ST. LOUIS -- After all the intrigue surrounding Kenny Rogers and the World Series Game 2 Dirtgate, you should know that the single most important pitch of Game 3 slipped out of the hand of Detroit pitcher Nate Robertson. Poor guy didn't have a good grip on the ball.
Robertson was pitching to Albert Pujols in a scoreless game in the fourth inning with a runner at first base. The count was 3-and-1 when Robertson tried to backdoor a slider. But baseballs on a cold night can be death to breaking balls, which need spin to work. And the longer you can rake your finger on the ball, the more spin you can impart. But this time the ball slipped out of Robertson's fingers with hardly much spin at all. It didn't break. It just hung on the outside corner. "No tilt to it," Robertson said.
Pujols reached for it -- the pitch was well off the plate but very hittable given its lack of break -- and pounded it into the right-field corner for a double. Three batters later Jim Edmonds cashed in on the opportunity with a two-run double. Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter had more runs than he would need. Game over.
I couldn't help but ask Robertson if the controversy with Rogers had put all pitchers in the series under a red alert, taking away the usually more discreet use of substances such as pine tar that help them get a better grip in cold weather.
"Check this out," he said, pulling his left hand out of the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt and opening his palm. His hand was dirty, especially the area at the base of his left thumb. It was almost two hours after he had been removed from the game.
"I intentionally left it like this," Robertson said, meaning he had yet to wash it as something of evidential support for Rogers. "See? There's a lot of mud on baseballs. They use the mud to rub up the balls before the game. I like to rub them up on the mound, and the dirt gets on you. Here [pointing to the base of his thumb] ... here [pointing to the tip of his middle finger] and even here [pointing to the base of his glove hand].
"I'm glad you asked, because all this stuff about Kenny is ridiculous. I mean, I saw [Monday] they were talking about it on MSNBC. It's not just the sports stations.''
I understand Robertson was supporting a teammate who has been a key leader among the pitchers this season. And I admit I was surprised at how filthy his hand was. It looked like he had been gardening. But I didn't have the heart at such a late hour after a difficult defeat for the Tigers to tell him the dirt was an entirely different color than what appeared on Rogers' hand in the TV pictures from Game 2. The mud with which they rub up baseballs in every park is very dark, running more toward black than brown. Robertson's hand had streaks of black dirt. It didn't look much the yellowish-brown splotch on Rogers' hand.
I'm still deeply disappointed for the sport over what happened in Game 2, and saddened that people in the game are not. The entire world saw Rogers using what appeared to be a foreign substance on his pitching hand and he incurred no penalty, not even an inspection by the umpires of the offending hand we saw on TV. It was worse for the sport than if Rogers, like Jay Howell in the 1988 NLCS, was examined, ejected and suspended. At least in that case there was enforcement of the rule book. This was just another example of the perverse culture in the game, this twisted code of "honor" among the scoundrels and cheats in baseball in which the act of calling somebody out for cheating is deemed worse than the cheating itself.
I have respect for former Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who called out Angels pitcher Brendan Donnelly last year for using pine tar. And yet Robinson was villified in his fraternity for breaking this don't-ask-don't-tell-the-truth code.
Spare me the kudos for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for taking "the high road" by not asking for Rogers to be examined. La Russa is the same guy whose initial response was to try to bully and insult everyone after the game by refusing to answer questions about it because it was "not important," just another journalism lecture from Professor La Russa, who laughably gave one in the NLCS when he scolded reporters for accurately quoting Albert Pujols.
La Russa did answer questions the next day. He spoke of his belief in "the purity of the competition" and that he detests "any kind of [stuff] that gets in the way of competition." If he truly cared about the ethics and fairness of the game he would have enforced rule 8.02, which was made such a mockery that baseball might as well remove it. What he cares about is upholding this dishonor code among thieves and cheats, in which nothing is cheating unless you do it blatantly, and even then you get a mulligan.
La Russa, remember, is the same guy who defended his juiced Oakland teams, right up until Jose Canseco wrote a book, anyway, and the same guy who defended Howell when he was caught with the pine tar.
I get a kick out of the "everybody is doing it" defense, as if that makes it right. Or, to translate baseball-speak, there is the "he wasn't cheating the right way" explanation. Or the "Hey, he pitched the next seven innings without it" logic, which is so blatantly ignorant of the decision Rogers made at the start of the game and naive to the possibility that Rogers simply became more discreet from the second inning on.
This is exactly the culture of enabling that allowed the Steroid Era to mushroom. Ken Caminiti, a guy I will give strong consideration when my Hall of Fame ballot arrives in two months, took responsibility for his actions when he talked to me in 2002 about his steroid use and never once named anybody else. And yet the players association jumped on him as some kind of traitor. Dusty Baker called him "a snitch." It was horrible. But this is how baseball treats people who tell the truth -- not that there are very many of them.
By upholding the code of thieves, La Russa, a master dugout manipulator, surprised several general managers and former managers I spoke with by letting a legitimate opportunity pass by. Rogers could have been out of the game and the series, but La Russa protected his place in the game. I spoke with two Cardinals players after the game who said they were disappointed that La Russa did not have Rogers examined, and each of them questioned whether La Russa would have been more aggressive if one of his close friends, Jim Leyland, had not been managing the other team. It's not an accusation, only a legitimate question.
Steve Palmero, the umpire supervisor, did not acquit himself well either. Because his umpires never examined Rogers and because he never left his box seat, Palermo has no business telling us the substance was dirt and grasping for fables about how it got on Rogers' hand. Just tell the truth. Tell us you don't know with certainty what the substance was because the Cardinals never asked for it to be examined. Might have been dirt. Might have pine tar. Might have been maple syrup. That's it.