When Michael Piñeda of the Yankees was caught with pine tar on the back of his neck the other day, my thoughts flashed back to a high-school football game I covered, oh, a few years ago.
In bright sunshine, with witnesses in the stands, a defender put the slug on an opponent – on the 50-yard line. The referee tossed him. After the game, the crusty old coach told the wave of reporters (that is to say, me), “Geez, I told the guy, don’t do stuff like that in the middle of the field.”
The operative phrase was, “in the middle of the field.” Whack the guy in the bottom of the pile. Knee him. Gouge him. But, geez, not in full view.
They all know. That’s my theory about sports. Coaches have a pretty good idea what their players are up to but cannot afford to “know.” During the great steroid frolics, owners and general managers did everything but administer the injections.
(Looking back, I heard one owner make creatine jokes before I knew what he was talking about, and one terrific player talk about a “major-league coffee” before a game.)
Some of the best people I have known in baseball relied on little tricks of the trade. Rick Honeycutt used a tack in his glove to cut the baseballs, alter their aerodynamics. Got caught by the home-plate umpire, Bill Kunkel, himself a former pitcher. Geez, not in the middle of the field.
Rick is a great guy, now in his ninth year as the Dodgers’ pitching coach.
I once saw Elston Howard set a world record for a lumbering catcher in full gear sprinting from home plate to the dugout tunnel after catching one hellacious curve from Whitey Ford for the last strike against the Tigers. Elston took the ball with him, I might add, and was on the George Washington Bridge heading home to the beautiful Arlene Howard before the Tigers could scream for the ball – and Elston’s belt buckle, which was filed to nearly lethal sharpness.
And so it goes. Briana Scurry moved forward from the line to smother a penalty kick during the shootout for the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The referee did not notice, or chose not to notice, Scurry’s dancing feet. The U.S. beat China a minute later.
Donna Lopiano, then of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and one of the strong, ethical voices in sport, called Scurry’s move cheating. I called it gamesmanship and wrote a whole column about it:
Everybody in baseball knows what pitchers do, as Tyler Kepner writes in the Friday Times.
Piñeda deserved the 10-game suspension not so much for cheating but for a worse violation.
Geez, not in public.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.