Playing within the rules, using strategy to your advantage

The whole messy affair with Rays reliever Joel Peralta's ejection for toting a glove loaded with pine tar to the mound Tuesday night just won't go away. The subject has been debated for two days now and an interesting war of words between Rays skipper Joe Maddon and Nationals manager Davey Johnson, two renowned baseball scholars, has only fanned the flames.

Major League Baseball shares some of the blame, too. If Peralta's glove was confiscated Tuesday night and immediately shipped to MLB headquarters in New York City, why is it taking so long for a ruling on a 10-game suspension that is mandated by the sport's own rulebook?

While I may not care for the pejorative term used by Maddon to describe Johnson and his decision to have umpires examine the ex-Nat's glove for a foreign substance, I have to admit that Maddon has done a magnificent job of shrewdly deflecting the attention from Peralta and placing squarely on himself. You've heard about players loving to play for a manager who has their back? This is a perfect example of why the Rays revere Maddon.

However, this isn't a new public relations tactic, though I haven't seen it used so effectively since 2001, when then-Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick opened Super Bowl week by telling reporters they shouldn't criticize star linebacker Ray Lewis, who had stood trial the previous spring for his alleged role in a murder in Atlanta.

"As much as some of you want to, we are not going to retry this," Billick told reporters. "It's inappropriate, and you're not qualified. Ray will address this tomorrow in a way he sees fit, and that will be the end of it."

Billick, sticking up for his player, suddenly became the story. How dare a mere coach tell us what we can and can't ask or write, incensed media types fumed. Lewis addressed the issue for the zillionth time at media day, but Billick was the guy who became the focal point for reporters' vengeance. And it was a clear case of the coach playing the media to perfection, insulating his player from scrutiny.

Maddon never said Peralta hadn't cheated, only that what was done was a common practice. Peralta tapdanced around the question when asked if he had put the offending substance in his mitt; he would have been better served to have 'fessed up then and there, since contrition usually goes a long way to appeasing inquisitive media folks and forgiving fans.

But in the days after GloveGate, there's been a focus on Johnson and whether he should have challenged Peralta's use of a pine tar-laden mitt. Peralta can say all he wants that pine tar improves his grip, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that the rule book says it's illegal. As TV cop Baretta warned back in the 1970s, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."

Johnson did nothing wrong but seize a strategic edge for the Nationals based on the rule book, a move as shrewd as Maddon's reaction. He obviously knew Peralta had a reputation for loading up and not getting caught. Johnson didn't know if Peralta would pitch again in the three-game interleague series. So he exploited the situation, hoping to rattle the Rays in a tight game. And if the National League standings come Oct. 4 have the Nationals in first place, a half-game ahead or behind, you'll understand why.

Pine tar in baseball gloves is akin to illegally curved stick blades in hockey. Players use them all the time - it's not cheating unless you get caught, right? And hockey's rule book, like baseball's, outlines the procedures for checking and the penalties if a player is caught. I've covered hockey for decades and know of particular players whose abuse of the rules was so rampant and well-known that opposing teams waited all season long and into the playoffs for that skater to step on the ice in a tie game. That's when the team captain asks the referee to measure the blade's curve, hoping to saddle the other squad with a two-minute minor penalty so his team has a power play and a better chance to score. It's all about waiting for the proper time to make the play. And all parties know it is. There's no griping about everyone else doing the same thing. C'mon, remember what our parents told us as kids: "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you, too?"

(Want a softball equivalent? Look up the rules for using a first baseman's mitt at any position other than catcher or first base. Say you see an outfielder using a first baseman's glove. You wait until a key moment of the game - perhaps your slugger has just grounded out in a tie game with the bases loaded - and then inform the umpire. The result: a do-over. Yes, the groundout is wiped off the scorebook and your slugger bats again after the offending player has to change gloves. If your slugger then singles in the winning run, you look like a genius for knowing the rulebook; if you're on the wrong side of the discussion, you wish you knew the rulebook better.)

Johnson took his chance and got an opposing team's set-up man kicked out of a game because he played fast and loose with the rules. Like them or not, those are the standards under which the game is played. The fact that the Rays and Nationals wouldn't otherwise renew hostilities unless they met in the World Series (or unless the Nats move their spring training base to Fort Myers, Fla., just down the coast from the Rays' spring home in Port Charlotte) probably factored into the equation. So did the Nats' institutional knowledge of Peralta's preference for pine tar in his leather. But it's all just a matter of strategy, knowing the rulebook and looking for a legal edge for your team. Nothing more, nothing less.

And in baseball, the team that best manages strategy to its benefit usually wins.

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