Category Archives: Cheating

What’s a Little Pine Tar Between Friends?

Matusz

People talked a lot about subterfuge last week, and how failing to hide one’s foreign substances crosses a pitcher’s line of demarcation between competitive behavior and outright cheating. On Monday, Orioles right-hander Brian Matusz was suspended eight games for “hiding” a foreign substance on his arm two days earlier against the Marlins. (Watch it here.) He was the second guy in a week to be so outed.

In so doing, Marlins manager Dan Jennings went against what has become an avalanche of everybody-does-it opinions, but don’t let his  lack of experience at the position belie the fact that there’s more to this scenario than tacky balls. Tighter grip means more control (which hitters like from a pitcher), but it also means tighter spin on breaking balls, which provides a distinct competitive advantage.

The prevailing theory of acceptability is that a pitcher who’s hidden a substance thoroughly on his body will go to it only when necessary—when he finds a given baseball particularly difficult to grip. When he puts the stuff right out in the open, however, it indicates something far more brazen. At that point, his behavior is a matter of course; instead of merely helping to maintain control, it becomes a prevailing method and a competitive advantage. Under those circumstances it needs to be tamped down. Which seems only reasonable.

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Stick With Me, Baby, And I’ll Stick With You

Smith arm

Two trains of thought here. One is that foreign substances—particularly of the tacky (as opposed to viscous) variety—are commonplace among the ranks of pitchers, used to increase grip on the baseball. It can help slightly with performance (more tightly spun breaking pitches), but also helps prevent balls from slipping out of the hand, which in turn means fewer inadvertently hit batters. Most hitters are willing to take that trade-off. With all that in mind, there is protocol for those who take exception to such practices. Verbal warnings are a start.

On the other hand, a pitcher so stupid as to wear the stuff right out in the open deserves whatever the hell he gets.

Debate is open whether Brewers reliever Will Smith deserved it on Thursday, but he certainly got it.

Smith entered the game in the seventh, with his team trailing Atlanta, 2-1, and promptly hit the first batter he faced, Pedro Ciriaco. Against his second batter, Jace Peterson, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez requested the pitcher be checked. Smith was subsequently ejected. (Watch it here.)

Was Gonzalez correct? He said that he had been aware of the substance from the start, but waited until he saw Smith go to it before alerting the umpires. Any history of Smith and/or the Brewers cheating against Atlanta has so far gone unreported; if it exists, Gonzalez had every right to do what he did. Otherwise, however, he’d have been better served to utilize less formal methods. The reality is that there are pitchers on Gonzalez’s own staff who turn to the tack (because there are pitchers on every staff who use the stuff), who now must exercise undue caution when playing Milwaukee.

This is hardly the first time this topic has come up over recent  years.

The best example comes from the 2006 World Series, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had the umpires request that Tigers starter Kenny Rogers clean an obvious patch of pine tar from his palm, but did not request that they check—and subsequently eject—the pitcher. In that case, a warning sufficed. Rogers cleaned his hand and everybody moved right along.

Not so in Atlanta. Smith insisted that the substance on his arm was a combination of rosin and sunscreen,a fairly typical concoction for pitchers. (The part where he said that he forgot to clean it off before entering the game holds less water.) Brewers manager Craig Counsell said on MLB.com that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he would call out an opponent in such a matter. “It happens everywhere in the league,” he said. “And it happens on his team, too.”

Ulitmately for Gonzalez—who himself admitted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “every pitcher does it”—it came down to conspicuousness. “Just hide it better next time,” he said.

Despite a pissed-off Smith, who left the field screaming curses at the Atlanta dugout, this incident does not merit retaliation in any way beyond possible eye-for-an-eye gamesmanship. Knowing that, Braves pitchers better make sure that for the six games remaining against Atlanta this season they’re on their best, and least tacky, behavior.

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Yankees Somehow Forget to Tell Pineda Not to Be Stupid. Red Sox Help Out

This one’s on the rest of the Yankees.

When Michael Pineda was caught by TV cameras with pine tar on his palm last week in a game against Boston, talk centered around whether use of pine tar is even considered cheating, and why the Red Sox opted not to have him prosecuted for it.

John Farrell seems to be viewing it similarly to the way many in the game approach opponents stealing signs from the basepaths: It’s hardly egregious, and every team does it to some degree—but when you’re caught, you have to stop … or at least make it less obvious.

