Last night, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected in the 2nd inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox for having some schmutz (technical term) on his neck. Post-game comments from the Sox’ manager and players indicated that Pineda’s transgression was not what he did, but how he did it. This may be confusing to the more casual fans among us. Is neck-schmutzing illegal or isn’t it? Are you using double negatives to confuse me? What the hell?!
Breathe. Cheating in baseball is a complex and nuanced issue. I’m here to help walk you through the ins and outs of “getting an edge”, “gamesmanship”, or any other euphemism you can think up for cheating on the mound.
Just Say No. Or Else.
When it comes to drugs, the baseball collective has adopted the Nancy Reagan stance, and in earnest. Pharmaceutical cheating is the most egregious blight upon the sport. Dopers are to be shamed, shunned, and subjected to a system of judgement and punishment that takes the Rockefeller Drug Laws and imagines what they would have looked like had they been penned by Draco. There are no exceptions to this. Unless you’re well liked; in that case, you “made a mistake” while “trying to help your team”. You’re not getting into the Hall of Fame, but, since anyone about whom even unfounded steroid rumors surface isn’t getting in either, you probably weren’t getting in, anyway.
Here’s where the nuances come in. The schmutzing, at least with regards to Pineda’s schmutz of choice (I’ll get back to this), is a lot like drinking in public outside the glorious locales with lax open container laws: while illegal, the authorities are unlikely to care, so long as you’re being discreet. Pineda just needed to stash that shit in a paper bag, so to speak.
Not All Schmutzing Is Created Equal (and Opposite)
The use of pine tar – which is what was found on Pineda – is viewed as hand-schmutzing, which is a specific type of tolerated schmutzing.
“Pine what now?”
Ah, my bad. For the uninitiated: Pine tar is a substance used by baseball players to make the handle of their bats sticky and easier to grip. No, it has no known application outside the sport of baseball, and I have no idea how some intrepid soul came upon the stuff and immediately thought of America’s once and future (once NFL players concuss each other into oblivion / perpetual litigation) pastime.
“Wait, so it’s cool to use it to grip a bat, but not a ball?”
This is where hairs start to get split. MLB Rule 8.02(a)(4) forbids the pitcher from applying “a foreign substance of any kind to the ball”. Pine tar gets leeway that would not be afforded something like, say, Vaseline, because it’s viewed as a substance whose end destination is the hand, much like the rosin bag provided on every Major League pitcher’s mound. So, if it’s on your hand when you touch the ball, but isn’t applied to the ball, it’s okay. Please disregard the fact that hitters apply the stuff directly to their bats, and suspend any and all knowledge you have of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion. #baseball
What is indisputably taboo is the use of any substance viewed to be applied to the ball. Creating any deformity on the quasi-spherical ball is going to alter its spin and make it move even more abnormally than the spin a pitcher can create by manipulating the ball’s seams at his release point. Trust me on this one. #physics
This isn’t to say that pitchers won’t resort to the ball doctoring tactics that have been adjudicated truly verboten. Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry was no stranger to the aforementioned Vaseline. Fellow Cooperstown resident Whitey Ford basically admitted to using his wedding ring to cut the ball, when he didn’t have catcher Elston Howard use a buckle on his shin guard to do so. Ford also openly admitted employing a “gunk ball”, the specifics of which I’ll leave to your imagination. Knuckleballer Joe Niekro got caught with an emery board and sandpaper during a 1987 game against the Twins, despite a valiant attempt to ditch the contraband. We actually have video of that one:
In his own defense, Niekro said that, as a knuckleballer, he needed those things for his fingernails.
“Dave, I sense a lot of sarcasm here. You find these ‘unwritten’ interpretations of the rules to be arbitrary and silly, right?”
“So, you think that they should stop the silliness and either enforce the rule or don’t?”
Ehh, not so much. As much as I poke fun at baseball’s arbitrary unwritten codes of conduct, I do love the sport, and I get the reasons a lot of these “rules” exist.
Side note: If you ever want to see a shouting match between my dad and me, bring up the etiquette of bat flipping and admiring home runs around the two of us. I’m pro-fun, and he’s pro-hall monitors. This is one of the few sports-related arguments where we disagree, and definitely the one where that disagreement is strongest. (Love you, dad).
I’ll defend pine tar use, especially in games where it’s friggin’ cold out, like last night. Trying to grip a baseball in those conditions sucks. Just put it on the bill of your cap or your belt, and don’t basically force the opposing manager to call you out. I’ll also defend stuff like the replay review exempt “neighborhood play”, occasional, judicious dusting of opposing hitters, and managers running up on umpires in obvious attempts to get thrown out of games.
Baseball is a funny game, one that celebrates its quirks. Think about fighting in hockey or flopping in soccer; just not (American) football, in which all quirks are strictly outlawed. We can shake our heads and chuckle at these things, and still enjoy the games. I know I do.
And, please, stash that tallboy in a paper bag. Nobody wants to hassle you.