As April meanders toward May, the New York Yankees' starting rotation is looking rather tenuous behind Masahiro Tanaka. Hiroki Kuroda has days when he pitches as if he's 39 going on 43, CC Sabathia ranks 97th among 106 MLB starters in velocity with an average fastball of 88.6 mph, and Ivan Nova is one of many pitchers enrolled in the Tommy John surgery recovery program this spring.
Michael Pineda will give the Yankees a lift when he returns in late May from a strained lat muscle that he suffered during a simulated game Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. In the meantime, he'll sit in a corner, embarrassed and contrite, in a world where the likes of Joe Niekro, Kevin Gross and other celebrity offenders have dwelled.
Pineda received a 10-game suspension last week when he was captured with a massive glob of pine tar on his neck in violation of Major League Baseball Rule 8.02(b), which prohibits the use of foreign substances for pitchers. He apologized and vowed it will never happen again. But in the process, Pineda became the lightning rod for an administrative firestorm that will bridge the gap between clarification of the transfer rule and the inevitable blowup-to-come involving instant replay and baseball's new home plate collision directive.
While commissioner Bud Selig said baseball will wait until the offseason to address the issue of pitchers and pine tar, Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, expressed concern that legalizing pine tar might create safety issues by giving pitchers carte blanche to use the substance when some might be ill-equipped to exercise control of it.
Players-turned-broadcasters around the game quickly shared their thoughts and experiences. Former pitchers David Cone and Mike Krukow said they routinely used pine tar for a better grip during their careers, and Mike Blowers weighed in from the hitters' perspective during a Seattle Mariners broadcast.
"People ask me, 'How are you with pitchers putting pine tar on the ball?'" Blowers said. "I tell them, 'I'm fine with it.' They're out there throwing 95 mph. I want them to know where the ball is going."
So is this destined to be just another mini-flap that passes or a lingering controversy throughout the summer -- with managers alerting umpires to pitchers' shenanigans and trying to outsleuth one another for an edge? Few, if any, observers expect it to reach that point.
"I think it's business as usual as far as the 30 managers of the game," said former Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden, now an analyst with ESPN. "But fans and us in the media are waiting for them to break out into a UFC prefight circle where they're checking everybody's ears and tongues for sharp objects. Is that what we're waiting for -- Clayton Kershaw sitting on the top of the dugout and the entire umpiring crew searching him like he's going through a TSA line?"
Get a grip, fellas
The consensus: The Pineda affair has gotten more attention than it deserves because of the combatants involved and the surrounding circumstances.
"I think it's kind of been blown out of proportion," said pitcher Randy Wolf, a 15-year veteran who's with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization this season. "A lot has to do with the fact that it was an ESPN game and a Yankees-Red Sox game and it wasn't hidden very well. If it were a Royals-Marlins game and this happened, I don't think it would be talked about as much."
Nevertheless, the Pineda affair makes for interesting talk-show fodder. If bench-jockeying is harmless and bat-corking crosses the line to cheating, pitchers using pine tar probably ranks somewhere with sign-stealing in that vast middle ground of gamesmanship rituals. The Pineda incident shined a new light on a tradition that has been passed down through generations with various twists and turns depending on the popular substance du jour.
The ultimate question is whether pine tar deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Vaseline, Carmex lip balm or other slick applications that can turn the Average Joe into R.A. Dickey with 90 mph-plus heat. Dwight Gooden disputed the conventional wisdom when he took to Twitter and said pine tar does considerably more than enhance a pitcher's grip.
lets put to rest all this talk about pine tar to get a better grip on the ball to protect the hitters!
- Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) April 24, 2014
Pine tar is used 2 make ur breaking pitches sharper& help ur sinker 4 more movement!
- Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) April 24, 2014
You can blow in your hand for a better grip when it's cold... enough already!
- Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) April 24, 2014
Hall of Famer and master spitballer Gaylord Perry concurred in an interview with Bill Madden of the New York Daily News.
"Of course pine tar is a performance-enhancing substance," Perry said. "Why do you think so many pitchers are using it? It absolutely helps your sinkers to sink better and breaking pitches to break better."
As a footnote, Perry told Madden that he never used pine tar during his 22-year big league career. He had enough success with Vaseline and Slippery Elm that he didn't need it.
In the course of reporting this story, I spoke with three recent pitchers -- Braden, Wolf and a former big league reliever who spoke on the condition of anonymity -- who cited less nefarious motives in the use of pine tar. True, a pitcher might be able to better command his stuff if he's able to keep the ball on his fingertips for a fraction of a second longer and generate more rotations. But most pitchers seem to regard those as ancillary benefits to the main objective.
The pitchers I spoke to said a major league baseball can feel like a cue ball even after it has been rubbed down with Mississippi mud. Although it's only a guess, they estimated that the majority of pitchers use pine tar primarily for an enhanced grip.
"If you have a better grip, of course you're going to have better rotation on your fastball and curveball because it's not going to be slipping out of your fingertips," Wolf said. "But I don't think pitchers get any more of an advantage than a hitter does by using pine tar so he can grip the bat and it won't come flying out of his hands when he swings. I personally don't think pine tar will make your pitches any better. It's not like scuffing the ball or using a spitter, where the ball comes out like a fastball with no rotation."
