On Wednesday, Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected in the second inning of a game against the Red Sox for displaying a "foreign substance" that looked an awful lot like pine tar on his neck. Less than two weeks before, the internet had buzzed with outrage —and disdain that anyone would bother with outrage— after umpires cited ignorance in failing to take action against Pineda's pine tar on the wrist in another start against Boston. At the time, the general consensus was that a little sunscreen or hair gel or, yes, pine tar to give a pitcher better grip in chilly conditions is best ignored — despite Official Rule 8.02, which states: The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball. But Wednesday's transgression was just too flagrant to turn a blind eye and now Pineda faces a suspension that should have him miss at least two starts.
But all this got us wondering: When it's not slathered on the skin of Major League pitchers, what's the point of pine tar? In fact, what even is pine tar?
To the latter question first: pine tar is brownish, thick, sticky liquid produced by high-temperature distillation of pine wood. It originated in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago where it was used to weatherproof and preserve wooden ships and even ropes made of natural fibers. Maritime use spread from Sweden throughout Europe and eventually to the British Colonies in America. It is still used to this day to treat wooden furniture that may be exposed to the elements.
Pine tar has also developed several medicinal uses for both humans and animals. In a soap it is said to treat minor skin ailments — everything from eczema and psoriasis to rashes, poison ivy and insect bites (although a debate rages on in the natural soap community about the presence of carcinogenic creosote in pine tar). As an antiseptic, it can be used to treat minor scrapes and scratches but is more popular in a veterinary context, often applied to horses' hooves to fight infection and keep hooves from cracking.
Back to baseball, Rule 1.10 (b) permits the use of pine tar on the bat to allow players to get a better grip — up to 18 inches from the end, but no further, as the Yankees and Royals made clear on a fateful day in 1983. The limit is in place to prevent pine tar from getting on the ball while it is in play.
As the Pineda example makes clear, the same concessions for grip are not extended to pitchers, as it is thought to give them a competitive advantage in throwing tighter breaking balls.