Imagine had George Steinbrenner been alive to witness last week’s pine-tar incident. To put it mildly, the former owner of the New York Yankees — as outspoken and hands-on as any team owner — would not have been happy. More than likely, “The Boss” would have been furious. And mortified. And wondering whether the franchise needed to rid itself of 25-year-old starting pitcher Michael Pineda.
What Pineda did was remarkably foolish. On April 10, when facing the rival Red Sox, he was accused by certain players and pundits of having a “foreign substance” smeared on his baseball glove. This substance was believed to have been pine tar, which hitters commonly apply to bat handles for better grip. Pitchers also wipe their fingers in it to achieve better grip on the ball during cold-weather games. Although this is legal in Major League Baseball for batters, it is not allowed for pitchers. Pineda caught a fair amount of flak for the April 10 episode, though most of the protest had died down by the time he took the mound at Fenway Park on April 23.
It is difficult to comprehend any logic behind what happened that day. Facing the same team that had accused him of using pine tar weeks earlier, and pitching on their home field and in front of countless high-definition cameras, he wore a blotch of pine tar overtly smeared across his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell alerted umpires in the second inning, who checked the noticeable black streak and promptly ejected Pineda, en route to a New York loss.
Plenty of pitchers use “foreign substances” for better grip in cold weather, despite this being illegal. The practice is among baseball’s unwritten traditions: many players disobey this rule, but just don’t get caught. So prevalent is the strategy that Red Sox superstar slugger David Ortiz publicly stated after the April 10 game that Pineda applying pine tar was no big deal.
But April 23 was different. To hide pine tar on your glove is one thing. To wear it plainly on your neck is blatantly disrespectful both to Boston and MLB rules. Pineda was justly tossed from the game, and his 10-game suspension is in line with punishments given to players who committed similar violations in recent years.
Had this occurred before Steinbrenner passed away in 2010, the suspension would have been the least of the fallout. New York is arguably the most-storied American sports franchise, one steeped in a tradition of success and business-like sportsmanship. The Boss championed these customs for decades prior to his death. Pineda’s actions are indicative of systemic failure in the 2014 Yankees, an embarrassment to a team that is deservedly held to higher standards than others. Steinbrenner would have excoriated the young pitcher, and anyone who could have stopped him. April 23 might have been Pineda’s last game in pinstripes. At the very least, staff and players would have understood that this should never happen again, or it may mean their jobs.
But The Boss is retired from this world, and his Bronx Bombers are placed in an unfamiliar spot of having to address unsportsmanlike conduct. Steinbrenner’s heirs should take a page from their father (though perhaps with less aggression) and demand that team staff reevaluate and restructure player-education programs — lest another Yankee embarrass a storied franchise that is far better than this.