Yankees Pine Tar Ejection: A Window Into Baseball’s Sneaky Unwritten Rules

, ,


Home plate umpire Gerry Davis ejects New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda after a foreign substance was discovered on his neck in the second inning of the Yankees’ baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday, April 23, 2014.
Image: Elise Amendola/Associated Press

New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected from a Wednesday night game against the Boston Red Sox for having a swath of pine tar on his neck, then suspended for 10 games by Major League Baseball on Thursday. After Pineda’s ejection, many casual followers of the sport had similar reactions: Pine tar? What’s up with that? What is this, 1919?

The first step to understanding Pineda’s pine-tar-gate is accepting that baseball, more than any other sport, relies on a set of codified standards that don’t always jive with what you’ll find in the rule book. To wit: Pine tar is illegal for use by pitchers seeking to improve their grip on the ball, but it’s widely acknowledged that pitchers use it on an extremely regular basis.

Which is what makes Pineda’s case so interesting — it’s a window into the mysterious and often inexplicable world of baseball decorum.

Like stolen bases, hit batters and more, pine tar comes with a whole set of decorum-related associations and assumptions that many outside the baseball world struggle to understand.

“A stolen base late in a blowout game doesn’t have to be a message, but it can be — and if that’s the intent, then that intent will be received,” says Jason Turbow, author of The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime

Why is baseball so uniquely locked up in these notions and codified procedures? Turbow points to two reasons. For one, as the oldest and most nostalgic of American sports, baseball tradition is a big deal. Secondly, Turbow says, baseball’s relatively slow pace means more time to “imbue meaning,” real or perceived, on things that happen on the field.

Now back to Pineda’s pine tar. Pine tar remains illegal for pitchers, under a rule banning them from using “any substance” for enhanced grip on the mound. Batters, however, are allowed to cover the handles of their bats in the stuff to gain a better hold.

Pineda’s problem wasn’t so much that he used pine tar, but how he used it — and how that violated baseball’s unstated rules of behavior. Here is why.

  1. He was spotted with a glob of pine tar on his hand in a game, also against the Boston Red Sox, on April 10. That sparked some controversy after the fact, but he was not ejected and the Red Sox did not formally complain.

  2. Red Sox manager John Farrell, himself a former pitcher, even said before Wednesday’s game that, “I would expect that if it’s used it’s more discreet than the last time.” Not exactly a searing indictment.

  3. He used pine tar against the very same opponent in two consecutive starts against them — “them” being the rival Boston Red Sox, no less.

  4. The glob of pine tar Pineda used on Wednesday was blatantly swathed onto his neck and obviously noticeable even to viewers at home on the couch.


Image: Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Either Pineda is just daft, or it’s like he was asking to be ejected on Wednesday night. Which brings us to our next question: Should pine tar even be illegal in 2014?

“The reason it’s accepted is because on a cold night or a wet night, it really does help pitchers maintain grip,” Turbow says. And that’s certainly better than wild pitches sailing into the stands or hitting batters — exactly what Pineda has said he was worried about on a chilly Wednesday night.

“It was cold, I couldn’t feel the ball in the first inning, I didn’t want to hit nobody,” Pineda said after the game. “I apologize to my teammates, and to everybody. I’ll learn from this mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Pineda’s ejection — and reasoning — have raised the expected chorus of critics saying it’s time for MLB to abandon this antiquated baseball code and separate pine tar from the “any substance” ban on what pitchers can employ to aid themselves on the mound. Deadspin‘s Drew Magary wrote a particularly impassioned column arguing just this on Thursday morning.

Others, including Turbow, disagree.

“In the plurality of uses, the way pitchers use it is fine and the opposition can respond to it as such,” he says. “But you make it legal and guys will start overdoing it. It’s kind of interesting to use the term ‘slippery slope’ with pine tar, but legalizing it would really have the potential to roll down hill.”

So, here we are: Pineda will serve his 10-game ban and pitchers will continue to use pine tar in more discreet ways. Like it or not, baseball’s unwritten rules continue to rule the day.