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Michael Pineda and The Obviousness Factor

Apr 24, 2014, 2:42 PM EDT

michael pineda pine tar

There’s a fun element of parenting that I like to call “The Obviousness Factor.” It goes something like this: Sometimes you see your kid doing something kind of off but not exactly wrong. For instance, we will see a daughter quietly goofing around with the dog when she should be doing her homework or gently annoying her sister when she could be doing something constructive like cleaning up her room or writing a novel that will make us enough money to retire.

And, up to a point, that’s not really a big deal. You know: Kids will be kids.

But then there’s a point where it DOES become a big deal. And that’s the obviousness factor. This would be the time when the daughter is goofing around with the dog after being told repeatedly to do her homework or annoying her sister after we’ve already had the “OK, you two don’t talk to each other for the next 285 days” talk.

In theory, the first set of transgressions are precisely the same as the second set. But the second set of transgressions are absurdly obvious. And so, as a parent, they are treated differently. As a Dad, I’ll let the first one go pretty easily. I’ll put a stop to the second. That might be lousy and inconsistent parenting but, hey, we do the best we can.

All of which leads to Michael Pineda baseball rule: It’s OK to put pine tar on your hands when it’s cold out there but, for crying out loud, don’t make it SO BLEEPING OBVIOUS.

That, of course, is not the rule as written. Baseball Rule 8:02 states that a pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball. That’s where it ends. It is likely that the pine tar Pineda used was made here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. but I don’t think that’s what they mean by “foreign.” The rule is as plain and unambiguous as any rule in baseball — no foreign substance. Period. You can’t rub the ball on glove, person or clothing. You can’t deface the ball in any manner. You can’t spit on the ball or apply anything else. No foreign substance of any kind. Done.

MORE: Michael Pineda suspended 10 games for possessing foreign substance

Only … no … not really done. Because somewhere along the way players came to this general consensus that it really wouldn’t be too bad if pitchers put a little pine tar on their hands on cold days. Nobody I’ve talked to around the game seems entirely sure if pine tar actually alters the way a baseball moves. But it does seem to help the pitcher grip the baseball in cold weather. And while that’s an advantage for the pitcher, it’s also generally beneficial to the hitter. Nobody wants a pitcher up there with a blazing fastball and an unsteady grip on the ball. Nobody wants the ball slipping out of the hands of Michael Pineda.

It seems certain — based on photograph evidence and sheer logic — that Pineda had pine tar on his hands the first time he faced the Red Sox back on April 10. This became something of a Twitter cause. And the Red Sox, to a man, did not seem to care. The pitchers didn’t care because, hey, maybe they would like a little pine tar on cold night. The hitters didn’t care because, hey, it was cold, Pineda throws rockets, yeah, if he wants to subtly use a little pine tar so he can grip the ball better, hey, everyone on the Red Sox seemed pretty OK with that.

He pitched six strong innings, struck out seven, was pretty dominant, and the Red Sox were STILL OK with a little pine tar on the hand. People around baseball obviously see the stark rule as more of a guideline, kind of like a speed limit. You do 58 in 55 zone and nobody is going to complain too much — except that is the countless cars who want you to get over so they can pass you.

But Wednesday, against the Red Sox, Pineda went to the mound in a second inning with enough pine tar to cover all of George Brett’s bats on his neck. It was so blatant that Red Sox manager John Farrell just couldn’t ignore it. He didn’t. He pointed it out, the umpires threw Pineda out of the game, the Yankees talked about how embarrassed they were about it all, and so on.

Thing is, I have many, many complaints about the way baseball is run and umpired. But here I have to say, I think they handled these two cases exactly as they should. Is it inconsistent? Sure. Is it kind of illogical? Sure. Is it by the book? Absolutely not.

But, in a way, this comes back to my complaint about instant replay in sports. The older I get, the more I believe that games should not be officiated by the book. They should be officiated by the rules and a heaping handful of common sense. I tend to worry that we’re losing the common sense part.

My pal Calcaterra used the Pineda story to make the point that the inconsistency of the Pineda ruling — punishing him only when it’s obvious — is completely inconsistent with the way we have viewed, say, PED use. I think there’s a strong point in there (in how we might want to reconsider the Infamy to PED Users stance that has become all to prominent) but I also think he might have missed something.

The obviousness factor was (and remains) a HUGE part of the PED story. People only started caring about PED usage in baseball when muscle-bound men began hitting an absurd number of home runs. There is little doubt that some baseball players used steroids before, say, 1994. It didn’t just happen one night. Steroid use was prominent in the NFL and track and field and swimming and other sports in the 1970s and 1980s, and you cannot tell me that baseball players just sat out because of the love of the game, especially as the money in the game began to skyrocket. We’ll never know unless someone comes out and admits it, but baseball players were popping greenies like M&Ms, they were smoking pot and drinking to excess and doing any number of illegal drugs. And cheating in various ways whenever they could get away with it. You can’t tell me they drew some sort of line at steroids.

But, from what I can tell, people don’t really care if anyone used steroids in 1970s and 1980s baseball. Why? Nobody hit 70 home runs, that’s why. Nobody broke Hank Aaron’s record, that’s why. You didn’t have unknown players cracking 40 home runs like it was easier than the test sample questions, that’s why.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest the home run surge of the Bud Selig Power Hour was barely due to steroid use at all — that it was much more about juicier baseballs and shorter fences and shrunken strike zones and harder bats that have handles thinner than iPads. But there was an OBVIOUSNESS that was impossible to miss about those new burly baseball players with their bigger heads and thicker necks and cartoonish numbers. And so steroid abuse became a theme of the game in a way it never really did in football, where steroids are certainly used more.

It was that obviousness, I think, that tore away any reasonable conversation about whether or not steroids or HGH should have a place in the game as a way to keep players on the field or to help them recover from injury.

If pitchers started throwing nine inning, 18-strikeout shutouts game after game because they were using pine tar, if pine tar pitchers started throwing 10-mph faster than before, or going 30-2 with 0.50 ERAs and 450 strikeouts, yes, I think there would be a pretty big outcry about it. But for now, it seems that all pine tar does is help a pitcher grip a baseball when it’s cold outside. Maybe baseball will put in a rule allowing a moderate amount of pine tar when the weather falls below a certain temperature — sort of the way they let pitchers lick on their hands in colder weather. Maybe they won’t.

Either way, that’s how the game has been officiated for a a while now because pitchers, hitters and umpires all seem to agree that a little pine tar on the hand is not that big a deal. Now, a gob of pine tar on the neck? Yeah. That’s too obvious. That’s flaunting the rule. I can understand how that inconsistency would drive some people crazy. But as a parent, I follow the logic entirely.

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