Where does the credit go for the dominant Braves pitching staffs of the 1990s? Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux themselves? A front office that got them, kept them, and found nearly-as-dominant fourth starters seemingly every year? A goodly amount of praise has been heaped on Leo Mazzone, the pitching coach who shepherded them through countless division titles. But let us come now to praise Mazzone's magic bag.
What you got in that bag, Leo? Pine tar, sandpaper, vaseline, the usual stuff. Hardball Talk caught Mazzone on the radio yesterday discussing some of the tricks used by the Braves rotation, tricks that aren't strictly legal.
Leo Mazzone: "Well, I don't see anything wrong with [the New York Giants faking injuries] myself. I watch football a lot, too, and I know that's been going on for a while to slow a team down, it stops their momentum. In baseball, as you well know, it's been going on a long time. I know that in my little ball bag I had firm grip and all kinds of goodies to take care of a baseball to get a little more movement on it. (laughs)"
Evan Cohen: "So that's why the Braves kicked the Mets ass for all these years?"
Steve Phillips: "Wait a minute! How come our pitchers were pitching with nice bright white shiny baseballs and your guys had pine tar and scuffs all over them?"
Mazzone: "Well, you had pine tar, that's for sure, because when you were in the postseason and it got called, one time Smoltzy had it on his shoes and I said, ‘John, you can't keep bending over and touching your shoes all the time. Let's put it someplace else!' (laughs)"
Everyone laughs, because it's a joke! Not a punchline—the emery board falling out of a pitcher's pocket is the punchline—but it's at least the setup. What else can you do but laugh over the fact that in this day and age, with HD and instant replay and wild cards and the best bats and gloves technology has to offer, grown men still put gunk on a baseball to get a couple inches more movement. But it's not the absurdity that will keep the Braves from being remembered as cheaters; it's the fact that doctoring a ball is seen as a cerebral edge in a cerebral game.
Baseball's for the regular guy. You don't necessarily have to be huge, or strong, or fast to succeed, just smart. And when you can get somebody out by outsmarting them rather than overpowering them, that's celebrated. (See: Henry Rowengartner's ninth inning in Rookie Of The Year.) It's the myth of the crafty lefty taken to its natural conclusion: any edge will do. Steroids are treated differently, because baseball is about subtlety. Little tweaks here and there, not some magic syringe to overload your XP in strength. George Brett's pine tar home run was allowed to stand because he "had not violated the spirit of the rule" — it's a game of inches, not feet. That's why Barry Bonds is a cheater, while Gaylord Perry is just a "character."
The Braves pitchers were still great, of course. And Leo Mazzone's magic bag couldn't help him in Baltimore. So even if John Smoltz and company were rubbing down, greasing up, or otherwise tricking out their baseballs, it doesn't detract from their legacy. Playing ever so slightly without the rules just adds to their legend.