What to Tell Youth Leaguers When Pros Cheat
By Doug Abrams
By now, baseball fans know the story. On April 23, New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected in the second inning when Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell complained to home plate umpire Gerry Davis that the hurler took the mound with pine tar, a banned substance, visibly spread on his neck. After being cuffed for two runs on four hits in the first inning, Pineda explained that he sought a better grip on the ball on that chilly Boston night. The next day, he accepted a 10-game suspension without filing an appeal.
After years of illicit steroid use that rewrote Major League Baseball’s record book and shook the game’s integrity, cheating with a gob of pine tar seems like small potatoes. But cheating it was. MLB Rule 8.02(b) states, “The pitcher shall not . . . have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.”
“We All Know Everyone Does It”
To players and managers familiar with baseball tradition, Pineda’s real offense was not that he used a banned substance. The real offense was that his violation was so obvious that the Red Sox could not ignore it.
Big league teams rarely challenge opposing pitchers because they know that their own pitchers also often hide pine tar or other banned substances, sometimes under their belt buckles or sleeves. Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski says that “we all know everyone does it,” but that his manager had to object this time because “you just can’t do it so blatantly.” Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who doctored a few baseballs in his day, agreed: Pineda “didn’t try to hide it. He’s just learning a few tricks of the trade, but just not very good.”
“How Do We Explain This?”
In a Boston Globe column that condemned “open disregard for the pine tar rule,” Yvonne Abraham worried about the Pineda violation’s effect on youth leaguers who watched or learned about it. What, she asked, should she tell her six-year-old before he marched in his first Little League opening day parade that Saturday? “Always follow the rules, son, unless everybody’s breaking them, in which case you should feel free to break them too, as long as you’re not too obvious about it”?
A father of two Little Leaguers emailed Globe writer Nick Cafardo with a similar question: “How do we explain this to our children?” I accept here the writers’ invitation to suggest an appropriate explanation.
For parents and coaches, the most effective approach when a pro does something unsavory is to communicate forthrightly with their youth leaguers. After confronting National Hockey League fighting for so many years as a youth hockey coach, I am confident that most kids understand right from wrong when their parents and coaches actually take the time to talk things out with them. Like every other professional hockey fan, our youth teams certainly watched fighting on television, but they hardly ever fought because the adults kept the lines of communication open.
If a pro’s transgression is filmed (as Pineda’s was), why not even show the film to the team in the locker room, in a team meeting, or at home? Don’t try to hide the film because the players will have plenty of opportunities to watch it on their own anyway. Show it two or three times, then talk about it.
With proper guidance from the adults in their lives, youth leaguers are not more prone to cheating, deliberately trying to injure an opponent, charging into the stands, or committing acts of sexual violence simply to imitate a pro they might otherwise admire. I doubt that many well-guided youth leaguers will seek out pine tar in the near future just because a Yankee did it on national television.
Parents and coaches serve their players best by capitalizing on “teachable moments,” opportunities to draw good lessons from bad events. Welcome the opportunity to teach because incidents like Pineda’s are tailor-made for constructive lessons. For the well-meaning parent who emailed Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo seeking advice about how to explain cheating to his two children, the worst explanation is no explanation at all. When adults explain and lead, most kids will “get it,” and the others may face the coach’s disciplinary action.
After the Pineda incident, MLB executive vice president Joe Torre promises post-season review of Rule 8.02(b) and its ban on foreign substances. Before MLB rulemakers return their verdict, youth league parents and coaches can quote Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild: Banned substances are “illegal, no matter how you do it. You want me to tell [pitchers] how to cheat better?”
Bonus: A Movie Review
In the wake of the Pineda headlines, the Washington Post observed that “[b]ending the many rules of baseball is commonplace, and the gamesmanship is often applauded as an almost romantic part of the game.” The off-hand comment reminds me of “It Happens Every Spring,” a delightful and thoroughly artful 1949 baseball comedy that I count among my favorite movies after watching it more than a dozen times since I was a Little Leaguer.
Ray Milland plays Vernon K. Simpson, a young, shy college chemistry professor and passionate baseball fan who, in a laboratory experiment, accidentally invents a liquid that repels wood, including wood baseball bats. With help from two varsity baseball players (including catcher Alan Hale, Jr., who later played the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”), Professor Simpson confirms that he is unhittable when he applies the liquid to the ball through a sponge hidden behind a small hole in the pocket of his glove. With a leave of absence from the college president, he tries out with St. Louis and pitches them to the World Series because the hidden liquid indeed keeps bats from ever striking the ball. (I won’t give way the ending.)
When you watch the black-and-white film, you might wonder why viewers never learn whether Vernon Simpson pitched for the Cardinals or the Browns, or why the other major league teams’ uniforms and stadiums are similarly identified only by their city, and not by their actual names and logos. You might also wonder why “It Happens Every Spring” did not feature cameos by actual major leaguers.
The answer is that Commissioner Happy Chandler refused to allow Major League Baseball to cooperate with the film’s producers because — you guessed it — he felt that the movie condoned cheating.
Watch “It Happens Every Spring” anyway. It’s great family entertainment, without violence, sex, or foul language. The film received two Academy Award nominations (for Best Writing and Motion Picture Story). And don’t worry that Vernon Simpson’s sudden stardom might prod your young ballplayers to ask for a chemistry set so that they can produce a liquid that repels wood. With today’s composite bats in youth games, what good is wood-repellent anyway?
[Sources: Greg Schimmel, Cheat Sheet, Washington Post, Apr. 27, 2014, page D2; Pineda Should Be “More Discreet,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 26, 2014, page D2; Yvonne Abraham, Why Stick to the Rules?, Boston Globe, April 27, 2014; Nick Cafardo, Time to Get a Grip On Rule, Boston Globe, April 25, 2014, page C1]