If central Maine high school baseball and softball pitchers are using pine tar to gain an advantage, they’ve fooled a lot of people with a great deal of experience in the sports.
Jeff Benson, Phil St. Onge and Jeff Mertzel each have at least 20 years experience as high school baseball umpires. Rick Coughlin and Ryan Gardiner have coached softball and baseball, respectively, at Richmond High School for a combined 45 years. Lawrence softball coach Joey Marcoux is in his 22nd season, Lee Johnson has held the same position at Skowhegan Area High School for the last 14 years. Baseball coaches Jesse LaCasse (Winslow High School), Ray Bernier (Messalonskee High School in Oakland) and Don Plourde (Cony High School in Augusta) each have plenty of expertise.
Not one of them has ever seen a high school pitcher in Maine use pine tar — essentially distilled pine wood — while on the mound or in the circle.
“In all my time here it’s never really come up,” said Maine Principals Association Assistant Executive Director Michael Burnham. “It’s just never been an issue.”
The controversial practice gained national attention last week when New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected from a game against the Boston Red Sox after Boston manager John Farrell complained to umpires about a noticeable patch of pine tar on Pineda’s neck. Major League Baseball later suspended the Yankee pitcher 10 games, and the incident has renewed debate about the use of pine tar and its potential safety issues.
There’s speculation that many major league pitchers use pine tar to get extra grip on the ball when it’s cold or wet, even though the practice is illegal in Major League Baseball. The league allows pine tar on bats as long as the tar doesn’t go farther than 18 inches from the base of the handle.
Some local teams, such as the Winslow baseball squad, use pine tar on wooden bats.
“We have pine tar in our dugout because we swing wood,” said LaCasse, who custom makes all the bats for his team. “It’s more of a stick form, it’s not something you would be able to bring out to the mound.”
Cony catcher, junior Tayler Carrier, said he also uses it on bats. “Even some metal bats, I’ll re-wrap them and put some pine tar on,” he said.
Messalonskee graduate and current University of Southern Maine outfielder Sam Dexter said, “We use it all the time here. Looking back, I wish I would’ve used it in high school. You get these cold, windy days and it feels good on the bat. You would think guys in the Northeast would use it more.”
The way a pitcher uses it is not all that different from a hitter. The intention is to dab a little bit on the fingertips to add additional grip so that the ball remains there a fraction of a second longer.
That split second can be the difference between a swinging strike or a gap shot.
“It definitely gives them a better grip on curve balls and more control on fastballs,” said LaCasse, the Winslow baseball coach. “You can get more movement.”
While the intent is to use the tar for grip, with the idea being better grip leads to more rotation on the baseball and thus more effective pitches, but the side effect is what makes it illegal in the majors. The pine tar most hitters use — like the Winslow baseball team — is a much harder form, almost crystal-like. Pitches use one of the softer varieties that are liquid or the consistency of lip balm.
The substance adds tackiness to the fingers, but it also leaves them and anything they touch stained brown. That’s a violation of the National Federation of State High School Associations baseball rules books, which prohibits applying a foreign substance to the ball. The violator could be subject to ejection, which would also trigger a one-game suspension.
Although the rule book doesn’t specifically ban the use of pine tar, its application to the baseball is prohibited.
“If you think about it,” said St. Onge, who is also an assistant principal at Nokomis High School in Newport and member of the Maine Principals Association baseball committee, “how are you going to get pine tar on your hand to grip the ball and it’s not going to get on the ball?”
â€˜JUST RAW TALENT’
Last Wednesday’s MLB game with Pineda wasn’t the first time pine tar has been in the national sports spotlight, but the incident draw more attention to its use by pitchers.
“I don’t think the players realize that’s even one of the things that pitchers would do,” said Messalonskee baseball coach Bernier.
“Probably a lot of fans didn’t realize it either,” Bernier said. “It’s probably a good thing that the kids respect the rule or the law, whichever way you (want to) call it, and are trying to play the game the way it should be.”
One of Bernier’s players, senior pitcher Devin Warren, said not using substances like pine tar is “about showing your raw ability and you don’t need these extra things.”
“It’s like you don’t see a lot of steroid use and stuff like that throughout high school. It’s just like raw talent,” Warren said. “We haven’t needed it for as long as we’ve been (playing high school baseball) so I don’t think there’s any place for it.”
If a major league starting pitcher is suspended 10 games, that usually means missing two game starts, which would often be filled by a minor-league player. Depth is at a premium on high school teams, and the price for getting caught is not worth it to many.
“Kids see what happens with the suspensions and stuff, and I think if they get caught it’s probably worse in high school than in the majors,” said Jason Brooks, a sophomore pitcher at Readfield’s Maranacook High School. “If you do it and get suspended for a certain number of games it hurts your team because the teams aren’t as deep at this level.”
There are also plenty of questions around how much pine tar could actually help at the high school level, given the difference in baseballs from the big leagues.
“Something a lot of people don’t realize is the seams on the high school baseball and pro baseball are drastically different,” said Mertzel, a veteran Maine high school umpire with 25 years of experience. “The seams are a lot closer to the baseball in the pros.”
Not only is there more grip on the high school baseball because of to the raised seams, the leather itself is also more broken in and less slippery than with new baseballs.
There’s also such a thing as too much pine tar, which is counterproductive.
“It’s too sticky,” said Winslow junior pitcher Dylan Hapworth. “You’ll end up landing it two feet in front of the plate.”
WILL IT STICK?
Hapworth also said that he had thrown a baseball in practice before with pine tar on his hands just after finishing up hitting. Unlike in the pros, high school pitchers usually hit. Could a pitcher be penalized for having pine tar on his hands if it had come of his bat while up in the previous half inning?
“It very easily could happen because so many kids pitch and hit,” Mertzel said. “If that happens, it would come to a judgment call.”
While unlikely, that scenario also means it’s possible high school pitchers could have pine tar on their hands, whether by accident or intentionally, without anyone noticing.
“In high school you can get away with it pretty easily,” Hapworth said, “but with all those cameras on those guys (in the pros) it shines right off the skin with all the lights.”
Hapworth wasn’t the only one who thought so.
“Maybe kids have been using it and it’s easy to get away with in this league,” Warren said. “No one ever checks you or anything like that, so it could be something kids have been doing.”
The consensus, though, seems to be that high school pitchers in Maine are not using pine tar in the way that it’s speculated to be in professional baseball. Even so, professional pitchers may have used pine tar in the past, but never before has the issue been covered to the extent of the Pineda incident between coverage and debate on TV, the Web and social media.
“Maybe with this instance here you’re probably going to start seeing more of it and kids trying it, but more in a hidden factor,” said Bernier, of Messalonskee. “Their curiosity is going to say, â€˜Why are they doing it, why are they doing it?’ and then when they find out that it helps with your release and the grip on the ball.”
Sports Editor Bill Stewart contributed to this report.Evan Crawley——firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: Evan_Crawley