From thumbtacks to coffee to rosin to sunblock, a few thoughts on ball-doctoring

Happy Memorial Day weekend! Here’s a baseball newsletter, which only contains a subtle plug for my podcast.

In other podcast-plugging news: My producers and I distilled Crushed down into an hour long radio special, which some local NPR stations are going to broadcast this weekend. I don’t have the exact details of which stations and when (and that’s all subject to change), but if you’re interested, check your local listings.

In 1891, a rookie named John McGraw debuted for the Orioles and almost immediately became known as the dirtiest player in baseball. He tripped opponents on the base paths and snared opposing runners by their belts as they rounded third base and headed for home. He got away with it all. McGraw went on to manage three World Series-winning teams, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937.

Three decades after that, Gaylord Perry was one of the best pitchers in the game—thanks in large part to the illegal spitball he threw. By the 1960s, cheating had become less comical, but only a bit less overt. Major League Baseball outlawed the spitter in 1920, and Perry admitted in a mid-career memoir that he threw it, but the league didn’t do much of anything in response. Perry was suspended for 10 games in 1982, but that was it, and in 1991, he got the votes to be admitted to Cooperstown. 

With all the hemming and hawing over foreign substances this season, I can’t help but think of these stories, which are part of baseball lore, often told with a smile and and a wink. (Here’s another favorite: Yogi Berra allegedly glued his arms to his sides because he mistook a container of goo that Whitey Ford used to doctor balls for deodorant.) Everyone reading this probably knows that I just finished a seven-part podcast series about the steroid era, and for one episode, I dug into MLB’s history of treating its own rulebook like a suggestion. Only pitchers replied to my interview requests, so I learned a ton about ball-doctoring, which they discussed openly, without sparing any details. They told me about using everything from pine tar to coffee to a thumbtack in hopes of manipulating the surface of the ball—for more spin or movement or better grip. And they also told me that unlike steroids, which were done in relative secret, ball-doctoring isn’t something pitchers work too hard to hide. To me, that’s a surefire sign that most guys don’t really consider it cheating.

Now, though, MLB says it is. The league is inching toward actually enforcing a rule against foreign substances that’s existed for a century, and it sent a memo to teams before the season, stating that it planned to use data to analyze spin and try to suss out which pitchers were doctoring balls. It also announced it would use game-day compliance officers to try to sniff out ball-doctoring in real time. Since then, Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer (who’s spoken in favor of doctoring) has seen a batch of his balls sent to the league. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto told reporters on a video call last week that he believes foreign substances are contributing to this season’s offensive stagnation. “I think if [the league] cracked down on that, that would honestly help the offense a lot, get the ball in play more often and [result in] less swing and missing,” he told reporters. He also joked that if MLB wants to keep letting pitchers doctor balls, it should let hitters take steroids.

And on Wednesday afternoon, an umpire confiscated Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos’s hat mid-game. Gallegos has been wearing the hat all season, and its brim had become discolored, likely from rosin or sunscreen (both of which are legal for pitchers to use on the field). The hat was sent to the league and added to its pile of ball-doctoring paraphernalia, and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was not pleased. He was tossed from the game for defending Gallegos, and afterwards, he gave reporters his take on foreign substances.

“This is baseball’s dirty little secret, and it’s the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it,” he said. He added: “Major League Baseball has got a very, very tough position here because there are people that are effectively — and not even trying to hide [it], essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances. … You want to police sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead. But why don’t you start with the guys who are really cheating with some stuff that are really impacting the game?”

That last thing Shildt said stuck with me, the idea that some substances impact the game and others do not. I heard a version of that sentiment while reporting the podcast: some concoctions really do increase spin rate and make mediocre pitches really good, and others just help pitchers get a grip on a ball that might feel like an ice block one day and be slick with sweat the next. 

On top of that, some tricks don’t even work at all. I talked with former pitcher and longtime Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt about an experiment he conducted in 1980 during a losing skid. Moments before warmups, he decided on a whim to tape a thumbtack to his index finger, which he thought would help him scuff up the ball and get some movement. Honeycutt was pitching well until he decided to use the tack, and once he began scratching, his stuff deteriorated. He doesn’t think the scuffs made any difference, but he did get caught. His trick wasn’t exactly understated. And when he was tossed from the game, he argued with the umpire: you can’t throw me out, the tack didn’t even work.

That, then, is what baseball needs to figure out: what works and what doesn’t, what crosses a line and what’s reasonable for pitchers to be able to throw effectively. And confiscating hats willy-nilly, mailing balls to the league office—well, that’s not the way to go about it. MLB has a good idea of the tricks guys are trying, whether it’s coffee dumped on pants or sunscreen mixed with rosin or something even more scientific. In 2018, Bauer (who at that point was a vocal critic of doctoring) said he’d experimented during the offseason with substances, tinkering so that he’d have an idea of the concrete effects of different goops and gels and mixtures. So why wouldn’t MLB just do that? It could alert teams that it’s studying foreign substances but do so behind the scenes, scientifically, without leaving it up to umpires and compliance officers to make ad hoc decisions about a spot on a hat or a glob of gunk on an arm. It should talk about ball-doctoring in some kind of measured way and draw a clear distinction between what’s permissible for grip and what constitutes outright cheating.

Yes, pitchers are guilty of trying to manipulate games with this stuff. And there’s also a long history of hitters corking bats and groundskeepers tinkering with lines and dirt and slope to favor one team over another. Even the league is complicit. It’s juiced balls and deadened them, and this sudden concern for foreign substances might be less about MLB suddenly caring about the rules and more about its crusade against a game dominated by home runs and strikeouts.

Regardless, MLB needs to decide: is ball-doctoring something it cares about in the long-term, or is it just a nuisance for now? If it actually wants to change the status quo, then it needs to overhaul its attitude toward cheating. It needs to define the gray area and bring blurry lines into focus. This stuff is just too baked into the game. 

My favorite cheating story took place in 1994, when Albert Belle used a corked bat in a game against the White Sox. Chicago suspected this and reported Belle to the umpires, who confiscated the bat. Then the game went on—and Cleveland became determined to recover Belle’s bat before the umpires could crack it open and see what was inside. To that end, the team sent reliever Jason Grimsley up into the ceiling, shimmying through ductwork and into the umpires’ locker room, where the bat was being held. He grabbed it and replaced it with a regulation bat—but the replacement bat was stamped with another player’s signature. Umpires spotted the difference, and MLB enlisted the FBI to crack the case.

This should have been a massive embarrassment for everyone involved. But in his postgame news conference, Cleveland bench coach Buddy Bell played the part of the victim, even though he suspected his player was corking and presided over a heist to cover it up. “[Corking] has been going on for a hundred years,” he said, indignant. “It’s been going on before I played, and after I played, obviously. And it’s just, you know, a gentlemen’s agreement, at least I thought it was, unless a guy’s really blatant with it.”

That reaction shows the full scope of baseball’s problem, be it with corked bats or doctored balls, which are far more prevalent. To change behavior, to enforce rules long rendered moot, the league needs to do more than investigate and double down on enforcement. It needs to change entrenched attitudes. And that’s no small task.