On Monday, Edwin Jackson and Adam LaRoche had Harper sign a bat (not an unusual request in a big league clubhouse), then, without his knowledge, added the phrase “To my hero, Ozzie. Love you.” After slathering it with pine tar, and also without Harper’s knowledge, they sent it down the hall to the Marlins clubhouse as a sort of twisted peace offering.
(Why those two players? Jackson played under Guillen with the White Sox, and LaRoche—whose father, Dave, was a White Sox coach when Guillen played for them—has known the Miami manager since childhood. Both obviously harbor some fondness for the guy.)
Guillen received the bat with a laugh. The incident had already started to fade, but this was as happy a bow as one could have put on it. Still, not every such gesture is taken so lightly.
In 1987, after Mets slugger Howard Johnson had homered twice against St. Louis in two days, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog suggested that corked bats might be involved. Johnson was in the midst of a breakout year—he had never hit more than 12 homers in any of his five major league seasons to that point, but his second blast against the Cardinals, on July 31, was his 26th in about four months. Herzog had the umpires check Johnson’s bat, which they determined to be clean.
It took just three days before Johnson found the perfect opportunity to respond. The Mets had wrapped up a series in Montreal, leaving town on Aug. 2. The next team to visit Olympic Stadium was none other than the Cardinals.
Knowing this, Johnson conspicuously left a bat in the visitors’ clubhouse, adorned with 20 wine corks dangling from strings. St. Louis pitcher Bill Dawley, who had served up one of Johnson’s home runs the previous week, wasn’t laughing.
“Very funny,” he said when the bat was discovered. “He’s going to get drilled.”
When Ozzie Guillen is positioned as a paragon of tact, it’s usually because one of two things has happened: we’ve entered bizarro world, or he’s being compared to somebody completely off the rails.
Sunday, it was the latter. Guillen’s managerial opponent was Davey Johnson of the Nationals, and the issue of the day was pine tar.
Apparently, Bryce Harper likes to use a lot of the stuff on his bats—more than the legal, 18-inch limit. The eyeball test puts that mark at about the bat’s logo, which makes the infraction relatively easy to spot from a distance.
Guillen noticed. Unlike Johnson, however—who just under a month ago got Rays pitcher Joel Perralta kicked out of a game and subsequently suspended for using the stuff—Guillen showed some restraint. After Harper’s first-inning at-bat, he quietly requested that the umpires make sure the problem was taken care of, in a way that nobody in the viewing audience would even notice. (Short of embarrassing Harper, it’s largely a moot point; unlike Perralta’s situation, the worst penalty Harper could have incurred had he been officially checked was being forced to get a new bat, which is ultimately what he did, anyway. This is partly because pine tar on a bat has less effect than it does on a ball, the theory being that the extra tack could add backspin, leading to extra distance on flyballs.)
The umpires followed through, much to the disgruntlement of Washington’s young superstar. When the left-handed-hitting Harper came to the plate in the fourth inning, he pointed his new bat toward the third-base dugout—something he does as a matter of course when settling into his stance—which happened to be where Guillen and his team were sitting. This time, though, Harper stared daggers as he did it. It was a clear message, and Guillen took it as such, although because nobody’s really talking, the context remains muddled.
Guillen, clearly feeling disrespected after having gone out of his way to keep his initial criticism low-key, spent the next few moments informing Harper about new ways he could violate his own anatomy, while waving a bat of his own. Johnson shouted right back from Washington’s bench. (Watch Guillen taking his grievances to the umps here.)
“Ozzie complained that the pine tar was too high up on Harper’s bat, so we changed it,” said Johnson after the game in an MLB.com report. “Then, he was still chirping about it. It got on the umpire’s nerves. It got on my nerves.”
Davey Johnson as the voice of well-intentioned reason. Bizarro world, indeed.
Johnson guessed that Guillen was trying to intimidate Harper, which could well have been the case. Of course, he’d have to have willfully ignored the 19-year-old’s history with such tactics, lest he consider that Harper tends to respond to bullying by taking extra bases as a runner, then stealing home.
After the game, Harper rose above the fray. “Yeah, I switched bats,” he said, “but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the first one, so I moved to the second one.” (Also, this: “[Guillen] is a great manager to play for, and he’s going to battle for you no matter what. That’s a manager you want to play for.”)
Guillen, for perhaps the first time, kept some of the details to himself. “I was just telling him how cute he was,” he said.
Left to break it all down was Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison.
“Ozzie did it the right way,” he said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal about it,’ and he told him to watch out about that pine tar. . . . [Ozzie] did him a favor by not going out there and saying, ‘Hey, your pine tar is too high,’ to the umpire. . . . He did it in a way that wouldn’t show Harper up, and Harper showing him up was kind of a slap in the face, I guess.”
Ultimately, Morrison’s right. Fault Guillen for his response to Harper’s bat pointing, a display that seemed benign and would have been a simple matter to ignore, but when it came to handling the initial situation, he was the antithesis of Billy Martin having George Brett’s bat checked, or Johnson with Perralta’s glove. In other words, tone perfect.
Update (7-16):Guillen says that if Harper keeps this kind of thing up, “he might not make it.” I love Ozzie Guillen—love him—but from where I sit, however, Harper doesn’t have much to worry about in that regard, having consistently taken the high road through the course of whatever big league tests have come his way. Except for maybe his All-Star spikes. Not much humble-rookie about those.
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.
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.