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.

Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Yadier Molina Has a Message for You, Pitchers

molina_pushups_med_i7mol65c

In St. Louis yesterday, Phillies reliever Brett Oberholtzer knocked down catcher Yadier Molina with an inside pitch at the knees. Molina, having pitched forward to avoid it, ended up face down in the dirt, over the plate, bat still in his hand. Then he did some push-ups. (Watch it here.)

You can’t intimidate me.

Most hitters opt for less representational manifestations of that kind of message, opting simply to get back into the batter’s box as if nothing had happened. Frank Robinson would actually move closer to the plate. But push-ups?

You can’t intimidate me.

Pete Rose made a point of sprinting to first base after being hit by a pitch, to prove that not only could he not be intimidated, he also couldn’t be physically hurt. Guys like Stan Musial and Ted Williams took pleasure in abusing pitchers who threw too far inside, following knockdowns with extra-base hits. Just last year Andrew McCutchen set precedent for Molina, doing push-ups of his own after being knocked down in a game against Cincinnati, and then hitting a double.

The notion of anti-intimidation has a rich history in baseball, never more prominently enacted than by Jackie Robinson early in a career in which opposing pitchers made him one of the most tested batters in big league history. In his excellent book, Baseball’s Great Experiment, Jules Tygiel described a game from 1946, when Robinson still played for the minor league Montreal Royals:

Paul Derringer, a thirty-nine-year-old former major league hurler who had won 223 games over his fifteen-year career, faced Robinson in an April exhibition game. The Kentucky-born player told [Montreal manager Clay] Hopper that he would test the black athlete. The first time Robinson came to the plate, Derringer hurled a fastball at his head. “He knocked him down all right,” said Hopper, “Forced him to put his chin right in the dirt.”

Robinson stepped back in and Derringer threw a second pitch that headed at him and then broke sharply over the inside corner. Robinson lashed the ball on a line over the third baseman’s head for a single.

Two innings later, Derringer again decked Robinson. This time the angry batter drove the next pitch into left-center for a triple. After the game Derringer confided to Hopper, one southerner to another, “Clay, your colored boy is going to do all right.”

And Molina? On the pitch following his batter’s-box calisthenics, he singled into center field. Even if Oberholtzer’s knockdown was unintentional, Molina sent a powerful message to the rest of the league.

You can’t intimidate me.

 

Retaliation

The Art of Unnecessarily Picking up Other People’s Battles: Adrian Gonzalez, Come on Down!

It was noteworthy because it’s the postseason, and it was noteworthy because there’s some history between these teams, and it was noteworthy because it involved Yasiel Puig and everything that involves Yasiel Puig is noteworthy.

But, Adrian Gonzalez’s insistence aside, there’s no way on God’s green infield that Adam Wainwright was intentionally throwing at Puig in Game 2 of the NLDS on Friday.

It was the third inning. It was a 1-0 game. Puig was leading off. And, oh yeah, it’s the playoffs. Wainright needed to work inside, and he may have done so carelessly but certainly not intentionally. Puig seemed to realize this, understanding that an extra baserunner was precisely not what Wainwright wanted at that moment, and taking his base without protest. But Wainwright had earlier buzzed Hanley Ramirez at the hands, and in last year’s playoff series between these same teams, St. Louis pitcher Joe Kelly cracked one of Ramirez’ ribs.

All of which was likely on Gonzalez’s mind when he stood at the plate, jawing with Cards catcher Yadier Molina, even as Puig took his base. That he was standing up for his teammate was admirable. That he chose to spark a benches-clearing dustup for an HBP that wasn’t even his own? Less so. That moment was Puig’s to do with what he wanted, and when he treated it calmly and rationally, Gonzalez should have, too. That the benches ended up clearing was entirely his fault.

“You guys keep doing this over and over. We’re not going to put up with that,'” Gonzalez said he told Molina, in an ESPN.com report. “They’re going to say it’s not on purpose, but come on. It’s Wainwright. He knows where the ball is going.”