Pineda failed on both counts.

It was under Farrell’s watch last week that Pineda was first caught, and Farrell was again in the opposing dugout when Pineda tried it again yesterday—this time with the substance on his neck. The manager was right in letting it slide the first time, and he was right in putting a stop to it the second, with the operating theory being, Guy’s dumb enough to get caught twice, he deserves whatever he gets. (Watch it play out here.)

(Farrell himself said in his pregame presser, “I expect that if it’s used, it’s more discreet than the last time.” Can’t be much more clear—or accommodating—than that.)

Where were the rest of the Yankees after the first incident? Who took the youngster aside and tutored him in the high art of pitch doctoring, or at least the lesser art of simply laying low?

The Captain could have said something, but Jeter’s not a pitcher. C.C. Sabathia has certainly been around long enough, but either kept to himself or did not promote sufficient urgency in his tutoring. The team’s next two most prominent starters are from Japan, and may have either little experience with pine tar, or little enough comfort with either the language or their standing in the clubhouse to lecture on the subject.

This is where a leadership void comes at a cost. (Joe Girardi, we’re looking at you.) Pineda faces a 10-game suspension, minimum. It’s difficult to picture things playing out like this on Yankees teams of recent vintage featuring the likes of Pettitte, Cone, Wells and Clemens. Some of them may have lectured Pineda about knocking it off, while others whispered hints about how to do it right.

It’s rare to see such a clear example of the importance of team leadership. The Yankees dropped the ball on this one.

Exactly.

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Today’s Class: Intro to Pitch Doctoring

spitball

In the wake of yesterday’s Michael Pineda pine tar firestorm:

There’s an entire chapter in The Baseball Codes devoted to cheating, including a rundown of the various substances pitchers use to alter the flight path of the ball. (Plus: titillating stories of said substances in action!)

For an online primer that’s both free and doesn’t require a trip to the bookstore, you can turn to yesterday’s Deadspin account by ex-hurler Dirk Hayhurst (who has appeared in these pages previously). There’s just no getting away from this stuff.

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Substance Abuse, NY Style: Yankees Pitcher Puts the ‘Pine’ in ‘Pineda’

So Michael Pineda loaded up his hand with a substance that would only be shocking if it was not pine tar. Why is this of interest? A few reasons:

  • His Yankees are playing the Red Sox, with just a couple people paying attention.
  • He did the worst job of hiding it we’ve seen since Kenny Rogers in the 2006 World Series. (Considering the Detroit-St. Louis matchup that year, Pineda did it on an arguably bigger stage.)
  • He was busted quickly by the BoSox TV crew, who called it quickly and accurately.
  • Despite the fact that Pineda struck out seven over six innings of one-run ball in a 4-1 New York victory, nobody in the Red Sox dugout saw fit to challenge him on his proclivities.

The latter point is the most pertinent. Lots of players cheat, after all, and even more of them fail to see the use of pine tar—employed primarily to improve grip—as even qualifying as cheating.

The Red Sox themselves know a thing or two about the topic. Why, just last October there was speculation about Jon Lester doing some World Series doctoring of his own. Earlier last season, Clay Buchholz raised some eyebrows by repeatedly dabbing at his unnaturally shiny forearm during a start.

Boston manager John Farrell is aware of all of this. It is almost certainly why he chose not to act, despite being made aware of the substance on Pineda’s hand in the fourth inning. (Official lines: Pineda, It was dirt; Girardi, I saw nothing; Farrell, He cleaned it off so we’re cool.)

In 2012, then-Nationals manager Davey Johnson was not nearly so cool when he got Tampa Bay reliever Joel Perralta ejected from a game for secreting pine tar on his glove. Afterward, Rays manager Joe Maddon raged about the impropriety of it all. The Code, of course, says that managers will wink across the field at each other when this kind of thing goes down, because nobody’s closet is devoid of skeletons, and the opening salvo in an accusation battle is rarely the final shot fired.

So Farrrel played this one close to the vest. Lester is still on his roster, after all. Buchholz was on the mound, as the Red Sox starter opposite Pineda.

Similar silence was precisely the course of action taken by Tony La Russa back in ’06, when Rogers was spotted with a palm smudged similarly to Pineda’s: He made sure Rogers washed his hands, and let it go from there.

