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Michael Pineda, pine tar, and the marsupial world of baseball

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The Michael Pineda incident reminds us that the "rules" of baseball make sense in baseball, and nowhere else in the world.

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And stay out!
And stay out!
Jared Wickerham

Baseball is weird.

Baseball doesn’t flaunt affected weirdness, like a guy who takes to the streets on his unicycle sporting muttonchops and footie pajamas. The weirdness of baseball is a naturally evolved thing. It is a marsupial weirdness that can only develop over many eons after an animal’s habitat broke from the Pangean mainland and drifted out to sea. This was perfectly displayed by the curious Michael Pineda incident on Wednesday night.

All games frown on cheating, as it robs competition of its most basic feature, the level playing field. In most sports, Michael Pineda would be punished for violating a basic rule, which would probably be worded something like, "Guys, don’t put extra junk on your hand, okay?"

Baseball is not most sports. Its laws—written and unwritten—have developed over multiple centuries of accumulated precedents, half-remembered incidents, rumor, hearsay, and half-truths. The sport’s entire rule book was assembled from a game of telephone played over multiple decades.

Like most things that happen in baseball, no act of cheating is a mere violation. Each individual act is debated with talmudic distinctions. The sport long ago moved beyond such philosophical trifles as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It now debates the brand of harp the angels carry and what size robes they wear.

The prevailing attitude about Pineda’s particular act (as exemplified by Bob Nightengale in USA Today) is that his crime was not so much cheating as it was getting caught. "It's like a small-time crook robbing the neighborhood convenience store one day, getting away with it, and returning the next week to rob the same joint again," Nightengale opines, referring to the fact that Pineda was caught on camera (but not punished) for having pine tar on his hand during his previous start against the Red Sox.

In another sport, where "getting away" with something doesn’t make it any less wrong, such an analogy wouldn’t work. In baseball, where "getting away with it" = "grission," it makes total sense. Baseball takes very seriously its status as a paragon of American-ness and believes very much in giving everyone a fair shake, and thus gets very upset when a guy like Pineda demonstrates sometimes the playing field ain’t all that level.

Of course, there are those who are loath to blame Pineda. Ken Rosenthal points his finger squarely at the Yankees. In his estimation, the team didn’t do a good enough job of impressing on Pineda the seriousness of his crimes the last time he faced Boston. "Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild — and even the veteran players who are supposed to instruct younger players such as Pineda on how to conduct themselves, both on and off the field," Rosenthal says.

Michael Pineda is 25 years old and possesses as much free will as any other adult who walks this planet. It can also be assumed Pineda knew exactly how much trouble he almost got into the first time he was caught with pine tar on his hand, considering he seems smart enough to dress and feed himself. What Rosenthal supposes, as many baseball writers do, is that every Young Athlete on a team knows nothing of rules and life and discipline until a Veteran instructs him. In baseball writer accounting, a Young Athlete is anyone who has not played for a certain team for very long. You can be a Young Athlete until age 40, provided there is a 41-year-old on your team who Just Knows How To Win.

And then there are those who are angry not with Pineda or the Yankees, but Red Sox manager John Farrell for calling out the sticky pitcher. A week ago, Farrell saw pine tar on Pineda’s hand at Yankee Stadium and let it slide. On Wednesday, he spoke up. This led some folks to consider if Farrell had transgressed The Unwritten Law he’d adhered to in The Bronx: Thou shalt not snitch on cheating pitchers, lest thy own cheaters be snitched upon.

Farrell considered Pineda’s first offense a mere trifle. When the Yankee pitcher smeared pine tar on his neck, however, he took it as "a slap in the face" that had to be addressed, lest his team look like a bunch of pushovers. Public opinion seems to agree with that take, though this also points out baseball’s infinite shades of meaning when it comes to "cheating." Had the Sox’ manager narced on Pineda hiding pine tar in his glove, he would have been denounced as a whiner, as Davey Johnson was back in 2012 when he dropped a dime on Joel Peralta. Both Pineda and Peralta committed the same offense, but only one manager was praised for noticing it.

Which is not to say that Farrell is completely out of the woods. It is now assumed that he will have to deal with other managers looking to catch his own pitchers in the act, and he will have no one but himself to blame if they do. Because in baseball, there is no contradiction between asking everyone to abide by the rules and retaliating against those who actually do.

Baseball is not simply weird in what it does argue about, but in what it won’t consider arguing about at all. While pine tar is a foreign substance, it is generally acknowledged that it has little to no effect on ball movement. Pitchers use it (more discreetly than Pineda, usually) to get a better grip on the ball in cold weather. But hitters who use pine tar to get a better grip on the bat in all weather are not cheaters (with one notable exception). This seeming paradox is not a subject for debate in baseball. Nor is the question of why pine tar is still being used by anyone who is not a 19th century lumberjack.

If a baseball is difficult to grip in cold weather, that is the fault of the pitcher, apparently, and not the equipment. No serious consideration is given to developing a baseball that is more suited to all temperatures, those in April and October included. The sport would never contemplate changing such a fundamental part of itself as the ball. Except for when it started playing games on the side of a mountain in defiance of God and nature, and then it was okay to place baseballs in a humidor. Oh, and all the times over the years when the ball was probably juiced to boost attendance. But other than that, never.

The Pineda incident is a reminder that baseball remains the duck-billed platypus of sports. It has developed features that allow it to thrive in its own isolated, hermetically sealed world, and don’t make damn bit of sense in any other reality in the world.