Not to beat on the Maddon-Johnson pine tar affair too much (it may already be too late), but it’s given rise to at least one more interesting point. From Buster Olney’s column at ESPN.com:
When a player is traded and later faces his old teammates, his old team will change its signs, as a matter of course. It’s considered fair game to ask an incoming player for information about his previous team’s signs, or about how to pitch to batters on his old team, or about some other elements of that club. I’ve heard of teams specifically acquiring a player recently dumped by a rival largely for the information—especially catchers, who are the information highways of the sport.
But where is the line about what information you can use?
The key here, at least to me, is in a team’s ability to adjust. Catcher Bengie Molina went from the Giants to Texas in mid-season 2010, and when the teams met just over three months later in the World Series, the discussion was raised about how much advantage the Rangers might gain from his insider knowledge.
To judge by San Francisco’s five-game victory, not much. There’s a simple reason for that, at least as far as signs are concerned: They’re astoundingly simple to switch up. For all the gyrations a third-base coach goes through in delivering coded instructions to a baserunner, they typically don’t mean a thing until he hits his pre-designated indicator signal (such as, say, wiping across his belt buckle or touching his left shoulder), at which point the actual directive will follow. In this situation, changing signs can be as easy as switching the indicator.
Catchers’ signals are similar, in that many of the signs put down are subterfuge; the trick is knowing what to look for. It can be based on the count (a 3-1 count added together means the hot sign is the fourth one the catcher drops) or the number of outs or whether it’s an even- or odd-numbered inning. Sometimes the signs themselves are meaningless, and the pitcher is simply reading the number of pumps, or times the catcher flashes something. There are myriad possibilities, and for most players, changing from one to another is sufficiently simple to do multiple times during the course of a single game.
There’s also the reality that because many pitchers are particular about the signs they use, catchers have individual sets for different members of the pitching staff. This means that if a pitcher is traded, there’s a real possibility that he has little clue about what’s being used by any number of his former teammates.
This is a simplistic overview, of course, and teams can bring far more nuance to the practice—about which inside information may prove useful. Ultimately, though, I think there’s a straightforward answer to Olney’s question of whether sharing an ex-team’s signs is comparable to sharing intel about a pine tar habit: It isn’t. In Joel Peralta’s case, the fact that his pine tar was okay for the Nationals when he used it in Washington, but not okay for them once he left town, speaks to some hypocrisy. When it comes to signs, however, all teams use them, all players learn them, and they’re introduced with the understanding that, while they’re to be protected as closely as possible, they will inevitably have to be changed at some point.
If a former player hastens that inevitability, it’s simply part of the game.
It’s one thing to listen to voices outside the clubhouse maintain or refute the propriety of Davey Johnson’s decision to have Rays reliever Joel Perraltaejected from a game last week because he had pine tar on his glove.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon publicly questioned the wisdom of the move, but his is obviously a biased opinion. Now we have some clarity from an unaffiliated source: Cleveland closer Chris Perez.
“If before every game if they stopped and checked everybody’s gloves or something there would be one or two guys on every team that would just get popped,” he said in an Associated Press report.
Which is exactly the point. Washington’s No. 4 starter, Edwin Jackson, spent three seasons in Tampa Bay under Maddon. Does he have any secrets Maddon might be able to exploit? Jonny Gomes was a member of the Nationals last season, but spent six years prior to that with the Rays. If he has any dirt on Washington, he could well have passed it along to his friends in Tampa. Would it be appropriate for Maddon to use this information punitively?
Of course not.
“It’s probably sticking in their craw a little bit,” said an anonymous former manager and executive in the Washington Post. “They love the guy. He pitched on short rest for the Nationals. They grew to respect him. Then the plug gets pulled on him
“I think the Rays are more mad about somebody calling them out,” said Perez. “It had to be somebody that knew—that used to play with them. I have old teammates that I could tell (manager) Manny (Acta) to call out, but I’m not going to. It’s not bush league, but it’s still not on the up and up.”
Perez clarified that he was not speaking specifically about the habits of any of his former Cardinals teammates, who were nonetheless quizzed in the AP story. The most outspoken of them was Kyle Lohse, who mirrored Perez’s opinions. “If you’re going to start throwing guys under the bus, then you’d better be sure there’s nobody on your own team doing it,” he said. “That’s all I have to say.”
What more fitting place than our nation’s capital for baseball’s latest incident involving high crimes and espionage, which we might as well call Pine Tar-gate right from the start because, well, somebody had to do it.
At one end of last night’s shenanigans was Rays reliever Joel Perralta, supplier of pine tar; at the other was Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who didn’t much care for the extra edge the substance may have afforded the opposing pitcher.
When Peralta came in to pitch the bottom of the eighth, Johnson asked plate ump Tim Tschida to check his glove. And with that, the right-hander was ejected before he even threw a pitch, for what Tschida later said was a “significant amount” of pine tar—a prelude to a likely 10-game suspension. On his way off the field, Peralta tipped his cap toward the visitors’ dugout, a sarcastic display that he later phrased in a Washington Post report as “Good for them.” (Watch it here.)
