Let's Go to the Videotape: Jay Howell Gets Bounced, 1988

"See, I have this rare condition where my sweat kinda looks like pine tar. Here's a note from my doctor."

The Mets did not prevail against the Dodgers in 1988, but they did play host to the only incident of a pitcher getting ejected for doctoring a ball during a playoff game.

Earlier this week, my brother sent me a clip from the Tigers-A's ALDS wherein it appears that Oakland reliever Grant Balfour is doctoring the ball. As you'll see, the pitcher briefly grabs a spot on the bill of his cap before gripping the baseball, and that spot is clearly gummed up with pine tar or something.

I was surprised to find, after performing a brief survey of the baseball blogosphere, that nobody was talking about this incident at all. Whatever Balfour may or may not be doing, it seems to warrant discussion, at the very least. Now that Balfour and the A's have been bounced from the playoffs (have we ever had a more Overdog Playoffs than we do now?), it has been rendered a moot point.

However, the Balfour video reminded me of a much more obvious case of a pitcher doctoring the ball during a postseason game. This occurred during the 1988 NLCS between the Dodgers and Mets, and to my knowledge marks the only time when a pitcher was ejected from a game for such an offense. It also occurred 25 years ago this week, and nice round anniversaries power the internet, I'm told.

The incident in question occurred during game three, which was a weird one before it even started. After the Mets and Dodgers split the first two games in LA, scheduled game three in Flushing was rained out. Conditions were hardly better when play resumed. Though the game began in the daytime, first pitch temperature stood at 43 degrees. A steady drizzle persisted for all nine innings, which took 3 hours and 44 minutes to play, which was an insane length for a baseball game back in 1988, even a postseason contest. The Mets drew over 3 million fans to Shea that season, the first New York team to ever surpass that mark, but the horrid weather resulted in over 10,000 no shows on the damp afternoon of October 8.

Given the climate, the game was destined to be a sloppy one. The Dodgers scored their first run on a rare Keith Hernandez error, and scraped out two more on groundouts against a shaky Ron Darling to go up 3-0. Orel Hershiser—pressed into service after the rainout allowed him to pitch on three days' rest—was still in the midst of his regular season scoreless innings streak and dominated the early innings. But somehow, New York managed to scrape out three runs of their own against "Bulldog." The Mets might have gotten more runs, but for a play where the suddenly luckless Hernandez was tagged out after slipping twice on the basepaths attempting to go first to third.

The rain killed the Mets again in the top of the eighth, when Roger McDowell fielded a comebacker from Mike Scioscia and attempted to throw him out at first, only to slip in the mud and fling a throw into the home dugout. The grounder should have ended the inning. Instead, a shaken McDowell loaded the bases on a walk and a single, and then Randy Myers walked home a run to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead.

Now, here's where things get weird.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers turned to their closer Jay Howell to shut the door on the Mets. Howell went full count to leadoff hitter Kevin McReynolds. But before Howell could deliver a payoff pitch, Davey Johnson sprinted out of the dugout, demanding the umpires examine Howell's glove.

By today's standards, home plate umpire Joe West was quick to accede to Johnson's demand. This was probably because pitchers doctoring balls was a hot topic in baseball at the time. The previous season, both Joe Neikro and Kevin Gross were caught redhanded with foreign objects on the mound. A year before that, the Mets were driven to distraction by their belief that Mike Scott was scuffing the ball during the NLCS.

West and crew chief Harry Wendelstedt converged on the mound and asked Howell for his glove. It took less than a minute for them to determine that Howell did, in fact, have pine tar in his glove, and he was tossed from the game. Dodger catcher Rick Dempsey exhibited some histrionic objections, but manager Tommy Lasorda—a man who could unload some serious protests when angered—put up only minimal resistance to the umps's decision. Howell himself left the field quietly. Both skipper and pitcher knew there was little they could say.

Adding another bow on top of the whole weird package, Wendelstedt handed Howell's glove to NL president Bart Giamatti, who was sitting at field level near the Mets' dugout. The umpire presumably did this to show the public that the evidence was being preserved, but Giamatti couldn't resist examining the glove himself, in full view of the television audience. Meanwhile, the hardy Shea crowd took up a chant of "cheat, cheat, cheat..."

The ABC broadcast booth of Al Michaels, Tim McCarver, and Jim Palmer wondered how the Mets could possibly have known Howell was cheating, since none of his pitches had shown the tell-tale signs of being doctored. Davey Johnson later revealed that first base coach Bill Robinson had spotted the offending glove. Robinson tipped off his manager with a bit of charades that Johnson successfully interpreted.

Alejandro Pena took Howell's place and nearly got through the inning with the Dodgers still on top, but Wally Backman hit a two-out RBI double to tie the game. Pena gave way to old friend Jesse Orosco, who completely spit the bit and allowed four runs to score on his watch. When the dust cleared, the Mets had an 8-4 victory.

It was the kind of bizarre game that only looks good if you win it, which the Mets did. Unfortunately for them, this would be the last time in the series that luck broke their way. The next night, with the Mets one strike away from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, Scioscia belted a homer to tie the game and send it into extras. The Dodgers went on to win that game and eventually the series, stunning baseball and all but ending the Mets' 80s golden era.

Jay Howell was suspended only two games for his illegal acts, and in the wake of the Dodgers eventual championship, his misdeeds were quickly forgotten. Nonetheless, it remains one of the weirder episodes in playoff history at Shea Stadium and perhaps baseball itself, as this clip will attest.

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