The stain was right there for all to see, on television no less, an outlawed substance used by pitchers to help them grip—and spin—baseballs. The pitcher in question had been dominant of late, and Tony La Russa had seen enough. He asked the umpires to do something about it.
La Russa was in the opposite dugout yesterday when St. Louis reliever Giovanny Gallegos was stopped by umpire Joe West before he could throw a pitch after entering the game against the White Sox in the seventh inning. At issue was the right-hander’s cap, which bore a visible smudge atop the brim—pine tar, to judge by the educated guesses to follow. West took the cap, Gallegos got a new one and the game continued apace.
That’s not what we were talking about in the first paragraph, though. What we were talking about in the first paragraph happened in 2006, during the second game of the World Series. La Russa was managing the Cardinals at the time, and his opponent—Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers—had some literally shady things going on.
The tell—a brown-hued discoloration on Rogers’ palm—was so obvious that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver discussed it at length on the telecast. It wasn’t long before La Russa got involved.
The consequences were enormous. At age 41, Rogers had dominated opponents throughout those playoffs despite an All-Star career that had come to be defined by postseason failure. From The Baseball Codes:
“In ﬁve wretched playoff starts prior to 2006, Rogers was 0-2, with a 10.26 ERA (plus another loss pitching in relief for the Mets in 1999, when he walked in the winning run of the NLCS), not once making it out of the ﬁfth inning. So it was something of a surprise when, in 2006’s earlier rounds, Rogers ran off fourteen consecutive scoreless frames against the Yankees and Athletics. When footage from those starts was reviewed, the same brown smudge showed up on the same spot on his palm. What else could it be?”
Only two seasons earlier, La Russa’s own pitcher, Julian Tavarez, had been suspended 10 games for having pine tar on his cap. The manager, clearly willing to accept a certain level of cheating, was unwilling to turn those particular tables. Rather than have Rogers checked—which could have led to ejection and suspension—La Russa, decrying what he later termed “bullshit baseball,” merely requested that umpires have the pitcher clean his hands. Which he did.
At that point, Rogers did the only thing he could reasonably do—15 postseason shutout innings with an obvious foreign substance were followed by seven shutout innings without it. After washing up he allowed only two hits over eight shutout innings in a Tigers victory, evening the Series at a game apiece.
Maybe we’d remember it better if that hadn’t been Rogers’ only appearance of the Series—the Cardinals won the next three to take the title in five—but the core components are similar to those spurring Wednesday’s controversy. Pitchers continue to use tacky, illegal substances to increase grip and, subsequently, spin. The primary difference is that they’re doing it more frequently and with less impunity and—this part is key—far more effectively than ever. It has become Trevor Bauer’s league, with artificially induced spin rate leading to an unending stream of 97-mph fastballs with unhittable movement, supplemented by equally unhittable sliders and other breaking stuff.
To Gallegos’ credit, he earned five outs in the span of 16 pitches against Chicago, even without his suspect cap.
This year the commissioner’s office said that it would be cracking down on such things, but apart from pulling a few balls from an early-season Bauer start for examination—about which we have subsequently heard not a peep—Wednesday’s Great Cap Confiscation was pretty much the first sign that anybody in charge is paying attention.
Afterward, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt went off on the discrepancy.
“This is baseball’s dirty little secret,” he told reporters. “And it’s the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it.”
Shildt spoke for the better part of 10 minutes, all of which are worth watching. His primary points included:
* Pitchers throughout the league use a sunscreen/rosin combination, or something similar, to increase their grip on the baseball. Hitters don’t mind because it helps with control, and nobody wants to get inadvertently drilled. What hitters don’t like, he said, is “the stuff that’s making the ball do wiffle ball stuff.” Based on yesterday’s action, some hitters are themselves starting to speak up.
* Some pitchers are getting away with far more devious things, in far more overt manners and to far greater effect, and haven’t been stymied by the league at all. The manager didn’t call out Bauer by name, but Bauer is clearly who Shildt was talking about.
Some highlights of the manager’s rant:
- “Gio wears the same hat all year. Hats accrue dirt. Hats accrue substances, stuff. We pitched him in a day game. Did Gio have some sunscreen at some point in his career to make sure he doesn’t get some kind of melanoma? Possibly. Does he use rosin to help? Possibly. Are these things baseball really wants to crack down on? No. It’s not. I know that completely firsthand from the commissioner’s office. That is not anything that is going to affect his ability to compete.”
- “There are people that are effectively not even trying to hide, essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances. There are players that have been monetized for it. There are players that are obviously doing it, going to their glove. There’s clear video of it. You can tell the pitchers that are doing it because they don’t want to go to their mouth, which Gio does off the rubber.”
- “Major League Baseball is trying their best to [police] this in a manner that doesn’t create any black eyes for the integrity of the game that we love. But speaking of integrity, how about the integrity of the guys that are doing it clean? How about the guys that are pitching their tails off in MLB that are doing it clean and have an unfair competitive advantage for the guys who are clearly loading up concoctions that they actually advertise, don’t do anything to hide, even in plain view? That’s the guys I’m speaking for. I’m speaking the hitters who have a living to make based against stuff that’s already very, very good.”
Ultimately, this is exactly what Bauer wanted. He came out against overt cheating a couple of years back, complained that MLB wasn’t doing anything to curb it, began overtly cheating himself in order to prove his point, and ended up winning a Cy Young Award. If baseball continues to do nothing, Bauer seems content to continue his domination. If baseball cracks down, then the pitcher will have achieved what he asked for in the first place.
Yesterday, Tony La Russa had nothing to do with Gallegos’s cap being confiscated. That was all Joe West, with an assist from second-base umpire Dan Bellino, who initially spotted the discoloration. In fact, La Russa’s position seems to be entirely consistent with where he stood 15 years ago regarding Kenny Rogers. He is an old-school manager, and the old school says that there’s nothing wrong with a little pine tar on a baseball.
What we still don’t know, based on this season’s withering response, is whether MLB agrees.