The moment held intrigue on several levels. One is the fact that the pitcher not only played for the Nationals, but absolutely blossomed for them, as well. At age 34, Peralta went from ERAs of 5.98 (with Kansas City in 2008) and 6.20 (with Colorado in ’09) to a splendid 2.02 mark for Washington in 2010. That season he led the team in WHIP, hits-allowed-per-nine-innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
We may now know the reason. Somebody in the Nationals organization obviously had inside information they were willing to share about Peralta’s extracurricular habits; on the coaching staff alone, Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr served as the team’s bullpen coach in 2010, and first base coach Trent Jewett managed Peralta in the minor leagues that same season.
Were either of these people—the Nationals insider who dropped a dime on Peralta, or the manager who was willing to exploit it—playing within the boundaries of the unwritten rules? The short answer is no, but comes with the caveat that Johnson clearly doesn’t care.
For proof of this, look no further than Game 3 of the 1988 National League Championship Series, when Johnson—then managing the Mets—asked the umps to check Dodgers reliever Jay Howell. Like Peralta 24 years later, pine tar was found on the laces of the right-hander’s glove. (Darryl Strawberry said that the extreme break on Howell’s pitches tipped Johnson off, but other sources fingered Mets minor league manager Tucker Ashford, who had played against Howell some years earlier.)
Unlike Tuesday’s game, that move appeared to be tactical; Johnson waited until Howell was trying to protect a 4-3, eighth-inning lead, with a full count on leadoff hitter Kevin McReynolds. Howell was summarily ejected, and his replacement, Alejandro Pena, quickly served up ball four, helping ignite a five-run Mets rally.
The Nationals organization also has a history with the topic. In 2005, then-manager Frank Robinson had umpires—oddly, Tschida was behind the plate in that game, as well—check Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly. He was tipped off by his outfielder, Jose Guillen, who had recently left Anaheim under acrimonious terms.
“There’s etiquette and there’s lack of etiquette,” said Donnely at the time, in a Washington Post report. Robinson’s behavior, he said, was “the latter.” Angels manager Mike Scioscia was furious, and threatened to “undress” Nationals pitchers in response. His reaction was not so far removed from that of Rays skipper Joe Maddon—who happened to be Scioscia’s bench coach at the time.
Maddon was peeved enough yesterday to order a retaliatory examination of his own; at the manager’s request, Tschida checked Washington pitcher Ryan Mattheus a half-inning after tossing Peralta, and found nothing amiss.
“Heads up,” Maddon sarcastically told reporters after the game, according to a MASN report, as he wiped his unblemished desktop with a paper towel. “The desk is a little sticky right there.”
His follow-up comments were pointed.
“Insider trading right there,” he said. “It’s bush. It’s bogus, man. That’s way too easy right there. If you had done some really good police work and noticed something, that’s different. But that’s way too easy. That was set up on a tee for them.”
Much of Madden’s disconcert concerns the substance in question. Pine tar is as benign a material as can be illegally found on a ballfield; it is so common that a bag of its powdered form, rosin, is kept atop every major league mound.
Unlike lubricants such as Vaseline or K-Y Jelly, which increase a pitch’s movement by decreasing friction as the ball rolls off a pitcher’s fingers—in effect, allowing it to squirt out rather than roll, with minimal backspin—pine tar adds tack. It’s primarily used by pitchers to get a feel for the ball on cold, wet nights, but—as may have been the case with Peralta, who was pitching in near-70-degree swelter—it can also add snap to a breaking ball.
Said 1997 AL Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell: “The only [illegal substance] I ever saw was pine tar, and I guarantee 80 percent of the pitchers still use it.”
Apparently, Maddon agrees.
“You’re going to see brand new gloves throughout the major leagues, starting tomorrow—pitchers on every Major League ballclub,” he said after the game, suggesting that pitchers everywhere will be inspired by Tuesday’s events to lay low for a while.
“It’s kind of a common practice—people have done this for years,” he said. “To point one guy out because he had pitched here a couple of years ago, there was some common knowledge based on that. I thought it was cowardly. . . . It was kind of a (expletive) move. I like that word. (Expletive) move right there.”
Ultimately, Maddon is right: If Johnson wanted to play by the unwritten rules, he would either have ignored the pine tar on Peralta’s glove or handled the situation in a far less obvious manner. It’s a stretch to think that having the pitcher tossed even served to level the playing field, because it’s likely that both teams have one or more pitchers who search beyond the rulebook for a similar edge. (“Before you start throwing rocks,” said Maddon to Johnson, through the press, “understand where you live.”)
The standard bearer for Code-based reactions in this category is Tony La Russa, who, when confronted with the fact that Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers clearly had a clump of pine tar on his left palm during the 2006 World Series, opted against having the pitcher checked—which would have almost certainly led to ejection and suspension—instead requesting only that the umpires make the pitcher wash his hands.
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.”
Johnson nailed his man on Tuesday, but it’s easy to feel like a touch too much of La Russa’s B.S. got in the way of Tampa Bay’s 5-4 victory. Then again, it is Washington D.C., a city whose political culture appears to have been built on the stuff.