As the baseball world debates what Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester had on his glove in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night, it seems to me that the safest place to stash some kind of ball-doctoring substance is right on the bill of your hat for the whole world to see.
At least that way no one would think you're doing anything suspicious, since there's no way you'd insult the collective intelligence of the baseball-consuming community by being so overt, right?
Hello, Grant Balfour's hat, anyone?
Sometimes the best place to hide is right out in the open.
There are loads of pitchers around the game who have shiny brownish or yellowish splotches hanging out on the bill, crown or back of their hat. Everyone who sees it knows it's not supposed to be there, but, despite a game that is willing to go to any length to catch cheaters, no one says a word about it.
This is because baseball can be funny about routines players have. If you make the same balk move to first base, like Julio Teheran's wiggling-front-knee pickoff, no one will call it because it's what you've always done. If you take the mound with the same splotch of brown gunk on your hat, the same rule applies.
There comes a point in time when a player has enough success that if you call him out for doing something that looks illegal, well, you look like a whining, talentless coward who stoops to unfounded (read: very well-founded) accusations to justify your failure.
But ask the casual fan if cheating is ever OK and they'll give you a resounding, "No! Cheating is wrong!"
This is, of course, unless it's their team that's doing it. In this case, you, the person pointing out the mysteriously sticky pine-forest fresh finger, are a whining, talentless coward who will stoop to unfounded accusations to justify your failure.
Earlier in the year, while watching the Red Sox beat up on the Toronto Blue Jays, I noticed that Clay Buchholz was going to a shinier-than-normal wet patch behind his wrist.
All pitchers have their own personal set of ticks and touches on the mound: crotch adjustments, hat refittings, jersey tugs, lip wipes, brow rubs, wrist smooths, hand wrings. For many, it's just part of the reloading process between pitches. In fact, Koji Uehara on that same Red Sox team often wipes both wrists before taking those wet hands to rub down the ball.
However, the way Buchholz moved between pitches, using his pointer and middle finger to dab across a specific area, screamed to me that he was loading. Seeing Lester dab two fingers specifically to an obviously not-leather portion of his glove Wednesday night screams the same.
I love it. Because I did it myself. I had to, frankly. I was a terrible pitcher and needed every edge I could get—and I still sucked!
Don't tell me about what cheating really looks like, for goodness' sake: My first job in the big league bullpen was to make sure the pen's goody bag was stocked with everything you need to make the ball stick or eject more efficiently from a pitcher's hand. Shaving cream, pine tar, Firm Grip, Vaseline, Cramergesic, Fixodent and stuff I'd never even heard of before or seen again.
I loved it when I saw Buchholz do it—even though it garnered me all kinds of hate from Red Sox Nation—and I love it now.
I love it because it's the game within the game. It's players seeing how far they can take something to get an edge. It's thumbing your nose at a sport that picks and chooses what justice and cheating really is, and who to chase down the rabbit hole. And before you play the "cheating is cheating" card on me, let me just tell you that, as far as I'm concerned, if you cheat in front of a stadium filled with fans, cameras and umpires, and no one says a word, then it's not really cheating, is it?
Yes, Jon Lester was most likely loading up his fingers, probably to help get some extra grip on his cutter and slider, or just about anything else he throws on a chilly Boston evening. Why? Because, over the course of a game, your fingers start to wear down on the tips. The treads, so to speak, get a little bald. The gripping substance helps you get that extra spin, which makes for better late movement, which makes for more deceptive pitches.
If I had to guess, I'd say that 99 percent of pitchers in the game today load the ball in some way or another—if we're going by the letter of the law.
You can't put wet hands on the ball, and you certainly can't put shiny, sticky substances on it either. You can't put rosin on your hat or uniform, or pine tar, or Firm Grip, or shaving cream, or Vaseline, or Fixodent, or Super Glue. You can't touch your mouth and then touch the ball without wiping your hand off. You can't put stuff in your glove. You can't…and on and on it goes.
There are a whole lot of things you can't do, yet players still do them, all the time, every day, every game.
Honestly, the most impressive thing about all this, to me, is that Lester had the stones to do it in the World Series. Of course, he's probably been doing it for a lot longer, but if there were ever going to be a time when the baseball community bucked its established codes of silence and fear, it's now.
This battle goes to Lester, and rightfully so. But if Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has even the slightest inkling that he could nail Lester in his next start, he should speak up and take it.
Hopefully, that'll teach Lester and the rest of the Sox staff to put the good stuff on the bill of their hats—where it belongs.