A Brief History of the Spitball
[Special note: Hal, the dot.com mastermind who secretly wants to take over the blog, has set up a "new account" for me at TypePad and suddenly the words are HUGE on my screen, and no doubt the grammar and spelling won't be near as good. I fight a constant battle against usurpers who would undermine this literary enterprise.]
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SPITBALL:
Small alterations in the surface of a baseball will have dramatic effects on its flight. It's hard to hit a baseball moving at 90 miles an hour, and even harder when that motion has a secondary or tertiary dip, weave, juke or yaw. This is why pitchers are always mauling the ball with their fingernails, and scrunching it, and spitting on it, and scuffing it, and greasing it, and biting it, and doing just about everything this side of trying to digest the ball before throwing it. The greatest spitball pitcher of all time, Gaylord Perry, who always had some kind of grease stashed in two places (we learn from a Google search), once said, "I reckon I tried everything on the old apple, but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping." According to ESPN.com, Whitey Ford would not only cut the ball with his wedding ring, but apply a mixture of baby oil, turpentine and resin to the ball with a roll-on dispenser, which (and this is probably too good to be true) Yogi Berra mistook for a deodorant and ended up gluing his arms to his side.
Last night there was a spitball incident that nearly led to a massive brawl in the Nationals-Angels game. It was great theater, and The Post's Barry Svrluga captures every delightful nuance. [Journalism students: Notice how Svrluga contextualizes the dispute, weaving from on-field events to the dugout back-story. And somehow Svrluga did all this on a ridiculous deadline, because this was a late game from the Coast.] There are a lot of key figures in the drama, starting with wily 69-year-old Frank Robinson, the Nats manager and Hall of Fame slugger (and arguably someone who has never quite gotten his due as a historic figure -- he was the sport's first African American manager). Robinson is a little eccentric as a manager, makes some unusual decisions from his spot on the dugout railing, but twice now he has personally managed to win a game for his team in the late innings. A couple of weeks ago, he somehow persuaded the umps to change a home run to a foul ball. TV replays showed that it was, indeed, a home run, but Robinson pleaded the case effectively and the Nats squeaked to victory. Last night Robinson came out of the dugout and asked the umps to check the glove of the Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly. Sure enough, Donnelly was cheating: He had pine tar on the glove. He was pulling a Gaylord Perry. He got ejected. Svrluga then tells of the game's descent into acrimony and accusations, the benches clearing, etc. The best line in the story came from the Angels manager, Mike Scioscia: "It's an accepted practice," he said of the pine tar.
This is the first line of defense of anyone who does something that is clearly and explicitly against the law or against a well-defined set of rules. The person says: It's not REALLY against the rules. And it's true that there are those who argue that Major League Baseball has long tolerated a culture of cheating. Even one of the greatest moments in baseball history, Bobby Thomson's "shot heard around the world" homer off Ralph Branca in 1951 [as you know, the inspiration for the Delillo tome "Underworld"], now appears to be tarnished by the revelation a couple of years ago that the Giants were stealing signs using an elaborate set-up that included a telescope in center field and a buzzer in the dugout.
But pine tar is lame. I'd respect Donnelly more if he had come up with something novel, like a miniature power drill embedded in his glove. Pine tar is just sticky goop and it's cheating, and if we tolerate players using pine tar, the next thing you know they'll be...well, taking steroids. And all hell will break loose.
[The sport that is most rigid about rules is surely golf. In golf you have to call penalties ON YOURSELF if you do something that violates the rules, such as -- and now I am thinking of my own game -- using your foot to kick a ball from a bad lie under a bush. Many times, having sliced a ball into a thicket of thorns, I've "found my ball" in a miraculously favorable patch of open grass, giving me a shot at the green. Often this miracle is accompanied by the words, "I'm pretty sure this is my ball." Later, over beers, I give myself a two-shot penalty.]
The bottom line about last night's game is that the Nats keep winning, somehow, even if it takes old Frank Robinson stirring up trouble in the late innings. I now believe in the Nats. I believe. Let me quote something that some jerk wrote back in March:
"The Nationals may need irrational fans because, although the team will be a champion at selling tickets, it may be mediocre at such baseball essentials as hitting, pitching, fielding, spitting and flamboyantly adjusting the protective cup. The technical stuff."
Retracted. They're good. Especially at spotting cheaters.
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