It looked innocent as the Bad News Bears Thursday afternoon. Brett Cecil, the Cardinals relief pitcher, threw a fastball to Cubs pinch hitter Matt Szczur opening the top of the seventh that hit the dirt and disappeared, allowing Szczur to reach first despite the stickout–er, strikeout.
Except that the ball didn’t disappear. It bounced into catcher Yadier Molina’s chest protector. And stayed there. Cecil had to shout, “Chest! Chest!” before Molina realised where the ball was. And the amusing mishap, over which even the Cubs had to laugh, proved to be the moment that turned toward the Cubs a game the Cardinals led 4-2 at the time.
The win would have meant the Cardinals sending the Cubs a message that they, the Redbirds, were closer to the defending world champions than anyone wanted to think. Except that Cecil had the wrong mailbag from which to draw.
With Szczur on first, he walked former Cardinal Jon Jay. Then Kyle Schwarber hit Cecil’s first pitch to him into the right field seats, making a 5-4 lead that became 6-4 on a run-scoring infield out later in the frame.
You might have expected the Cubs to question things, the better to make their number one National League Central rivals shiver, but the Cubs never asked plate umpire Quinn Wolcott to investigate. The most Wolcott seemed to do was wait for Molina to finish his second pirouette around the plate before taking the ball off the protector.
Perhaps needless to say, the Cardinals denied anything sticky was going on.
“I really don’t have any explanation for it. I don’t use any foreign substance to put on there,” Cecil said eventually. “You guys saw Yadi spinning around and the ball didn’t even come off. I think if I was throwing with something that sticky, I’d be throwing 45-foot dirtballs the whole game and that’s not the case. I have no idea. I talked to Yadi. He has no idea. I can’t explain it.”
The Cubs themselves seemed amazed. “Catchers like to put pine tar on their shin guards and throw balls to second base and get a good feeling,” said the Schwarbinator, who has played the position himself. “Maybe it rubbed off some and it stuck.”
But when someone suggested that very prospect to Molina, the occasionally testy catcher dismissed it out of hand. “Do I put anything on my chest protector? No,” he snapped. “That’s a dumb question.”
Except that Schwarber referred to the shin guards. And closeups of Wolcott aiding Molina showed, after the ball was removed, a small, kind of starry-shaped white smudge on the Cardinal-red protector, in the portion where the ball got stuck. It’s reasonable to presume that baseballs are not dipped in any sort of whitewash or white powder before game time or before they’re brought as replacements to the plate ump.
As ESPN’s Mark Saxon observed dryly, “[T]he Cardinals said repeatedly, in effect, ‘I know nothing!’—summoning images of the great Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes and perhaps unnecessarily raising suspicions around baseball about their methods.”
There will be those who won’t let the Cardinals off the hook that easily. The Cubs won’t be among them, most likely. Even defending World Series ringbearers look foolish when they challenge an incident that opened the gates for them to win a game.
But Cecil’s weird pitch occurred just three months after the Cardinals were spanked by commissioner Rob Manfred over their former scouting director Chris Correa’s hacking into the Astros’ internal computer database: Correa got 42 months in the jug, but Manfred docked the Cardinals the first two picks in the forthcoming draft, the cap money attached to those picks, and a $2 million fine—all going to the Astros.
Never mind that it really amounts to a trip to the woodshed during which the errant child is made to feel it’s going to be curtains when all Pop does once inside is say sharply, “If you do that again, I’m going to . . . be very, very angry at you!” The Cardinals’ picks will be numbers 56 and 75; The Baseball Analysts says picks in those rounds average about 4.9 wins above a replacement-level player in their major league careers—if they have such careers in the first place.
“So, should we conclude that ‘The Cardinals Way’ includes cheating?” blares a Chicago Tribune headline. Funny stuff coming from a paper whose home city rocked in 1919-1920 under the weight of baseball’s worst cheating scandal, and whose South Side team also tried a little more subtle subterfuge in the 1960s, storing game baseballs in what amounted to a damp cooler. ”The idea,” Jim Bouton noted in Ball Four, “is that cold, damp baseballs don’t travel as far as warm, dry baseballs, and the White Sox were not exactly sluggers.”
The Cubs don’t exactly lack any history of clandestine operations themselves. The 1969 Cubs featured Phil (The Vulture) Regan as their bullpen stopper. Regan’s effectiveness was ruined by two things: 1) Leo Durocher’s overuse of him; and, 2) the day the umpires finally figured out how he got away with throwing a wet one: the Vulture’s propensity to sweat heavily allowed the righthander to just let the sweat run down his arm and onto a ball.
Cecil sustains his denial. Presumably, so does Molina. But catchers have been known to aid and abet pitching chicanery. Elston Howard once sharpened his shin guard buckles to scrape balls he’d throw back to Whitey Ford. “The buckle ball,” wrote Bouton, who swore some of Ford’s other suspicious late-career pitches could sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “sang two choruses from Aida.”
Legendary literary umpire Ron Luciano (in The Fall of the Roman Umpire) shared Tiger pitcher Milt Wilcox’s story of a Vaseline-like goo around Ray Fosse’s mitt pocket when Fosse caught Gaylord Perry. Wilcox and others recorded as having seen the goo there seemed unsure whether Fosse put it there himself or it was residue from Perry’s previous pitches. Actual or alleged.
No, I’m not saying everybody does it. (George Frazier, once upon a time an ill-fated Yankee World Series pitcher: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”) But it remains true that boys will be boys, grown men will often be boys, and the Cardinals are too fresh off their most egregious known cheating scandal to dismiss Cecil’s or Molina’s stickout as an extraterrestrial phenomenon.
“I didn’t feel anything different than any other ball,” Molina insisted, “so I don’t know how that happened.” Incidentally, the ball got stuck on a part of his chest protector that didn’t have seams or creases, not that the ones it has could have held the ball.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher. “I don’t know what happened. That’s all I can tell you.”
They know nussing—nussing!