Last night Will Smith was ejected from the Brewers-Braves game because he had a big bunch of goo on his arm. Hey, big bunches of goo on your arm is illegal if you’re a pitcher, so do the crime, do the time. He may get a ten-game suspension out of this. He may not. We’ll see in the next day or so.
But before anyone tut-tuts the evil, cheating Will Smith here, let us remind ourselves that just about every pitcher uses something to mess with baseballs and/or enhance their grip, and for the most part baseball is content to look the other way about it.
We went through this last year when Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was caught with pine tar on his neck and hand in multiple starts and two years ago when Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz was accused of using sunscreen to doctor baseballs. Or to get a better grip. Or a less-good grip which some argued was better (too much friction is bad!). It’s hard to keep track of these justifications, actually. The one thing we do know for sure, though, is that a huge number of pitchers do this and, generally speaking, no one cares. Hitters have said they don’t mind if it means the pitcher has better control over the ball. The people who pointed out the use of foreign substances in these instances actually got more crap thrown their way than the actual foreign substance users.
But it’s not totally kosher, right? If it was, would Michael Pineda have gotten suspended? If it was, would Fredi Gonzalez have gone out to the umps last night and told them about Smith’s goo? Hardly. Heck, right before the ejection Smith hit a Braves batter with a pitch. Perhaps Smith, therefore, wasn’t really interested in getting a better grip with whatever that goo was? Perhaps Gonzalez was merely suggesting to the umps that they tell Smith to put more goo on his arm and the message was just garbled? English is such an imperfect language for communicating nuance!
That’s the key word here, of course. “Nuance.” Ultimately these situations come down to someone arguing about how it’s totally cool for the pitcher to doctor up the ball, but maybe they shouldn’t be so obvious about it. It’s a standard that, for whatever reason, never ever flies with any other kind of rules violations in baseball. Imagine if it did. “Hey, he may have been taking HGH, but he was doing it to recover from an injury faster, not to get an unfair advantage! Everyone does it, he just took a substance that was too easily-detected. He just shouldn’t have been so obvious about it!” I can tell you from experience, that kind of nuance DOES NOT get you a lot of converts to your cause.
Generally I’m not a fan of “rules are rules” arguments. I think you have to enforce rules when you have them so, for that reason, I have no problem with Will Smith being ejected for his goo and Joe Shlabotnik being suspended 80 games for whatever PEDs are found in his system, even if he says he took them so he can recover from injury more quickly. But it you have rules which everyone ignores for what everyone argues are good reasons, perhaps you need to examine those rules and reassess whether they reflect reality rather than to only enforce them when someone really obviously breaks them. Because if you do the latter, you’re not policing behavior, you’re playing P.R. games.
Alternatively, maybe we should just acknowledge that a lot of people lie about why they break a rule, acknowledge that non-enforcement tends to boil down to an “our guys do it too, so shut up about it” rationale and stamp out this “hey, everyone does it” talk before people start believing it. I’m good either way.