It seems to me that the safest place to stash some kind of ball-doctoring substance is right on the bill of your hat for the whole world to see. At least this way no one thinks you’re doing anything suspicious since there is no way you’d insult the collective intelligence of the baseball-consuming community by being so overt, right?
I guess sometimes the best place to hide is right out in the open.
There are loads of pitchers around the game who have shiny brownish, or yellowish, splotches on the bill, crown, or back of their hat. Everyone who sees it knows it’s not supposed to be there, and yet, despite a game that is willing to go to any length to catch cheaters, no one says a word about it.
This is because baseball can be funny about routines players always have. If you make the same balk move to first, like Julio Tehran’s wiggling-front-knee pick-off, no one will call it because it’s what you’ve always done. If you take the mound with the same splotch of brown gunk on your hat, the same rule applies.
There comes a point in time when a player has enough success that, if you call him out for doing something that looks illegal, well, you, in turn, look like a whining, talentless coward who stoops to unfounded (though they are very well founded) accusations to justify your failure.
Earlier in the year, while watching the Red Sox beat up on the Blue Jays, I noticed that Clay Buchholz was going to a shinier-than-normal wet patch behind his wrist. All pitchers have their own personal set of ticks and touches on the mound: Crotch adjustments, hat re-fittings, jersey tugging, lip wiping, brow rubbing, wrist smoothing and hand wringing. For many, it’s just part of the reloading process between pitches. In fact, Koji Uheara on that same Red Sox team often wipes both wrists before using those wet hands to rub down the ball.
However, the way Buchholz moved between pitches, using his pointer and forefinger to dab across a specific area, screamed to me that he was loading (even though he and the Red Sox vehemently denied that he was doing anything of the sort). Last night, seeing Jon Lester dab an obviously not-leather portion of his mitt with two fingers screamed the same.
Amid accusations on Twitter that Lester may have been cheating, it’s obvious from MLB’s response today that they saw nothing wrong (neither did the umpires nor the Cards, for that matter). And truth is, even if he was loading up with some illegal substance, I don’t see a problem with it.
Ironically enough, I love it. In fact, I did it myself. I had to, frankly. I was a terrible pitcher and I needed every edge I could get, and I still sucked.
Don’t tell me about what cheating really looks like, for goodness sakes. My first job in the big-league bullpen was to make sure the pen’s goodie-bag was stocked with everything you need to make the ball stick or eject more efficiently from a pitcher’s hand. Shaving cream, pine tar, Firm Grip, Vaseline, Cramergesic, Bullfrong, Fixodent and stuff I’ve never even heard of before or seen again.
I love all of this stuff because it’s the game within the game. It’s players seeing how far they can take something to get an edge. It’s thumbing your nose at a sport that picks and chooses what justice and cheating really is, and who to chase down the rabbit hole. And before you play the “cheating is cheating” card on me, let me just tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, if you cheat in front of the stadium filled with fans, cameras, and umpires and no one says a word, then it’s not really cheating, is it?
Yes, if in fact there was something on his glove, Lester was most likely loading up his fingers, probably to help get some extra grip on his cutter and slider, or just about anything else he throws. Why? Because, over the course of a game, your fingers start to wear down on the tips. The treads, so to speak, get a little bald. The gripping substance helps you get that extra spin, which makes for better late movement, which makes for more deceptive pitches.
If I had to guess, I’d say that 99 percent of pitchers in the game today load the ball in some way or another — if we’re going by the letter of the law. You can’t put wet hands on the ball, and you certainly can’t put shiny, sticky substances on it either. You can’t put rosin on your hat or uniform, or pine tar, or any of those other aforementioned goodies. You can’t put stuff in your glove. You can’t touch your mouth and then touch the ball without first wiping off your hand. You can’t… and on and on it goes.
There are a whole lot of things you can’t do, and players still do them, all the time, every day.
Honestly, the most impressive thing about all this, to me, is that — if the accusations are true –Lester had the stones to do it in the World Series. If there was ever going to be a time when the baseball community bucked its established codes of silence and fear, it’s now.
Wednesday night’s battle goes to Lester, and rightfully so. That said, if Mike Matheny has even the slightest inkling that he could nail Lester or one of the other Sox pitchers in one of the next few games, he should speak up and take it.
Hopefully that’d teach everyone to put the good stuff on the bill of their hats where it belongs.