Pineda said he had trouble coping with the cold and windy conditions at Fenway Park. But heat and humidity can also be a challenge for pitchers. Wolf flashes back to a game in his rookie year with the Phillies in 1999, when he allowed three early runs on an oppressively hot day in Milwaukee. He was sweating so badly that he was throwing the equivalent of a spitball and had no clue where the pitch was headed. The rosin bag was worthless until he retired to the dugout between innings and applied a dab of pine tar to his wrist to create some tack.
"When I was with the Brewers, there was a pitcher who came up to me one game and said, 'I can't feel the ball. I have no idea what happens when it leaves my hand,'" Wolf said. "So I told him to use a little sunscreen and rosin to give him a little bit of stickiness. He came back to me after that inning and said, 'Thank god. Now I know where the ball is going.' It didn't make his fastball or his curveball better. It's a very uncomfortable feeling when you're pitching and the ball is slipping out of your hand."
Not just for hurlers
Pitchers aren't the only ones with a fondness for pine tar. Catchers use it to better control their throws, and infielders furtively take a smidge and apply it under their belts or the inside of their gloves.
Former Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner used to take the field with a noticeable brown patch on his pants leg. "It's not dirt. It's pine tar," Buhner said in a 1997 interview. "I rub my hand on it to keep it dry in case I have to make a throw. I have pine tar all over -- pants, sleeve, even my cap brim."
Rosin mixed with sweat is a handy combination to give a pitcher a firm grip. But on cold days, Wolf said rosin is as worthless as baby powder. On excessively hot days, sweaty pitchers find that controlling the ball is the equivalent of wrestling a porpoise if it isn't combined with a mixing agent.
Resourceful pitchers have more in their arsenal than pine tar. Bullfrog is the popular sunscreen of choice. Some pitchers apply shaving cream to their gloves to create moisture that can produce the desired effect when combined with rosin. Barbasol cream and the green, Edge-type liquid are among the top options, according to the former big league reliever.
Among the other substances that pitchers have experimented with are rubbing alcohol, Tuf-Skin and Firm Grip.
When Braden pitched for Oakland, teammate Joe Blanton told him that the visiting clubhouse manager in Seattle put together a rosin bag like no other. "It never clumped or calcified," Braden said. So on each visit to Safeco Field, Braden picked up a few of the Seattle rosin bags to go.
"I used to have a duffel bag with Bullfrog sunscreen, my Seattle rosin bag, a little bit of Firm Grip and some other rosin, and I was strapping that on playing in domes in Tampa and Toronto," Braden said. "I was using suntan lotion in 7 o'clock games.
"It's not like you're loading up your body with this liquid arsenal. It's like putting on your belt or your sock. Hitters are boning their bats to make them harder than when they get them in a box. Do pitchers complain about that? No. It's understood."
So what next?
Torre looked into historical precedent before expressing concerns about legalizing pine tar for pitchers. In 1920, after Carl Mays killed Ray Chapman with an errant spitball, baseball outlawed the spitter because of safety concerns. But the 17 pitchers who already threw the wet one were grandfathered in and allowed to continue using it. Experienced pitchers who know what they're doing aren't the issue.
"I can understand the fact you don't want the ball slipping out of a pitcher's hand because someone can get hurt," Torre said. "But there's also the aspect that the ball may stick on your fingers longer and you may be able to make it sink or cut more or whatever. And it may act in a dangerous way with guys who don't know what they're doing with it."
For now, MLB is walking the fine line between acknowledging pine tar use and trying not to overreact. Torre said umpires will have the discretion to go to the mound and search a pitcher if his ball suddenly starts fluttering like a whiffle ball. And if a hitter sees something odd, he's always free to complain.
But it's rare that teams ever gripe about pine tar. The consensus is that Boston manager John Farrell had no choice in alerting the umpires to Pineda's transgression.
"Pineda clearly crossed the line as far as the spirit of competition," Braden said. "You can't rub it in the other team's face. Farrell is a pitching guy, so you know he didn't want to say anything. But you can't go out there and do jumping jacks with a jug of pine tar and not expect someone to notice."
In the final analysis, the standard, unwritten rules of respect and decorum still apply. George Brett notwithstanding, baseball rarely if ever cracks down on hitters who apply too much pine tar to their bats. Similarly, the pitcher who slips a dab under his belt or inside his glove is probably going to avoid detection. No one says a word because this is what pitchers do.
"This might be a bad comparison," Wolf said, "but it's almost like if you're driving on the freeway. Everybody knows you can go 9 mph over the speed limit. If you go 74 in a 65, you're probably not going to get pulled over. But the police can't raise the speed limit to 74, because then people will start driving 83.
"I think baseball understands that guys need to do something to get a grip, but they're worried about abandoning the rule and making it legal because guys might start abusing the privilege and start using things other than pine tar to manipulate the ball in a certain way."
Despite Selig's proclamation that MLB will examine the issue during the winter, baseball is silently hoping that Pineda was a freak occurrence and the argument fades from lack of interest. Pitchers will continue to be discreet with their pine tar. Hitters and opposing managers will wink at the practice. And in the grandest of baseball traditions, everyone will find a way to co-exist.