Try this one, if you will. Umpires can botch home run calls (hello, Angel Hernandez) and get away with it, more or less. Sometimes, they can botch pitching change rules (hello, Fielden Culbreth) with a little help from managers who don’t know the rules quite yet (hello, Bo Porter). But who knew our beloved human elements (aren’t you getting exhausted of that tiresome phrase and its customary accompanying rhetoric?) could miss a no-questions-asked application from the latest inductee into the Salivation Army?
In the second inning Monday night, Miami Marlins righthander Alex Sanabia had just been taken into the seats by Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown. Then, he didn’t allow the Phillies another run for the rest of his outing. While Brown was running the bases on his bomb, Sanabia was caught red handed—well, wet mouthed—spitting onto a fresh ball. And nobody, apparently, had him arraigned on the mound.
At the beginning of May, two former pitchers now working as Toronto Blue Jays broadcasters, Dirk Hayhurst and (especially) Jack Morris, accused Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz of throwing a spitter when Buchholz was doing nothing much more than using a combination of sunscreen and the rosin bag to dry up a ball for a better grip, and the hoopla lasted days. Even though Buchholz (who didn’t deserve one) faced no disciplinary hearing or action, and Morris (whose Hall of Fame chances are dwindling) came across to some as a sour grapes vintner.
Now Alex Sanabia spits right into the ball while his newest victimiser rounds the bases, and I don’t hear or see anything about the “human factor” just yet. Umpires seem historically to be far more sensitive to ball doctoring than getting hit or pitch or play calls right. How on earth did the crew working the Miami-Philadelphia game manage to spit on Sanabia’s gob, which just about everyone in both dugouts and watching on television could see as plain as the day is long?
I think I have one answer, and it springs in part from ancient history. When Preacher Roe (Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander) retired following a trade to the Baltimore Orioles, he sat down with Dick Young, the New York Daily News’s primary Dodger writer, for a remarkable Sports Illustrated story, “The Outlaw Pitch Was My Money Pitch.” Essentially, Roe took advantage of the umps’ longtime self-training to watch for all little tricks and chicaneries to do what they weren’t looking for—spit right into his glove.
Had Sanabia not been caught on camera it’s very possible he’d be getting away with, well, not exactly murder. Yahoo! Sports’s Tim Brown, who shows the camera captures of Sanabia’s great expectorations in the bargain, thinks he’s liable to be warned by the league at minimum, possibly fined, maybe not suspended, “unless there’s more evidence or repeated charges.” This ought to be very interesting indeed.
The doctored ball was outlawed in 1920. Preacher Roe spent seven years worth of a fine twelve-year major league career with the Dodgers (he was a five-time All-Star), and in that SI article admitted to loading them up all seven years. (For those who wonder about correlations, be advised Roe led the National League in winning percentage twice.)
“See that little tiny plate?” Roe said to Young, who interviewed him in St. Louis, where Roe had traveled to visit his old teammates. “That’s nothing. How you going to get that ball past a big guy like [Ted] Kluszewski, with those big arms? The game is getting out of balance. Everything is for the batter. The ball’s as live as a rabbit. They sneak the fences in on you a few more feet every year. They used to have a bigger strike zone than now and they keep speeding up the pitcher. The hitters got all the time they please.
“And look at the batters. They can put anything they want on the bats. Molasses and soda. And nobody says nothing, but we’re supposed to pitch a brand-new ball all the time.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, we have umpires carrying their “own” strike zones, and fools foolish enough to defend that as part of the, ahem, human element. And we’ll probably have fools who were screaming blue murder during the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance screaming nothing of the sort about Alex Sanabia getting caught juicing a ball quite literally. There were pitchers enjoying success despite the era of actual or alleged performance enhancing substances and those wondering whether they weren’t a little, shall we say, loaded.
Since the doctored ball was formally banned in 1920, here is a sort-of honour roll of pitchers who did or were merely reputed to have a little more on the ball than their fingers and thumbs:
Eddie Lopat—His array of junk pitches earned him the nickname “Slow, Slower, Slowest.” Once upon a time, he faced Roe in a World Series game, and the pair of lefthanders left Yankee manager Casey Stengel marveling. “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ‘em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ‘em.”
Bob Purkey—The righthander who helped turn the Cincinnati Reds into a pennant winner a couple of years after he was dealt from Pittsburgh, and who probably should have won the 1962 Cy Young Award. His specialty pitch was a knuckleball mixed in with an array of breaking pitches, but there were those who had other thoughts. “Once,” Thomas Boswell wrote years later, “it was said of . . . Purkey that nobody suspected him of throwing a spitter until his catcher went out to warm him up wearing a bib.”
Whitey Ford—Well enough documented, Ford toward the end of his career went to anything from his wedding ring to his catcher’s shin guard buckles for any edge he could get until his elbow finally ordered him to call it a Hall of Fame career.
Lew Burdette—A fidgety man by nature on the mound, Burdette figured out a way to combine his constant re-adjusting of his baseball cleats to his tobacco chewing habit. He began spitting the juice into a puddle next to the pitching rubber and, when bending down to adjust his shoes yet again, scooping up a little of his private toxic waste dump for a good pitch.
