Good golly Polly shame on you
Cause Molly made a stew that’ll make a new girl out of you
So follow me, it’s good for you
That good ole fashion medicated goo
—Steve Winwood, Jimmy Miller (for Traffic)
Ahhhhhhhhhhh, this is more like it, you can hear more than a few people thinking. Just like the Good Old Days. The Good Old Days in question here being the days when more than a few pitchers were suspected of putting more on their pitches than just their fingers.
The kind of potential cheating scandal that inspires wink-winks, nudge-nudges, not pontificating protest and near-universal outrage. The kind involving whether one of baseball’s more (shall we say) outspoken pitchers is giving the (shall we say) treatment to his pitches, thus to the batters, and maybe to the game itself.
Trevor Bauer has a few reputations, from misogynistic all the way back to the nutty professor. Now the Show’s government would love to know whether Bauer also deserves a reputation as a genuine throwback—to the lives and times when pitchers looked for every last edge they could get including but not limited to whatever they could think of to put on the ball, blissfully uncaring about breaking the law.
From publicly pondering since 2018 how often (not whether) pitchers are mixing up some new old fashioned medicated goo to get (hee hee) better grips on the balls, Bauer himself is now suspect. When he started for the Dodgers against the Athletics this week, umpires collected a fair number of balls he’d thrown that were claimed to be sticky and scuffy. How many depends upon whom you read on the subject.
Last month MLB sent its teams a pair of memos saying, essentially, “We’ve got our eyes on your balls.” None of that sneaky stuff. Keep the strange brews to yourselves. The season’s barely past a week old, and Bauer has already provided a crash course in pitch paranoia.
Not to mention a few arched brows, not because of whether Bauer has joined the society of spitballers but because of whether he’s been singled out particularly—and thus a victim of a little leaking subterfuge himself.
“That one pitcher is drawing scrutiny over the foreign substance rules — in this case, Trevor Bauer — seemingly through leaks and innuendo is kind of gross,” tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney. “MLB should either step up and grab the steering wheel and publicly insist that umpires enforce the rule, or stand down.”
If Thomas Boswell was right to say in the late 1970s that cheating was baseball’s oldest profession, it’s also right to say that different cheats provoke different responses.
Find a team altering off-field cameras illegally and tying them to clubhouse monitors for sign stealing? It’s Astrogate. Find a team turning the MLB-provided video room into an illegal helpmate for old-fashioned sign-stealing gamesmanship (sending pilfered intelligence to baserunners to transmit to batters)? It’s Soxgate.
Find a pitcher putting a little goop, gunk, or glop on what he throws? Even the morally outraged can’t resist a little snicker. A little snicker, a lot of mad fun trying to catch him in the act and write standup comedy routines about it, and maybe a couple of gags—such as the time longtime manager Gene Mauch suggested Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame plaque should have a tube of K-Y jelly (Perry’s reputed substance of preference) attached. (Was it fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson who once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a birthday present?)
The MLB memos told teams the Show’s government would review Statcast data on pitch spin rates closely enough to determine whether abrupt changes in pitcher’s career spin norms might suggest foreign aid. Which reminds me of George Frazier, the last man charged with three losses in a single World Series: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”
The suspicion toward Bauer, who’s been outspoken about pondering himself whether some pitchers are mixing up the medicine to hike their pitches’ spin rates, didn’t come from a Statcast analysis but from suspicious umpires.
“Pitchers use tacky substances to improve their grip on the ball and increase movement on their pitches,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “In November, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris quoted a coach with experience in several major-league organizations as saying, ‘Almost everyone is using something.’ A player-development executive told Sarris the benefits are ‘better than steroids’.”
Yet in the same article Rosenthal said that whatever is or isn’t found on Bauer’s balls (don’t even think about going there!), “it remains to be seen whether the league can prove he was responsible for their application, or whether any punishment imposed by commissioner Rob Manfred would stand.”
Ever since the spitter was outlawed formally after the 1920 season, there’ve been pitchers caught or at least formally suspected who thought of protesting, “It wasn’t me!” It wasn’t as out of bounds as you might think.
For decades it’s been known that Hall of Famer Whitey Ford—in his final years, anyway—benefited from his catcher Elston Howard scraping balls against his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. (“The buckle ball,” Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, “sang two arias from Aida.”) Howard was also crafty at scraping a ball on particularly wet dirt around the plate before sending it back.
Tommy John could claim plausibly that he didn’t actually put something on the ball or give it a scrape or a smudge. His particular specialty was finding scuffs on balls that were just in play and not yet removed from the game and then, as Boswell once noted, “turn[ing] the tiniest scratch into a double play grounder.”
Nobody ever quite knew what Hall of Famer Don Sutton was applying, but when he started a game against John late in both men’s careers, a scout in the press box cracked, “Tommy John and Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”
If there was one pitcher who could claim even more plausibly not to use foreign substances, it was probably Phil (The Vulture) Regan, the mid-to-late 1960s relief star. Regan’s trick of the trade was his own propensity to sweat somewhat heavily; he’d let it run down his arm into his hand and go to work. At least, he did until a combination of an ump or two catching on plus Leo Durocher burning him out from overuse as a Cub ruined his late-career effectiveness.
