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.
All the protests went unanswered, and the Dodgers were left in varying states of disbelief and rage.
“We’re going for all the marbles with our No. 1 relief pitcher out there and they do that to us,” Dempsey said angrily. “He’s been pitching too damn good all season for this to happen. It’s a prayer answered that (the Mets) got him out of there. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t think it’s fair.”
The Dodgers soon saw what they will be left with in relief if Howell is suspended.
Reliever Alejandro Pena, coming in cold out of the bullpen, was given a few minutes to warm up and then had to face McReynolds with a 3-and-2 count. Pena’s first pitch was a ball, putting the tying run on base.
After Howard Johnson forced McReynolds at second and then stole second, Gary Carter flied to left field for the inning’s second out.
But Wally Backman, the Mets’ light-hitting second baseman, doubled over the head of center fielder John Shelby, scoring Johnson to tie it, 4-4. Pinch-hitter Len Dykstra worked the count to 3 and 2 against Pena before walking.
With Mookie Wilson, a switch hitter, up next, Lasorda pulled Pena and brought in Jesse Orosco, a former Met. Wilson deposited Orosco’s third pitch into center field, scoring Backman for a 5-4 Met lead. Orosco then hit rookie Gregg Jefferies with a pitch to load the bases. Keith Hernandez concluded a difficult day on a positive note, walking on five pitches to force in the Mets’ sixth run.
Orosco was replaced by Ricky Horton, the fourth Dodger reliever of the inning. Darryl Strawberry greeted Horton with a bloop single to left, scoring 2 runs for an 8-4 Met lead.
Four runs down, the Dodgers went quietly in the ninth. And the Met pitcher who retired the side was none other than David Cone, the Game 2 starter who caused such a fuss after Game 1 when he wrote in a guest column in a New York tabloid that Howell had a “high school curveball.”
The Dodgers kept the media outside their clubhouse for 25 minutes after the game. Once reporters were allowed inside, Dodger players and officials expressed indignation mingled with embarrassment.
Howell talked with wave after wave of reporters for more than half an hour, repeating his contention that the wet conditions forced him to use the pine tar.
“It’s not cheating,” Howell said. “It doesn’t change the flight of the ball. I’m certainly not the first pitcher to use pine tar.”
He is, however, the first to be caught.
Lasorda, who said he had no prior knowledge that Howell was using the substance, defended his pitcher.
“Technically, they are right in enforcing the rule,” he said. “Theoretically, using pine tar is the same principle as using the rosin bag. You use the rosin bag to keep your hands from slipping on the ball. It’s the same thing with the pine tar. It doesn’t help the pitcher get movement on the ball.
“I’m going to say that a lot of pitchers use pine tar. They simply use it because pine tar doesn’t work when it’s wet.”
Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, spoke briefly with Peter Ueberroth, the baseball commissioner, and Wendelstedt after the game. But Claire said he was given no indication about when there will be a ruling concerning a possible suspension of Howell.
“I’m certain we’ll hear soon,” Claire said. “It upsets me that this happened. It’s not something you want to see our club or any club go through in such a high-profile game. If he used pine tar, I think it was a mistake.”
In all the postgame confusion, Dempsey and other Dodgers apparently were not aware that Howell admitted using pine tar.
Before being alerted to Howell’s confession, Dempsey said: “Jay has used that same glove for years. You stick your fingers in there, and a lot of grime can get on your fingers. That’s what they might have found.”
After being read Howell’s quotes, Dempsey said that the pine tar didn’t help Howell, anyway.
“It didn’t work,” he said. “The guy threw three straight balls and then (McReynolds) swung at three balls. He wasn’t finding the plate. Jay was having a bad day even before that.”
Until the eighth inning, the Mets were the ones having the bad day.
In conditions better suited for ice fishing than baseball, the Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in the second inning after a critical error by Hernandez, who made only 2 errors in 95 regular-season games.
The Dodgers added a third run in the third inning against Met starter Ron Darling and seemed to be in a good position to take the series lead. After all, they had the dominating Orel Hershiser on the mound.
Hershiser, pitching on 3 days of rest, gave up a run in the bottom of the third when Strawberry doubled in Wilson. But Hershiser maintained the 3-1 lead until the sixth inning, when the Mets tied it by scoring 2 unearned runs on a controversial call by first-base umpire Dutch Rennert.
The sixth inning did not begin well for Hershiser, but it appeared that he might escape damage because of Hernandez’s bad luck. Hernandez led off the inning with a single to center. Strawberry then dropped a single into left field, with Hernandez stopping after he rounded second base.
But after seeing Gibson bobbling the ball, Hernandez resumed running to third base. He slipped on the moist dirt, regained his footing, then fell on his chest halfway between second and third. Gibson retrieved the ball and threw toward second base, too late to put out Strawberry. Hernandez, meanwhile, struggled to regain his footing and crawled into third base, where he was tagged out by Jeff Hamilton.
The Mets’ rally continued after an error by Hamilton, who fielded McReynolds’ grounder and made a one-bounce throw to Mickey Hatcher at first base. Hatcher bobbled, then gathered the ball to his chest, pulling his foot from the base just as McReynolds crossed it.
Rennert apparently ruled that Hatcher did not have possession of the ball. But West intervened and ruled that Hatcher had possession but pulled his foot. Lasorda argued that call, too, but to no avail.
Two batters later, Strawberry scored on Carter’s single to right. Johnson later scored on Backman’s grounder that caromed off Hatcher’s glove for a single, tying it, 3-3.
Hershiser was pulled for a pinch-hitter during the Dodgers’ eighth-inning rally that produced the go-ahead run.
Roger McDowell, who replaced Darling in the seventh, had two out in the eighth when Mike Scioscia hit a nubber back to the mound. McDowell backhanded the ball, slipped on the wet infield grass and threw the ball past Hernandez and into right field, advancing Scioscia to second. Pinch-runner Jose Gonzalez took third on Hamilton’s infield hit, and pinch-hitter Mike Davis walked on four pitches to load the bases.
Left-handed reliever Randy Myers was summoned to face left-handed hitting Danny Heep, who was batting for Hershiser. But Lasorda replaced Heep with right-handed hitting Mike Sharperson. Myers walked Sharperson, giving the Dodgers a 4-3 lead.
But if the Mets felt they had relief problems, it was nothing compared to the Dodgers’ problems in the bottom of the eighth.
The only time all day the sun broke through the coal-gray sky was as the Dodgers were taking the field for the bottom of the eighth.
But the dark clouds soon reappeared. And the dark side of relief pitching surfaced as well, when Howell’s glove was examined and confiscated.
Afterward, Dodger players complained that the weather conditions affected their ability to perform at a quality level. It rained throughout the day, and the temperature never rose above the low 40s.
Many Dodgers blamed the weather for Howell’s detection, inspection and ejection and, ultimately, the loss.