A rare but not unusual incident in Major League Baseball occurred on Wednesday night. New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected in the second inning for having pine tar on his neck.
Rule 8.02 states: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” Nor can a pitcher scuff, cut, or otherwise mark a ball to change its aerodynamic properties. The rule has been around since 1920 after a spitball struck Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head, killing him.
Pineda admitted that he applied pine tar to himself before the second inning, saying that he was having trouble gripping the ball on a cold evening. While plausible, any pine tar left on the surface of the ball would also have affected the flight of the ball, thus giving Pineda a significant — and illegal — advantage.
Pineda is likely to be suspended long enough to miss two or three starts. To MLB, it’s a player safety issue. A doctored ball is unpredictable and at speeds approaching 100 MPH, the ball can end a career and do permanent injury. Not only is the pitcher somewhat in the dark about where the ball may go, the foreign substance or other doctored attributes made to the ball cause it to break sharper and later than a legal pitch. This reduces the time a player has to get out of the way.
Of course, the fact that the ball breaks so precipitously is the reason pitchers still cheat today. The inventive ways that pitchers “load up” a ball, or cut it, scuff it, shine it, grease it, muddy it up, or otherwise change its path to the plate are limited only by imagination.
Consider the case of Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry. Perry admitted in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article that he used “K-Y jelly, vaseline, saliva, fishing-line wax, resin, sweat and dirt to make baseballs do peculiar things.” But Perry’s gambit was also psychological. He had a set routine while standing on the mound preparing for the next pitch. He’d rub his uniform front, brush his pitching hand over his leg, grab the bill of his cap with his fingers — all to make the batter think he was loading up the ball. In the end, Perry got into the head of most of his opponents, leading to a successful career.
How widespread is cheating among today’s Big League pitchers? Most pitchers will admit they know how to throw a spitter, or a shine ball, but swear they never do. In fact, it’s difficult to get away with. Most benches have one or two coaches who know all the tricks and can spot a cheater if given enough time. Game video is also examined to ferret out cheating pitchers.
That’s what happened in Boston to Pineda.
Pineda also appeared to have pine tar on his palm during an April 10 start against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, but Boston didn’t complain that night because the substance disappeared the inning after Red Sox manager John Farrell was made aware of it.
This time, Farrell spotted the smudge on Pineda’s neck quite clearly and brought the issue to the attention of home-plate umpire and crew chief Gerry Davis, interrupting a 1-2 count on Grady Sizemore with two outs in the second inning.
“I could see it from the dugout,” Farrell said. “It was confirmed by a number of camera angles in the ballpark. And given the last time we faced him, I felt like it was a necessity to say something.”
In 1987, Joe Niekro, playing for Minnesota at the time, was pitching against the California Angels. In the bottom of the 4th, the Angels complained to home plate umpire Tim Tschida that Niekro’s knuckleball was behaving in ways that even that wacky pitch wasn’t supposed to.
The resulting search by umpires became baseball legend.
Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton once remarked he should get “a Black and Decker commercial” because of all the ways he marked up baseballs.