Lee's filthy stuff doesn't come from his hat
Rangers ace deserves tip of cap, not accusations about it
NEW YORK -- Rick Sutcliffe said it best. "Every now and then," he explained, "you just have to give a guy some credit."
Sutcliffe, the former Cy Young Award winner and current ESPN analyst, was responding to a question regarding the Yankees' menacing Game 3 opponent, one that was posed recently, leading up to this season's first American League Championship Series game at Yankee Stadium.
Cliff Lee pitches with a noticeably dirty cap. And it was the speculation of some -- most notably YES broadcaster Michael Kay -- that whatever it is the Rangers' ace has on said cap is unfairly helping him on the mound, and perhaps the Yankees should look into it heading into their critical Monday night tilt.
But Lee's only crime is that of being insanely good.
"With all the success he's had, if somebody thought he was getting away with something, he would've been ejected by now," Sutcliffe said. "So, to me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with what he's doing. It's provided."
Simply put, the substance on Lee's hat is legal and creates absolutely no unfair advantage, and the Yankees shouldn't think twice about it.
Joe Girardi sounded as if he'd be taking that same approach while talking during Sunday's workout in the Bronx.
"He has rosin that he goes from his hand to his cap," the Yankees skipper and longtime catcher said. "Pitchers have it on their leg, because sometimes they put the rosin and wipe it on their leg. It's rosin. It's available to everybody."
That's it. Rosin, coming from the same rosin bag that's on the back of the mound for every pitcher to use.
There is no rule that states a pitcher cannot touch his cap. In Lee's case, his rosin-filled hand coupled with his constant hat fiddling simply create a dirty look. And the fact that he has become one of the most formidable postseason opponents in recent memory puts him under a microscope that results in questions such as these.
But it isn't anything that doesn't occur naturally. And the advantage it gives him is no different than the better grip attained by tossing a rosin bag up and down, or sporting a batting helmet covered in pine tar.
Lee was asked about this during a news conference Sunday, and the question brought out a personality trait from the dominant left-hander one barely sees.
"It definitely makes me way better," Lee said in a sarcastic tone, drawing a slight chuckle from media in attendance. "Without that hat, I don't know if I could do it."
After watching Lee and his magic hat dominate the Rays in Game 5 of the AL Division Series on Tuesday, Kay was the first to raise the issue -- doing so on the radio station 1050 ESPN -- wondering whether the "tackiness" from the rosin and sweat give Lee unnatural sharpness on his breaking ball and, in turn, yield an unfair advantage. The topic then became a hot issue around the various New York media outlets.
I don't blame Kay. He's simply doing his job. He made an observation, and he raised the question. But it seems like much ado about nothing.
Here's how he summed it up when asked about his statement in Arlington.
"I don't think he's doing anything wrong on purpose, but I think there is an advantage to having the rosin on a wet hat," said Kay. "It creates tackiness, and if you can have tackiness on your fingers, it's easy to snap off breaking balls.
"I just wondered, and it was totally me talking out loud on the air, if the Yankees wanted to deploy gamesmanship and say, 'He's got to take that hat off.'"
The analytical Girardi likely wouldn't go that route, but there are two reasons another manager would deploy this strategy: He has serious concerns about a foreign substance possibly being present, or he wants to get in a pitcher's head to potentially throw him off his game.
In this case, Girardi's reason would have to be the latter. But you're not getting in Lee's head. He's not a rookie, and he doesn't have the makeup of a guy who's easily shaken.
In fact, you may give him that extra edge he needs to be even more dominant.
Or, perhaps worse, you may anger him to the point where he gives a little less consideration to joining the Yankees in 2011.
Lee will be the most sought-after free agent this offseason, and there's been lots of speculation -- as expected -- that the Yankees could be his new home. Do you really want to jeopardize landing a big free agent over something that's a non-issue to begin with?
"It's just rosin, is what it is," Lee said. "I go to the rosin quite a bit, and I touch my hat in the same place over and over, and it accumulates."
There you have it. "Just rosin." Not pine tar, or Crisco, or witchcraft.
Just rosin -- and some of the filthiest stuff you'll ever see.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.