Sports Illustrated.com

Now at SI.com: On Pine Tar, Propriety, and Principle

My latest is up at Sports Illustrated.com, 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.

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Bobby Valentine, Kevin Youkilis, Managers Protect Their Players, Sports Illustrated.com

Now at SI.com: Bobby Valentine Sometimes Says Stupid Things

My latest is up over at Sports Illustrated.com, involving Bobby Valentine‘s recent comments about Kevin Youkilis. You can click over there to see a full-color photo of Bobby V during game action, or you can save your mouse-clicking finger and just scroll down. (Bonus points for reading it here: The original, un-edited ending!)

One update: Between the time I turned in the copy yesterday and this morning, video of Valentine’s press conference, in which he discusses the situation, has been posted on the Red Sox Web site. In it, the manager says that he talked to Youkilis “during the game” (this after an earlier apology did not appear to go well), and that, instead of everything being fine, “it is what it is.”

If things don’t get better in a hurry over there, it’s pretty clear they’re going to get a lot worse.

On to SI:

Bobby Valentine was brought to Boston as a knee-jerk reaction to a perfect storm of last year’s late-season collapse, wild accusations about allegedly dispassionate players, and a clubhouse culture that allowed such accusations to surface in the first place.

Blaming Terry Francona is one thing, but expecting a guy like Valentine — long on baseball acumen but short on verbal filters — to provide a calming influence to a team in turmoil was, at best, a crapshoot. Not yet two weeks into the the 2012 regular season, Valentine is embroiled in his first controversy.

It may seem innocuous, going on television as Valentine did and saying that Kevin Youkilis is not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” It was a phrase amid an otherwise complementary comment; Valentine is obviously invested in Youkilis’ success, and he made sure to note that his third baseman’s slow start appears to be turning around.

None of that matters, of course. In baseball, a manager’s primary duty away from the field is to protect his players at any cost, usually from the media, at least until the point that a player leaves him no other option. If Youkilis has somehow already reached that point with Valentine, if his manager felt that calling him out in a local television interview was the only recourse left to reach him, well, that would constitute a newsworthy story. Other than his manager’s off-the-cuff banter, however, there is no indication that this is the case.

Instead, Valentine and the Red Sox are left to deal with the fallout, which serves to illustrate precisely why managers are expected to be measured in public statements about their players. Now, instead of coming to the ballpark and focusing on the game at hand, Youkilis has to answer questions about his manager’s lack of confidence, in addition to questions about his slump. Now, Dustin Pedroia has to step back from his own preparations in order, as a team leader, to defend his compatriot. Now, the rest of Boston’s players have to wonder what it might take before their manager publicly questions them, as well. Now, Valentine, the man brought in to help manage a media circus, has added a ring to the big top, and — inadvertently or not — is forcing his players to dance through hoops before they reach the field.

The unwritten rule to protect your players is why Whitey Herzog refused to admit that Keith Hernandez’s drug use (and his subsequent untruths when discussing it) were motivating factors in his being dealt to the Mets in 1983, even as the manager took considerable grief for the deal.

This rule is why Joe Torre, after Roger Clemens threw a bat shard at Mike Piazza during the 2001 World Series, refrained from storming out of his postgame interview amid a battery of leading questions. He knew Clemens was to follow him in front of the press, and wanted to absorb the difficult queries himself.

This rule is why Tony La Russa defended Jose Canseco long after steroid accusations against him became part of the public dialogue, and it is likely why he continued to defend Mark McGwire against similar charges after even many of his staunchest defenders had long since given up.

This rule is why Arizona manager Bob Brenly so vociferously attacked Ben Davis in the press following the Padres catcher’s bunt single that broke up Curt Schilling‘s perfect game in 2001. It was less because Brenly was angry at Davis, he said, and more because he wanted his pitcher to know that he “was looking out for his interests.”

For a clear comparison, consider two baseball stories, both of which involve pitchers being pulled from games in which their teams led by identical 4-2 scores. In one, A’s manager Ken Macha discussed with the press the fact that Barry Zito removed himself from the penultimate game of the 2004 season, with the division on the line against the Angels, after 114 pitches. Zito logged seven full innings, but Oakland’s bullpen gave up three quick runs, and Anaheim went on to win the game and a spot in the postseason. There was heat for pulling an effective pitcher, and Macha wanted no part of it.

In the other, Tigers manager Mayo Smith opted in 1969 to keep quiet about the fact that he pulled his own starting pitcher, Denny McLain, with one out in the sixth inning, after McLain warned him that he was tiring. Reliever Darryl Patterson came on and gave up, in order, a single, a walk, a sacrifice fly and a three-run homer; Detroit lost, 6-4.

Afterward, with media speculation raging about Smith’s decision to remove his star pitcher so early, the manager refrained from divulging the fact that McLain had effectively removed himself, not to mention that he had left the park altogether by the eighth inning. Smith kept quiet even when telling the truth would have deflected criticism. Valentine didn’t even have that for motivation.

Valentine has publicly apologized to Youkilis, but a question for players in the Boston clubhouse may soon arise—if it hasn’t already—about what kind of manager they want to play for. If the answer is less Ken Macha and more Mayo Smith—or less Bobby Valentine and more anybody—but anybody—else, then the manager has far bigger things to worry about than Kevin Youkilis’ early-season hitting woes.