Pitching, Pine Tar, and Philosophy

The big fuss in baseball this week is not Albert Pujols’ milestone 500th home run, nor the Cubs celebrating the 100th birthday of their stadium by losing. It’s a blatant smear of pine tar on the neck of Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda.

There’s a whole lot of discussion about the use of pine tar and other substances, about the logic of having a rule in place that practically no one follows, and about such “cheating” in general. It’s rather a fun discussion, especially since it seems that most commenters are being civil about it. But also because it touches on some important philosophical issues.

The rule prohibiting the “doctoring” of the baseball was one of a whole spate of rules and regulations put into place after the death of Ray Chapman in 1920 due to injuries sustained from being hit in the head by a pitch. The general point of all the rules was to make it easier for the batter to determine where the pitch was going, and thus be able to avoid it if it got too close.

Not only was doctoring the ball prohibited, umpires were encouraged to toss worn or old balls out of play. As older balls tend to be softer and do not travel as far when hit, it is worth considering whether or not these rules had anything to do with the sudden increase in home runs in subsequent years. Perhaps Babe Ruth’s explosion as a slugger was due in part to his ability to take advantage of these changes…

One may ask if doctoring a baseball is prohibited, why pitchers are routinely provided with a rosin bag on the mound. It’s so that on hot, humid days, they can use the rosin to dry their hands and get a better, safer grip on the ball, giving them better control of their pitches. If that is the case, ask some, why not allow the use of some pine tar in situations where a better grip is also desirable? This is a valid question. I suspect it has to do with the matter of controlling the application of the substance. Rosin is used in powder form. You dust your hands with it, then wipe off any excess. It’s a general application, and as such, cannot readily be used to apply any extra effect to a pitch. Pine tar, on the other hand, is a sticky goo that can be applied in a specific location (for example, one side of a finger) and then used to alter the spin of a pitched ball.

A lot of players concede that pine tar is used generally to improve the grip on a ball in cold weather, when numbness in the fingers can make the precise control of a pitch problematical. Pretty much everyone agrees that in that case, pine tar provides the same function as rosin.

So why is the use of pine tar “cheating”? Perhaps it’s that a sticky ball will get dirty more quickly. I don’t really know. But it is prohibited, and therefore cheating. Even if “everyone” uses it, and everyone acknowledges that it is being used? Yes, it’s still cheating. As long as it is prohibited, using it is illegal. No one gets to pick and choose which rules they get to follow.

But the officials do get to choose which rules they enforce, and when.

It’s a practical matter. I’m sure that all the umpires know that players are using pine tar, and occasionally even other substances to doctor a baseball. But they let it go, unless it’s as obvious as a thick stripe on the side of your neck. The alternative is to essentially strip search every player before they step onto the field, and I’m certain no one wants that. The comparison to speed limits has come up a lot in this discussion, and it’s a good one. Speed limits are in place almost universally, and are frequently and clearly posted. Most people treat them as “advisories” rather than absolutes, and will often travel at speeds a little over the posted limit, to no ill effect. It’s only when people drive well over the posted limit, becoming a hazard to both themselves and others that the authorities step in. Sure, it’s technologically possible to place radar guns and cameras along every mile of road to track vehicle speeds, then alert police stationed at frequent intervals to apprehend any and all violators. But I don’t think anyone wants to pay for that, much less deal with the potential privacy matters that such a system would entail.

And you probably still wouldn’t catch everyone.

Why not change the rule, then? The problem here is a matter of respect for the law. People are always going to scoff at some of the minor rules and regulations on the books. Constant changing of the rules to reflect whatever the practice of the day is will only lead to confusion. And when people are confused over the rules, they tend to ignore them altogether. You’ll wind up with less respect for the rules than if you simply let people wink at them.

What it all comes down to is how you interpret “law” in the first place.

And now we get into the aforementioned philosophical discussion.

There’s a whole field of philosophy that deals with matters of laws, legal systems, and rules. Quite logically, it’s called the Philosophy of Law. It asks questions such as “Where does the authority for a set of laws come from?” and “What makes a law valid?” I am now going to greatly simplify (and probably grossly misinterpret) a lot of the definitions and terminology used in this field; I’m sure you’ll set me straight in the comments.

“Natural Law” says that laws derive their authority by reflecting fundamental principles of nature. Since baseball is an artificial construct, this theory almost certainly does not apply. “Legal Positivism” claims that laws derive their authority from their source. In the real world, that means that a law is a Law if it comes from a source (the society, the government) that has the authority to make Laws. In baseball, I guess that means that a rule is a Rule if Major League Baseball has it in the Rulebook. Then there’s “Legal Realism”. This is a practical approach that claims that laws are Laws based on how they are enforced. You’re a Legal Realist if you think that the only baseball rules that matter are the ones that are actually enforced. From what I can make sense of “Legal Interpretism”, that idea says that Laws get their authority and power from how they are justified. So if you justify the pine tar prohibition using arguments based on player safety, that most likely puts you in this camp.

There are a lot of variations and subsets amongst them, but these are the main areas of legal philosophy. From my discussion above, I’d wager I’m most likely to be found with the Legal Realists.

I’d also wager that you had absolutely no idea that when you were talking about pitchers using pine tar with friends that you were doing a case study in the philosophy of law…

By the way, if you want to read more of this sort of thing, I can recommend Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box, edited by Eric Bronson.

One thought on “Pitching, Pine Tar, and Philosophy

  1. Pingback: 2014 in Reveiw | Pure Blather

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