Joe Girardi is undoubtedly grateful.

 

 

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Perry Gets Greasy in Mid-Summer Classic

Gaylord PerryResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest concerns the 1972 All-Star Game, in which Hank Aaron touched Gaylord Perry for a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning. Because it’s Gaylord Perry, the topic is cheating (of course). From the Associated Press: 

Hank Aaron, sitting on 659 career home runs, hit a two run homer in the sixth inning, putting the National League up, 2-1, in front of a hometown crowd in Atlanta Stadium. …

“The pitch I hit off him was a spitter. It wasn’t one of his best spitters, but it was a spitter,” Aaron said.

Of course, this was followed shortly by a pro forma denial.

“Man, don’t you know that pitch is illegal? I don’t have any such pitch in my arsenal,” Perry declared.

If ever it was possible to see somebody wink through a 40-year-old statement to the sporting media, this is it.

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Spit Take: Marlins Hurler Opts Against Subtlety in the Subtle Art of Loading up a Baseball

Alex Sanabia

What does one do when one is a scuffling pitcher, trying desperately to hold on to one’s rotation spot on the National League’s worst team?

The answer isn’t always “load up the ball” … but in the case of Miami right-hander Alex Sanabia, how much could it hurt?

Well, there’s the aftermath. On Monday, Sanabia pitched his best game since opening day, picking up a 5-1 victory against Philadelphia while tossing six-plus innings of one-run ball. In the second inning, immediately following a Domonic Brown home run, Sanabia very clearly spit all over the next ball he was to pitch. (Watch it here.) Ever since, the Internet has been abuzz.

Seems damning, to be sure, but there’s almost undoubtedly more to the story. As evidenced by L’Affaire d’Buchholz two weeks ago, pitchers looking for viscous augmentation rarely turn to spit so much as gels and jellies like Vaseline and K-Y. Even those chewing on slippery elm (a noted saliva producer, of which Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen was so enamored that he would cut it into strips and hide it inside chewing gum wrappers for ready access by his pitchers) use their spit to slide the ball off their fingertips—they don’t rub it into the ball, as Sanabia did with his videotaped expectoration.

Marlins manager Mike Redmond went so far as to say that first base ump Joe West even saw Sanabia in action, and merely tossed the ball out before it was put into play. The Commissioner’s office doesn’t appear to have much interest, either.

So while some are having fun with it—Yahoo, for example, came up with 10 nicknames for the guy—we here at Global HQ will settle for offering a spitball-related excerpt from The Baseball Codes, detailing the greatest spitballer ever, Gaylord Perry. Some of the below ended up seeing print, but much was cut from the final copy.

Nineteen-eighty-two marked a watershed occasion in the annals of spitballing. It was the first (and only) time Gaylord Perry, the master, was disciplined for doing that for which he was known so well.

Perry was 43 years old, in his first season with the Seattle Mariners. Umpire Dave Phillips had already warned him about throwing illegal pitches in a game against Boston, but in the seventh inning Perry unleashed an offering that dropped dramatically. Phillips at first called the pitch—on a 1-0 count to Rick Miller—a strike, but, after thinking about it for a moment, changed it to a ball. Then, without even checking for evidence, he tossed Perry from the game. The pitcher was eventually fined $250 and suspended for 10 days—the first such suspension since Nelson Potter in 1944.

This was noteworthy because by that point Perry had for two decades been accused more consistently of doctoring his pitches than any man in baseball. This was the guy who titled his autobiography “Me and the Spitter,” and released it midway through his 22-year career. This was the guy whose North Carolina license plate read “SPITTER.” This was the guy who was so thorough that when, in 1971, a TV reporter asked his five-year-old daughter, “Does your daddy throw a grease ball?” she replied, “It’s a hard slider.”

At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Perry was highly touted as a prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization, but struggled through his first two major league seasons, both of which involved stints at Triple-A Tacoma. Perry’s good fortune came before his third campaign, when the Giants traded for pitcher Bob Shaw.

