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Howell Can’t Get Out of a Sticky Situation

If you think Robin Givens has sticky fingers, you should have seen Jay Howell Saturday.

The Dodgers’ ace reliever was thrown out of Game 3 of the National League playoffs in the eighth inning with his team ahead, 4-3, for having pine tar on the heel of his glove.

It was the beginning of the end for the Dodgers, who immediately crumbled and lost the game, 8-4.

Howell had a 3-and-2 count on leadoff hitter Kevin McReynolds when the umpires, tipped off by Met Manager Dave Johnson, charged the mound. They inspected Howell’s glove, found traces of a substance they believed to be pine tar, and ejected the stunned reliever.

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You aren’t surprised when you get mugged in a New York subway or in Central Park. But on the pitcher’s mound at Shea Stadium?

Umpire Harry Wendelstedt, the crew chief, snatched Howell’s glove, a 12-year-old hunk of germ-infested leather. Wendelstedt carried it to National League President Bart Giamatti, who never handled a case like this at Yale.

The glove becomes Exhibit A in the sports scandal of the week, Googate.

Howell was so stunned that he didn’t protest his ejection. He had been caught black-handed. And after the game, he seemed to have resigned himself to being a victim of baseball’s whimsical rule enforcement.

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“I’ve used it (pine tar) in cold-weather situations when the rosin bag doesn’t work and the ball is slick. It (throwing a slippery ball) could be dangerous.

“I’m surprised they’re out looking at gloves, where it (use of pine tar) is not changing the flight of the ball, simply helping you get a feel for the ball. But if that’s the way they want to work it, fine.”

Howell said he has used pine tar before, but that he didn’t use it in Game 1 of the series in Los Angeles. The Mets said they spotted him using it then and waited until the right time to call the umpires’ attention to it.

Howell said what the Mets were seeing then was simply his nervous habit of pulling at the thumb string that tightens his glove.

“It was warm (in Los Angeles). I didn’t need it,” Howell said. “When it’s warm, the rosin works. When it’s cold, it doesn’t work; the ball’s slick.

“I regret that all this has happened. At the same time, I think in a situation where it’s cold, I don’t think it should be illegal. . . . I’m not getting hitters out by making the ball tail or run or drop. It’s not like I’m cutting the ball. It doesn’t change the flight of the ball at all, and it’s to the advantage of the hitters, as well (reducing the danger of a hit batsman).

“I’d say there are other pitchers that use it. There are other pitchers that scuff and scrape the ball as well, but the umpires don’t go out and check the ball.

“I think they (the umpires) could have thrown the glove out and we could have gone on and played the game.”

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As pitchers’ crimes of violence against the baseball go--gouging, nicking, sandpapering, slime-ing--this infraction does seem relatively minor, but it’s still a violation of the rule. And baseball is nothing if not a rule nit-picker’s paradise.

You look for any edge you can get in this game, whether it’s creative use of pine tar or creative use of the rule book.

Still, the Dodgers didn’t appreciate the honor of being the first team in history selected for enforcement of the no-pine-tar rule.

Manager Tom Lasorda freely admitted that he used pine tar during his semi-illustrious pitching career, in cold-weather situations when the rosin bag proved useless.

“He’s not cheating if he’s trying to get a better grip on the ball,” Lasorda said.

I reminded Lasorda that if pine tar can be used to get better finger traction on the ball and thus snap off a nastier curveball, it would provide an advantage to the pitcher.

“What does a pitcher use rosin for?” Lasorda asked.

To get a better grip on the ball.

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“Right,” Lasorda said. “If both (rosin and pine tar) serve exactly the same purpose, why should one be illegal?

“Technically, they’re right, but theoretically I don’t agree.”

An interesting concept to kick around this winter at the baseball meetings or in the schools of law, but irrelevant here.

The rule, good or bad, seems clear-cut. Use pine tar, maple syrup or any other foreign substance on the ball, go to jail.

Howell’s downfall was in his lack of chemical expertise. Using a substance he knew was illegal, he should also have used a masking substance to hide the pine tar. Chewing tobacco, perhaps.

There’s so much tobacco juice flying around a ballpark that umpires probably would be suspicious of a ball or glove that didn’t have traces of that gravy-like substance.

Rick Dempsey, the Dodger catcher at the time of the ejection, said he was unaware that Howell was using pine tar.

Dempsey did say, “I wouldn’t want to see a pitcher go out there with a foreign substance that helps him be a better pitcher than he is. That would be like using a loaded bat, like Howard Johnson.”

Dempsey expressed skepticism that the umpires could possibly single out one foreign substance in the microbe swamp that is Howell’s glove.

“The glove’s 12 years old,” Dempsey said. “There’s gonna be a lot of grime, spit they (pitchers) use in there. I looked at the glove, and unless you dug into it, you wouldn’t get any sticky substance on your fingers.

“If they do some kind of chemical analysis, I don’t think they’d want to touch that glove. It’s probably got every kind of germ in the world.”

This has not been a great series for Jay Howell. He was one pitch away from saving Game 1 when Gary Carter pool-cued a great curveball into shallow center field for the winning hit, the ball bouncing out of John Shelby’s glove.

Ironically, if Shelby had been using Howell’s glove, the ball would have stuck in the pocket like fuzz on Velcro.

After that game, Howell was the target of a line in the newspaper column of Met pitcher David Cone, who wrote that Howell’s curveball reminded him of a high school pitcher.

Now Howell has an even darker smudge on his high school yearbook.

Pending Giamatti’s investigation, Howell could face a suspension, possibly for the remainder of the series.

The Dodgers are praying that their best relief pitcher is not given what amounts to capital punishment for jaywalking.

The Dodgers will be incensed if Howell is pine-tarred and feathered for what they see as an incidental violation of a rule meant to snag the game’s malicious ball-grinders.

“Other pitchers do the same thing,” Howell kept saying. “I didn’t really try to hide it. Everybody knows it’s illegal, but other guys use it. . . . I don’t think it’s a major infraction of the rules. I think it’s minor.”

But it wasn’t minor Saturday. It probably cost the Dodgers the game, and it gave the Mets a 2-1 series edge, and seemed to leave the Dodgers scratching their collective head and wondering what they have to do to get a break.

Swap gloves, Shelby’s for Howell’s, and the Dodgers might own a 3-0 series lead right now.

Instead, the Dodgers are a team stuck in a well, trying to claw their way up the wall, unable to get a good grip.


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