Pine tar chronicles: Enforce the rule


Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Following Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda‘s ejection from Wednesday’s game at Fenway and subsequent 10-game suspension, BoSox Injection sets out to cover all sides of the issue: from those in favor of better enforcement to those in favor of letting them play, with views on doctoring the ball from someone who’s pitched at the professional level. This is BSI’s Pine Tar Chronicles.

In this series of articles, we are looking at different aspects of the rule. As we have debated the enforcement of this rule among the writers of this site, my opinion has always come down on the side of “enforce the rule.”

Take any baseball game. What is this umpire’s strike zone? Does he call close pitches? What has he been calling tonight? As a fan, you know that if a catcher is set up on the inside corner and the pitcher misses the target but throws it right over the plate, usually that will be called a ball. Does the strike zone change when the score is close late in the game? This is one of the most infuriating things about watching a game. Is the umpire consistent?

This seems to be what the players want. The players run the game. It would be a better game if rule 8.02 “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball” was enforced. The arguments for allowing the status quo of discreet cheating to continue seem to boil down to community enabling of cheating. The arguments are:

1. This is the way it has always been.
Throughout baseball history are stories of pitchers who had success with doctoring the ball. Gaylord Perry admitted to throwing a spitter. He admitted sometimes he was loading it up, sometimes he wasn’t. He won over 300 games. The President called him on the occasion of his 300th win. Whitey Ford is a Hall of Fame pitcher. He is reputed to have had his catcher, Yogi Berra cut the ball by discreetly rubbing it against his belt buckle. The lesson: be a clever cheater and be successful.

2. Everyone does it, so it is OK, but be discreet about it.
This goes back to argument 1. The notion of the discreet cheater. Pineda had been observed in this first start against the Red Sox with pine tar on his hand. In his second start against them two weeks later, he gets lit up in the first inning. So in the second inning he has a big slab of pine tar on his neck. It was blatant. We think Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester might have been using a substance last year, but nobody checked them for it, so no enforcement can be made. They were better at it, if they were cheating. The lesson: you can cheat, but don’t flaunt it.

3. Everyone does it, so we shouldn’t punish particular people who are caught.
When Jose Canseco played, there was no secret about it around baseball: he was a weight room hound and he was loading up on steroids. After the game had its labor strife in 1994 and 1995, the home run chase of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in 1998 brought fans back to the game. Numbers were falling off the record books. It was routine for players to hit 40 and 50 homers a year. Pitchers suddenly could throw 5 mph faster than the previous year. McGwire was found to be taking androstenedione, a steroid. He left the bottle front and center in his locker. The writer who exposed this fact was vilified as hurting the game. When Canseco, though he could still hit some homers, was not signed by any team, he felt wronged. Never mind that he couldn’t hit for average or field any more, he felt like he needed to expose what was really going on. Canseco wrote a book, made some money, and the game changed. Testing is much more rigorous now. Players get around it somewhat now, using Adderral, essentially speed, to control diagnosed attention deficit disorder. What of all those astronomical numbers? This is where my argument kicks in. Some writers have decided that since a lot of people did it and not all of them got caught (we can never know who used and who didn’t) that we have to take the numbers at face value and let them in the Hall of Fame. The lesson: if we have enough cheaters, and we can’t always tell who cheated, we accept it as part of the game.

4. If I am a pitcher, and I don’t use pine tar, I could hit people. I need it to grip the ball better when it is cold out.
This might be the most infuriating one for this writer. Some players from the steroid era declined to use them (ex-Red Sox Mike Greenwell makes this argument), and their numbers were not as good as the steroid users. If I am cheating, I don’t like it, but I am just trying to keep up with the other cheaters. It’s the lowest common denominator argument. Pineda made this argument during his deer-in-the-headlights postgame interview. Batters back up the pitchers and say “I don’t want him hitting me in the head, so go ahead and use it”. Would a batter rather strike out because a pitcher had an rule-defying advantage than get hit by the pitch? How will they get a bigger contract, by striking out or increasing their on base percentage by getting hit with the pitch? If you are using a substance to get a better grip and it is on the ball, won’t that substance affect the flight of the ball, so the ball drops more and closer to the plate to fool the hitter? Just because you do it for grip, doesn’t mean you don’t get the further movement advantage from it. The reason you did something is immaterial when you blatantly breaking the rule. Go back to the steroid argument. “I wasn’t doing it for an advantage; I just wanted to get back on the field.” No matter your motivation, it still gave you an advantage versus following the rules, so you didn’t care that it was illegal because you could get what you wanted. The lesson: if you can’t avoid hitting people unless you use pine tar, you should find another job.

Another point in our group debate over steroid was the comparison to PEDs. Isn’t it a PED if it enhances your performance? The general consensus seems to be no, it is not. This writer disagrees. If you are using an illegal substance to gain an advantage you couldn’t get otherwise, it is cheating. The argument is simple. Enforce the rule. Change this culture of discreet cheating. Much like steroids, cheaters cheapen the game. Fans don’t know what is real and what is drug or foreign substance related. Are we trying to teach young fans that cheating is acceptable as long as you don’t get caught?

If any player is cheating, there needs to be enforcement and consequences. The culture of acceptance of cheating, like the acceptance of steroids, needs to change.

Enforce the rule.