One smudge shouldn't dirty up whole Series

October 24, 2006|By RICK MAESE

St. Louis — St. Louis-- --Psst ... did you hear about the Detroit Tigers pitcher? Out there on the mound the other night, a half-dozen syringes sticking out of his left arm, vapor rub under the bill of his cap, pine tar on his glove, Vaseline on his lips and cheating in his heart.

Quick, convene a congressional committee! Tell Bud Selig not to sign the collective bargaining agreement just yet. We need Leslie Nielsen strip-searching pitchers and military investigators in the baseball media to get to the bottom of this one.

Well, please excuse me if I have a hard time joining the morality mob. The day off between games 2 and 3 yesterday provided plenty of time for speculating, finger-pointing and whispering. In fact, by noon, we'd completely lost our minds and it suddenly seemed like Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers belonged on the FBI's most-wanted list and the terror alert warning needed to be upgraded.

As play resumes tonight, how nice it would be if we could just wash our hands of the whole mess.

Isn't it just a tad hypocritical that we'd be up in arms over Rogers possibly scuffing or discoloring a baseball, when it's something those in baseball and those who love baseball have celebrated and romanticized for the past century.

The outrage and shock yesterday - which was certainly magnified because Rogers' dirty hand was caught on video - was interesting to monitor. Did you notice where most of the disgust came from? Hint: It wasn't the players, managers and coaches. That's because when they joined the fraternity and learned the secret baseball handshake, they also learned that there are some ugly parts to a pretty sport.

Pitchers didn't suddenly start doctoring baseballs, and that's why we walk away from Rogers' impressive pitching performance in Game 2 sure of just two things:

We can't innocently celebrate Rogers' masterful postseason. We know that he didn't turn into Christy Mathewson overnight.

And we can't muster an ounce of sympathy for the St. Louis Cardinals. They could have raised a stink but instead of pursuing a World Series victory, manager Tony La Russa decided it was much more important to honor baseball's holy code of silence.

"I handled it the way I believed I should have handled it," he said.

La Russa should have made a fuss and had umpires inspect Rogers tighter than airport security guards. But he couldn't. Forget the fancy domes and publicly financed stadiums; baseball is actually a game played in glass houses.

Most managers and coaches face the same problem: Wouldn't you have a hard time raising a ruckus over some pine tar when you know your own pitchers have used foreign substances? Or when you've turned a blind eye to anything that didn't follow the letter of the law? (Remember, La Russa is a guy who didn't notice that Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire hit growth spurts in their 20s.)

The Cardinals' manager wasn't concerned about the rulebook Sunday night; he was honoring the code, the most sacred part of baseball's fraternity. Of course, he was more poetic in his explanation:

"There's a line that I think defines the competition," he said yesterday. "And you can sneak over the line, because we're all fighting for the edge. ... I also know that pitchers - I was going to say routinely, that may be too strong because I don't know enough - pitchers use some kind of sticky stuff to get a better grip from the first day in spring training to the last side session of the World Series. Just because there's something that they're using to get a better grip, that doesn't cross the line."

(Time for a quick aside: It should be absolutely shocking that the sports world was flipped upside down by a pitcher's dirty hand yesterday, and meanwhile no one wanted to talk about the NFL busting one of its top defensive players for violating its substance-abuse policy, allegedly for steroid use. It should be absolutely shocking. But it's not. The NFL and its mammoth athletes continue to get a free pass in the court of the public opinion.)

When it comes to cheating in baseball - stealing signs, corking bats, scuffing balls - no one has ever seemed to mind. La Russa gathered his players yesterday and asked if they were upset with how he handled the situation. Not a single one said anything.

"It's always been the same -- everybody does what you have to do," said Jim Palmer, the Orioles' Hall of Fame pitcher. "I was just never smart enough."

Forty years ago, Palmer became the youngest pitcher to throw a shutout in a World Series game. Rogers nearly became the oldest Sunday night. Palmer has been around the game long enough to realize that baseball can be forgiving.

"Do we look down on Gaylord Perry? I don't think so - we put him in the Hall of Fame," he said. "And he's hardly the only one. Everyone said Nolan Ryan scuffed the ball at the end of his career. No one ever confronted him, though. There were many. It's always been a part of the game."

Cheating is part of the code and the code is part of the game. Anyone who wants to write sonnets about the game's beauty should at least be aware of baseball's warts.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Game 3: Tigers@Cardinals, tonight, 8:33, chs. 45, 5 Starters: Detroit (Robertson 13-13) vs. St. Louis (Carpenter 15-8)

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