NEW YORK — Pine tar was liberally smudged on the heel of Jay Howell's glove, and after its detection and Howell's ejection in the eighth inning Saturday, confusion and disbelief were pasted on the faces of the Dodger players.
Here were the Dodgers, holding a 4-3 lead over the New York Mets in Game 3 of the National League championship series, with their top reliever summoned to nail down a victory that would have given them the lead in the series.
But after Howell's fifth pitch to Kevin McReynolds, who was leading off the inning, Met Manager Davey Johnson asked plate umpire Joe West to examine Howell's glove for what he believed to be a foreign substance. After a thorough examination, crew chief Harry Wendelstedt ejected Howell and delivered the glove to National League President Bart Giamatti, who was sitting near the Met dugout.
With the departure of Howell, who slowly walked back to the visitors' dugout amid a chorus of "L.A. cheats!" from the Shea Stadium crowd of 44,672, the Dodgers came unglued.
A succession of 3 Dodger relievers turned a 1-run lead into a 4-run deficit, as the Mets rallied for a dramatic and controversial 8-4 victory.
Saturday's loss, and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding it, puts the Dodgers in the sticky position of being down, 2 games to 1, in the best-of-7 series and having to face the Mets' Dwight Gooden in Game 4 tonight at 5, PDT.
They also could find themselves without Howell, their most reliable relief pitcher, for the remainder of the playoffs if Giamatti were to suspend him. Giamatti, who last season suspended Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross for 10 days after Gross was caught using sandpaper, said Saturday that he had received oral and written reports from the umpiring crew and would evaluate the situation.
"Let's look at it this way," Dodger left fielder Kirk Gibson said. "Maybe it will help inspire us. If Jay gets suspended, maybe we'll put 'J.H.' on our sleeves."
But Gibson then became serious and talked about how the incident affected the game.
"I hated to see the whole scene, it was so unbelievable," Gibson said. "I don't think it was good for our team and the game. It was tough to deal with. I know pitchers who do that. It's one of those unwritten rules that they don't (enforce)."
Saturday, in front of a national television audience, it was enforced.
By using pine tar on his fingers to help improve his grip on the ball on the cold and rainy day, Howell was in violation of Rule 8.02 (b) in the baseball rule book, which states that the pitcher "shall not have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance. For such infraction . . . the penalty shall be immediate ejection from the game."
There is no mention in the rule book of a mandatory suspension. But Giamatti has suspended 2 players for subverting the rules during his 2-year term as league president and has been characterized as a hard-line disciplinarian.
Howell admitted to lacing the outside heel of his glove with pine tar and rubbing his fingers in the substance before each of his six pitches. He said he was aware that it was in violation of a rule, but he said it was a bad rule--and a bad ruling.
"I thought at the time they would throw the glove out of the game and let me continue," he said. "I didn't think they'd throw me out. "I've used it in cold-weather situations when the rosin bag doesn't work. I know a lot of pitchers who use pine tar, because when the weather's cold like it is today (43 degrees and raining), rosin makes the ball slick."
Several Met players, however, contended that Howell also used the substance to help grip the ball and get a "bite" on his curveball when he pitched in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday night in relatively warm weather in Los Angeles.
Johnson said first-base coach Bill Robinson first detected Howell rubbing his right hand into his glove.
"This is a very serious charge, and I wanted to be sure before I did anything," Johnson said. "I saw him tugging on his glove, but doing this normally leads to a breaking ball. So I didn't do anything until after the second time."
Howell said that, in his opinion, the pine tar did not give him an unfair advantage over the hitters. "It doesn't change the flight of the ball," Howell said. "I don't think (the ejection) is warranted. It's not sandpaper or nails I was using. Nothing of that nature. I'm aware it's illegal. It's a foreign substance. But it's not putting something on the ball. It just gives you the grip."
In the aftermath of his ejection, the Dodgers quickly lost their grip on their emotions and concentration and, ultimately, the game.
After Wendelstedt motioned Howell off the field, Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda vehemently argued with the umpire, waving his arms and circling the mound. Catcher Rick Dempsey grabbed the rosin bag, powdered the inside of his glove with it and then spit into his glove. He said he was showing the umpires how rosin, when it gets wet, becomes as sticky as pine tar.