The pictures from Fenway Park Wednesday night were embarrassing for the New York Yankees: pitcher Michael Pineda with pine tar slathered on his neck and manager Joe Girardi, looking as irked and hapless as a man trying to untangle the Christmas lights, losing a wrestling match with a small remote-controlled camera. "Just a bump in the road," was how Girardi, blinking into the camera lights, tried desperately to close the book on the poor judgment of the man now forever known as Michael Pine-tar. Try telling Tim Leary, Jay Howell or Joel Peralta how these notorious mound busts are nothing but bumps in the road. It's easier to get a pine tar stain out of a polyester uniform than it is your career resume.
But for all of the slapstick humor in pictures Wednesday night, Pineda's decision to slap pine tar on his neck like it was Old Spice on prom night does raise some very big questions:
How long will he be suspended? Do the rules need to be changed? And is Pineda any good if he doesn't have great gobs of pine tar?
First, the suspension. Major League Baseball should suspend Pineda for 8-10 games. Relief pitcher Joel Peralta was suspended eight games for using pine tar in 2012. The usual equivalent for a starting pitcher is five games (the equivalent of one start). But remember that MLB talked to the Yankees about Pineda's use of pine tar after his previous start against Boston at Yankee Stadium April 10. No discipline was in order because the Red Sox did not alert the umpires at the time, but Pineda's blatant use of pine tar on his pitching hand for four innings (he washed his hand after the fourth) drew baseball's attention and essentially put him on a kind of unofficial probation. It's rare for MLB, as it did in a statement at the time, to acknowledge an investigation of an incident that no one brought to the umpires' attention during the game in question. Pineda said then that it was "dirt" on his hand. He had no explanation as to why he hit the washroom in the middle of the game to freshen up.
This should not be considered Pineda's first time in front of baseball's judges for the same offense. Recidivism calls for a heavier penalty. Call it the Ryan Braun Penalty: You gets days added to your sentence for lying. MLB could take the easy way out (i.e. anticipate a union grievance) and hand him the traditional first-offense penalty of five games, but it should be longer.
Secondly, what happened with the Sultan of Slather at Fenway is likely to renew calls to "change the rules" to allow the use of pine tar for pitchers. Wake up, people. It's already allowed. Nobody enforces the actual rule that is on the books against any and all foreign substances. A small amount of pine tar, shaving lotion and/or sunscreen has always been allowed by the established etiquette of the game. Pitchers are using substances as grip aids and nobody -- not even the hitters -- has a problem with it.
The problem is not the rule. The problem is the pitchers like Pineda who make a mockery of it. It's not about driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone. It's about driving 105 mph with the top down, music blaring and with no license plates. The very appearance of flaunting rules is bad enough, but now when you have so much of a substance with so easy access to it, you begin to raise suspicion that the pine tar is not just aiding a pitcher's grip but also affecting the flight of the ball -- the clear line everybody agrees cannot be crossed.
Red Sox manager John Farrell had no choice last night but to alert crew chief Gerry Davis. You can lip read Farrell telling Davis that Pineda has pine tar "all over his neck right now." Davis went through the charade of examining Pineda's glove, hands, back and jersey before running his right index finger across that toxic sludge on Pineda's neck. (Don't laugh; Davis knew what Farrell told him, but he was just following Umpire Handbook 101 protocols for investigation of a foreign substance.)
The focus should be on Pineda, not the rule book. (And don't tell me pitchers need more "help." Strikeouts are up and hits are down yet again this year, plunging the game deeper into its worst era for hitters in the entire history of the DH. Giving pitchers a tub of goo on the mound is the last thing we need.) Did Pineda not think there would be any cameras at Fenway for a Yankees-Red Sox game? Just imagine him retreating to the Yankees clubhouse after a rough, pine tar-less first inning. He smears pine tar on his neck, looks in the mirror and thinks, Yeah,nobody will possibly notice that! It was so patently absurd that you have to think neither Girardi nor pitching coach Larry Rothschild knew anything about it. (But how come none of the Yankees veterans or coaches taught him anything about discretion and how to cheat after the well-publicized incident in New York?)
Before Pineda made that previous start against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, a game telecast on MLB Network and for which I was assigned as part of the broadcast team, I watched game video of Pineda from spring training and from his days with the 2011 Seattle Mariners. I wrote in my pregame notes to the producer, "This is something I noticed in spring training with Pineda. He has such loose arm and wrist action that when he finishes his right hand smacks against the left pants pocket of his uniform. Never seen anything like it. What makes it interesting is that as the game goes on (at least in spring training), the seat of his pants where his hand hits gets stained with a mark that gets darker and bigger. It's the dirt and (wink-wink) the pine tar on his fingers.
"This did not happen in Seattle. His hand still hit against his left butt cheek, but it did not create a mark over the course of the game.
"You can keep still shots after each inning to show the mark. My guess is he will be using pine tar because it is likely to be a cool night."
It appeared obvious that even in spring training, in the heat of Florida, Pineda was using pine tar this year much more flagrantly than he did in Seattle, if he did there at all. Indeed, the awkwardness of his usage in New York and in Boston would indicate he is something of a newcomer to pine tar usage. If nothing else, he is guilty of being sloppy about it.
At worst for the Yankees, pine tar is a needed crutch or pitching tool for Pineda. He threw the ball worse against the Red Sox April 10 after he washed his hand and he threw the ball worse against the Red Sox Wednesday night in the one inning he pitched without pine tar. Can he be effective without gobs of pine tar? Probably, but now he still has to prove it.
In the meantime, Pineda will get five to 10 days away from the cameras, time off he can put to good use by going to the Instructional League for Cheaters. Maybe the Yankees have a Gallagher of goo in Tampa to teach him how to work in various media. While he is suspended he should learn what the Yankees should have taught him long ago: to use pine tar in small amounts and in places that are not so obvious, such as the bill of the cap, the belt or the inside of the glove.
Meanwhile, Girardi and baseball people should stop worrying about where TV cameras are pointed and realize fans deserve more access to baseball based on the millions of dollars networks are paying and the urgent need to make the game a more attractive viewing option. The Yankee skipper was worried about the camera focusing on the tunnel that leads from the dugout to the clubhouse, territory he understands as off limits. (Somehow this access -- and some that is that far greater -- is no problem with the NFL and NBA people.) It turns out both Pineda and Girardi were uncomfortable with what all of us could see as long as we have been deep into the Age of Video. What should really scare them are the people who aren't watching at all. If nothing else, Pineda brought more attention to the sport than did an all-time great, Albert Pujols, hitting his 500th home run the previous night. Think about that for that a minute. Ironically enough, this ability to keep the viewer engaged is what the TV people call the "stickiness" factor.