While it hardly rises to the level of steroid use — something that Major League Baseball tolerated far longer than it should have — pitchers’ habit of using pine tar and other sticky substances to improve their grip on the ball is also a form of cheating that, until Wednesday’s incident involving Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda, the game had roundly ignored. It can no longer.
In the aftermath of the latest Pine Tar Incident, several managers and former major leaguers stepped up and acknowledged that this practice has been common among pitchers in cold weather forever.
It apparently doesn’t affect the ball’s movement the way a spitter, or one scuffed or smeared with Vaseline might. It just gives the pitcher better control. No one objects because the practice is so widespread, and even if it does give pitchers an advantage over batters, it’s considered preferable to getting plunked by errant fastballs.
Pitchers are usually more discreet than Pineda was — he came out to pitch the second inning, after getting roughed up in the first, with the stuff smeared all over his neck, as if to dare the umpires or Red Sox to challenge him. The latter finally did. (He’d done virtually the same thing two weeks earlier in a game with Boston, and gotten away with it.)
So baseball has to deal with this issue: Either legalize the use of pine tar or enforce the foreign-substance rule more rigorously. Just because “everybody does it” doesn’t make it right. Nor is it not cheating just because you don’t get caught. These are lessons that need to be learned not just on the field of play.