Under The Bleachers: Cheating, And The Cheaters Who Cheat

Above: Yankees captain Derek Jeter looks on as pitcher Michael Pineda walks off the mound at Fenway Park

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda had to know he was going to get busted.

He had already been scrutinized in a start against the Red Sox when broadcasters noticed a dark smudge on the palm of his throwing hand that definitely wasn’t dirt like he claimed. But none of the players or managers seemed to notice or care and Pineda carried on, pitching six innings, giving up one run and earning the win.

So Red Sox manager John Farrell was paying extra attention when Pineda came out to pitch the second inning on Wednesday. Not that he needed to, Pineda wasn’t even trying to hide the pine tar smeared on his neck.

We’re told pitchers doctor the ball all the time, that it’s a transgression prohibited by the rules, but forgiven so long as it’s discreet—former Blue Jay Dirk Hayhurst wrote a step-by-step guide to loading a baseball without getting caught, so there was no excuse for Pineda’s hubris.

But shouldn’t baseball’s stakeholders be invested in upholding a fair field of play? If the rule’s on the books it should be enforced, and if everyone’s going to look the other way it may as well not be a rule at all.

Every sport has its ethics and traditions, but baseball has always seemed a little more concerned with “the code” than the rules. Straying outside the lines a little is OK—you’re just trying to win, that’s all—but show a little attitude and you’ll be dodging either pitches or punches eventually. Bryce Harper found that out when he got drilled in the ribs with a Cole Hamels fastball just eight games into Harper’s career—apparently he hadn’t shown the proper reverence for the game, or something, and Hamels admittedly tried to set him straight.

Just this week, Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez flipped his bat—an unforgivable taunt in North American baseball circles—after smacking pitch nearly 400 feet off Pirates pitcher Garrit Cole. Gomez thought it was a home run, but it stayed in the park and he wound up with what will be the most foolish looking triple of his career. Cole didn’t take kindly to the bat-flip and punches were thrown as both benches and bullpens emptied onto the field.

See, the unwritten rules are largely arbitrary and pointless while the punishment is often dangerous and violent. As much as old school types talk about “playing the right way,” trying to injure a player because he hurt your feelings isn’t “the right way” to do anything.

John Farrell was right to call out Pineda, who was ejected from the game and suspended for 10 more, but even after learning of his suspension Pineda insisted the problem wasn’t that he used pine tar, but that he used too much. Most baseball types seem to side with him, too, because on every team there’s at least a pitcher or two who have done and will do the same thing. It was a cold night, Pineda was having a hard time getting a good grip on the ball and he wanted to be able to throw his hard stuff without losing control.

To that I say: look at Mark Buehrle. He’s rarely out of control because he’s only throwing about 84 mph, and he’s been the best starter in baseball so far this season. If a pitcher is worried about knocking some guy’s head off with a fastball—rather than whether he can spin his slider enough to strike him out—he’s welcome to slow things down and pitch more carefully.

Or, you know, just put it in the rules—pitchers can specifically use pine tar if both teams agree, so the playing field is level and everyone can play their best without risking anyone’s safety.

The point is, the actual rules should mean something, because those unwritten rules are pretty meaningless. We teach kids to follow the rules and have fun, that’s certainly not too much to ask from adults playing the same game. Getting pumped about a nice hit is fun, getting pummelled for it isn’t. Getting away with something sneaky isn’t fair play, but if everyone’s breaking the rule then it shouldn’t be a rule.

A bat flip shouldn’t incite a riot; an enthusiastic player shouldn’t get a fastball in the ribs. And a cheater shouldn’t get a pass just because everyone else is doing it.

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