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Pineda and pine tar: baseball is, once again, sending mixed signals about cheating

Apr 24, 2014, 8:07 AM EDT

pineda hand

I get into a lot of baseball arguments which end up with people telling me how damn clear the rules and morals are and how I’m a jerk for not understanding that. How breaking the rules is cheating, cheating is wrong and cheaters are bad people. How defending the cheaters is an exercise in amoral or even immoral excuse-making. Rules are rules, and if I can’t understand that well, God help me.

Then Michael Pineda is caught twice using pine tar, and apparently nuance is the order of the day. “His crime wasn’t cheating, so much,” the consensus holds. “Everyone uses a little something to help them get a grip on the ball. His crime was being so obvious about it. It’d be just fine if he used pine tar in a manner that didn’t make a mockery of the situation.”

MORE: Yankees’ Pineda caught with pine tar, faces suspension

Imagine if we applied that standard to other forms of cheating. Most players who use PEDs claim with a straight face that they do so for totally legitimate reasons, separate and apart from gaining an advantage on the competition. Now, picture a guy getting busted for HGH and being met with the same sort of response the Pineda thing is getting: “Hey, a lot of guys use this stuff because they just wanna get off the disabled list more quickly, and if you do it we’re not going to care all that much. But you can’t go getting caught by George Mitchell, dummy. Jeez, what an idiot.”

I don’t feel like that dynamic would fly too well. So forgive me if I don’t think the conventional wisdom forming around the pine tar issue this morning is all that great.

Specifically, I don’t understand why, after a decade’s worth of hand-wringing over the moral depravity of rule-breakers, people are accepting of a situation where breaking the rules is totally fine as long as no one is being obvious about it and no one is doing things to cause it to make big, controversial news. This was baseball’s original m.o. regarding PEDs, after all. Steroid use was widely known and acknowledged as something that was happening and something that was wrong, but it only became a big issue once Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti decided to start talking about it in 2002. That approach has been soundly rejected as shameful and willful blindness on baseball’s part, and everything that has happened with PEDs since then has been a reaction to it or correction of it.

VIDEO: Farrell on Pineda | Yankees embarrassed

Yet, here we are again. When it comes to pine tar or other foreign substances used by pitchers, baseball seems content to look the other way until someone as indiscreet as Pineda literally forces them to acknowledge it. And fans and commentators, it seems, are content to go along with that. To mock and punish the guys who openly flaunt the rules, while not thinking too terribly hard about the rules or their inconsistent application in the first place.

How nice it would be if, this time, baseball actually looked at the issue at hand in a mature and non-reactionary way and determined whether, if rules are being broken, why they are being broken and whether the rule in question should actually exist in the first place.  To ask if what everyone says is true and pitchers legitimately need pine tar or sunscreen to get a grip on the ball. To determine if doing so is not objectionable, whether maybe it’s a good idea to legalize pine tar or sunscreen or whatever is being used. To put a big tub of it on the mound for the pitchers to use. Or at the very least to examine pitcher grip in an intelligent way and decide which substances are OK and which substances aren’t. People claim this is a matter of batter safety. If so, let’s make baseball put its money where its mouth is rather than just stigmatize people and go after the low-hanging fruit like Michael Pineda or any of the guys named in the Mitchell Report.

If, however, that angle is oversold and, in reality, pitchers use this stuff to get an advantage over hitters — and if people’s usual willingness to look the other way on this is a function of not wanting their cheating pitchers to lose their advantage — let’s not pretend that how obvious someone is about their cheating is the real issue here and actually start enforcing a clear rule which has been on the books for far longer any rules about PEDs have been.

I don’t expect either of those things to happen, of course. Rather, I expect that people will be content to laugh at Michael Pineda and criticize him for being obvious. For lecturing anyone who questions those who would mock Pineda about the unwritten rules of cheating in baseball and how, if they don’t get that, they obviously haven’t played the game before and don’t understand baseball’s rich and colorful history.

