ST. LOUIS -- A catcher’s chest protector typically is made of hard plastic over layers of foam. A baseball’s cover is cowhide. At last check, those two materials don’t have a magnetic attraction to one another.
So one would think the St. Louis Cardinals would have had some idea, more than an hour later, why Brett Cecil's 82 mph breaking ball bounced in the dirt and magically stuck to Yadier Molina's torso, allowing Chicago Cubs pinch hitter Matt Szczur to reach first base on a wild pitch to lead off the seventh inning Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium. The moment -- in retrospect -- swung the game, a 6-4 Cubs victory, in Chicago's favor, primarily because Kyle Schwarber crushed a home run off Cecil two batters later, so it was certainly fresh on everyone’s minds.
And yet the Cardinals said repeatedly, in effect, “I know nothing!” -- summoning images of the great Sergeant Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes" and perhaps unnecessarily raising suspicions around baseball about their methods.
The Cubs could have pressed the matter and made their rivals squirm a bit, at the very least, but they seemed to shrug off the bizarre moment. They never asked umpire Quinn Wolcott to check the ball or pat down Cecil or Molina. Jason Heyward, who played with Molina as recently as 2015, and Schwarber said they assumed he stashed some sticky material somewhere on his gear to help him get a grip for his throws.
“Catchers like to put pine tar on their shin guards and throw balls to second base and get a good feeling," Schwarber said. "Maybe it rubbed off some and it stuck."
But when someone suggested that theory to Molina, he turned to the reporter and said, “Do I put anything on my chest protector? No. That’s a dumb question.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny repeated the same phrase Molina did -- “never seen it” -- several times and wouldn’t go into any more detail.
“I have no idea what happened. That’s all I can tell you,” Matheny said.
Closeups from the TV broadcast after the ball had stuck to Molina’s chest protector showed a star-shaped white smudge in the area where the ball had adhered to the plastic. Where that smudge came from is the mystery now.
What was Cecil’s explanation? Hard to say, because the left-hander departed the clubhouse without speaking to reporters, a move that will raise even more eyebrows. If Molina is caught using a foreign substance, nobody is going to get too bent out of shape. With his throwing arm, most baserunners would probably welcome it if it means they don’t get conked on the head by a throw that slips out of his hand.
If Cecil was applying something to the ball, it would raise a different set of questions. In 2014, New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda served a suspension for applying pine tar to a ball, in violation of Rule 8.02: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.”
Nobody is saying Cecil is the second coming of Burleigh Grimes -- the Hall of Famer who used to chew on elm bark until it became sticky enough to apply to the ball -- but it would be interesting to hear what he had to say, at the very least, about a bizarre moment that might have cost his new team a game. The Cardinals signed him over the winter to a four-year, $30.5 million contract, so Cecil owed it to the fans to explain his rough second outing, at the very least.
The Szczur at-bat looks like the moment when everything changed. The Cardinals were nine outs from taking two out of three games and sending an early-season statement that they had gotten closer to the best team in their division. Then the bizarre play happened and everything unraveled quickly. Cecil faced four more batters in the seventh, and it did not go well: walk, home run, walk, single.
“If we get that first out, everything changes,” Molina said.
Pineda’s violation was magnified because the Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox at the time. The situation is similar here in that the Cardinals were playing the Cubs, a rivalry filled with intrigue. Combine that with this play and it produces an intoxicating mix.
Until we get a little more information, which we might never get, nobody is going to know why that baseball stuck to Molina’s chest protector, which is practically flat. Some reports said it was “wedged” into the equipment, but that is physically impossible. There are no creases for it to be wedged in.
It seems unlikely Cecil or Molina would face a suspension given that neither the umpires nor the opponent made the substance -- if there was one -- an issue. That doesn't mean the Cardinals shouldn't get in front of the issue and assure their fans they aren't cheating.