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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.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 15, 2005; 8:03 AM ET
 
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Comments

The part about Yogi Berra was worth the price of admission all by itself.

Oh, good job on deadline by Svrluga. What makes it even more impressive is that his story includes numerous post-game comments, meaning he had even less time in the end to polish the story.

Posted by: Baggins | June 15, 2005 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Who is the pine tar sales rep for the MLB? Is pine tar used anywhere else in our world besides the MLB?

I have no point.

Posted by: Jason Looney | June 15, 2005 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Nice comment of the Svrluga story...the real question is, "How do you pronounce Svrluga?"

Posted by: ed berkowitz | June 15, 2005 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Nice comment of the Svrluga story...the real question is, "How do you pronounce Svrluga?"

Posted by: ed berkowitz | June 15, 2005 11:43 AM | Report abuse

It's a key ingredient of cigarettes, isn't it? [I have no point either, really, today, and considered blogging on Deaths at Disney, since i went on Mission: Space recently and actually wrote about it on the blog. But the story's too tragic.]

Posted by: Achenbach | June 15, 2005 11:44 AM | Report abuse

They are wonderful arent' they? I feel like I've stepped into an old movie from the '50's with the scrappy underdogs who no one expects to do anything and then end up leading the league (or winning the series or whatever, but let's not get too carried away!)

I bet Angelos is just steaming at the ears right now--wish I could see it!

Posted by: NatsFan | June 15, 2005 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Strangely enough, I was thinking the exact same thing this morning about the Svrluga story (great write-up on a ridiculous deadline). I even actually checked the by-line, which I NEVER do for sports stories (at least in DC). And a coworker of mine also commented on the write-up as we were discussing the game. I don't know if there's really a way for a lowly reader like myself to send positive feedback to his editor or supervisor or whatever you crazy newspaper people call them, but I think he should get a pat on the back. It was by far a level above any game write-up I've ever read (maybe because of all the drama, but still).

Posted by: jw | June 15, 2005 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Re: pine tar. Don't know about that, but all game balls are rubbed with mud before games. And this mud comes from a single secret spot somewhere on the Delaware River. Strange to think that there's a guy out there who has the market cornered on mud for every team in MLB.

Posted by: jw | June 15, 2005 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Ditto Svrluga did a great job, ditto your blog sidebar was good, ditto hope Angelos is writhing in torment. Two comments:

1) Alas, there are distinctions within the realm of "cheating." The pine tar, sandpaper, steroids, etc. are indeed cheating as you've correctly defined it. What got Robinson so hot was that the Angels got caught and should have made pro forma huffing and puffing noises, and gone about their business. Instead, they got huffy when they shouldn't have. When you get caught, you are expected to protest your innocence to some extent, but what is "bush" is carrying that too far and trying to retaliate. On the other hand, intercepting/decoding signals is more a form of "intelligence-gathering," and is understood to be accepted. The runner on second base is EXPECTED to try to read the catcher calling pitches, and that's OK. However, the batter who looks down to try to read the catcher's signs knows to expect a bean ball on the next pitch--which is why batters NEVER look down. The Bobby Thompson thing is kind of gray.

2) The really cool thing about last night's rhubarb is it bonds and unites the Nationals even further than they already are--and these guys are so stoked already its unreal. Gotta love Frank, too. Old and wily will beat young and cocky every time.

Posted by: Wild Bill, the former umpire | June 15, 2005 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Ditto Svrluga did a great job, ditto your blog sidebar was good, ditto hope Angelos is writhing in torment. Two comments:

1) Alas, there are distinctions within the realm of "cheating." The pine tar, sandpaper, steroids, etc., are indeed cheating as you've correctly defined it. What got Robinson so hot was that the Angels got caught and should have made pro forma huffing and puffing noises, and gone about their business. Instead, they got huffy when they shouldn't have. When you get caught, you are expected to protest your innocence to some extent, but what is "bush" is carrying that too far and trying to retaliate. On the other hand, intercepting/decoding signals is more a form of "intelligence-gathering," and is understood to be accepted. The runner on second base is EXPECTED to try to read the catcher calling pitches, and that's OK. However, the batter who looks down to try to read the catcher's signs knows to expect a bean ball on the next pitch--which is why batters NEVER look down. The Bobby Thompson thing is kind of gray.

2) The really cool thing about last night's rhubarb is it bonds and unites the Nationals even further than they already are--and these guys are so stoked already its unreal. Gotta love Frank, too. Old and wily will beat young and cocky every time.