Then, the next time someone recovering from a torn ligament get busted for taking HGH, I expect us to be back in the land of heroes and villains, moral certainty and the deficient character of those who would cheat. Because the only consistent thing there is when it comes to baseball and cheating is its considerable inconsistency.

129 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. capone888 - Apr 24, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    Michael Pineda’s infraction is equivalent to the rest of us going about 5 mph over the speed limit on a highway. The only difference is that Michael did not slow down when he spotted the cop sitting on the side of the road.

    Yes, many pitchers in baseball use some type of foreign substance to get a better grip. It is still breaking the rules, but if you are discreet about it they let it slide, just like traveling down the highway a few mph over the posted limit.

    Now, let’s come back to Pineda. I could not imagine anyone who would put pine tar in such an obvious spot, especially after what happened 12 days ago. I could only hope that he had it somewhere in a more discreet spot, but accidentally rubbed his neck and did not realize it.

    • peymax1693 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:04 AM

      Not quite the same analogy, because in this case it wasn’t the cop who spotted Pineda speeding, but the Red Sox, who were apparently also speeding but because they weren’t being so obvious about it decided to tell the police what Pineda was doing.

      • lawrinson20 - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:31 PM

        The Sawx sorta HAD to do something this time, after seeming oblivious to it the last time. Allowing such an egregious violation to go unmentioned in a second consecutive start against them would have painted the Sox as either/both ignorant or complicit.

    • rkb555 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:18 AM


      It is views like yours that the author has written the piece. You argue different degrees of cheating and put less emphasis on this as oppose to steroids.

  2. seeinred87 - Apr 24, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I’m basically with ya on this one, Craig, but people flout rules, not flaunt them.

    • moogro - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:41 PM

      The reason there is such an unusual animus on cheating “inside the body” as opposed to cheating “outside the body” has to do with (male) neuroses over the sanctity and efficacy of the human body, as measured over time. It’s under that umbrella that you’ll find the charged conversations of (baseball) immortality, historical meaning and race, that you just don’t get with doctoring baseballs.

  3. elmo - Apr 24, 2014 at 10:43 AM

    The safety issue strikes me as mostly a rationalization. Sure, on occasion a ball may slip and someone may get beaned unintentionally. But these are professional pitchers and that is an extreme case. If these substances do actually help on a day to day basis, the result is likely to be better control and tighter breaks within the strike zone. That makes them better, more effective pitchers. Opposing batters cannot possibly want that. More likely to me is that hitters who defend the practice are exaggerating the physical risk in order to protect their own team’s pitchers who do the same thing.

    • anxovies - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:47 PM

      There is truth in what you say. In Pineda’s case the night was very cold for baseball and he had a lot of trouble with his control in the 1st inning when the cameras revealed no pine tar on his neck. When he came out for the 2nd inning his control looked a lot better, which indicates that the pine tar was helping him. It’s a dilemma for hitters, on one hand more control hurts the batter’s chances of getting a hit, but on the other hand, nobody wants to get hit and risk a serious injury.

  4. kaspauf - Apr 24, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    If batters can use it for grip I have no problem having pitchers use it, anything to get the ball into the strike zone more.

    • rkb555 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:29 AM

      While we’re at it, why don’t we use aluminum bats so we can see more home runs and higher scoring games.

    • lawrinson20 - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:36 PM

      Baseball needs an independent study to determine whether or not this substance can give a pitcher an unfair advantage, separate from (possibly) aiding grip. A safety issue is one matter, and that needs to be addressed. But, Pineda ADDED pine tar after a poor first inning, which sorta indicates to me the possibility that he felt his ‘stuff’ wasn’t working so well. It’s not as if he was ‘wild’ or hit batters in the first inning, which would lead him to look for increased grip. I don’t consider it a valid excuse for him to say he didn’t have enough grip and that led to him not being as ‘pinpoint accurate’ as he would be with the pine tar.