Jim (Mudcat) Grant—For many years a respected competitor, and a key to the Minnesota Twins’ 1965 pennant, Grant was once the originator sole practitioner of the soap ball: he’d load up the inside of his jersey next to where it joined his belt with soap and, when the summer days got particularly warm, the heat would leave him a pleasant little foam for, I suppose, a clean spitter. Well, he was, until the day he overdid it on the inside of his gray traveling uniform . . . and the bubbling suds were just a little too obvious. I’ll resist the temptation to surmise that the umpires ordered the Mudcat to leave the mound, go to the showers, and, ahem, clean up his act.
Phil (The Vulture) Regan—For about four years, Regan was one of the three best relief pitchers in baseball. (Sandy Koufax hung Regan’s nickname on him after observing just how anxious Regan was to get into a game and save it when he had his breakout year in 1966.) He got away with a spitter for those years simply because nobody caught onto a natural propensity that enabled him: he sweat profusely, and would merely let his own sweat run down his arm and into his hand.
The Vulture got plucked by overwork; his Chicago Cubs manager, Leo Durocher, simply didn’t trust anyone else out of the bullpen as much as he trusted Regan, and he simply burned Regan out (as also a lot of the team’s regulars) during the 1969 pennant race. But he was also spotted applying his unusual load technique. The Vulture managed to hang around until 1972, but his final three seasons were nothing compared to his peak of 1966-68.
Don Sutton—The Hall of Famer wasn’t shy about a shine. Or anything else he could think of, apparently. “Sutton’s set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Baltimore pitching coach Ray Miller once said of him, “that I expect him to throw a ball up to the plate with bolts attached to it.” Sutton even had a dry wit at the ready when umpires deigned to frisk him on the mound: he had a habit of leaving small notes in the fingers of his glove, including this classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.” Sutton did get caught dead to rights, once, in 1978, but when he was hit with an ejection and ten-day suspension over it he threatened to sue the league—and the league backed down.
Sutton and Gaylord Perry were teammates once. They swapped gifts—Perry gave Sutton a tube of Vaseline; Sutton gave Perry some choice sandpaper. The two pitchers swore they were gag gifts, but the umpires weren’t exactly amused.
Tommy John—The soft-tossing sinkerball specialist may also have specialised in a few other tricks. Nobody seemed to have him on a regular list of suspects among the umps, if I recall correctly, but there was a time when, as a Yankee, he faced Don Sutton in a start against the California Angels. While George Steinbrenner ranted to manager Lou Piniella over Sutton on the dugout phone (the Boss was watching the game from his Tampa home), the Yankees went on to win the game and one scout in the press box observed: “Tommy John and Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”
Gaylord Perry—The K-Y Kid himself, who had an entire routine between pitches, involving various fingertip brushes over (what was left of) his hair, his chest, his belt, when he wanted a hitter to think he was getting his gunk. On the one hand, Perry just might have survived most of the time by his expertise at what Boswell called “hitter hydrophobia.” (Spitter on the brain, folks.) Might and most.
On the other hand, Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox once told former umpire Ron Luciano (for The Fall of the Roman Umpire) that he swore one of Perry’s catchers in Cleveland, Ray Fosse, had a ring of Vaseline around the rim of his mitt’s pocket . . . and that he, Wilcox, couldn’t determine whether that Vaseline ring was an effect of Perry’s pitches or whether Fosse applied it himself to give his man a little lube.
Rick Honeycutt—Now a respected pitching coach, Honeycutt got away with a tack attached to his glove hand by way of a flesh coloured bandage. At least, he got away with it until he was caught, ahem, red handed and tossed from the game post-haste. As he walked off the mound, Honeycutt without thinking mopped some sweat from his brow—with the tack hand, leaving himself a lovely gash across his forehead.
Mike Scott—He went from nothing special to never better almost in a blink in the mid-1980s, thanks in part to a well-developed split-finger fastball and, perhaps, in larger part to a well-developed doctoring techinque. During the notorious 1986 National League Championship Series, the New York Mets retrieved eight balls thrown by Scott said to have been doctored in the same spot, with the same little round circle. Scott had gotten into Met heads so deeply that they cranked it up a little extra to nail the marathon pennant winner in Game Six, rather than deal with Scott again, especially since the league office seemed to have no intention of prosecuting Scott.
Scott has never exactly confessed in the years since, but those who were there swear his technique involved either a small piece of sandpaper or a small piece of an emery board. Once umpires frisked Scott on the mound, but before he got there Scott whipped his hand into his back pocket and back in a flash, which only enhanced the suspicions. When Jeff Pearlman wrote his splendid book about the 1986 Mets (The Bad Guys Won), he included a chapter around Scott that concluded thus:
Years after the fact, those close to Scott are willing to admit that his mastery had something to so with a sleight of hand. Was Mike Scott cheating?
. . . [Astros catcher Alan] Ashby: “Well, umm, ha, hmmmmmm, well, I think I’ll, ummm . . . Well, let’s just say that Mike was doing everything he could to win ball games. What Mike did I probably wouldn’t, ah, comment any further. What did Mike say?”
. . . So years after the fact will Mike Scott finally admit to scuffing?
“That’ll be in my book,” he says. “I promise.”
When is Scott planning on writing a book?
You might care to note that, a year before Pearlman’s book was published, ESPN Classic buttonholed Scott for a catching-up-with interview. And never once asked him about whether he’d put anything more on his pitches than his fingers.
Preacher Roe was only the least circumspect about his water works. Not to worry, his Hall of Fame catcher in Brooklyn, Roy Campanella, told him when he asked about whether Campy could handle the wet one: “I caught ‘em for years in the coloured leagues.”