Cheating, Pine Tar

Stick Around, Why Don’t You?: Yadi’s Magic Chest Protector Draws Attention in Unwanted Ways

Molina sticky ball

Pee Wee Reese would load up spitballs for Don Drysdale, away from the watchful eye of umpires.

Yankees catcher Elston Howard was said to have sharpened the buckles on his shin guards, which he used to gouge baseballs as he drew back his arm for return throws to the pitcher.

Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills kept an emery board in his glove with which to scuff balls before returning them to the mound. Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion was rumored to have a bent eyelet on his glove’s heel for much the same purpose.

There were first basemen who put tacks in their gloves and third basemen who put Vaseline on their palms to offer assistance in the same, surreptitious vein.

So should we be surprised, really, if Yadier Molina is doing something similar for his pitchers?

That’s the simplest explanation for what happened yesterday, when a pitch from Brett Cecil bounced in front of the plate and ended up adhered to Molina’s chest protector as the increasingly frantic catcher looked around for the lost baseball. Application of pine tar helps pitchers increase the movement of breaking pitches (which Cecil’s offering was), but it also tends to make things … sticky.

(Watch the whole thing here.)

Yadi knows exactly what happened. So does Cecil. So, likely, does Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher. When asked about it after the game, however, they offered little more than a collective Huh?

Catchers can legally apply pine tar to their shin guards, the better to increase their ability to grip the ball. It’s legal because catchers have no interest in making their own throws do funky things, and on cold or wet nights grip can be vital. Salvador Perez was outed for this very thing during the 2015 World Series, and the news barely made a ripple. Had Molina offered an excuse somewhere along those lines it would have made some sense. Instead, he said this:

“Do I put anything on my chest protector? No. That’s a dumb question.”

Which leads to the clear impression that he’s covering something up on behalf of his pitcher. Cecil didn’t comment, because Cecil took off after the game without speaking to reporters.

Upon being removed from Molina’s chest the ball left a white smudge—a clear indicator for sleuths around the ballpark. But because Cubs manager Joe Maddon never requested that the ball, Molina or Cecil be checked by the umpires, the game continued apace and everybody went on their merry ways.

If Cecil was cheating, he has a rich history of pitchers to emulate. Over just the last two seasons, Mike Fiers was accused of using pine tar during a no-hitter, Brian Matusz was suspended for hiding a foreign substance on his arm and Brewers reliever Will Smith was busted for similar reasons. There was also, of course, the infamous Michael Pineda affair, which came in two parts.

What’s left now, mostly (unless somebody in the know decides to talk) is for Cecil to knock off any extracurricular activities until the heat dies down. Same for Molina. Because, really, nobody around baseball really cares about pitchers using pine tar (there are likely some on every team who do) until the moment that public attention forces them to decry cheaters cheaters and their cheating ways.

NBA

Unwritten Rules of the Hardwood

Basketball

With all the hoopla surrounding opening day, it seems improbable that the clubhouse leader for most prominent early-season unwritten rules story is coming not from a baseball diamond, but out of the NBA. It pertains to what should be done with the ball with time running out while holding a big lead.

On Sunday, Golden State’s JaVale McGee launched a 3-pointer in the final seconds of a game in which his team led Washington 137-115. The guy guarding him, Brandon Jennings, was so upset that he earned a flagrant foul for shoving McGee to the ground before the player landed.

“It’s just a rule—I learned it when I first came into the league not to do that,” Jennings said in an NBC report. “You’re already up 20 almost, and then for him to do it, it was like, ‘All right, come on. Chill out. Now you’re trying to embarrass us.’ ”

Jennings called the move “disrespectful,” and labeled himself “old-school.”

The Warriors’ response: there were 4.8 seconds left on the shot clock, but 6.9 seconds left on the game clock. “What’s JaVale supposed to do? Let the clock run out and get a turnover?” wondered Klay Thompson. “It’s basketball.” At the very least, the shot for which McGee opted was decidedly low-percentage.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr did admit that while he had no problem shooting in that situation—“I never understood why a team would be offended if there is a shot-clock deferential,” he said in an ESPN report—he’d rather not see a three-pointer be the shot of choice. “I guess [the 3-pointer is] what Jennings was upset about,” he said in an ESPN report. “I was uncomfortable with the way it ended.”

