- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the crimes-against-humanity department, applying a dab of pine tar to a baseball doesn’t rank terribly high on the list. I’d put it somewhere between Internet pop-ups and Khloe and Lamar’s reality show. So the fact that Tampa Bay Rays setup man Joel Peralta was discovered with “a significant amount” of the sticky stuff in his glove Tuesday night at Nationals Park is no great cause for outrage, especially given Peralta’s pedestrian 3.81 ERA.

No, what’s far more interesting is the way baseball people always seem to respond to these episodes. No manager ever smiles and says, “You got us,” when one of his players is tossed from a game for some transgression or other. Why? Because he’s too busy explaining how the illegal behavior is “kind of common practice.” Or maybe he’s changing the subject entirely and making it all about the other club - in this case, the Nats — violating some Ballplayers’ Code by calling attention to the illegality in the first place.

“Real cowardly,” the Rays’ Joe Maddon fumed after the home team asked to have Peralta, a former National, spot-checked when he entered the game in the eighth inning. “Insider trading, man. It’s bush. It’s bogus. … A [wuss] move.”

Actually, it was a clear-cut violation of Rule 8.02 (a): Thou shalt not use a foreign substance on a baseball. But in Maddon’s mind, the greater felony was that Davey Johnson, by forcing the issue, had conducted himself like Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.” Somebody in the organization had tipped off Johnson about Peralta’s affinity for pine tar, and Davey had used that information in an attempt to change the course of a 5-4 loss.

The nerve of the guy.

Peralta’s postgame comments were equally telling. “That’s a glove that I use for batting practice every day,” he said.

Yeah, so?

“I’m every day playing catch with it, it’s hot here - that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

According to Maddon and Peralta then, it’s OK to flout the rule if such flouting is “common practice.” Or if you’re pitching against a team you previously played for. Or if you’re using a glove you use for BP every day. Or if it’s particularly hot, which — as we all know — can lead to sweaty hands and uncertain grips. (The rosin bag apparently has become obsolete.)

Granted, Peralta’s act falls more under the category of “sneaky” than “morally depraved.” Does it give him a competitive advantage? Sure. Why else would he use the stuff? It’s hard to say how much of an advantage, though. What you can say is that he had a 4.61 ERA (and a 1.295 WHIP) before his 34th birthday, and he’s had 2.79 ERA (and a 0.890 WHIP) since. You don’t see a career arc like that every day. Indeed, it could be argued that pine tar helps him hold on to a job, never mind the ball.

But beyond that, it’s this whole attitude toward cheating — the casualness — that’s as troubling as the cheating itself. We saw it in baseball, in all its ingloriousness, during the steroid era. We see it in the NBA these days with flopping, which has become so epidemic the league might use instant replay to discourage it. We see it in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints’ lack of contrition for the bounty embarrassment.

That, to borrow Maddon’s word, is what’s truly “cowardly.” Even when confronted with compelling/irrefutable evidence, the instinct of our sports figures is almost always to deny, deflect and otherwise minimize their malfeasance. Yeah, our pitcher broke a rule. But the other team broke an unwritten one by having him patted down by the plate umpire, and that’s just as big a sin, if not bigger.

“My biggest concern for tonight is Joel Peralta,” Maddon tweeted after Tuesday night’s game. “He’s going to get vilified and he doesn’t deserve that. It isn’t right.”

There’s no vilification going on here. Peralta is simply being used to discuss a problem that never goes away in sports, much as we might want it to: Our games have no shame.