Shaw was a journeyman who wouldn’t last even three seasons in San Francisco, but he knew how to throw the spitball. Under his tutelage, so soon did Perry. “Bob and I worked for hours,” he wrote in “Me and the Spitter. “I studied his every movement. I had to learn how to load it up, how big a load the ball would carry, where to drop the load, how to grip the ball, and how to release it as well as how to control it. And probably most important of all, how to hide it from four umpires, three coaches, a manager and 25 players on the field as well as spying executives up in the box seats. I spent hours in front of a mirror at home practicing decoy moves.”

Perry finished second on the team in victories that year, and two seasons later won 21 games and made his first All-Star team. From 1966-78 Perry never won fewer than 15 games, and picked up two Cy Young Awards along the way.

“I’d always have (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe off one,” he wrote. “I never wanted to be caught out there without anything. It wouldn’t be professional.”

Perry put Vaseline or other lubricants under the bill of his cap, behind his neck and inside his belt. If he thought people were paying special attention, he’d load up his back with hot muscle balm, which would spread over his body as he started to sweat, suited his purposes for lubrication, and was virtually undetectable.

“(Perry) taught me something early that I never forgot: (Umpires) couldn’t touch your skin when they came to the mound to check you out,” said pitcher George Frazier. “They could touch your shirt or your glove or check your pockets, but no skin. Gaylord told me he used to put the stuff under his shoe tongue, ‘in case I have a long game and it runs out.’ ”

Perry was traded to the Indians after the 1971 season, at which point a member of the Giants organization said, “I don’t know what he throws, but our Vaseline bill is down.”

It didn’t take Perry long to get under the collective skin of the American League. In April 1973, Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer exploded to the press after facing Perry in the pitcher’s second start of the season, yelling “Just about everything he throws is a spitter.”

“The only pitch he threw me that wasn’t a spitter was the first one,” he went on. “The more he knows you’re bothered by him throwing it, the better he is against you. … He’s got the stuff behind his ear and on his arm and on his chest. He puts it on each inning. I picked up the balls and they’re so greasy you can’t throw them.”

How angry was Murcer? Before the game he called commissioner Bowie Kuhn “gutless” for refusing to do anything about Perry’s proclivities, then managed to channel his aggression into a three-hit day. When confronted with Murcer’s accusations, however, Perry said the outfielder hit “fastballs and sliders,” not spitballs. (It might have been an acceptable excuse had Perry been on the same page as his catcher, Dave Duncan, who in a separate contrived denial said that Murcer had hit “off-speed stuff.”)

If further proof be needed, the New York Times hired an unnamed Yankees pitcher to chart Perry’s every pitch throughout the game, and mark those that he thought were spitballs. When the resulting pitch chart was compared to a replay of the game, the Times said that before every pitch identified by the Yankees operative as a spitter, Perry tugged at the inside of his left sleeve with his right (pitching) hand—an action he failed to repeat for the rest of his repertoire.

Second baseman Horace Clark, according to the chart, struck out on a spitter that, on replay, dropped at least a foot. In the fourth inning, Thurman Munson asked to see the ball twice during his at-bat—during which, said the chart, Perry threw four spitters.

Perry wasn’t just a practiced spitballer, however—he was also a practiced spitball deceiver. One of the strengths of the pitch, according to virtually everybody who has been suspected of throwing it, is that making a hitter believe it’s coming is nearly as valuable as actually throwing it.

“The more people talk and write about my slick pitch, the more effective I get,” wrote Perry. “I just want to lead the league in psych outs every year.” To this end, Perry turned into his era’s version of Lew Burdette, all fidgets, wipes and tugs once he got atop the mound.

“Perry’s big right hand started to move and people started to boo,” wrote the Times about its charted game. “First he touched his cap, sliding his fingers across the visor, bringing them down along the right side of his head, stopping behind his ear. Then the hand went across his uniform, touching his chest, his neck. Was all this to create a diversionary action? Was he simply having fun? … ‘I did the same things I always did,’ he said later, suppressing a smile. If people want to read things into it, so be it.’ ”

Perry admitted in his autobiography to having doctored pitches, but, along with his confession, said upon the book’s release in 1974 that he “doesn’t throw it any more.” Maybe, responded Twins manager Gene Mauch, but “he doesn’t throw it any less, either.”

In 1991, after 314 wins over 22 seasons, Perry was inducted to the Hall of Fame. It was noted that when Rod Carew was inducted, Panamanian flags flew; when Ferguson Jenkins was inducted, Canadian flags flew; and when Perry was inducted, it rained.

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