(To be fair, Jennings was also upset that Kerr left Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in the game until the end, regardless of the blowout. Green was chasing a triple-double, and Kerr may have wanted to make a statement to his team following the Warriors’ loss to Washington in February. Kerr did apologize to Wizards coach Scott Brooks.)

(Also to be fair, the Wizards have taken three such shots this season themselves.)

Yesterday the Pacers did the same thing, only with no shot-clock differential. With 10 seconds remaining against Toronto and holding a 15-point lead, Lance Stephenson jogged down the court and made an uncontested layup. The difference between this and McGee’s shot: there would have been no statistical repercussions had Stephenson chosen to hold on to it.

Once time expired, various Raptors had to be restrained from going after Stephenson.

The distinction between the two plays—an expiring shot clock—was clear. It’s a direct-line explanation that directly impacts a team’s stat line. In baseball blowouts, teams don’t stop trying to score, they just stop trying to score aggressively. Runners advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Things like stolen bases and sacrifice bunts are curtailed. And though quibbles can be lodged over McGee’s choice of court spacing, even that is up for debate. Another thing Jennings said was, “Thank God he didn’t go to the rack. It probably would have been worse for him.” So who the hell knows?

Stephenson, on the other hand, had no reason to shoot. He wasn’t being defended. The game would have ended before the shot clock did. This is akin to a runner at first base, who’s not being held close in the late innings of a blowout, strolling into second simply because he can. MLB has a rule about this type of thing: It’s not outlawed, but neither is it rewarded. Defensive indifference is called and the runner is not credited with a steal. (Stephenson issued his own apology after the game.)

However one interprets them, these things do show us how universal these rules can be across sports. Both the Wizards and Raptors felt disrespected, and were reliant on a code—in whatever form that took or should have taken—to keep things in check. It all has a very familiar ring.

World Baseball Classic

Bernie Williams on the WBC: ‘Clash of Cultures’

SI WBCWith all the recent talk about the differences between the United States and elsewhere in the world when it comes to baseball behavior, it’s worth pointing out Bernie Williams’ recent conversation with SI’s Maggie Gray.

Williams is Puerto Rican, and fully in tune with the celebratory nature of his countrymen. He’s also a lifelong Yankee, well versed in the ways of putting one’s head down and keeping one’s hair short. When asked about Ian Kinsler’s comments about Latin countries and playing the game “the right way,” Williams pointed out the obvious—that the World Baseball Classic is not Major League Baseball, and that there’s space for both mindsets. [Emphasis mine.]

Latin people, especially Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, have always been very passionate. And baseball has always been characterized, at least in the United States, as ‘You don’t showboat. You don’t show up the opposition. You hit a home run and you shut up and you run the bases hard and you keep playing the game.’ Obviously, that’s not the way they play the games in these Latin countries. Everybody gets involved. Everybody’s brash and passionate and intense about it. They were showing part of what their culture is to them.

This is what the WBC is all about. To have the different cultures come into a tournament and express themselves the way their culture allows them to do. That’s what makes this game great and that, to me, was the purpose of this tournament—to have this clash of cultures and different attitudes about the game, to go in and see who is the best.

Latin players have been slowly integrating such a mindset into the big leagues for years now. If enough players actively agree with Kinsler about open celebration, such integration will be more slowly adopted. From the looks of things, however, such is not the case.

Those in the “right way” camp are still correct in their opinions—they just need to realize that the term is, like the sport itself, evolving.

Showboating, World Baseball Classic

There’s A Party Goin’ On Right Here/Just Watch Out For a Fastball In Your Ear

celebrationFollowing up yesterday’s post about the joy embraced by players from various countries in the World Baseball Classic (and how such embrace is frequently at odds with their big league counterparts), today I bring you a quote from Eric Thames.

Thames, of course, is the new Brewers first baseman, having spent the last three seasons playing in South Korea. (South Korea, you might recall, is known for some outlandish behavior by its ballplayers.)

