Only Cheating If You Get Caught: Thoughts From the Dugout

The baseball season is well underway. The Milwaukee Brewers are in 1st Place (HOLY JEEBUS, YOU GUYS), Albert Pujols is hitting like Albert Pujols again, Billy Hamilton is slowly learning the art of hitting (slowly…), and Wrigley Field has turned 100 years old. While it’s still early, we’ve got nearly a month of great games under our belts, without a care in the world.

michael pineda pine tar


*Disclosure – I realize that at the start of the season, I promised a weekly baseball column. Many of you (all four of my readers, anyway) are probably wondering what the hell happened. Well, in no small order: life took a turn upside down over here – I still don’t get paid for this, so naturally, I need to ensure that the money which pays for my electricity and Internet capacity still flows in; I was recently cast in a show – the OTHER focus of my career, at this point – and that’s consumed a lot of my time; I wrestled with a bit of writer’s block, an unfortunate thing to happen when you’re already essentially willing yourself to write – I find that when I write with the pressures of “I don’t get paid if I don’t write this”, the amount of copy I can crank out approaches the infinite; most crippling of all, I wrestled with what I wanted this column to be. In my head, I had grand visions of a cross between ESPN’s Daily Dime, a basketball recap of the prior night’s games, and Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback, a weekly survey of all of the football action from the day prior, featuring reoccurring segments and rankings. While that’s something that may yet fall into my wheelhouse as the season progresses, I’ve discovered that such a thing is something of which I’m just not capable at the moment. At the same time, I enjoy taking the time to properly expound upon a given topic, rather than spreading myself too thin (and keeping myself up late at night trying to finish at a reasonable hour.

After much internal debate (and several Scotches) I’ve come up with the following, which might approximate a mission statement (lower case “m”): “Thoughts from the Dugout” will take one topical story a week from Major League Baseball and explore its various intricacies and nuances, providing relevant baseball coverage for the Addison Recorder from the pen of Travis J. Cook. (Yes, I just name-dropped myself. Deal with it.)

The Michael Pineda story is one that unfolds over several weeks, and has caused the Interwebs to blow up with multiple comments and columns. Several of them tend to toe the company line of this article, subtitled “Pine Tar Should Be Fully Legal, and Baseball is Still Fucking Insane”.

Well, let’s examine this a bit.

On Thursday night, April 10th, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was pitching well against the Boston Red Sox when NESN commentators pointed out what they thought was a dark spot on his right hand. A “substance” of some kind. Players on the field were made aware of it, Pineda washed his hands discreetly during the 4th inning, and nothing more happened on the field. (Well, the Yankees won, Pineda pitched 6 innings of one run ball with seven strikeouts, and there was much rejoicing.) When asked for comment, players from both sides of the field said that usage of pine tar was an accepted practice amongst most ball players, who use it to gain a better grip on the ball or bat. And that was the end of it.

Until Wednesday night, when Pineda apparently splashed a lob of pine tar on his neck after giving up two runs in the 1st inning. Red Sox manager called out the umpires, who made a show of going through the full inspection for the bleepingly obvious substance, and promptly ejected the pitcher. (Pineda has since been suspended for 10 games by MLB, or roughly two scheduled starts. He had this to say about it: “I know I made a mistake…I feel so sad today. It was a really cold night and in the first inning I [didn’t] have a really good grip on the ball.”)

Baseball Rule 8:02 states that a pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball, be it Krazy-Glue, tobacco, vasaline, Silly-Putty, or Big League Chew. Pine tar is included in that rule, although one of the unwritten codes of baseball is that…well, everyone uses it. Kenny Rogers drew heat during the 2006 playoffs for an obvious spot of pine tar on his hand. David Ross, the Red Sox catcher, said this about the incident on the 10th: “A lot of guys make sure they get a grip in cold weather. I don’t think of it as cheating. Some guys might look at it that way. I don’t.” In cool weather, many pitchers will use the sticky substance to get a better grip on the ball, so as not to, as Deadspin so eloquently puts it, lose control and kill a wayward bat boy.

