Inside the Not-so-Secret Art of Pitchers Using Foreign Substances on the Mound

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Inside the Not-so-Secret Art of Pitchers Using Foreign Substances on the Mound
USA Today

Thursday night during the Yankees vs. Red Sox game, Michael Pineda cheated, plain and simple.

There was enough pine tar, Firm Grip, Valvoline or Jell-O pudding on the palm of his throwing hand, and back of his glove hand, that most of the Internet thought he had just watched the movie Naked Gun before taking the mound (skip to the 2:30 mark).

Pineda said after the game that the mystery substance was only dirt, per David Lennon of Newsday.

Please, Pineda, don’t insult our intelligence. You can do a lot of things in a Yankees uniform, including, but not limited to, giving gift baskets to groupies and having Jay Z represent you, but you cannot convince me that the glistening patch of 10W-30 on your wrist was just dirt.

And for the record, if it was just dirt, how come it only seemed to occupy two very strategic locations that also happen to be in great supply depots for ball doctors? I find the explanation ludicrous, but even if his hand was coated in wet, gleaming dirt, that’s cheating too. 

No, he was caught brown-handed, which leaves you, dear fan, with two choices on the matter: Either you can accept that he did wrong despite no force of baseball calling him out on it, or you can make up a series of rationalizations for why it really wasn’t cheating and how the rules of baseball don’t apply to him.

You’re going to hear a lot of ridiculous stuff about Pineda-gate in the next couple of days. You’ll hear that what he did wasn’t excessive and that a player is only in violation of the rules if he has an excessive amount of a foreign substance on his hand.

You’re going to hear that Pineda didn’t apply it directly to the ball, so that makes it OK.

Also false.

You’ll be told that the Red Sox weren’t complaining, and if there was something wrong, they would have.

Uh, kind of false? Let me explain.

David Ortiz believes that what Pineda and his hand did Thursday night was no big deal, per Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, because “everyone uses pine tar.”

In other words, everyone cheats.

That’s a heck of a stance for an opposing player to take on the issue. But, hey, if everyone (at least every pitcher) is cheating, then doctoring a ball is just playing fair, right?

Well, not right, but it’s also not wrong if no one is going to speak up when they see it and the umpires shrug and look away.

Elsa/Getty Images

So why didn't the Sox speak up? Good question. While I won't say that Ortiz’s logic is sound, I will say that I don’t know one single pitcher in my career who didn’t use something on the ball that was a violation of the rules.

When I first broke into the big leagues, it was my job to carry all the slick’ems and stick’ems out to the bullpen so everyone had the tools of the trade they liked best. Sunscreen and rosin, pine tar, firm grip, Fixodent, shaving cream or a combo of various other chemicals—it is always the youngest player’s job to make sure this stuff is on hand.

We transported it in the bullpen "Candy Bag." Part of that bag was exactly as the name states: candy. The other part—the part you are instructed to never take from the bag in broad view of fans or cameras—was the naughty stuff.

God help you, young rookie, if you didn't have a veteran reliever’s favorite baseball super glue packed and ready every game.

Most of the time it was little dabs here and there—on the hat bill, under the belt, on the back of the hand. It was an art delivering it to the mound and getting your hand to it on the sly.

I knew pitchers who developed full-on, between-pitch, body-touching ceremonies just so they could get a little tar on their fingertips without their motion looking suspicious. I knew guys who, after getting a fresh ball from the umpire, could have that pearl scuffed on one side and tarred on the other within three windmill-like windings of their arm.

We were sneaky about it because we knew what we were doing was cheating, but also because we had respect enough for the other team’s pitchers not to broadcast what we were up to. If we made it too obvious and forced their team to call us out, then, by golly, we’d have to call them out too.

The real sin wasn’t so much getting a little something on your hand or ball, it was being overt about it.

Is what Michael Pineda did cheating?

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Many bats have pine tar above the legal mark. Most pitchers slop sweat, rosin, sunscreen and tar onto their pearls. Lots of hats have splotches of sticky brown goop on them. It’s so common that it even induces a no-biggie reaction by an opposing hitter whose team just got beaten by the most obvious cheater of 2014.

But if you start down that rabbit hole of calling technicalities, where will it end up? How many umpires would it take to hold Grant Balfour back from killing someone if the opposing team finally questioned that hat of his? 

What Clay Buchholz did last year put him on the map. Then there was Jon Lester in the World Series. How could the Red Sox call out the Yankees without having their own guys get fingered in the return fire?

Thus this kind of cheating gets written under "something everybody does," which, ironically, paradoxically, is supposed to make it OK, just as long as you don’t cheat recklessly.

At this point, you may be asking yourself if you missed something. After all, we do live in an age when the outcry from the players is to clean up the game, level the playing field and make it fair so no one gets screwed out of a possible payday they've worked their whole life to achieve.

What kind of flagrant hypocrisy are we dealing with when players can scream that performance-enhancing drug use is cheating when they don’t know who is doing it, but then they can watch someone grease up a baseball that is directly employed to dismantling their team’s bats right before their eyes and see no fault?

Don't act so surprised. Baseball is nothing if not hypocritical. Case in point, when Lester was spotted with a glob of mystery goo on his mitt during the World Series, Yankees fans shook their heads with disgust at the Red Sox cheating the Cardinals uncontested, while Sox fans declared it all to be part of the game and something only whiners would point out.

Thursday night, after five innings of Pineda dressing his arm up like a pine tree, Red Sox fans demanded justice, while Yankees fans contended, “Cry me a river—if he was really doing something wrong, your team would have said something about it!”

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