While in Asia, Thames stepped up his pimp game. From Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue:

Thames wore metallic gold arm and leg guards and celebrated home runs with a choreographed two-man skit that ended with a teammate tugging his beard and the two of them spinning on their heels to give a military-style salute to the home fans.

“Uh, not here,” says Thames, who this spring wore white body armor. “You want me to get hit in the ribs?”

Yesterday, I pointed out that the joyful celebration shown internationally is having an effect upon the staid response to success in the majors. So why is Thames toning it down?

Because there is a difference. Because somebody responding to success openly and without filters is celebratory, but somebody pantomiming pre-planned shtick is more boastful than joyous. (Recall, if you will, another bit of home-plate soft-shoe perpetrated by these selfsame Brewers a number of years back.)

The line between those approaches dissects even bat flips. The ones from Korea seem to be self-indulgent ways of garnering attention. The South Korean players who make their way to the U.S. acknowledge as much. The flip by Jose Bautista following his ALDS-clinching homer against Texas in 2015, however, was none of that. They are distinct entities.

Baseball diamonds contain plenty of space for joy. There is far less leeway, however, for acts masquerading as joy. As Eric Thames noted, ballplayers can tell the difference.

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

The Unwritten Rules at the World Baseball Classic: A Lesson in Two Parts

In many ways, the World Baseball Classic gave us baseball as it ought to be (and maybe once was)—a sport in which pride outstripped other motivating factors by a fairly wide margin, where the simple act of participation was its own reward. Strip away salaries, endorsements, public relations and other outside influences on modern players, and that’s what’ll remain.

How that pride manifests, of course, differs from culture to culture, and it offered two prime lessons in the unwritten rules of the modern game.

Lesson 1: “The Right Way”

Ian Kinsler, who now plays for the Detroit Tigers but a week ago played for the United States in the WBC, made a proclamation in the New York Times that garnered some attention despite coming 19 paragraphs into a 20-paragraph story:

“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Those on one side of the discussion openly yearned for the return to a time in which players put their heads down in response to moments of athletic triumph so as to avoid showing up those they’d bested. Those on the other propped up Kinsler as the face of an outdated code of conduct, a no-fun zone where excitement is stifled in the name of propriety.

As is frequently the case in these types of debates, they’re both right. At least to a degree.

So is Kinsler. He and many of his US-born colleagues were raised differently than players from Latin America. They were taught that solemnity on a ballfield equals respect, and that respect is paramount. The catch is that many of the Latin-born players to whom he referred agree entirely with the latter part of that equation. Respect is everything—it’s the unwritten rule upon which everyone eventually settles. The difference is that guys from the Caribbean and Central America cast a narrower net when it comes to interpretation of potentially impertinent acts. Which doesn’t make their celebrations disrespectful. After all, like Kinsler said, they were raised differently.

So when players in the Puerto Rico dugout hop around like little kids after one of their countrymen performs a feat of baseball heroism, it’s hardly a stretch to think that it has nothing to do with their opponents and everything to do with each other. This is how the game is played in their home country. While the big leaguers among them might tone it down a notch for their primary employers during the regular season, it’s difficult to fault the players for ramping it right back up when surrounded by their own. “We do a great job playing and having fun out there, said Javier Baez, he of The Tag. “That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it, but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”

The major leagues have adapted to the increasing influx of foreign players, largely though adoption of their habits. South Korea-quality bat flips might still elicit some anger, but the garden-variety toss has long since become status quo—brought to the fore by Cuba native Yasiel Puig. Puig’s habits have gained traction because they’re fun—and because the only ones taking it personally are those too curmudgeonly to see things any other way. Hell, four of my last five posts have been on that topic alone.

Playing the game “the right way” has long been a rallying cry for baseball traditionalists. But as players across the WBC continued to show us, their game is, more and more, what “the right way” is beginning to look like.

