This is a glorious time of year in my little town.
Daffodils burst from long-barren soil, neighbors emerge squinting into the sunlight, and, on certain days, the air is filled with cheers and the staccato pop of balls on bats. Every April, scores of boys and girls put on spotless new uniforms and wind through the streets to mark Little League Opening Day. It’s a sweet, very American, tradition.
My munchkin was among the marchers for the first time Saturday. He had been trying on his Cardinals red for days, posing in front of the mirror. He’s now absolutely certain he’s destined for the Majors.
He’s got a lot to learn about the game — lessons on sportsmanship, teamwork, and especially on the rules, and why they matter.
Of course, if he really does end up in the big leagues, he’ll then have to learn that sometimes the rules don’t matter. What else to conclude from the brouhaha over Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda, and the massive gob of pine tar smeared on his neck last week?
On Wednesday night, Pineda was ejected in the second inning at Fenway because the goop below his right ear was impossible to ignore, even for folks who have been turning blind eyes to pitchers’ special sauces forever.
Suspended for 10 games, Pineda is being called a fool, but not because he cheated. To hear players and others tell it, Pineda’s crime wasn’t breaking the rules, but being too obvious about it.
Here’s Red Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynksi: “It’s one of those things; we all know everyone does it,” he said. “There’s no doubt I’m all for it. But you just can’t do it so blatantly. [Sox manager John Farrell] didn’t want to go out there; it puts him in a bad spot. But rules are the rules.”
Except when they’re not, of course. On April 10, Pineda had a blindingly obvious pat of the brown stuff on his pitching hand, clear as, um, mud, but nobody officially called him on it then. Perhaps the Sox were feeling magnanimous because Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz had been accused of applying a grippy concoction to his own forearm last year in Toronto. Still, even in this climate of tolerance, Pineda knew enough not to own up, claiming the greasy smear was just dirt.
He couldn’t deny it the second time. He said the pine tar was purely for grip, though some expert types argue it’s way more cheaty than that. Criticism has rained down on Pineda — not for the pine tar, but for the blockheaded brazenness with which he used it.
So, what’s the lesson here for my 6-year-old? Always follow the rules, son, unless everybody’s breaking them, in which case you should feel free to break them too, as long as you’re not too obvious about it?
Look, I know shabby situational ethics sometimes find their way into kids’ sports. We’ve all heard stories of Little League coaches who think it more important to win than to follow rules requiring fair playing time for everyone, for example. Some have even fielded ringers for big games.
And I know it’s naïve to be disappointed by the example the big leaguers set. It’s not like professional sports, supercharged by criminally high salaries, has ever been the province of saints. America’s pastime has seen a long cavalcade of juicers, ball doctors, bat corkers, and other miscreants through the years.
Still, there’s something dispiriting in Pineda’s and other players’ open disregard for the pine tar rule. It seems an awfully long way from the apple-pie ideals the game traditionally espouses.
That’s what I was thinking on Saturday morning, as my kid stood with his little team-mates, hats on hearts during the national anthem, so excited about their first baseball season they could barely stand still.
I found myself confronting a thought that pops up a lot when one is trying to teach a kid black-and-white values in a world that is way too gray: It will never get better — or more pure — than this.