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Pineda and pine tar: baseball is, once again, sending mixed signals about cheating

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I get into a lot of baseball arguments which end up with people telling me how damn clear the rules and morals are and how I’m a jerk for not understanding that. How breaking the rules is cheating, cheating is wrong and cheaters are bad people. How defending the cheaters is an exercise in amoral or even immoral excuse-making. Rules are rules, and if I can’t understand that well, God help me.

Then Michael Pineda is caught twice using pine tar, and apparently nuance is the order of the day. “His crime wasn’t cheating, so much,” the consensus holds. “Everyone uses a little something to help them get a grip on the ball. His crime was being so obvious about it. It’d be just fine if he used pine tar in a manner that didn’t make a mockery of the situation.”

MORE: Yankees’ Pineda caught with pine tar, faces suspension

Imagine if we applied that standard to other forms of cheating. Most players who use PEDs claim with a straight face that they do so for totally legitimate reasons, separate and apart from gaining an advantage on the competition. Now, picture a guy getting busted for HGH and being met with the same sort of response the Pineda thing is getting: “Hey, a lot of guys use this stuff because they just wanna get off the disabled list more quickly, and if you do it we’re not going to care all that much. But you can’t go getting caught by George Mitchell, dummy. Jeez, what an idiot.”

I don’t feel like that dynamic would fly too well. So forgive me if I don’t think the conventional wisdom forming around the pine tar issue this morning is all that great.

Specifically, I don’t understand why, after a decade’s worth of hand-wringing over the moral depravity of rule-breakers, people are accepting of a situation where breaking the rules is totally fine as long as no one is being obvious about it and no one is doing things to cause it to make big, controversial news. This was baseball’s original m.o. regarding PEDs, after all. Steroid use was widely known and acknowledged as something that was happening and something that was wrong, but it only became a big issue once Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti decided to start talking about it in 2002. That approach has been soundly rejected as shameful and willful blindness on baseball’s part, and everything that has happened with PEDs since then has been a reaction to it or correction of it.

VIDEO: Farrell on Pineda | Yankees embarrassed

Yet, here we are again. When it comes to pine tar or other foreign substances used by pitchers, baseball seems content to look the other way until someone as indiscreet as Pineda literally forces them to acknowledge it. And fans and commentators, it seems, are content to go along with that. To mock and punish the guys who openly flaunt the rules, while not thinking too terribly hard about the rules or their inconsistent application in the first place.

How nice it would be if, this time, baseball actually looked at the issue at hand in a mature and non-reactionary way and determined whether, if rules are being broken, why they are being broken and whether the rule in question should actually exist in the first place.  To ask if what everyone says is true and pitchers legitimately need pine tar or sunscreen to get a grip on the ball. To determine if doing so is not objectionable, whether maybe it’s a good idea to legalize pine tar or sunscreen or whatever is being used. To put a big tub of it on the mound for the pitchers to use. Or at the very least to examine pitcher grip in an intelligent way and decide which substances are OK and which substances aren’t. People claim this is a matter of batter safety. If so, let’s make baseball put its money where its mouth is rather than just stigmatize people and go after the low-hanging fruit like Michael Pineda or any of the guys named in the Mitchell Report.

If, however, that angle is oversold and, in reality, pitchers use this stuff to get an advantage over hitters — and if people’s usual willingness to look the other way on this is a function of not wanting their cheating pitchers to lose their advantage — let’s not pretend that how obvious someone is about their cheating is the real issue here and actually start enforcing a clear rule which has been on the books for far longer any rules about PEDs have been.

I don’t expect either of those things to happen, of course. Rather, I expect that people will be content to laugh at Michael Pineda and criticize him for being obvious. For lecturing anyone who questions those who would mock Pineda about the unwritten rules of cheating in baseball and how, if they don’t get that, they obviously haven’t played the game before and don’t understand baseball’s rich and colorful history.

Then, the next time someone recovering from a torn ligament get busted for taking HGH, I expect us to be back in the land of heroes and villains, moral certainty and the deficient character of those who would cheat. Because the only consistent thing there is when it comes to baseball and cheating is its considerable inconsistency.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.