The thing that has baseball folks riled up about Michael Pineda isn’t that he was trying to cheat. Everybody does that.
It’s that he wasn’t trying hard enough.
The Yankees right-hander got nabbed on the mound Wednesday night in Fenway with what looked like an oil slick’s worth of pine tar on the right side of his neck. He left the ump no choice. It had to qualify as the grossest violation ever of Rule 8.02(b), which says, “The pitcher shall not … have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.”
Everyone in baseball knew what the penalty is, too, even before commissioner Bud Selig made it official with a 10-game suspension — if only because it’s one of the most commonly flouted rules in the game.
Usually a pitcher hides a dab behind his belt, or inside a sleeve, or else has the catcher conceal it behind a shin-guard and throw the ball back already prepared. There’s some debate whether you can load a baseball up with enough pine tar to make it dance. But more than a few pitchers, hitters and managers believe that a little isn’t a bad thing at all — especially on a cold night — since everybody benefits when a guy with a first-class fastball has a good enough grip to throw it around the plate. It’s what baseball mean when they talk about the game’s “unwritten rules.”
Pineda’s real sin, then, was not knowing when to stop. There’s no doubt — and plenty of high-def evidence — that he had pine tar on his hands when he dominated the Boston lineup through six strong innings barely two weeks ago. The Red Sox knew it, too, since there was enough grumbling through the first four innings that when Pineda took the mound for the fifth, he’d dutifully washed his hands.
This time, though, Pineda slathered on enough pine tar to scrawl “Suspend me!” with room to spare. It was so obvious that Red Sox manager John Farrell had to call him on it, even though Farrell passed up the chance to have the ump inspect Pineda in that April 10 game.
Afterward, Farrell seemed embarrassed for Pineda — “I think there’s better ways to maybe conceal it,” he said — but there’s more than enough embarrassment to go around.
Why Pineda didn’t try harder is a matter of conjecture. Asked the question “You know it’s illegal, right?” he began his answer “Yeah, but …” then followed up by adding, “I don’t feel the ball and I don’t want to hit anybody.” Pineda also promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Oddly enough, that’s probably as close to the truth as we’re likely to get. Pineda is just 25, from the Dominican Republic, and he comes into the season still learning English and freighted with expectations after sitting out the last two because of shoulder surgery. Chances are good he can tick off as many of baseball’s “unwritten rules” as you can, let alone the nuances of any.
Maybe he figured he got away once going 10 mph over the speed limit, so this time he’d try 25 over. Beyond that, as a pal pointed out, if there’s another reason for Pineda’s behavior, trying to figure it out is likely a losing proposition.
Tougher to figure out, though, is the Yankees’ responsibility in this mess. Presumably, someone in the organization explained the problem to Pineda after his first start against the Red Sox, which made manager Joe Girardi’s feigned surprise after this episode less than satisfying.
“It’s something Michael chose to do after the first inning,” Girardi said. “He had a hard time gripping the baseball.”
But that doesn’t explain how Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, or even catcher Brian McCann, who caught Pineda’s warm-up pitches, let the pitcher stand the mound wearing half a necktie fashioned from goo. Especially considering the already depleted ranks of the team’s starting pitching.
“We as an organization are embarrassed,” general manager Brian Cashman. “He should not have been allowed out of our dugout like that.”
Notice that no one has said Pineda shouldn’t have been using pine tar, only that he should not have been using it so obviously that he got caught. All that did was make it harder for the next pitcher to get away with a dab of pine tar, and spark what will probably be another round of retaliation as managers call for more inspections of pitchers. Like the game isn’t slow enough already.
But that’s the problem with having one set of rules on the books, and another set for how the business is run day to day. Not everyone in the game agrees on what cheating is, but nearly all of them know it when you rub it in their face — or in this case, on your neck.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at —https://twitter.com/JimLitke