with the co-operation of half of the American people. He told baldfaced lies about his opponents in the primaries, slagging them, belittling them and bullying them before millions on TV.

I remember at the time hearing his supporters insisting, “Trump tells it like it is!” Sure, if lying through your teeth while also espousing that you support both sides of any position is telling it like it is, then Donald Trump was the master.

When he turned on Hillary Clinton, he slandered her with “crooked” and pointed to emails supposedly implicating her in… what was she supposed to have done? Oh, but she was crooked, nevertheless. The man who muddies the waters with claims of fake news was a ninja at using fake news to become president.

But those emails; now the truth is coming out. It is Trump who was the crooked one. Trump who would do anything, even conspire with a foreign government, to win at any price. Trump who played half of America as dupes to secure their vote.

Willing dupes as well. Evangelicals put aside their ethics, morality and family values to vote for a twice-divorced man who admitted on video that he was a sexual predator and a misogynist. Poor whites hid behind their “patriotism” as they pulled the lever for a billionaire who would later gut the social safety net in order to enrich himself and his cronies. Otherwise intelligent businesspeople looked through the obvious instability of his personality, and its potential for disaster on the world stage, in order to get a piece of that tax cut.

They were all implicit. Because it’s red verses blue and winning is everything in America, even when your win ultimately causes the country to lose. Don’t believe that? Ask the Russians.

It doesn’t take a lot of digging to find that Donald Trump built his empire with the money of Russian oligarchs, dirty money. I would speculate (and many are) that this is the blackmail they had on him- he’s been cleaning their dirty laundry since the late ’80’s, cheating again.

I wouldn’t be surprised that the Mueller investigation reveals not just this but also the deal The Donald made with his devils- conspire to use the information and assistance that they provided his campaign through backchannels, and in co-ordination with their Wikileaks puppet, to muck up an election. The goal was probably to fatally damage Hillary Clinton’s presidency before it got off the ground. Getting half of America to fool themselves into letting him win was a bonus.

Now that the cheating is done, the rest of the game is lie and deny. It isn’t just Trump I’m referring to, he has no choice in the Faustian bargain he has made. He will lie and deny, cloud the issues, deflect and detract, until the bitter end.

The greater concern is the surprising number of American citizens who continue to endorse not only the train wreck that is the executive branch but the means by which it devolved into oblivion. I recall hearing a diehard Trump supporter tell a reporter that if it took Donald Trump colluding with the Russians to help drain the swamp and make America great again, well that was fine by him.

Historians have observed that democracies are never violently overthrown- they are usually voted out of existence by a corrupted, willing citizenry.

We are close. Perhaps it’s time to get back to the National Pastime and forsake America’s Game.