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Michael Pineda’s Foul Ball

Why was the Yankees pitcher suspended for breaking a rule that everyone breaks?

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

During Wednesday night's matchup against the Boston Red Sox, a young New York Yankees pitcher, Michael Pineda, was discovered to have pine tar smeared on his neck. He was presumably using the substance to help him grip the ball in the 51-degree, humid night air.

By itself, no big deal: At any given moment, any number of players on any number of teams are doing small, illicit things, such as stealing the catcher’s signs from second base, in order to gain a competitive edge. Putting pine tar on the ball is a violation—“The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball,” Major League Baseball’s rulebook intones—but it’s a broadly accepted practice. (For most baseball fans, “pine tar” conjures an image of hitters using too much on their bats in order to get a better grip; most notoriously, George Brett was accused of this in what became known as the Pine Tar Game of 1983.)

The difference is that Pineda had already been caught using pine tar. Two weeks ago. Also against Boston. But in that instance, the pine tar was in a more discreet location: the palm of his right hand. “I became aware of it in the fourth inning through the video that someone had seen,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said after that game. “And then, when he came back out for the fifth inning, it looked, based on where it was told to me it was located, it looked like the palm of his right hand was clean.”

Last night, the tar was in clearer view, smeared across Pineda's neck. This brazenness led Farrell to issue a complaint during Wednesday night’s game, which led to Pineda’s ejection in the second inning and a 10-game suspension. On Baseball Twitter and among fans, it is Topic A, revealing the quirky and oddly touching nature of what Jason Turbow used for the title of his recent book: The Baseball Codes. It was Pineda’s ostentation, not his cheating, that crossed the line. Turbow wrote Thursday that "John Farrell seems to be viewing it similarly to the way many in the game approach opponents stealing signs from the basepaths: It’s hardly egregious, and every team does it to some degree—but when you’re caught, you have to stop … or at least make it less obvious.” 

The teams seem to be taking that position. After Pineda used pine tar the first time, in a Yankees win on April 10, a couple Red Sox players gave quotes to the effect that they did not care; it just so happens that two Red Sox pitchers, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, have been accused of monkeying with their balls, which may have been why Farrell did not raise a stink during the first Pineda game. After Wednesday night’s game, however, the word from the Red Sox was that it was unacceptable, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called the episode “embarassing.” (After the game, Pineda himself fessed up, whereas after the April 10 game he had claimed the substance on his palm was dirt.)

“Pine tar’s been around forever for pitchers,” Turbow said Thursday morning in a brief interview. “No one in the game really considers it cheating, or very few. It’s more to get a good grip on a cold night or a wet night.” Old-school manager Tony La Russa declined to press charges, as it were, when an opposing pitcher used pine tar against his St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 World Series. According to Turbow, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once spotted opposing pitcher Don Sutton grinding the ball into an abrasive patch in his palm and angrily phoned Yankees manager Lou Pinella, only to have Pinella explain that Sutton learned all his tricks of the trade from Tommy John—who was pitching that night for the Yankees.

Turbow says baseball’s unwritten rules have lost significant force in recent years. Citing showy home run trots, he said, “You’ve got players celebrating successes big and small in ways that would’ve gotten them drilled in years past and now are not noticed at all.” 

Which is a shame! Arguing in April over how many times a pitcher should be allowed to cheat might seem silly. From one angle, baseball is a pedant’s pastime. From another, though—and sorry for going all George F. Will here—it is the most capacious of sports, a gigantic realm in which fans may enter fun if fruitless, and endless, disputation. “Football and basketball don’t have things like this,” Turbow mused. “Baseball is such a deliberate game. So much of what you do in football and basketball is simply reacting to someone else’s physical moves. In baseball, you have time to send a message through things you do on the field.”

He added, “A pitcher can send a message with a fastball.”

In this instance, though, everyone seems to be on the same page, and Turbow does not expect any retaliation the next time the Yankees and Sox play: Thursday night at 7:10.