Now at On Pine Tar, Propriety, and Principle

My latest is up at Sports, concerning—what else?—Davey Johnson, Joe Maddon, and pine tar. More of an op-ed piece than anything, really.

If you don’t feel like clicking over, read on:

George Bamberger, the late manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets, once said: “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

The quote is taken from Thomas Boswell’s book, How Life Imitates the World Series, and serves to illustrate a widely held view on the subject within the sport. Just as there are acceptable levels of cheating in life—things like driving five miles per hour over the speed limit or taking a few pens from the office—there are acceptable levels of cheating in baseball.

This was brought to the forefront last week, when Nationals manager Davey Johnson got Rays reliever Joel Peralta tossed from a game for possessing pine tar on his glove. In the action’s aftermath, even as Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon raged about the inequity of it all, the question was raised: Did Johnson act appropriately?

In this case, the issue is one of perspective. Outsiders tend to judge baseball culture on civic terms, which only makes sense; a pitcher often bends the rules to gain a competitive advantage. Societal logic dictates that, should he be caught, he be suitably punished. (Peralta was later suspended for eight games.)

Baseball logic, however, is hardly so stark. It acknowledges that certain tactics are either sufficiently widespread to have become acceptable, or sufficiently acceptable to have become widespread. In either case, pine tar fits the bill.

It’s worth noting the distinction between pine tar and lubricants such as Vaseline and K-Y Jelly. The former is a tacky substance typically used by pitchers to improve grip in cold weather or high humidity. Vaseline does the opposite, decreasing friction as the ball rolls off a pitcher’s fingers, reducing backspin and improving movement. It’s not as nearly as benign as pine tar, but even the most noteworthy greaseballer in history, Gaylord Perry, remained beyond official reproach for the first 20 years of his career, despite an overwhelming array of damning evidence. (He was finally suspended for the first time in 1982, three weeks shy of his 44th birthday. Despite a multitude of avowed spitballers over the years, it was the first such punishment since Nelson Potter had been similarly dinged in 1944.)

For many, pine tar—a close cousin to rosin, another tacky material used to increase grip, which is so legal that a powdered supply of it is kept in a bag atop every major league mound—is merely part of the landscape. Indians closer Chris Perez estimated that “there are one or two guys on every team” who use it.

“There are probably a lot of pitchers in this game who need something at times to help them get a better grip,” Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If you’re talking about scuffing or putting Vaseline on the ball to make it move differently, that’s a separate issue. But to do something to get a better grip on the ball? With guys throwing 100 miles per hour? I don’t think that’s cheating … It’s a tool to keep [the ball] from flying out of your hands.”

This is as close to unanimity of opinion about an illegal substance as can be found in sports. Which is part of the reason so many people were disturbed by Johnson’s decision to call out Peralta. If the manager was willing to bust an opponent for an accepted practice that by consensus is used by pitchers on every staff, how could he not have recognized the can of worms he’d be opening?

Maddon tried to provide an answer following Peralta’s ejection, when he told home plate ump Tim Tschida that he’d be challenging every Nationals pitcher for the rest of the night. Tschida responded that he’d give him one, which Maddon used on reliever Ryan Mattheus in the ninth inning. (The righthander was clean.)

“Before you start throwing rocks,” said Maddon after the game, “understand where you live.”

The other factor in gauging the propriety of Johnson’s action was the fact that he used inside information to his advantage. Peralta pitched for the Nationals in 2010, presumably also with pine tar on his glove. Although Johnson wasn’t managing the team then, a number of Washington’s coaches and pitchers remain on his staff. This itself is not problematic; knowing that a guy may get some extra snap on his curveball because of extracurricular tack could prove strategically beneficial when formulating a game plan. But calling out a guy who once used said tack effectively for the hometown team may send a confusing message to Johnson’s players about what may be in store for them should they ever move on.

The real question, in light of the fact that so many pitchers use pine tar and so many managers know about it, is what kind of guy sees fit to challenge baseball convention in such a manner? With Johnson, at least, it shouldn’t be surprising; he did the same thing while managing the Mets in the 1988 National League Championship Series, when he had Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell ejected for having pine tar on his glove.

How could Johnson have handled things better? To start, he could have ignored the situation, and saved his own pitchers similar scrutiny in the future. Were he truly inspired to act, he could have approached Maddon before the game and warned him that he didn’t want to see Peralta enter a game with goop on his glove. The sentiment would not likely have been met kindly, but it certainly would have ended up better for both parties than what ultimately went down.

For an example of an appropriate response to a similar situation under the brightest possible spotlight, turn to Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, when Cardinals manager Tony La Russa faced the uncomfortable realization that not only did Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers have a sizable clump of pine tar on his left hand, but he’d also been called out by Tim McCarver and Joe Buck on the national television broadcast.

Even under those circumstances, La Russa refrained from playing all his cards. Instead of having Rogers checked (and almost inevitably ejected) by the umpiring crew, he merely requested that Rogers wash his hand. Which he did.

La Russa’s comment at the time: “I said, ‘I don’t like this stuff, let’s get it fixed. If it gets fixed, let’s play the game.’ … I detest any b.s. that gets in the way of competition.”

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. Pine tar is the same as sign stealing and bat corking: All fall under the heading, proceed until you’re caught, at which point, knock it off. It’s all part of baseball’s competitive process. Unfortunately, Davey Johnson missed that memo.

One thought on “Now at On Pine Tar, Propriety, and Principle

  1. Baseball has specific rules to be followed by players and enforced by the umpires. Very simple. One of such rule is a simple one that even a little leaguer understand. “The pitcher shall not….. apply a foreign substance of ANY KIND to the ball. Deface the ball in any manner. Rule: 8.02 section (2) (3), (4) and (5). Period. Lets enforce the rules. Keep the game clean.

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