Gonzalez said Molina told him, “You’ve got to respect me.”

“I thought that was out of context, but it’s what he said,” Gonzalez relayed.

One beautiful part of the exchange was that, thanks to Gonzalez’s outburst, Wainwright had the opportunity to approach Puig and explain face to face that he hadn’t meant to hit him. Puig appeared to go along with it.

Another beautiful part was when Ramirez, up three batters later, knocked Puig home with a single, providing the best sort of revenge for which the Dodgers could have asked.

 

Josh Harrison, Running Into the Catcher

When is the Baseline Not the Baseline? When it’s Your Team’s Catcher Blocking it, Apparently

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina understands the concept of blocking the plate. So does his manager, Mike Matheny, a big league catcher for 13 seasons. Which is what makes their professed confusion over the propriety of a play in which Molina was bowled over during Tuesday’s 9-0 loss to Pittsburgh so confusing.

As Josh Harrison rounded third on a second-inning single by Jose Tabata, Molina positioned himself in the baseline, awaiting the throw from right fielder Carlos Beltran.

The catcher’s positioning left Harrison little choice. A slide would have put him into the catcher’s shinguards. A wide-slide-and-swipe-tag combo was also out of the question. So Harrison—only 5-foot-8, but 190 pounds—took what was clearly his best option, and lowered his shoulder.

Molina held onto the throw and tagged Harrison out, but lay in the dirt for several long moments and had to leave the game. (Afterward, his back, shoulder and neck were sore, but he reported no concussion symptoms. Watch the play here.)

A clean, legal play resulted in an out on the basepaths. This didn’t stop Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrookfrom meting out retaliation in the bottom of the fifth. A 3-0 Pirates lead coming into the frame had grown to 5-0 courtesy of four straight hits to open the inning, and Westbrook faced a first-and-third situation with Harrison at the plate. With second base open and the pitcher frustrated, he acted, drilling the batter in the leg. (Watch it here.)

Plate ump Adrian Johnson showed an unfortunately quick trigger, immediately warning both benches—a decision that elicited an anmiated conversation with infuriated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, whose team had been stripped of an opportunity to respond to what had effectively been the first shot fired.

A well-blocked plate.

“A baseball play was made at home plate,” he said after the game in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “They decided to pitch Josh Harrison inside and tight. That’s a baseball play. What I was disappointed in is we didn’t have an opportunity to make a baseball play. If (Johnson) thought there was intent to hit him, throw the pitcher out and let’s move on.”

Had Molina given Harrison a lane to the plate—like the one Buster Posey gave to Scott Cousins last season when he was nonetheless knocked over and out for the year—St. Louis would have had a legitimate gripe. As it is, their confused post-game comments seemed unusually pointed. A sampling, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

  • Molina: “I would love for him to slide, but this is baseball. It’s one of those things that is going to happen.”
  • Matheny, on the legitimacy of the play: “What do you mean by legitimate? Everybody has the option to slide. He had an option to slide and he didn’t.”
  • Unnamed Cardinals player: “He probably would have been safe if he had slid. That was not the play.”
  • Carlos Beltran: “A runner has a choice — to slide to home plate or hit the catcher. . . . It’s not a dirty play, but, like I say, you have the choice. Go for the base or try to hit the guy.”

Beltran made the point perfectly, only in reverse. By positioning himself where he did, Molina left Harrison no choice about what to do. The only way to get to the plate was through the catcher.

“When I was about (30 feet) from the plate, I saw him slide his feet back,” said Harrison. “The whole plate was blocked; there was no way to slide around him.”

Perhaps the Cardinals’ players were covering for Westbrook, who likely acted on his own. Maybe they really meant it. Either way, Johnson’s warning delayed until today—the final game between the teams this season—any response for which the Pirates may have opted. If matters are to be further settled, it will happen tonight.