From official scoring to scheduling, players' voices are louder than ever
When major league owners and players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement last December, one of the little known wins by the players was in gaining an official appeal process toward overturning an official scoring decision. That provision became well-known June 13 when pitcher R.A. Dickey went along with a suggestion by the Mets to attempt to gain a retroactive no-hitter by asking that the only hit he allowed Tampa Bay be changed to an error by third baseman David Wright.
Challenging a scoring call to create history may have been unusual, but the challenges themselves have become very common after players bargained for this right. According to an MLB source, appeals on scoring decisions are arriving at the rate of about one every day -- or almost 200 over the course of the season. That's more than triple the amount of unofficial appeals that were filed last year (58), when only official scorers had the final say in changing one of their calls.
"What the players have gained recently is a bigger and bigger say in non-economic issues," said one GM. "They are more and more involved in how the game is run -- schedules, international events, exhibition games, all those kinds of things."
It was the players, for instance, that pushed the change to the 15-team leagues format next season, creating the awkwardness of season-long interleague play. The players believe the balanced leagues create more comfortable travel schedules and more equitable interleague schedules. But once you see season-long interleague play in action -- Opening Day interleague games, September pennant-race interleague games, switching back and forth between AL and NL rules all year rather than two brief windows -- you'll understand how MLB will look more like the NBA, with two non-distinct "conferences" rather than distinctive leagues.
AL managers are concerned about what to do with their pitchers, for instance. Now most AL teams have their pitchers hit and run the bases in spring training, and then again two or three weeks before interleague play starts. Next year will they make their pitchers hit and run the bases all season for the sake of a few scattered at-bats? It's easy to see baseball eventually using AL rules for all interleague games -- just like in spring training - bringing baseball yet another step closer to the death of league identity.
Dickey lost his appeal, but the power to get scoring calls changed is no so small thing, and it seems only a matter of time before a no-hitter, a cycle, an ERA championship -- something historic -- is gained after the fact and off the field. Here's how the process works. The player or his team can file an appeal within 24 hours of the play in question. The players association will file the actual application, typically with a video clip of the play attached and sometimes with an explanation of the appeal provided by the player's agent.
All appeals are sent to Joe Torre, baseball's vice president in charge of on-field matters. Torre will rule on the appeal. He has the option of consulting other MLB officials, including former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and MLB VP John McHale, as he did for the Dickey appeal.
Before this season, players had no official recourse, but made plenty of unofficial noise over scoring decisions. Players have called the press box during games to get scoring calls changed. Club PR directors were put in the difficult spot of nagging official scorers as representatives for the players.
"This gets the PR people out of the mix," said MLB senior vice president Phyllis Mehrige. "Now if a player wants to get something reviewed, it goes to the union."
In 2008 the Brewers tried to create a retroactive no-hitter for CC Sabathia by asking MLB to overturn a scoring call on an error called on Sabathia for mishandling a soft grounder by Andy LaRoche of Pittsburgh. MLB denied the appeal.
"In those days we had the option of reviewing it or not," Mehrige said. "Now we are required."
If there is a down side to the process it may be that the official scorer is not entirely the official scorer. He is no longer the last word on scoring decisions. His call can be overturned against his wishes. On the other hand, the formal appeals provide an official, civil process to what was undefined and at times acrimonious territory.
"What it does is provide a formal dynamic that at least gives the player a voice," said agent Scott Boras, who said he has provided written support for clients' appeals five times this year. "If a play goes on during a game and they have a question about it, we tell them, 'Contact us, and we'll contact the union.' I think the players have appreciated it. The player feels he has a voice and he doesn't have to worry about it during the game. We tell them, 'Just go play, contact us after the game, and we'll go from there.' Frankly, it's a willingness on both sides to invoke that kind of logic to these things so that it doesn't interrupt the game and helps create a better opportunity for working together."
So far, the percentage of successful appeals this year has been about what it was last year under the unofficial system: about 20 percent. It's bound to happen that one of those successful appeals will change history. And as one MLB executive put it, "It is a more formal process, but with the union involved now, the irony is that it can cut both ways for players: An appeal that benefits one player, such as giving a player a hit, can end up hurting another, such as turning unearned runs into earned runs."
Here's one more thought on pitchers using Pine Tar: Why are major league baseballs so slick in the first place? Think about it: What other sport manufactures its game balls in a way that they are not game-ready? Major league baseballs are so slick out of the box that they must be rubbed down with mud so as to be game usable.
Umpires used to take care of the duty of rubbing down balls before a game. Some of them even had locks attached to their ball bags to secure custody of the game balls. But about two decades ago umpires deferred such dirty work to clubhouse attendants. Legend has it that Randy Johnson would tip clubhouse attendants $250 to use extra mud in order to make the baseballs darker for his starts, which in theory made them more difficult to hit.
Now teams go through so many more baseballs in the course of a game -- any pitch that touches the dirt is removed from play -- that sometimes balls that are used late in a game are cleaner than balls used at the start of the game, an indication that the supply of baseballs rubbed up before the game has been depleted and others had to be prepped on the fly.
The mud does remove the sheen and some of the slickness off baseballs, but many pitchers still need a tacky agent of some sort for a proper grip, especially in cold weather and low humidity. Pine tar is one agent. Pitchers also use certain sunblock lotions and insect repellents that work well when mixed with resin and don't present the messiness or visual giveaway of pine tar. (You'll often see a pitcher rub his pitching hand around his opposite wrist and forearm to load up on such lotions.)
Is all of this necessary? Can't baseballs be made with a certain tackiness or tactile surface to them? The answer is yes, and it's done in Japan. One of the many adjustments pitchers from the Japanese leagues need to make when they come to the major leagues is dealing with a slicker baseball. The baseballs in Japan are much less slick.
Given slick baseballs, even when rubbed with mud, many major league pitchers want something to help their grip. The accepted practice of using a gripping agent becomes a problem when pitchers go overboard with how much pine tar they use. Kenny Rogers' left hand in the 2006 World Series was a joke, resembling Winnie the Pooh's paw after cleaning out the honey pot. Word among the Washington Nationals was that Joel Peralta, the Rays pitcher and former Nat who was caught by umpires last week after a request from Nats manager Davey Johnson, liked an extreme amount of pine tar. Peralta's problem was not that he used pine tar but that he used too much of it.
As Mets manager in 1988, Johnson asked umpires to check Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell during the NLCS. This was before black gloves, which camouflage the pine tar, were popular. Johnson said the supply of pine tar on Howell's light brown glove was obvious. In the case of Peralta, Johnson acted not on a visual clue but on conversations he heard around his team about how much pine tar Peralta preferred. Johnson told me he wasn't even planning on making an inquiry. He said he was talking to umpire Tim Tschida about a lineup change when he saw Peralta enter the game and mentioned he heard "rumors" that Peralta used pine tar. Tschida asked Johnson what he wanted to do. Johnson shrugged and said, "Maybe we should see if we can put those rumors to rest and check him."
Peralta's eight-game suspension changes nothing. As long as MLB manufactures slick baseballs, pitchers will continue to use pine tar and other agents to improve their grip -- the key being to use those agents as discreetly as possible.