The issue isn’t that Pineda cheated – technically, he did. The issue is a combination of two factors, which I’ll get into here.

1) The crying for the removal of pine tar, or at the least granting it an exception from the rules, seems a little extreme to me. As far as we can tell, everybody uses a little pine tar. This is only to gain a competitive advantage as far as being able to grip the baseball when its cold. Hitters appreciate this because they don’t want to get hit in the head – they also use it on their bats for similar purposes. Pitchers use it so as not to have to worry about hitting batters in the head. This isn’t a volatile substance that’s overthrowing the competitive balance of the game. Let’s remember that Michael Pineda is already a pretty good pitcher – it’s actually rather nice to see him rebounding this year after two years of injury purgatory. From the sound of it, everybody’s already aware that this is going on, and the umpires, managers, and administration of MLB seem to be policing it with due diligence.

Why are illegal substances banned? Because they skewed the competitive balance of the game for a long time toward the pitcher, giving the hitter the unfair advantage of trying to hit a ball capable of moving like a rabid wolverine at times. Oh, also, because a guy freaking died when he was hit in the head by a baseball so dirty that he couldn’t pick it up in time. (Batting helmets have been introduced since that time, but anyone with time on their hands should look up the sad story of Ray Chapman) There’s a historical precedence for the rules, and, while allowing pine tar legally might not be a bad thing, allowing more of it seems to be the extreme reaction.

Which leads into my second point.

2) Pineda deserved to be kicked out. Joe Posnanski makes a pretty good point here about the Obviousness of Rule Breaking.  Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, you’re out of here. It’s not just that Pineda came back and used pine tar – he probably could have used the typical tiny smudge and nobody would have cried Sally about it. But he didn’t do that. He came out with a dollup (literally, a “dollup”) of pine tar on his neck. Go look up the videos. It looks like a tick filled with pine tar exploded on his neck. Dogs caught digging in the garbage are more subtle than that. If John Farrell didn’t go out and say something about it this time (ah, poetic justice that Pineda committed the offense for a second time AGAINST THE SAME TEAM), he’s an idiot.

Apparently, Pineda has been developing a reputation for heavy pine tar use all season long, dating back to spring training, where his violent pitching motion would leave smudges of pine tar from his right hand on his back left pants pocket. (Also, pitching motions are terrifying.) There’s a certain amount of humbling that will take place here.

Posnanski also makes an interesting point when comparing this to the accusations leveled against the sluggers of the Steroids Era, who were caught only when they bulked up to Bruce Banner-esque sizes. There’s a validity to such a comparison, and it’s worth thinking about, though for me, it loses steam because Pineda was caught with pine tar on his neck, while Barry Bonds was never caught with a needle sticking out of his butt. Rather, I think there’s an air of forgiveness that has to come around for Pineda, one which could possibly reflect upon the banished idols of the Steroid Era. Pineda was caught doing something that “everybody was doing”. Slap him on the wrist, for sure. But then let him come back and play. Don’t exile him to the hills. Forgive, don’t forget, and play ball. Hopefully, this puts a bit of everything into perspective for people. (It also speaks to the form of groupthink that goes on amongst major league players, one where Pineda using pine tar is news only when he’s so blatantly abusing the unwritten rules.)

Let’s just be glad that he didn’t go full ape shit as he was being ejected, like some other players have been known to have done.

Hopefully, Pineda will glumly accept his suspension for being caught like a kid in a candy store, get some golf in on his spare time, and come back and play baseball as well as he was doing before (1.83 ERA with a .233 average against and a 1.02 WHIP is outstanding, just for the record).

Let’s hope that it’s a little bit warmer outside when he returns.

*As always, email your baseball questions to Travis at*

Travis J. Cook

Travis J. Cook is the Editor-in-Chief and one of the original founders of the Addison Recorder. He writes about baseball, movies, and music, among other topics. He resides in a hole in the ground near Wrigley Field.

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