Lesson 2: Don’t Read Too Much Into Backstory Unless You’re Confident That You Know What You’re Talking About

After beating Puerto Rico in the WBC final, multiple U.S. players spoke out about being motivated by a perceived slight from their opposition. Said Andrew McCutchen in an ESPN report: “We heard and we saw T-shirts were made and printed out for the Puerto Rican team. We even heard a flight was made for them for that parade because they said they were going to win. That ignited us, we were ready to go.”

Added Adam Jones: “That didn’t sit well with us, so we did what we had to do.”

There is a long history of this type of bulletin-board motivation. One example, from The Baseball Codes:

In the victorious vis­itors’ clubhouse after the Indians won the 2007 American League Divi­sion Series at Yankee Stadium, Cleveland’s Ryan Garko told the press that celebratory champagne tasted just as good on the road as it did at home. A week later, however, when the Indians raced out to a three-games-to-one lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS, Boston players mistakenly—or perhaps intentionally—advanced the notion that Garko’s statement was not in reference to the Indians’ previous series, but to clinching the pennant at Fenway Park. With the quote posted on the inside of Boston’s clubhouse door as inspiration before Game 6, the Red Sox went on to win en route to the world championship.

Just as Garko intended no disrespect—indeed, his comment had to be skewed significantly to locate anything improper therein—the Puerto Rico team planned their parade independent of victory in the final game. They wanted to celebrate, win or lose, a detail that they did not attempt to hide. Drawing conclusions from the story’s bare bones was a fine way to motivate the American clubhouse—frequently, one needs little more than the ability to twist details to serve one’s own purposes—but the reality was that Puerto Rico’s parade was cast in the same vein as Puerto Rico’s approach to baseball itself. It had nothing to do with superiority or braggadocio or, heaven forbid, disrespect—and everything to do with embracing the fact that the country’s best ballplayers had gotten together and had themselves a time.

And what in the world is wrong with that?

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, Retaliation

When Getting Knocked Down Works Out In Your Favor

Fosse cardGoing through old A’s interviews while prepping for an upcoming presentation about my new book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, I found this unwritten-rules nugget from catcher Ray Fosse, who told me about an incident on July 31, 1971, before he joined the A’s:

I’m with the Indians, playing Oakland in Cleveland. [Bert] Campaneris is at first, another runner [Dick Green] is at third, and a squeeze bunt is put on—a busted squeeze. Graig Nettles is playing third for us. I caught the ball and started running down the line to force the rundown. Out of the corner of my eye I see Campy rounding second, so I threw the ball to Nettles, then went to third and called, “Graig, Graig!” So he tagged [Green] and threw it back to me.

I crushed Campy with the tag. Crushed him. It was unintentional, but my momentum took me as he came to the bag and I went down and just fell on him. He was safe. I didn’t think anything about it, but [A’s pitcher] Chuck Dobson comes to bat the next inning and tells me, “You gotta go down.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yep, I got instructions. I got to throw at you.” Here’s the pitcher who’s actually going to be doing it, at the plate saying, “You got to go down.”

I said, “Are you kidding me? Because of what I did at third base with Campy?” He said, “Mm-hm.” So I come up to hit, Dobber threw a ball over my head and knocked me to the ground. I got up pissed off, and hit a double. When I got to second base, I looked at A’s dugout and said, “Stick that up your …” I was so pissed, I said it right to [A’s manager] Dick Williams. The last thing I ever thought was that I would be traded to Oakland.

So after I was traded, we’re sitting in Cleveland, getting ready to catch a commercial flight—to Cleveland, of all places. We’re at the airport, and Dick’s in the restaurant, by himself, and I walk up to him and say, “Skip, this has been on my mind. Do you remember the play?”

He said, “I remember it.” I said, “The last place I thought I would ever be traded was here.” He says, “I remember that play, and that’s why we want guys like you.” Because I was willing to do that to one of his players, unintentionally as it was, and then  responded by looking into the dugout after they decked me. He said, “I like that.”

After four seasons in Cleveland, of course, Fosse experienced his first-ever  winning record with the A’s, followed in short order by back-to-back championships. If you’re not already following it, check out @DynasticBook for a day-by-day account of Oakland’s 1972, 1973 and 1974 championship seasons.