Cheating, Pine Tar

Today’s Class: Intro to Pitch Doctoring


In the wake of yesterday’s Michael Pineda pine tar firestorm:

There’s an entire chapter in The Baseball Codes devoted to cheating, including a rundown of the various substances pitchers use to alter the flight path of the ball. (Plus: titillating stories of said substances in action!)

For an online primer that’s both free and doesn’t require a trip to the bookstore, you can turn to yesterday’s Deadspin account by ex-hurler Dirk Hayhurst (who has appeared in these pages previously). There’s just no getting away from this stuff.

Cheating, Clay Buchholz

Arm Butter Accusation Storm Builds in Toronto

buchholz arm
Sportsnet’s Buchholz graphic

It started last week when Dirk Hayhurst—ex-pitcher, sometimes author and current broadcast analyst for the Toronto Blue Jays—unleashed some damning suspicions on Twitter about Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz, who’s currently setting the American League afire with a 6-0 record and 1.01 ERA:

Forget the hair, I just saw video of Buchholz loading the ball with some Eddie Harris worthy slick’em painted up his left forearm. Wow.

It continued when Hayhurst’s colleague, ex-Tigers great and current Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris, piled on, telling ESPN Boston that “it was all over his forearm, all over the lower part of his T-shirt, it’s all in his hair,” while in the next breath stipulating that he has no actual proof of impropriety.

It really picked up steam when the video crew at the Rogers’ Centre unleashed some video from Wednesday’s Jays-Sox game, in which the right-hander allowed only two hits to Toronto over seven shutout innings, of Buchholz’s left (non-throwing) arm, glistening with what appears to be something other than sweat. (Hayhurst went on to say that it might be sunscreen mixed with rosin. The Jays’ crew added some talk about Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa possibly doing something similar.)

To be expected, Buchholz subsequently denied everything (“Definitely no foreign substances on my arm,” he told, as did Red Sox catcher David Ross (“I know when a pitcher is messing with the ball, he said. “He’s not putting anything on it”).

People came out for Buchholz. Dennis Eckersley told Morris to “zip it,” and Jerry Remy defended him on the air. Cliff Lee discussed his own innocent accumulation of sweat and rosin. Tim Hudson had some fun with the situation.

People came out against Buchholz. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci discussed details about what he feels is a fishy situation, and ESPN’s David Schoenfield compared the break on Buchholz’s pitches to those on offerings nearly 30 years ago from notorious ball scuffer Mike Scott. (He also quoted from The Baseball Codes, so credit to him on that one.)

What does it all mean? Nothing, almost literally. The Blue Jays haven’t accused Buchholz of impropriety. Neither has any other team. Umpires have yet to check him. The accusations are based on TV footage that can be realistically explained any number of ways.

It appears to be a Kenny RogersTony La Russa-type situation. When  the Fox TV crew spotted Rogers with an unusual brown spot on his palm during his start in the 2006 World Series, it became national fodder—especially when video evidence showed the same brown spot during his previous postseason appearances. Instead of having the umpires check Rogers, however (knowing that if they found a foreign substance, he’d be ejected and likely suspended), Cardinals manager La Russa merely asked them to make sure he washed his hands. From The Baseball Codes:

In the face of this World Series controversy, the Gam­bler did the only thing he could reasonably do—he cleaned his hand and continued to pitch well. Fifteen postseason shutout innings with an obvi­ous foreign substance were followed by seven shutout innings without it. Alleged pine tar or no alleged pine tar, the Cardinals, who scratched out only two hits against Rogers in eight innings, fared no better than the Yan­kees or the A’s had in earlier rounds.

The primary question was, why did La Russa not come down harder? A variety of theories surfaced, one of which gained particular traction: Pitchers cheat in Major League Baseball. Not all of them, but enough to touch every clubhouse in some way. La Russa’s own pitcher, Julian Tavarez, had been busted for using pine tar only two seasons earlier, and suspended for 10 days. La Russa called it “an example of bullshit baseball.”