Posted by: Wild Bill, the former umpire | June 15, 2005 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I agree that cheating, to a certain extend, is an integral part of baseball. Things like amphetimines and steroids are obviously wrong, but everything from corked bats to spitball are treated more with amusement than outrage. Baseball is full of cheating stories, and especially with pitchers these stories are told almost with admiration at how creative pitchers are in coming up with new ways to doctor the ball and avoid detection. And what's more, I kind of like this sort of cheating in baseball. In the same way that I like a bench-clearing brawl. Or a pitcher beaning a batter who just hit a grand-slam off him.

Posted by: jw | June 15, 2005 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Just as well you didn't do Deaths at Disney. You probably would have been lynched.

Posted by: Achenfan | June 15, 2005 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Check this out:

LARGO, Florida (AP) -- An autopsy on Terri Schiavo backed her husband's contention that she was in a persistent vegetative state, finding that she had massive and irreversible brain damage and was blind, the medical examiner's office said Wednesday. . . . "The brain weighed 615 grams, roughly half of the expected weight of a human brain," [the medical examiner] said. "This damage was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2005 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Of course a perfectly good baseball entry had to be ruined with actual news. We can all read the homepage, thank you very much!

Posted by: jw | June 15, 2005 3:46 PM | Report abuse

jw: get back to work

Posted by: jw's boss | June 15, 2005 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I am the Bat Man!

Posted by: Alex Levy | June 15, 2005 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2005 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I shore am hongry! PLEASE give me back my feedin' tube!

Posted by: Duane Smedley | June 15, 2005 4:28 PM | Report abuse

The eggman made you hungry.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2005 4:47 PM | Report abuse

The dingo ate your baby.

Posted by: Also hungry | June 15, 2005 4:57 PM | Report abuse

This blog is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get.

Posted by: Forrest Gump | June 15, 2005 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Say Joel, would the sportswriter have had an assistant or co-worker to help round up the postgame comments?

Posted by: Baggins | June 15, 2005 6:46 PM | Report abuse

In baseball, there is the kind of cheating that is ok if you can get away with it (like stealing signs) and there is the more insidious kind (like Sammy Sosa corking his bat.) I think the distinction is that the former can be combatted by a wily foe and the later is underhanded and nothing can be done about it unless the umps catch 'em red handed.

Posted by: macdaddy | June 15, 2005 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Let's talk about real cheating: what the rich folks who control the TV broadcasts are doing to the fans. I'm sitting in my living room in Fairfax watching the Mets play Oakland on ESPN2, where everyone else in the country gets to watch the grudgematch between the Nats and the Angels. I don't care if this is the fault of Angelos, or the Orioles, or MASN, or Comcast, or the Grinch in his summer job. All I know is I feel cheated more than any amount of pine tar might ever be responsible for.

Posted by: innocentvictim | June 15, 2005 10:51 PM | Report abuse

I think the tv situation is ridiculous. It's crazy that you can't even catch your hometown team's games on tv. Where else besides DC could this happen? Why can't this city seem to do ANYTHING without having it get screwed up? Totally bush-league. Hahah...get it? Bush league??? I kill me. (And I know it's not the city's fault, but it does seem like this sort of thing is always happening).

Posted by: jw | June 16, 2005 8:27 AM | Report abuse

We figured out the signs for a 11-12 year-old team -- including their bunt sign.

My son was pitching. He adjusted his throw to make the batter pop the ball up.

If he had his regular catcher, he might have done a bit more.

I wouldn't tell him to get pine tar on his glove, but I will tell him when the next kid is going to bunt.

Posted by: Dave R | June 16, 2005 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Yet another reason all parents should be banned from their kids' sporting events.

Posted by: jw | June 16, 2005 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Are you the REAL jw, or jw's evil twin?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2005 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I'm the real jw. Here's what I think. 'Cheating' in pro baseball is ok to me, at least the out-foxing the other team type of cheating. A little irrational, I know. But it's their job, they're getting paid to win--some would argue by all means neccessary. But little kids? They don't get nothin'. You think an 11 year old can make the distinction between stealing signs and stealing the answers to final exam? Save by the Bell taught us that those shenanigans cause nothing but trouble, and AC ends up going to the dance with Kelly instead of you. Now, if the kid figures it out on his own, good for him. But this stinks of "Hockey dad" scouting little-league teams to steal signs and then pass it on to his kid. And then beating the poor 16-year-old ump to death with an aluminum bat when he gets caught. Parents at little-kid sports suck.

Posted by: jw | June 16, 2005 3:48 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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