Bench still hip to ways that baseball players bend rules

October 28, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The smudge on Kenny Rogers' pitching hand will surely be one of the defining images of the 2006 World Series. The Game 2 incident already has a nickname - Smudgegate.

"Like it's some big mystery, an episode of Lost or CSI. I have to laugh," Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said Thursday at Sinai Hospital. "Everyone says, `What was it?' There's no mystery at all. There isn't an umpire who didn't immediately know that was pine tar on Kenny's hand."

Bench, 58, was in town representing a medical device company. He underwent an artificial hip replacement in 2004 and was so enthusiastic about the results he became a spokesman. He went on rounds and spoke to individual patients at Sinai on Thursday afternoon, and led a patient seminar that evening.

"We're doing this in a bunch of cities," Bench said. "All the stuff I accomplished in my career is negligible compared to the lives being changed by medical technology. I love being involved."

But Bench is a classic baseball figure, and wherever he goes, people mostly want to talk about the game. He played for the Cincinnati Reds for 17 seasons, hit 389 home runs and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 as one of the greatest catchers ever.

Like a lot of former major leaguers, he wasn't surprised to see pine tar on a pitcher's hand.

"Guys do things like that, trying to get an edge," Bench said. "When I played, there was a rag with pine tar that hitters used in the on-deck circle. Between innings, the batboy would bring it into the dugout and the pitcher would go over and rub it. Just trying to grip the ball better. They have to do something now, especially when it's cold. The seams are lower than they used to be."

It's a violation of rule 8:02 (a)(4), which stipulates a pitcher "may not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball." Rule 8:02 (a)(2-6) calls for an immediate ejection when a pitcher is caught.

But the rule is routinely broken, Bench said, which is probably why St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn't press to have Rogers ejected after the Detroit Tigers' pitcher was caught with a smudge in the first inning of Game 2. The umpires just asked him to wash it off.

"There's a real good chance some of his guys probably do it," Bench said of La Russa. "Anytime you see real good curveball pitchers like the Cardinals have, chances are they probably have a little bit" of pine tar.

Not that Bench would have complained about the ejection of Rogers, whom he says he knows and likes.

"He claimed it was dirt, which isn't a foreign substance. But come on," Bench said. "He was just so blatant about it. Why didn't he just set off a flare calling attention to it? It was that obvious. I mean, I know he is getting old, but it's like he put it on and just forgot to wipe it off. I'm going to kid Kenny about that."

Bench acknowledged that he would be more upset if Rogers' offense ranked higher on his personal list of baseball subversions.

"It's not cheating. Very few guys really cheat," Bench said. "Cheating is putting Vaseline on the ball. That makes it go absolutely crazy. That's unhittable. That's not a level playing field. Cheating is putting cork in your bat. Cheating is stealing signs from second base. That's not acceptable. And of course, using steroids is cheating."

The latter is a sore subject for Bench, as it is for many former players who dislike seeing their records challenged by players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.

"I have an idea. Let's have two leagues," Bench said. "We can have the normal major leagues, and then there'll also be what we'll call the Futura League, for all the guys who test positive or just want to use steroids. We can build new stadiums that are 480 feet down the left-field line. They can use 12 players on the field, six outfielders. A league of steroids users. They can just battle it out on their own terms. Everyone else can play honest baseball in the majors. I think it would work great."

The catch?

"If you're in the Futura League, you can only make $50,000 a year," Bench said.

But no matter where or how the game is played, he said, there'll always be players trying to get away with whatever they can.

"There are all sorts of little things, like a catcher scuffing the ball on his shinguards before he throws it back to the pitcher," Bench said. "Pine tar on a pitcher is like that. You warn the guy. You tell him not to do it. You throw the ball out. And you tell him, `Hey, next time, don't be so blatant.'"

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