La Russa, the theory held, had kept quiet because he was reluctant to travel this particular road on behalf of his own pitchers, who would undoubtedly come under increased scrutiny. No less an authority than Buchholz accuser Jack Morris weighed in, telling the Detroit Free Press that “Tony’s been through a lot himself, so I don’t think he wanted to push that enve­lope.” (An entire chapter was devoted to this particular situation in The Baseball Codes.)

So even if the Blue Jays did recognize something askew about Buchholz on the mound, they may well have opted (and continue to opt) to keep it to themselves. This could be equally true for every other team in the league, regarding every other pitcher in the league. Rare is the guy like Davey Johnson, who just doesn’t give a crap.

Chances are that Buchholz will dial back whatever it is he’s doing (even if it’s legal, he’ll likely strive to make it less suspicious), and that the entire situation will blow over within the week, assuming he does not get uncharacteristically blown out of his next start.

Which is as it should be. Most folks around the big leagues view cheating as largely acceptable, so long as the cheaters knock it off (at least for a while) once they’re caught. Buchholz’s arm butter, legal or otherwise, is no exception.


Hayhurst Takes Notes in the Clubhouse, Gets Offended When People Take Exception To his Taking of Notes in the Clubhouse

So Dirk Hayhurst got hazed. In an interview with the Toronto Star, the former big league pitcher—and author of The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League, which comes out later this month—expresses dismay at the reaction of some of his Blue Jays teammates when it came to his role as a part-time writer:

But then you had guys that were jackasses. And every team has them. These are the guys that look at baseball as a religious thing, and you never break the code. And nobody knows where the code came from, but you just can’t break it. So here comes Dirk Hayhurst, fringy guy on a search for meaning and purpose and maybe big-league fame if I could get it, and I’m just writing down stories and asking big, uncomfortable questions about the validity of our existence as ballplayers, and guys were not happy about that. And as long as you’re playing well, they’re not going to call you out about it, and I was pitching well. But then I got hurt and the gloves came off, and it was like, “Dirk, you need to apologize to the team. You need to bring everybody together and tell them you’re out of line for what you’re doing.”

He goes on to quote anonymous teammates who told him that he was making the team uncomfortable by writing about his baseball experience.

Well, of course he was.

Hayhurst should know more than most about the insular nature of a big league clubhouse, how even players who are media-friendly—by no means in the majority—frequently keep their distance from the press.

He should also know that a clubhouse is sacrosanct in the minds of its occupants. It’s the one place they can be loud, loose and raunchy, as ballplayers are, with nobody to judge them because nobody outside the team knows the true depth of what goes on.

Hayhurst must understand that an insider who starts to take notes, regardless of his intentions, will invariably make his teammates uncomfortable. Never mind that The Bullpen Gospels—a fine book, it should be mentioned—hardly burned any bridges. Hayhurst was tactful and respectful with his execution, telling stories in which nobody (save occasionally for Hayhurst himself) came out much the worse for wear.

Still, if he had no inkling that his literary aspirations would be interpreted poorly by at least some of his teammates—and that a few guys is all it takes to turn a clubhouse—he was willfully ignorant. A squeaky-clean publication record doesn’t count for a whole lot in a group that doesn’t count reading as one of its favorite pursuits.

Jim Bouton went through similar travails after Ball Four came out, but by that point he was a former 20-game winner very close to the end of his career. Hayhurst, in contrast, had pitched all of 10 big league games prior to that season in Toronto, with a 9.72 ERA. Stars get away with things that average players do not, and veterans have more leeway than rookies; Hayhurst was neither star nor veteran.

Hayhurst’s mistake was in approaching the situation rationally, as a normal human being would. He expected that because he was open about his plans, and made his work public for teammates to review, that he would subsequently be afforded a modicum of leeway, and that his literary endeavors would not affect his clubhouse standing.

Had Hayhurst approached the situation from the perspective of a ballplayer—not an intellectually inquisitive one, like himself, but an overgrown kid who gets to live the frat-house life into his 20s and 30s, and whose natural enemy is anyone who might impede upon his unique lifestyle—he might have been more cautious. At the very least, he wouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction he ultimately received.

– Jason