      Baseball needs clear, hard and fast rules. I’m sick of this ‘unwritten rule’ stuff, where players acknowledge doing a bunch of ‘illegal’ things, but feel they’re justified as long as it’s not ‘super obvious.’ PEDs aren’t super obvious either.

      This is a game of millimeters and the determination of those millimeters should be with as much of a human component as possible.

      • soberlyf - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:34 PM

        Pineda, to his credit, was very frank and cleared up your question already, he said he couldn’t get a grip on the ball in the cold, dry conditions.

  5. braddavery - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    It simply boggles my mind that some people can’t understand the difference between speeding 1 mile over the speed limit and speeding 50 miles over the speed limit. Yes, you are speeding in both instances, but both speeds are mutually exclusive… just like pine tar and PEDs.

    • rkb555 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:31 AM

      It only boggles the mind of someone who attempts to denounce one form of cheating and support another.

      • braddavery - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:33 AM

        Who did that? I certainly didn’t. Both forms of cheating being discussed have punishments and I support that.

      • braddavery - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:34 AM

        ‘But they are both speeding!!!’ lol Idiots.

      • rkb555 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:42 AM

        To say tar is 1 mph over the speed limit…then that’s no big deal. That is exactly what you have insinuated.If you are getting an advantage that others don’t have, how can you see it any differently ?

      • braddavery - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:14 PM

        Thanks for proving my point. You and others are completely oblivious to the fact there are different forms of cheating that are handled differently, just like crimes are handled differently. They don’t give people the death sentence for jaywalking, but hey, it’s a crime just like murder, huh.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:40 PM

        It boggles my mind that people want to treat pine tar and steroids so differently. One is like speeding 10 mph over the limit, and the other is like 15 mph over. Yes, one is greater than the other, but the difference doesn’t justify the gap in reaction and punishment.

        You see what I did there? I arbitrarily assign numbers from a completely different topic to fit my narrative. Sure, there’s a massive difference between one over and fifty over. It’s a joke that you think those are the proper analogues for pine tar and steroids. I think ten and fifteen are more appropriate comparisons. Make your case that steroids are so disproportionately worse, and try to avoid using “lol,” “obviously,” or “idiot” while you do so.

      • raysfan1 - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:47 PM

        “Both forms of cheating being discussed have punishments and I support that.”
        Me too.

        However, there are some whose PED stance is essentially “cheating is cheating, and cheating is bad” who then adopt an “everyone does it attitude” for lesser forms of cheating.

        Limiting this now to the pine tar issue, if its use is truly no big deal, then the rule should be changed to allow it. Letting it slide when it’s done discretely but suspending a player 10 games when done indiscreetly is just silliness.

      • anxovies - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:51 PM

        Killing somebody in cold blood and killing them by committing some unintentional, negligent act are both homicides. However, they are judged by very different standards and carry very different penalties.

    • granfergiachi - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:29 PM

      Please explain why use of PEDs is 50 X worse than use of pine tar.

      • braddavery - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:47 PM

        I wasn’t being literal. I was using it as an analogy. Jesus Christ. The internet brings out all the smart ones.

      • anxovies - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:53 PM

        Since you are asking the question, explain why you think they are equivalent.

      • granfergiachi - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:28 PM

        Braddavery – so you said pine tar is 1 mile over the limit and PEDs are 50 miles over, but that’s not the point of your analogy? So what is?

        Anxovies – they probably aren’t equivalent, but I’d like to hear the rationale of why one form of cheating (PEDs) is considered so much worse than another form of cheating? What makes the edge you get from PEDs that much worse than the edge you get from pine tar?

  6. jburk003 - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    Real pitching staffs don’t alter. Ask the SF Giants. I’ve never seen Cain, Lincecum, Bumgardner or Voegey with any alterations in the past 4 almost 5 years, and I watch every single game.

