Scuffing baseballs rubs Orioles wrong

MIKE LITTWIN

June 23, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Tim Leary wasn't talking yesterday, which figures, because, first of all, what was he going to say, and, secondly, it's not polite to talk with your mouth full.

Especially when it's full of sandpaper, meaning, of course, that Leary could bite and file his nails simultaneously.

You've heard of a scratchy throat? Leary had a scratchy tongue, teeth and epiglottis Sunday. No wonder. A national ESPN audience saw him stick a wad of sandpaper -- did it come with baseball cards? -- into his mouth to avoid being searched by an umpire. He's lucky he doesn't play in, say, Iran, where they take body searches a little more seriously.

Anyway, it's the most replayed video since the Zapruder film, and league president Bobby Brown is studying it now. So is Oliver Stone.

But if Leary wasn't talking about his life in hardware, some of the Orioles were eager to talk about the Yankees pitcher.

Try Rick Sutcliffe, in his volatile mode: "He's lucky he doesn't have to bat [in this league], or he'd have been a lot more scuffed than that baseball."

As it happens, the Orioles weren't seeing much humor in the events of Sunday eve, especially in that an apparent Leary scuffball jumped up and broke Chris Hoiles' wrist.

"He's a jerk," said Sutcliffe of Leary, although he didn't use the word jerk. He used a little tougher word, and then asked if I'd print a few really tough words. I'll give you the clean version: "He's a ------------- -------." Vanna, I'll take a vowel for $200.

Of course, the Orioles were upset. They were upset because one of their own had been hurt.

There's a bigger issue here, though. And that's determining where gamesmanship begins and ends. In other words, is it wrong -- unethical -- to scuff up a ball or use Vaseline to gain an advantage?

Johnny Oates has been wrestling with that question since Sunday night. He caught Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton, both of whom were often accused of scuffing.

"When I caught the guys who were accused of doing it, I thought it was fun," Oates said. "Nobody got hurt. But somebody got hurt last night.

"My wife asked me at lunch: 'Do you condone that?' She hit a sore spot. If I had a pitcher who I knew was doing it, I wouldn't tell him to stop, but I'd tell him I didn't condone it. He's a grown man. He makes his own living. But I'm not going to have any part of it."

In the clubhouse, there was a little seminar on ethics, and three Orioles pitchers came down hard on the side of truth and justice.

"It's wrong," said Gregg Olson. "I'd never do it. It's against the rules, and it's against the rules for a reason.

"It's a matter of whether you feel like the only way you can stay in the game is to cheat. And then you have to ask yourself: 'Is it worth it?' It wouldn't be to me."

Mike Flanagan said any pitcher could do it, but most don't.

"We all fool around with it, throwing in the outfield [before games]," he was saying. "You just nick the ball with your fingernail, and you get tickled, seeing the way the ball moves.

"I know how to throw one. Everyone in [the clubhouse] knows how to. I might have been tempted to try it. But I wouldn't. If I haven't by now, I never will. It gives a pitcher an unfair advantage."

Flanagan said he couldn't deal with the whole proposition.

"It's not a minor decision to go out there and do it," he said. 'You've got to be desperate. You have to have a plan. You have to have the hardware. You have to have an escape. It's not something you can just do lightly.

"I'd feel terribly guilty, but that's just me."

Guilt is only the beginning stage. Rage can follow. Flanagan said that when he has lost to someone scuffing a ball, he has felt terribly bitter.

So has Sutcliffe.

"I physically challenged Mike Scott one night," Sutcliffe said. "He'd pitched three innings, and nobody had touched him. I told him he wasn't going to beat me doing that stuff."

Pitchers have been doing it since Babe Ruth was knee-high to a buffet table. You can scuff a ball on a belt buckle. You can put Vaseline on the stripes of your uniform. You can stick sandpaper in your mouth.

"It's cheating," Olson said, "and I don't like it."

Flanagan said he worried that if he did it and got caught, that people would say he's been throwing it all his life, diminishing everything he'd accomplished.

Of course, Gaylord Perry got into the Hall of Fame that way. Don Sutton won 300 games and may follow. Tim Leary may figure he can live with worse.

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