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Baseball should legalize pine tar, not wink at it

A system of unwritten rules isn’t fair and lends itself to arbitrariness

Home plate umpire Gerry Davis examines the back of New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda during the second inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Red Sox. A substance identified as pine tar can clearly be seen on Pineda's neck. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe

If pine tar makes baseball safer, and many pitchers use it or a similar substance anyway, then why exactly is it against the rules?

That’s the question fans should be asking amid the controvery over Michael Pineda, the Yankees pitcher who was ejected on Wednesday when umpires found pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell complained after it became obvious that Pineda was using the barred substance to get a firmer grip on the ball.

Rules are rules, and Pineda deserves whatever punishment is coming to him. But baseball’s rulebook wasn’t handed down on tablets from Abner Doubleday, and it’s time for the sport to consider relaxing its widely flouted pine tar ban.


Indeed, if you believe the players interviewed after the game, pine tar is already widespread, so long as pitchers use it more discreetly than Pineda did. Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski even endorsed the practice. “I know as a hitter I want to get in there knowing the guy has a grip,” he said. “Put it on your hat, put it on your pants, put it on your belt, put it on your glove, whatever you have to do. But at some point you can’t do it that blatantly.”

And that seems to be the real crux of the case against Pineda — that he violated the “unwritten” rules of baseball by breaking the actual rules too blatantly.

Players seem to hold the notion of an unwritten rulebook sacred, but a system of unwritten rules isn’t fair and lends itself to arbitrariness. Imagine if, instead, pitchers could just seek permission from the umpires to use pine tar in cold weather, the way they can now ask for approval to blow on their hands, an action that’s otherwise banned. By reducing the chances of hit batsmen, that would make the game safer. And aligning baseball’s real rules with its unwritten code would also level the playing field for pitchers — making an ability to cheat discreetly less of a necessary major-league skill.


Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.