    All seriousness, baseball needs to get in front of this problem asap. With HDTV being like it is today, coupled with rapid advancing technology, it’s becoming easier and easier for fans watching on tv to see the obvious and take it to social media. It makes baseball look stupid when a fan at home sees it but the pitcher continues to play the game

    • illuminancer - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:44 PM

      Of course, the Giants are kind of exhibit A when it comes to what’s considered cheating:

      Gaylord Perry: openly doctored balls when he pitched to give himself an edge; HOF and number retired

      Barry Bonds: used performance-enhancing drugs to help him hit for power; History’s Greatest Monster ™

  7. sysi45 - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Growing up and playing baseball, I never had a new baseball each time I had to throw it. The ball was always roughed up and I had no problem getting a grip on it. It has become a practice that if the ball touches the ground or hit anywhere, it gets thrown out. This is not an excuse but maybe if the used the same ball until it became a disadvantage to the batter, a pitcher would not think about using something to improve the grip. Just a thought.

    • sysi45 - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:30 PM

      When I say used the same ball, I mean maybe just until the umpire thinks it should be thrown out. I never saw this when I was younger. I just noticed it in just the last 10 years or so.

      • thisdamnbox - Apr 24, 2014 at 1:54 PM

        The rule of throwing a ball out of play when it became “dirty” or after a pitched ball hit the dirt has been in place since 1921 and, to my knowledge, stems from the pitch by Carl Mays that killed Ray Chapman in 1920:

        If anyone knows if this is myth, please post as I can’t find any other reference.

      • mazblast - Apr 24, 2014 at 1:57 PM

        When Marge Schott owned the Reds, she used to berate the umpires for ever throwing baseballs out of play. Each one costs the home team money, and Marge thought they should be used until the cover came off.

  8. pappageorgio - Apr 24, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    This is a serious question: Is there potential for over use of pine tar that would effect the flight of the ball?

    They let players use Bull-Frog (that’s the name of that sunscreen…right?)…..I’m just wondering why one substance is OK and the other not. And why players would use pine tar if there are other legal subtances that are available.

    • clemente2 - Apr 24, 2014 at 1:12 PM

      The ‘allowed’ use of sunscreen is just a practical one—it is against the rules. Any foreign substance applied to the ball violates the rules. And they all effect the flight of the ball–just depends on how much you use. Smart pitchers learn to make one finger stickier so that it helps spin the ball better. Other load it up to alter the spin dynamics of the ball in flight.

      I just love seeing all the ‘no PEDs users’ moralists excusing this. Beautiful. Stupid.

  9. beermakers - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    For the people who don’t think it gives players an edge, watch his control in the 1st inning, then watch his control in the 2nd.

    It obviously helped him, because he had very little control in the first.

  10. kalinedrive - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    How much pine tar can you use on a white baseball without leaving sticky residue marks?

  11. mikhelb - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    Cheating is cheating, we should not care whether something banned helps players a little bit or a lot, if it is banned, then using it is cheating.

    It is laughable to read stances where managers, players, and MLB officials (2013 with the Red Sox-Bullfrog affair at Toronto) saying that it does not violate a rule, when there is a specific rule stating that indeed it is a violation to use any kind of foreign substance, except for rosin.

    With Pineda’s soon to come suspension, MLB will send a clear signal that cheating is acceptable as long as players are not caught cheating. But still they conducted an investigation to catch cheaters in the Biogenesis “scandal” and suspended players who were not CAUGHT cheating (as in: positive doping tests).

    Buchholz, Tazawa and Lester used it last year and MLB decided it was fine, I guess it is hard for them to be consistent. With Pineda they have proof he used something, in Buchholz and Lester they have proof they used something according to their declarations, but only those who were denounced or caught will be punished and the rest get an ovation by being discreete.

    Kind of sounds like the 90s when a lot of players where using stuff but since very few people rised their voices against it, they were mostly accepted and ovationed. Once stuff like what McGwire and Sosa did (having bottles of andro in their lockers for everybody to see), like what Canseco did by writing his book, what Gooden and Strawberry did by getting repeatedly caught buying and using drugs, then MLB began to enforce their current stand.

