MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees

Michael Pineda of the New York Yankees pitched very well last night, contributing six innings and seven strikeouts to a 4-1 win over the world champion Red Sox. For the first four innings or so, he pitched with something stuck to his right hand. Something that didn’t belong there. Something that looked an awful lot like pine tar.

Pine tar has its uses, but when we see it on the pitching hand of a big league starter, it’s hard to think of a viable application for the product in a “game action” context. Why would a big league pitcher need pine tar, on his throwing arm, on the hill? Gripping the baseball is important, thus the presence of a rosin bag on every mound in baseball. But pine tar? For no reason outside conventional wisdom, pine tar has a more sinister connotation.

With a dozen HD cameras pointed at each and every baseball game, stuff like this doesn’t elude the unblinking eye for long. Broadcast picks up “evidence”, viewers (and announcers, typically) freak out, player is a cheater and reviled by the rival supporters. The team on the receiving end of these clearly doctored baseballs? They don’t make a big deal about it.

Call it keen boomerang awareness but most other big leaguers aren’t too keen to point the finger of blame at their opponents in these situations. Mostly because everybody’s doing something. Call it the “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” guiding principle of baseball.

Behind the scenes, after a loss? Sure, there might be some grumbling. But using something to improve their grip on the baseball is not unusual, meaning if falls under the auspices of an unwritten rule. Thus the lack of outrage from the opposing dugout.

Does this mean anything goes when it comes to loading up baseballs and taking every advantage on the mound? Obviously not. As word of gunk on Pineda’s wrist circulated, he quickly removed it and continued dominating the Sox lineup just as he did before. There is a difference between grabbing an edge and flaunting the rules, written or otherwise.

But the outrage cycle is going to grab hold of this story because of the parties involved. Fans howl and TV’s hot take generators will churn out some relativism while others will brush it aside with a knowing smile. Remember: the Red Sox didn’t think enough of it to file a complaint during the game and expressed no interest in saying anything about it post-game. The league might only “investigate” or comment on the matter if the aforementioned outrage cycle lasts more than 24 hours.

It’s not nothing but it is nothing in something’s clothing. Baseball is a game played on the margins, like all sports at a high level. Pushing for an edge is part of the business, even if the goal is simply an improved grip versus imparting unnatural spin on the baseball.

It’s a grey area – which is not ground most fans tread on gracefully. Thankfully, the louder voices screaming “MICHAEL PINEDA IS DEAD TO ME” are not more numerous than the cooler heads, just more enthusiastic. Cooler, more experienced heads will prevail – heads that know their own noses are far from clean.