A little over a year ago, the Angels’ longtime visitors clubhouse attendant Brian Harkins was fired after the Show’s government showed the Angels Harkins was mixing up a little froth for the opposing pitchers, a blend of pine tar, rosin, and maybe a couple of other things. Harkins sued the Angels and the Show for defamation; the suit was thrown out of court in January.
It was too simple to have a sad laugh over the Harkins case. Why on earth would he have been compelled to give opposing pitchers the breaks considering that the Angels haven’t exactly been known as a pitching powerhouse the last few seasons? Harkins himself claimed he did it for safety reasons, since mixtures such as his were longtime helpmates for rubbing up fresh, smooth, hard-to-handle balls before games.
That’s what then-Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers said, too, when he was caught on camera with a particularly vivid brownish smudge on his pitching hand in the first inning in Game Two of the 2006 World Series. (He pitched eight shutout innings in the game, running his shutout inning streak that postseason to 23.) When he went back out for the second inning, the smudge was history.
“It was a big clump of dirt. I didn’t know it was there,” Rogers told reporters after the game. “They told me about, but it was no big deal. It was dirt and rosin put together. That’s what happens when you rub [the ball] up. I just went and wiped if off. I didn’t think it was an issue. After the first inning, it was fine. I felt I was pretty comfortable after that.”
Not everybody bought it, of course. Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci pronounced himself “deeply disappointed” that the only thing happening to Rogers that night was being told to go back and wash his hands before he continued eating the Cardinals for supper:
The entire world saw Rogers using what appeared to be a foreign substance on his pitching hand and he incurred no penalty, not even an inspection by the umpires of the offending hand we saw on TV. It was worse for the sport than if Rogers, like Jay Howell in the 1988 NLCS, was examined, ejected and suspended. [Too much pine tar on Howell’s hat had the Mets suspicious of the Dodger reliever—JK.] At least in that case there was enforcement of the rule book. This was just another example of the perverse culture in the game, this twisted code of “honor” among the scoundrels and cheats in baseball in which the act of calling somebody out for cheating is deemed worse than the cheating itself.
Seven years later, Verducci was a little more kind to then-Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester during the 2013 World Series: “This time of year, especially when it’s colder and the balls are slicker, pitchers need something on their fingers to throw the baseball without putting hitters at risk.”
But nobody thought Lester’s pitches were dancing, double-axeling, or singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” either. (Not for public consumption, anyway, so far as I remember.) “Somebody said they thought they saw pine tar on [Rogers],” Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles told ESPN after that Game Two. “That’s about it. Whether he got rid of it, or he never had it in the first place, we don’t know. His stuff was good all game.”
Sutton was so proud of his defiance that he once said he “ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it.” He did, in due course. He also threatened to sue umpire Doug Harvey and the National League after being cuffed and stuffed on one occasion. Nobody thought to offer Joe Niekro a Maybelline commercial, after the knuckleballer was caught infamously (and hilariously) trying to confiscate an emery board when caught by umpires, but Niekro never contemplated taking it to court, either.
Niekro’s infamous capture came on a day he was struggling on the mound. Bauer’s outing against the A’s Wednesday wasn’t exactly something you’d call lights out—nothing like the near no-hitter he pitched in his first Dodger start—though it wasn’t a terrible outing, either.
He threw 110 pitches and only 61 percent were strikes. Of those strikes, 24 were called, thirteen were swinging strikes, and 67 were either fouls or balls put into play. He struck out six, walked four, and surrendered five hits plus two earned runs. He left with a 3-2 lead, two outs, and one on in the seventh after surrendering Matt Chapman’s leadoff home run, leaving Kenley Jansen to surrender the tying run in the ninth and Jimmy Nelson to surrender the winning run in the tenth.
If Bauer’s using any particular blend for a little extra oomph in his repertoire, he may not be as fearworthy as he and others think he looks. He might also have learned the hard way what happens when a suspect pitch is “hit on the dry side,” as the old-timers said about how to hit the spitter.
Remember: In baseball, talent won’t get you as far as skill, and for all its formal illegality and semi-formal outrage (and snickering) throwing a spitter isn’t the easiest skill, either. “For every career it salvages, there is probably another that it helps to ruin,” Boswell once wrote. “For every hanging curve that finds a bleacher grave, there is a spitter with too much spin that floats like a batting practise fastball into the batter’s power zone and disappears.”
If Bauer did try throwing Chapman (ahem) a creamy spitter, Chapman caught the dry side and creamed it over the left center field fence.
So how does Bauer feel about falling under particular scrutiny for sneaky services? He’s a little furious about being leaked when he may not be even close to the only pitcher in the game rubbing up with extra elixir for reasons above and beyond merely getting better grips on the ball. And he’s not necessarily wrong.
When he asks “[W]here are the articles about balls from every other pitcher being taken out of play in literally every other game this season?” he’s not wrong. Being un-shy about speaking out has its downside on the backside of its upside. Rightly, wrongly, the unapologetic controversialist paints his own back with a target.
He wouldn’t be Trevor Bauer if he dummied up, of course. But it’s awful tempting to ponder whether he, too, would think about throwing a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it. Actually—never mind. Bauer already has enough people thinking he needs to return to the lab every other day to have his bolts tightened.