MILWAUKEE -- After a baseball stuck to the chest protector of Yadier Molina on Thursday, questions were asked of the St. Louis Cardinals catcher and some of his teammates -- simple inquiries, which, nonetheless, bore the potential of leading to a suspension for somebody.
How did the ball stick to Molina’s chest protector? What was the substance that caused it to stick? Where did the substance come from?
The players and managers who navigate through these questions -- and the reporters who ask them -- must ignore the reality that baseball’s foreign-substance rule is outdated, obsolete and flouted daily. Each side is then left to play roles through absurd cross-examinations that take everybody to a weird place.
The folks in uniform, as well as the reporters, could be rescued from this ridiculous dance if Major League Baseball and the players' association would quickly rewrite the foreign-substance rule. The needed changes would relieve the players of the inevitable and silly accusations of cheating, something that Molina is wading through right now, by providing a cover of legitimacy to a common practice. And this possibility has been discussed by baseball officials who recognize the inconsistency.
The truth is that in every single game -- every single game -- you can see pitchers break baseball’s existing rule against the use of foreign substances. A lot of pitchers -- dozens and dozens and dozens, across both leagues -- shave the forearms of their gloved hands and cover that spot with glistening sunscreen or some mix of pine tar. When the pitchers receive a new baseball, or receive a return throw from the catcher, they will quickly wrap their pitching hand around that forearm, to cover their hand in sunscreen to help with their grip.
Everybody on the field sees this, including the hitters and the opposing managers and umpires. Anybody watching on television can see it. Over the course of a season, other players will have foreign-substance splotches develop on the brim of their cap or inside of their glove.
Yes, they are technically breaking baseball’s rule about the use of foreign substances. Nearly every day of every season, fans post still-shot images on social media of a glove or forearm or cap slathered with some unidentified substance; as if caught on some security camera, the accusation illustrated is: This player appears to be cheating.
Well, not really. Not within the current context. Because the current rule doesn’t allow for the widespread and accepted use of certain substances, then situations like the one Molina found himself in are going to arise. Because the rule carries the potential penalty of a lengthy suspension, reporters are expected to seek out an explanation, particularly in this Deflategate era. Players and managers are left to answer those questions -- which is to say, they have to lie, because a truthful on-the-record answer would effectively compel Major League Baseball officials to enforce their own rules.
If a pitcher is asked about the shiny stuff on his forearm and he replies that yes, he covers his arm with sunscreen to improve his grip, it would be an admission of guilt, on the record, and MLB would have to suspend him. If everybody was really unlucky, then this sort of quandary would develop during a postseason game -- like when Kenny Rogers was found to have a coin-shaped dollop of something (probably pine tar) on his hand during the 2006 World Series.
Only through of the defiant graciousness of Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, did MLB avoid a debacle. If La Russa had chosen to use this situation for a competitive advantage and asked the umpires to check Rogers’ hand, the umpires would’ve found pine tar, and Rogers would’ve been ejected and suspended.
A few years ago, the New York Yankees' Michael Pineda was struggling to control the ball on a cold April night in Fenway Park, and when he emerged for his second inning of work, he had a prominent smudge of pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell was pushed into a really difficult situation. Because everybody -- including the media -- watching the game could see the ridiculous, gaudy application of pine tar, Farrell either had to ask the umpires to check Pineda or set himself up to answer questions from his bosses and reporters about why he didn’t. At Farrell’s request, the umpires checked Pineda, and Pineda was ejected and suspended for breaking a rule that dozens of pitchers break every day.
Pineda was doing the same thing everybody else was doing; he got suspended because he didn’t cheat more subtly, which tells you something about the actual value of the existing rule.
Yes, it’s fairly apparent Molina had some kind of sticky stuff on his chest protector -- which is actually legal under the current rules. But the practice of using foreign substances is so business-as-usual that when Molina was asked about it, he became defensive. "Dumb question," he said.
No, the question was fine; the question was necessary under the circumstances. What is dumb is that everybody has to pretend that players don’t use foreign substances to improve their grip of the baseball, and that farce will have to continue until the rule is properly refined.
The fix seems relatively simple: Just alter the wording of the rule so that specific substances are permissible so long as the volume is not excessive -- and just have the players check with the umpires on that before they go to work, just as pitchers do when they ask for the OK to blow on their hands on cold days.
Around the league
About midway through December, Carlos Santana got a call from a friend he had gotten to know on the baseball field -- Edwin Encarnacion, who was a free agent in that moment and was looking for guidance. Encarnacion quizzed Santana all about the Cleveland Indians, about the other players on the team, the clubhouse and manager Terry Francona, Santana recalled. Santana realized, as the questions deepened, that Encarnacion was seriously thinking about signing with Cleveland.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Santana said.
During spring training, Kyle Schwarber launched a ball over a fence and hit the backside of a Clydesdale horse -- and before the Chicago Cubs' first game, a horseshoe from that particular horse hung in Schwarber’s locker. Pointed downward.
Hitting Clayton Kershaw is difficult under any circumstance, but the Texas Rangers' Shin-Soo Choo says he finds Kershaw even more difficult when he works out of the stretch than when Kershaw pitches from the windup. Kershaw has almost no extraneous movement when working with runners on base, holding the ball high until he suddenly drives homeward, and because of that, Choo says that timing Kershaw in those situations is more difficult.
Opponents have locked on to the Los Angeles Dodgers' problems against left-handed starting pitchers, adjusting their rotations to throw as many lefties as possible versus the L.A. lineup. When the Cubs had a rainout in St. Louis on Wednesday, manager Joe Maddon flip-flopped Jake Arrieta and lefty Jon Lester so that Lester will pitch Monday against the Dodgers, and lefty Brett Anderson will pitch later in the series.
As the relationship between Lester and catcher Willson Contreras develops, the two sat and watched videotape of Lester’s season-opening start in St. Louis pitch by pitch, to talk about what each was thinking, and whether other pitch-selection options were available. Lester followed Contreras’ advice closely: The Cubs’ staff counted only one instance in which the pitcher shook off the catcher.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: The Tampa Bay Rays' Kevin Kiermaier talked about the member of his family who will get a World Series ring this week; Justin Havens of Baseball Tonight on the continued improvement of Matt Harvey and Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame credentials; and Bob Nightengale of USA Today about the current state of the Jose Quintana trade talks and the most likely landing spot.
Thursday: Keith Law on the question of whether Yadier Molina is a Hall of Famer; Lance McCullers Jr. about the development of his curveball and the remade Houston Astros clubhouse; Sunday Night Baseball’s Dan Shulman on the Toronto Blue Jays and Indians; and researcher Sarah Langs with an installment of the Numbers Game.
Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian on Mike Trout's competitive nature and how far that goes; Stephania Bell on the evolution of baseball’s treatment of blisters -- which is to say, it hasn’t evolved; and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News on the Rangers and clubhouse culture.
Tuesday: Yankees GM Brian Cashman on the organization’s philosophical shift and the question of whether he would trade high-end prospects this year; Jayson Stark on first impressions; Jesse Rogers on the Cubs.
Monday: Dodgers play-by-play man Joe Davis on the voice mail that Vin Scully left him and is now built into a teddy bear; Jerry Crasnick on early-season omens; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz; and Jen Lada’s project on Anthony Rizzo.
And today will be better than yesterday.