The Orioles suffered a personnel loss last night that could significantly hurt their chances of competing for the American League East title, and manager Johnny Oates didn't have to look far for someone to blame.
Catcher Chris Hoiles suffered a broken wrist when he was hit by a pitch in the second inning of the Orioles' 8-2 loss to the New York Yankees. He will be sidelined for at least a month. Oates said the injury might have been avoided if Yankees starter Tim Leary had been playing by the rules.
Club officials will submit evidence to the American League office today that they say proves Leary hit Hoiles with an illegal pitch -- a scuffed ball that sailed inside and sacked one of the team's most valuable players. Oates had hoped to prove during the game that Leary was using a piece of sandpaper to doctor the ball, but a search by the umpiring crew in the fifth inning failed to turn up anything incriminating.
If Leary had been found with a foreign object or substance, he would have been ejected and almost certainly suspended by the league. Instead, he went on to pitch 6 1/3 innings and earn his fifth victory.
Innocent? Oates isn't giving up that easily. He protested the game, hoping that AL president Bobby Brown would look at the videotape of the incident and reach the same conclusion as everyone else in TV-land.
If the video replay is any indication, Leary took a bite out of crime. He put something into his mouth as the umpires headed for the mound to check his glove. He also was recorded taking something out of his mouth after he returned to the Yankees dugout.
The incident seemed comical until the X-ray results on Hoiles were announced. The Orioles found nothing funny about losing a player who has been one of the year's top offensive producers at his position.
"That would definitely play a part in it," Oates said. "I've got a player hurt whose numbers merit consideration for the All-Star team. In my opinion, he got hit by an illegal pitch, a pitch you can't control. That's why spitballs were outlawed, because of the excessive movement."
The Orioles still are assembling their case and will file it today. The evidence includes the videotapes and a collection of scuffed balls.
"We have enough evidence that there is no doubt in our minds," Oates said. "Our lawyers are going to get everything straight and submit it tomorrow. I think we have a very strong case."
Leary said that there was nothing unusual about him going to his mouth during a game and denied that he was doing anything illegal.
"I always put my fingers in my mouth," he said. "It's dry out there. I do it to get the saliva. I go to my mouth a lot when I'm off the mound.
"When they [the umpires] came to the mound, I didn't know what they were coming for. They looked at my glove and my hand and didn't say anything. I have nothing to hide."
This kind of thing happens all the time in the World Wrestling Federation, but it is less common in baseball circles. Joe Niekro was caught with an emery board during a game at Anaheim Stadium a few years ago. Rick Honeycutt was once caught with a tack taped to his thumb. Kevin Gross was once caught with sandpaper glued into his glove. For the record, Leary wasn't caught with anything, except a strange-looking smirk on his face.
The umpires may have suspected that he had something in his mouth, but that is beyond the limits of their jurisdiction. They cannot search inside the mouth or inside the clothing of a player suspected of cheating.
"He wasn't ejected because there was no evidence," crew chief Dave Phillips said. "Later, [third-base umpire] Jim Joyce came over to me and said it looked or appeared like he had gone to his mouth, but looking or appearing is different from knowing, and we can't eject him on suspicion. You have to have the goods.
"Johnny says they have several balls, and I'm sure they'll send them to the league office, but for us to charge him with an illegal act we have to have evidence."
The likelihood of the protest being upheld is remote, but if it is, the game would have to be replayed from the point of protest. The Orioles were trailing 2-1 at the time. The game would not turn into a blowout until Don Mattingly, Mel Hall and Charlie Hayes homered in the late innings to send Ben McDonald to his fourth loss in his past five decisions.
Hall hit his ninth and 10th homers in the game, picking up where he had left off in a 4-for-4 performance Saturday night. He drove in four runs, giving him seven RBI in the past two games. The loss cost the Orioles a chance to take advantage of a Toronto Blue Jays defeat and move back into first place in the American League East.
McDonald was coming off a rough night in Cleveland, where he gave up five runs over 6 1/3 innings in a 7-5 loss to the Indians on Tuesday. He had had one win in his previous five appearances, but Oates seemed satisfied with the way he was throwing.
"I thought he threw the ball well in Cleveland," Oates said. "He showed the ability to make pitches. He pitched. He didn't just go out there and throw."
This time, he got a first-inning wake-up call from Hall and then settled in to retire 18 of the next 19 batters, working into the seventh before the Yankees scored again.
Leadoff hitter Andy Stankiewicz opened the game with a chalk-line double to left and Hall lined a two-run homer over the out-of-town scoreboard in right. It was Hall's fifth consecutive hit.
Perhaps McDonald needed a slap in the face to get down to business. He came right back to retire the heart of the Yankees lineup in order and kept things quiet while the Orioles tried to go to work on Leary.