On the Pineda Pine Tar Incident, Evolution of Rules and Prosecutorial Discretion

By: Brian Mangan

As we all know by now, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was thrown out during the second inning of the Yankees’ game against the Red Sox for having a “foreign substance,” in this case, pine tar, on his person.

There are a lot of things that are interesting about this ejection, the most notable of which is the reaction around the blogosphere and in the newspapers questioning whether Sox manager John Farrell was right to call out Pineda on his use of the pine tar considering that the sneaky use of pine tar is apparently considered “acceptable” around the league and because Farrell did not protest two weeks ago when Pineda was last facing the Sox and had a visible splotch of pine tar on his throwing hand.

The internet seems to have come to somewhat of a consensus that it’s weird or untoward for Farrell to have protested Pineda’s use simply because Pineda was obvious about it rather than discreet.  I disagree, although Craig Calcaterra over at Hardball Talk, as usual, makes the most eloquent case that the present-day interpretation of the rules is wrong:

Specifically, I don’t understand why, after a decade’s worth of hand-wringing over the moral depravity of rule-breakers, people are accepting of a situation where breaking the rules is totally fine as long as no one is being obvious about it and no one is doing things to cause it to make big, controversial news … When it comes to pine tar or other foreign substances used by pitchers, baseball seems content to look the other way until someone as indiscreet as Pineda literally forces them to acknowledge it. And fans and commentators, it seems, are content to go along with that.

Listen, there is no argument here that the rules are clear:

The pitcher shall not — (a)(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.


The pitcher shall not — (b)Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance. For infraction of this section (b) the penalty shall be immediate ejection from the game.

Farrell knows this, Pineda knows this, and every announcer, player, and writer knows this.  However the enforcement of the rule is largely left to the teams themselves, as it would be unreasonable to expect umpires to act as police and pat down (or “ocular pat down”) each and every player that steps on to the field.  Because of this, there is bound to be a little bit of wiggle room – a little bit of discretion – among manager’s choices to attempt to enforce these rules.

This isn’t just baseball – this is how it works in the real world, everywhere.

Four hours before the Yankees-Sox matchup, Farrell spoke directly about Pineda’s prior use of the pine tar and warned him directly through the press, saying “any substance is illegal, but I think there’s a certain acceptance that it’s used and discretely used.”  Farrell never looked like he wanted to out Pineda, but at a certain point Farrell needed to protect the interests of his team and do something about the obvious cheating going on in front of his face.

Rules, by themselves, are just words.  Often times in life, we don’t even really know what a new rule means for several years before we have the ability to interpret it and apply it to specific circumstances.  In many cases, rules, both in sports and in the real world, go decades without being completely interpreted.  Even when rules are clear, the enforcement of those rules is sometimes left up to entities or agencies who have their own separate discretion.  Policemen have wide leeway when it comes to their discretion to arrest.  Prosecuting attorneys have basically infinite discretion when it comes to making the decision whether or not to charge a person with a crime and to determine the nature of those charges.  (To wit, how many people did you see driving 3-7 mph above the speed limit on your commute to work this morning?)

These are real-life compromises wrought of necessity.  This does not make baseball “weird” or “backwards” or make Farrell’s decision “uneven” or “hypocritical.”   Looking at it as a peculiarity unique to baseball or something not on par with the rules requires an exceedingly sterile and academic view of the game:

“Baseball is not most sports. Its laws—written and unwritten—have developed over multiple centuries of accumulated precedents, half-remembered incidents, rumor, hearsay, and half-truths. The sport’s entire rule book was assembled from a game of telephone played over multiple decades … The prevailing attitude about Pineda’s particular act is that his crime was not so much cheating as it was getting caught …”

In a competitive sport like baseball, you expect a player to cheat to try to get an edge.  You would also expect that player’s opponents to do whatever they can to get their own advantage.  In the delicate ecosystem that is a league with only 30 teams, balance must be maintained, and that balance must be determined to exist somewhere.

In baseball, when it comes to pine tar, the balance appears to be that some leeway can be provided to pitchers to use a little pine tar to help get a grip when conditions are less than ideal.  That does not necessarily allow a player to flaunt the written rules with impunity.  The same goes for dozens of other rules in baseball (e.g. batter must keep both feet within the batters box- have you seen that back line lately?), in other sports, and in life.

Former big leaguer Gabe Kapler put it brilliantly in a tweet the other night (hat tip to Drew Silva at Hardball Talk for linking it):

Right, wrong, or otherwise, I don’t think it’s up to the fans to determine what level of cheating, or enforcement, is proper.  Nor can pine tar be equated in any reasonable way with PED use.  Players and managers over a hundred years have determined what actions are acceptable (again, because checking every pitcher every half inning for pine tar in every location would grind the game to a halt), and Pineda got busted for failing to conform with that standard.

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What do you think?  Let us know in the comments below.

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