Cheating, Pine Tar

‘To My Hero, Ozzie. Love You,’ Sincerely, Bryce Harper

After Sunday’s Ozzie GuillenBryce Harper Hey, Are You Showing Me Up? staredown, some members of the Nationals brought a touch of levity to the situation.

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.”

Advertisements
Cheating, Pine Tar

Pine Tar Gate 2.0: Ozzie Strikes Back

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.