    What will happen with current pitchers who accept they use banned substances to help them pitch better? Will they receive the same treatment as a player would get if he suddenly decided to go forward and say: i am using steroids, been using for years and i have never been caught.

    Day and night perhaps, but we already have an example of that: players being suspended not by positive tests but because of their relation with PEDs distributors. Meanwhile a myriad of current majorleaguers attend a persona-non-grata baseball clinic in the dominican republic to be taught how to train, and yet MLB stays shut about those players mingling with a trainer banned by MLB due to PED distribution.

  12. astrosfan75956 - Apr 24, 2014 at 5:54 PM

    I say legalize it all, trt, hgh and pine tar.

  13. soberlyf - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:51 PM

    Finally, an honest and frank commentary by a non-Red Sox fan or a Yankee hater..Nearly all pitchers in MLB use something, whether it’s sunscreen or pine tar or sweat mixed with hair gel…The whole planet knew Lester used it in the flippin’ World Series last year, not a peep. Why? Because the Cardinals didn’t want the umps examining their pitchers either. Here’s photos of Lester and the Dayglo Green goop he had on his glove,

  14. macjacmccoy - Apr 25, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    I think all cheaters should be punished. I think anyone who denies that is being an apologist. I think cheaters and their defenders are morally deficient. I also believe different forms of cheating should have different penalties.

    Singular cheating like Stealing Signals, Doctoring balls, or using juiced bats should carry less of a punishment then using uppers to gain advantage. While P.E.D.s like steroids should have the harshest penalties.

    The reasoning being things like juiced bats and balls only effective the game you are using them in and dont really endanger anyone. So the punishment for those offenses should be the least severe. With 10 games for 1st time violates being correct. I think a harsher penalty is appropriate for things like Ritalin and speed which also only effect the game that you are using them in. Mostly because the personal danger those drugs are associated with and possible illegality. With 25 game suspensions for 1st time violates being correct. Finally anabolic steroids and HGH. Unlike the previous cases steroids arent just singular forms of cheating. Meaning the use steroids doesnt just effect the user the day you use them. They have a continuous effect. Even if you stop using the drug the gains you received from it last months. With usually 10-20% (depending on quality and if you keep in shape) never going away. That’s why I believe it deserves the harshest penalties. With 50 games lost being appropriate for 1st time violators.

    These are just some very basic reasons for why in my opinion all cheating is wrong, but also why they deserve different punishments.

    Let me be very clear about 1 thing though, guys who use juiced balls aren’t morally superior then guys who use steroids. They all knowingly decided to break the rules. How they went about it makes no difference on a right and wrong level. To me Pineda is just as bad as Pettitte, and should be marked as a cheater no different then him. Pettitte just deserved a longer punishment because his cheating would give him an advantage even after he stopped, while Pineda’s wouldnt.

  15. ltpm3 - Apr 25, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    Actually he used it three times, he used it against Toronto too. There are pictures of him doing the same thing he did against the Red Sox the first time he pitched against him …. same hand, same area …. and again they said nothing because as soon as it was seen he washed it off So he knows its illegal. This guy is just playing stupid about it. Maybe he likes the attention..who knows.

    But what I don’t understand, is that he had it on his neck before he came out of the dugout, are you going to tell me that no one saw it on his neck?? Other than the entire world… no one in the Yankee dugout saw that pine tar on his neck and said hey go take that off. They told him the first time he pitched against the Red Sox. It was on his hand during the 4th inning and the camera started showing it, twitter showed it and he came back out of the dugout for the 5th inning and it had been washed off, Clean as a whistle. Even tho he said no one talked to him, I find it hard to believe that no one talked to him during that 4th inning. How many coaches do they have in that dugout??? And no one saw it on his neck? So now they are calling him a cheater, well he Is also a liar too. He just thought he could and would get a way with it!! Really a stupid move, because now ever team he pitches agiainst will be looking for the pine tar and if he is losing or they are getting hits off of him….it will be there.

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