By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - A pitcher using pine tar to improve his grip in cold weather appears to be a common practice in Major League Baseball, but smearing it on your neck for easy access is a no-no, as New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda found out.
Pineda was ejected from a game against the arch-rival Red Sox in Boston on Wednesday after contravening one of baseball's arcane unwritten rules and faces a likely suspension.
Putting a foreign substance on the ball to affect its movement is prohibited, but managers, players and MLB brass tend to look the other way to allow a bit of pine tar so pitchers can ensure a better grip for safety reasons.
So long as you don't flaunt it, as Pineda did just two weeks after the Red Sox let him slide in their game at Yankee Stadium when TV cameras zoomed in to capture the sticky substance applied to his hand.
Reactions ranged from embarrassment to comic disbelief.
"I think we're all embarrassed," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "We as a group are embarrassed that this has taken place. I think Michael is embarrassed."
There was no argument on the field from the Yankees.
"It's just obviously a bad situation, and it clearly forced the opponents' hand to do something that I'm sure they didn't want to do, but they had no choice but to do," added Cashman.
Boston manager John Farrell, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach, made it clear that he reluctantly brought his protest to the umpire.
"I could see it from the dugout," said Farrell.
"And given the last time we faced him, I felt like it was a necessity to say something. You know, I fully respect on a cold night you're trying to get a little bit of a grip, but when it's that obvious, something has got to be said."
Pitchers are allowed use of a rosin bag left on the back of the mound to aid their grip, but in chilly conditions such as Pineda faced, the powder may not do the trick.
Pineda struggled with his control in the first inning, throwing several wild fastballs, before applying the pine tar prior to taking the mound in the second inning when he was caught.
"In the first inning, I didn't feel the ball, and you know, I didn't want to hit anybody so I decided to use it," Pineda, a 25-year-old Dominican, explained after the 5-1 loss.
"I don't have a problem with guys who do it," said Boston catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "I know as a hitter, I want to get in there and know the guy has (control), especially on a night when it's cold (and) it was windy.
"Put it on your hat, put it on your pants, put it on your belt, put it on your glove, whatever you've got to do. But at some point, you just can't do it that blatantly."
Boston first baseman Mike Napoli agreed. "Every pitcher does it. You can't blatantly have it out there showing. It was just kind of silly."
Players on other teams found the incident entertaining.
"Hilarious," Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson told ESPN Radio on Thursday about his and his teammates' reaction.
Rule 8.02 states, "The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball," but distinctions have been made in baseball's unwritten etiquette so long as the movement of the ball is not markedly changed.
Even in recent World Series, pitchers Kenny Rogers of the Texas Rangers and Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox have been found using substances to help their grip.
Pitchers have tried to find competitive advantage since the early days of professional baseball, with some applying saliva, petroleum jelly or hair tonic to the ball, and others scuffing, scratching and nicking it to produce unexpected movement.
The so-called 'spitball' was outlawed by MLB in 1920 after it was popularized by the dominant Ed Walsh from 1906, with existing spitballers allowed to continue to use their trick pitch until they retired.
That did not deter others and the pitchers' toolbox over the years included sandpaper, emery boards, nails, Vaseline, sharpened belt buckles and the like.
Even some successful latter day pitchers, including Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford, admitted to doctoring the ball.
Like Pineda, some pitchers have been roundly embarrassed.
Rick Honeycutt, the current pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, once taped a tack to the end of his finger to scratch the baseball while pitching for the Seattle Mariners.
After a complaint from the opposing bench, the umpire found the offending implement, along with a bloody scratch across the pitcher's forehead where he had unwittingly swept his finger in wiping his brow.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi took his young pitcher's faux pas in stride.
"He's a young kid," Girardi said. "I don't think he's trying to do anything to cheat, I think he's trying to just go out there and compete. He used bad judgment tonight."
Pineda, who apologized to his teammates after the game, said: "I know I made a mistake today, and I feel so sad. I learn from this mistake. It won't happen again."
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)