OAKLAND — Three thousand miles away, members of the Oakland Athletics rallied around Jay Howell Saturday, refusing to let pine tar smear the good name of their former teammate.
"He is not a cheater," Oakland Manager Tony La Russa said of Howell, who played three seasons (1985-87) with the A's. "There has to be some explanation. Jay is a class act here--and in New York. I'll take him any time."
Added Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart: "Jay doesn't need to cheat to win, if that's what they're trying to imply. Jay Howell is one the best relievers in baseball. It's just unfortunate he got caught using something just to give him a better grip on the ball."
And that was the thrust of the Athletics' defense of Howell--if he was indeed caught with pine tar on his glove, so what? The contention around the batting cage before Game 3 of the American League playoffs was that the use of pine tar is an accepted, if not entirely kosher, practice during cold-weather games.
"Even though that rule is against the use of a foreign substance, that part of it (pine-tar use by pitchers) has been ignored," Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "I think quite a few pitchers use it to assist with their grip. I didn't think anyone cared.
"Pine tar can only make a slight difference on a breaking ball, but nothing significant. It's just one of those accepted things. If a guy wanted to use pine tar, who cares? As long as he's not blatantly using it, to the point where the ball's half-black."
According to Stewart, pine tar has little effect on the movement of the ball--unlike, say, Vaseline or saliva--and can be counter-productive for a fastball pitcher.
"For a fastball, it keeps the ball on the fingers a little longer and you lose some velocity," Stewart said. "On a curveball, it just gives you more grip. It's not like sandpaper or tacks or anything that scuffs the ball. It just helps your grip. The rosin bag does that, too, but you need sweat or any kind of moisture for that to work."
Former catcher Johnny Bench, covering the American League playoffs for CBS Radio, agreed that pine-tar use is common in baseball--"A hundred pitchers use it," he said--but argued that it helps a pitcher with more than just his grip.
"The key to pitching is getting movement on the ball and because pine tar gives you a tighter grip on the ball, the breaking ball keeps digging and digging," Bench said. "You basically take away the top half of the strike zone from the hitter. The break of the ball is tighter and it spins downward. It makes the curveball that much more deceptive."
Whether Howell ever used pine tar when he pitched for the A's was a topic of debate in Oakland Saturday.
"Jay Howell never used pine tar here," La Russa asserted.
Duncan insists that no current Oakland pitcher uses pine tar, a claim Stewart supported.
"I've never used it. I never had a curveball," Stewart quipped.
How about while with Dodgers? Stewart pitched for Los Angeles from 1981 to 1983.
"(Pitching coach) Ron Perranoski never showed me that one," Stewart said with a grin. "If he had, I might never have been traded."
Add Stewart: La Russa made it official before Saturday's game. Stewart will start Game 4 today against Boston's Bruce Hurst, meaning that both pitchers will be working on three days of rest.
And Stewart says that's fine with him.
"I pitch better on three days' rest," Stewart said. "Really, for me, it's just a mental thing. I feel better on three days' rest, my control's better, I'm around the plate more. It makes my motion more compact, so I can't overthrow the ball."
Stewart worked 6 innings in his last start, the Athletics' 2-1 victory in Game 1 Wednesday, throwing 119 pitches.
In a home-plate ceremony before Game 3, American League president Dr. Bobby Brown presented Oakland's Jose Canseco with the Joe Cronin Award, which the American League hands out to honor "significant achievement."
Canseco's significant achievement in 1988 was becoming the first major-league player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. In 1987, the award went to Milwaukee's Paul Molitor (39-game hitting streak) and in 1986, it went to Boston's Roger Clemens (20 strikeouts in one game).
The award was not presented to anyone in 1985 or 1984. Apparently, there was a shortage of significance in those seasons.