Hurler finds tattoos are taboo on the mound
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Wherever he pitches, Justin Miller is a marked man. Literally.
Multicolored tattoos of clowns almost entirely cover his left arm. This spring, umpires ruled the tattoos were a distraction to hitters and ordered the Toronto pitcher to wear a long-sleeved shirt under his uniform to cover them -- even though he throws right-handed.
"For me, my left arm shouldn't even be counted as a distraction. It's not part of my uniform, it's part of me," said Miller, who also has the words "love" and "hate" written on the knuckles of his pitching hand. "Right now, I just go along with what they tell me. The situation will take care of itself."
Miller spent most of 2002 as the fifth starter for the Toronto Blue Jays, then missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. The flap over the tattoos surfaced during a spring training game in March.
Umpire supervisor Jim McKean said someone had complained. Miller said he saw it coming.
"It was something that always was in the back of my head," said Miller, who got his first tattoo at age 16 and someday hopes to have his whole body covered. "So when it came, it wasn't really that big of a shock, but at the same time I couldn't understand why."
Neither could Miller's teammates on the Triple-A Syracuse SkyChiefs, where he began the season.
"I thought it was a joke at first," Australian-born infielder Glenn Williams said. "But I guess that's the decision the umpires and Major League Baseball's made, and he just has to deal with it."
Miller is not the first pitcher to be disciplined for distracting hitters.
Johnny Allen, who from 1932-44 pitched for five teams (the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants), touched off a rhubarb in 1938 for violating a rule stating "a pitcher's clothing will not be distracting."
Allen, who was famous for cutting the ends of his sleeves to let more air in (the Baseball Hall of Fame has one of his shirts), was repeatedly warned about the flying threads whenever he pitched.
"He was fined by Cleveland manager Oscar Vitt because he refused to change his shirt during a game against the Boston Red Sox," said Tim Wiles, research director for the Baseball Hall of Fame library in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Three summers ago, Arthur Rhodes, then with the Seattle Mariners, became incensed -- and both dugouts emptied -- when shortstop Omar Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians complained about the massive diamond-studded earrings Rhodes was wearing. Vizquel said the earrings, a gift from Rhodes' wife, were blinding and distracting. The umpires made the left-hander take them out.
In this age where athletes in many sports show body ink, Miller is the only pro to suffer any consequences, even though he is not violating a specific baseball rule.
"They're concerned, as they are with jewelry, that it would be distracting to the hitter," said Rich Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "It's just because he's a pitcher. Players said they were having a hard time picking up the ball."
In 1957, baseball passed Rule 1.11 E, which states that "no part of the uniform shall include a pattern that imitates or suggests the shape of a baseball."
The reason it was passed was because a baseball on a pitcher's uniform might befuddle a batter. And yet for years, the New York Mets logo had a baseball on the arm patch and the "P" on the uniform of the Philadelphia Phillies had twisted seams like a baseball.
"We don't know why, but those teams got away with it for a long time," Wiles said.
Miller, did, too, for a decade. Now, he might be the inspiration for the "Justin Miller Rule."
"If necessary, it probably will be addressed with some sort of rule change if our existing rules cannot be made applicable," said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office. "It's an unusual situation because the tattoo is so extensive. In the minds of some umpires, it's a legitimate distraction. It's not only a competitive issue, but a health and safety issue. We'll see where it comes out."
Miller, on the disabled list with a leg injury and rehabbing with the SkyChiefs, couldn't care less.
"Just give me the ball every five days," he said. "I pitch with or without sleeves. Naked. Whatever."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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