Dan Wetzel: MLB again takes its eye off the ball
DETROIT – For the ultimate pine tar authority on the night the sticky substance reintroduced itself to baseball lore, you needed an invitation to a wedding in Charleston, S.C. George Brett was there Sunday, simultaneously guest and celebrity, and even 23 years after his furious charge out of the Yankee Stadium dugout and into Tim McClelland's face, strangers pelted him with one question.
"There were people from Israel, people from Budapest, people from Scotland, all over the world," Brett said from his cell phone, "and everybody wanted to come up and talk about the pine tar. It's definitely what I'm remembered for.
"Why, what happened?"
There was no television at the wedding, and Brett hadn't seen Game 2 of the World Series. And for those who did … well, no one is really sure, either. Something was on the left hand of Detroit Tigers starter Kenny Rogers in the first inning Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Photographs and television replays showed a substance, which was brown and looked sticky.
Brown and sticky generally indicates pine tar, which pitchers dab on their fingers for a better grip on the ball. Pine tar is illegal when smudged on a ball, calling for an automatic ejection. And after Rogers wiped his hand or washed it clean – the stories on that diverge, too – he went on to pitch seven more shutout innings, extending his postseason streak to 23 scoreless and evening the series in Detroit's 3-1 victory at Comerica Park.
Brett is familiar with guilt by pine tar. On July 24, 1983, he thumped a two-run, two-out, ninth-inning home run off Goose Gossage to give his Kansas City Royals a 5-4 lead against the New York Yankees. Yankees manager Billy Martin asked McClelland to measure how far the pine tar on Brett's bat extended, and because it was more than 18 inches from the tip of his bat handle, McClelland called him out and nullified the home run.
Famous as Brett's ensuing tantrum became, it risked falling to No. 2 in the annals of pine tar follies Sunday had home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez inspected Rogers' hand and found something tacky. With the Cardinals not lodging any sort of official complaint – at least, not admitting to doing such – Marquez let Rogers go because he believed the substance was dirt.
Forget that pitchers have used pine tar since, oh, forever. Or that temperatures dipped into the 30s and Rogers admitted he had trouble gripping the ball. Or that in the past two years, pitchers Julian Tavarez and Brendan Donnelly have been booted from games and suspended 10 more when umpires found pine tar on their person – Tavarez's on his hat and Donnelly's on his glove.
"Rogers wouldn't be the first guy to do it," Brett said. "A lot of guys put it in their glove. Have for years. Just to help them get a grip. I'm sure he was doing it all year. You don't just try something some day.
"It wouldn't bother me at all. It helps you get a good grip on things. That's all it does. I don't think when you do anything with pine tar, it's cheating."
The Cardinals' brass, on the other hand, was none too pleased with Rogers. Manager Tony La Russa refused to answer anything related to Rogers and the substance. Players strayed from pine tar questions, likely instructed by their manager to steer clear. Only Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan broached the subject, and in doing so he essentially called any use of pine tar cheating.
"Any time you can get a better grip on the ball, it's going to have a positive effect," Duncan said. "Why do you think there's a rule against it?
"It would have more bite on it," he added. "If it's sinking, it's going to sink more. If it's a slider, you're going to have better spin. Curveball, same thing."
No known studies have been done on baseballs and pine tar, the byproduct of extreme heat applied to the stumps and roots of the pine tree that predates baseball by at least two centuries.
Some players contend there is little difference between pine tar and rosin, a powdery and sticky substance that comes from a bag near the mound – and is legal. While pitchers are allowed to use rosin for tack, that's about the extent of their doctoring.
Pitchers caught using nail files or sandpaper, Vaseline or spit, mud or peanut butter – and, yes, pine tar – are immediately booted.
Which makes Detroit closer Todd Jones' story even more fascinating. For the two seasons he pitched in Colorado, Jones said he used pine tar every outing.
"My thing in Denver was I always felt like I was a danger if I couldn't grip the ball," Jones said. "If I was using something that would help me hold on to the ball, they would maybe look the other way or something. I wasn't using Vaseline or anything like that. I was using something to almost help me break even in Denver. I never got checked."
He wasn't sure about its moral implications.
"Some people claim it does [help], some it doesn't," Jones said. "In a situation of 7,000 feet up, there might be something to it.
"It's whether you think it's cheating or not."
In both clubhouses, the answer was ambiguous. While a throng surrounded Albert Pujols to get his take on the game – he, for one, said that if Rogers wanted to cheat, he's wily enough, at 41 years old, to hide it a little better than that – a conversation echoed out of the Cardinals' showers.
They were talking about pine tar, like everyone did at the stadium Sunday, like everyone will when they think of Kenny Rogers' magical postseason. And one of the players, seemingly oblivious to how his voice rung off the walls, or perhaps trying to elucidate everyone clamoring for information, laughed when thinking about the fervor.
"First of all," the player said, "what pitcher doesn't use it?"