BALLPARK FRANK: Smudge Scandal Indicative of Trend in Professional Ball

Editor’s note: Last spring, Frank Herrmann, a pitching prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization and former Harvard right-handed starter, wrote a weekly column for The Crimson. This is his 2006 fall debut.

An old adage says, “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.” Well, Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers got caught and it was on baseball’s biggest stage. The latest scandal surrounding America’s pasttime emerged during the second game of the World Series on Sunday night when Rogers allegedly made use of pine tar, a sticky substance expressly prohibited of pitchers by Major League Baseball.

Almost as soon as the Fox cameras zoomed in on the now-infamous yellowish-brown smudge on Roger’s left hand, all the sports columnists and baseball experts began preparing their own take on one of baseball’s most common and poorly kept secrets.

Yet somehow, the only thing that shocked me about the whole incident was how indiscreet Rogers was about his use of pine tar. I would have expected a little more guile out of the grizzled 18-year veteran. Yet the blatant use of pine tar serves to show just how widespread the use of illegal substances is among pitchers.

After playing my first full-season of pro baseball, I have come to understand that players will undoubtedly seek out any advantage possible, legal or otherwise. Pitchers’ use of suntan lotion (the sport kind, so that it doesn’t accidentally irritate the eyes), shaving cream and even the trainer’s sticky pre-wrap spray is a daily practice. In minor league baseball the use of foreign substances is not taboo; it’s just illegal.

The substance of choice is ultimately applied to the middle and index fingers of the throwing hand in order to get a better “feel” for the baseball and also to enhance the break of certain pitches, especially the curveball. The use of pine tar is especially advantageous on colder nights since the stickiness helps duplicate the release of the ball under normal circumstances.

“Smudgegate,” as it is being called in the media, is not the first incident involving pitchers and pine tar. The most recent of these incidents took place in June 2005, when Los Angeles Angels pitcher Brendan Donnelly was ejected from a game and suspended 10 additional games for a violation regarding foreign substances on his glove.

Upon Donnelly’s entrance into the game in the seventh inning, opposing manager Frank Robinson requested that the umpires check his glove for pine tar. After the umpire tossed Donnelly from the game, Angels coach Mike Scioscia launched into a tirade, threatening retribution on Robinson’s team by saying he would “undress” his pitchers.

Scoisia was, of course, implying that he would have the umpire inspect Robinson’s pitchers in all the likely places, such as: the palm of the glove, the bill of the hat, the inside of the thigh and, most commonly, the back pants pocket.

Further evidence as to the prevalence of foreign substances amongst pitchers is the decisively odd lack of action taken by the opposing manager, Tony LaRussa, against Rogers. LaRussa did not ask the umpires to search the 41-year old pitcher, even after several of his hitters appealed to him to do so.

LaRussa later commented on the situation to media, saying, “Pitchers use some sticky stuff to get a better grip from the first throw in spring training to the last side they’re going to throw in the World Series. Just because there’s a little something they’re using to get a better grip, that doesn’t cross the line.”

If the opposing manager in a World Series game says the use of pine tar “is not crossing the line,” that says something about the overall acceptance of foreign substances in Major League Baseball.

That being said, please don’t misunderstand my intentions as an attempt to at least partially absolve Kenny Rogers. Personally, I find the guy downright obnoxious. His antics following the Tigers’ Division Series win against the Yankees, when he climbed on top of the dugout and started spraying champagne on fans and the head of a security cop?, were among the most excessive and ridiculous moments in the history of celebration.

They reminded me of when former Yankee third basemen Wade Boggs inexplicably hopped on a police horse and took it for a few spins around Yankee Stadium after the 1996 World Series. And in Wade’s defense, his team had just won the World Series, not the first round of the playoffs.

Still, to single out Kenny Rogers in the same way Barry Bonds has become the poster boy for the steroids controversy is unfair. The proper question is not, “Who is using pine tar?” The right question is, “Who isn’t?”

Either way, it’s pretty clear that Ole Kenny subscribes to another famous adage: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

—Frank Herrmann can be reached at fherrman@fas.harvard.edu.

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