There is a smudge on Jay Howell's professional reputation. It may not be there forever, but at the moment it is stuck to his once-good name as firmly as, well, pine tar to one's fingers.
People with short memories and a zest for scandal probably will not remember Howell as the right-handed relief pitcher who saved 21 games this season, the most by a Dodger reliever in the last 10 seasons. Or that, having recovered from late-season elbow surgery while he was with the Oakland Athletics in 1987, he provided strength and stability in one of the Dodgers' weakest areas.
For many, the enduring image is of Howell walking off the mound last weekend at New York's Shea Stadium after his glove was confiscated by the umpires when it was found to have pine tar liberally smudged on the heel.
Howell said he used it to improve his grip on the ball during the cold, rainy weather of Game 3 of the National League championship series.
His hands dangling awkwardly at his sides, Howell was stripped of his dignity, and he was being serenaded by chants of "L.A. cheats!"
The next day, Howell was suspended for 3 days, later reduced to 2, by Bart Giamatti, the National League president. The incident rivaled Mike Tyson's marital troubles for the screaming headlines in the New York tabloids.
Now that the Dodgers, without his help, have eliminated the New York Mets and will face the Oakland Athletics Saturday in Game 1 of the World Series, Howell would like to wash his hands of the pine tar episode.
Howell knows it will not be easy, not with the national press corps descending on Dodger Stadium today. Many reporters will want to ask him about his smear tactics.
"I think it's pretty much over," Howell said. "I mean, I hope so. I think people understand why I did it. If they don't, that's OK, too. I think I've made it clear what my intent was. Maybe it'll blow over. Maybe not now, but eventually."
The question of intent in this Tar War, as the tabloids dubbed it, remains, even though Howell has reclaimed his glove and his unrestricted playing status for the World Series.
Howell contends that he used pine tar only to get a better grip on the ball in cold and wet weather, when the rosin bag apparently loses its effectiveness. He said pine tar serves the same purpose as rosin without altering the flight of the ball.
He admitted that he knowingly violated rule 8.02(b), which prohibits a pitcher's use of foreign substances on the mound, but he called it a bad rule when the foreign substance in question is pine tar.
Those who disagree with Howell say that pine tar helps a pitcher get a sharper break on his curveball than if he threw it naturally, that the flight of the ball is affected, as is the case with spitballs or pitches loaded with any other foreign substance.
"I think the people who count know what my intent was," Howell said, adding that he wants to forget the nightmarish playoff experience and make his World Series experience memorable for more positive reasons.
This is not the first time the national spotlight has cast an unbecoming glare on Howell. He also had to endure a mini-controversy early in the playoffs, when Met pitcher David Cone likened him to a high-school pitcher in a ghostwritten tabloid column after Gary Carter's bloop double off Howell gave the Mets the victory in Game 1.
And at the 1987 All-Star game, he suffered the indignity of being booed by his home fans during introductions at the Oakland Coliseum, a gesture that still rankles him.
But Howell has since changed teams and changed gloves, and the Dodgers have changed opponents, so maybe Howell's fortunes will change, as well.
He already is feeling better, thanks in part to the long standing ovation he got from fans at Dodger Stadium when he was introduced before Game 6 Tuesday night. He said he appreciated the support. The stark contrast to last season's reaction from Oakland fans was not lost on him.
"It was awesome," Howell said of the ovation. "I've never had that kind of feeling before. The closest thing I could compare it to was sitting in my hotel room (on the night of Game 4) and watching Kirk Gibson hit that (game-winning) home run with the little 'JH' on his sleeve. To have the home fans stick behind you is great."
If the eyes really are the windows to the soul, then Howell's sometimes are as vivid as stained glass in a cathedral, sometimes as halting as storm windows and occasionally as unyielding as closed blinds. It all depends on the situation.
On the mound during the late innings of games the Dodgers lead, Howell fixes on home plate with a malevolent glare.
But there also are those times when his eyes are a spacey blue, when Howell, singing along with the Talking Heads, bops through the clubhouse wearing headphones: \o7 "This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife\f7 .\o7 "\f7