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Lots of gunk in baseball’s trunk

Times Staff Writer

In this era of steroid-inflated home run totals and performance-enhanced pitchers, the idea of Kenny Rogers’ smearing a dab of pine tar on his pitching hand is little more than a smudge of dirt on the baseBALCO landscape.

Still, the Rogers controversy in Sunday’s World Series Game 2 reminded once again that cutting corners and taking liberties with the rule book is a way of life, if not outright survival, in big league baseball.

Chili Davis summed it up best when, as an outfielder with the Angels, he leaned over a short right-field fence trying to catch a fly ball, had the ball for a moment but then lost control of it.

Thinking quickly, Davis reached down over the fence to scoop up the ball and turned around to hold it aloft in his glove, as if he had made the catch.

The umpires didn’t buy it. They ruled the play a home run.

When asked about it afterward, Davis shrugged and said, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

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And, yes, there is trying in baseball.

Slippery slope

Vaseline, not pine tar, is the usual foreign substance of choice among pitchers. Gaylord Perry built a Hall of Fame career around the stuff, going so far as to title his 1974 biography, “Me and the Spitter.”

Former Dodgers and Angels pitcher Don Sutton is also in the Hall of Fame, amid suspicion he took the same greasy route as Perry.

Sutton used to joke that when he met Perry, “He gave me a tube of Vaseline. I thanked him and gave him a piece of sandpaper.”

During one of his many does-he-or-doesn’t-he interrogations with reporters, Sutton argued that Vaseline wasn’t really a foreign substance.

“Vaseline is made here right in the USA,” he said.

Trivia time

Which pitcher threatened to sue the National League after being ejected from a game for defacing a baseball?

PS: It’s not on my cap, either

Longtime big league pitching coach Ray Miller once said Sutton “has set up such a fine example of defiance that someday I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on -- you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Pitchers such as Perry and Sutton played up their reputations, using them to psych out opposing hitters and play occasional practical jokes on suspicious umpires who conducted frequent searches on the mound.

Once, Sutton left a handwritten note in his glove that read, “You’re getting warm, but it’s not here.”

Bread-and-butter pitch

Perry said he experimented with numerous variations on the basic spitball during his career.

“I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping,” he once said.

Perry spent more than three seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Onetime Indians president Gabe Paul described Perry as “a very honorable man,” adding, “He only calls for the spitter when he needs it.”

Trivia answer

Sutton in 1978. After investigating the matter, NL president Chub Feeney decided not to suspend Sutton, issuing him a warning instead.

And finally ...

While pitching for the New York Yankees, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford threw what he called a “gunk ball,” the gunk consisting of a mixture of baby oil, resin and turpentine, which he would keep in a roll-on dispenser.

Legend has it that Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once mistook the gunk for deodorant and wound up gluing his arms to his sides.

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mike.penner@latimes.com


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