Just when you might have started thinking the sticky skirmish over pitchers and their new old-fashioned medicated goo was a mess as it was, here comes a new ingredient in the controversy. It may or may not stick, but it may or may not be entirely out of bounds, either.
Pete Alonso, the Mets’ slugging first baseman, doesn’t want the pitchers to be unstuck. More significant is his thinking as to why the balls themselves have been manipulated in recent seasons: nothing to do with the way the game’s played on the field, and everything to do with playing games with free agency.
“I think the biggest concern is Major League Baseball manipulates the baseball year in and year out depending on free agency class or guys being in an advanced part of their arbitration,” Alonso told a videoconference call including New York Daily News reporter Deesha Thosar, before the Mets met (and murdered) the Orioles in Baltimore Wednesday.
I do think that’s a big issue, the ball being different every single year. With other sports, the ball is the same, like basketball, tennis, golf, the ball is the same. That’s the real issue, the changing of the baseball. And maybe if they didn’t, the league didn’t change the baseball, pitchers wouldn’t need to use as much sticky stuff.
Alonso’s take doesn’t have hard, tangible evidence, but neither does Thosar dismiss him out of hand.
“It’s been widely believed that MLB has manipulated the baseball for years now, but the league is never forthright about it,” she wrote. “In 2019, the alleged juiced ball led to the highest home run rate in MLB history. This year, the league sent a memo to all thirty teams just before spring training, explaining that the ball would be altered this season to sail one to two feet shorter on fly balls hit over 375 feet. In other words, fewer home runs.”
“Forthright” and “baseball government” are too often about as synonymous as “celibacy” and “promiscuity.”
Back in 2019 the pitchers suspected and spoke up about the balls being “juiced.” This year the balls are supposed to have been de-juiced. Whatever they’ve been or not been this time around, enough pitchers are looking for every way they can think to control them when they throw them. That’s Alonso’s story, and if you’ll pardon the expression he’s sticking to it for now.
Thosar adds that Alonso’s “candid stance” doesn’t exactly jibe with MLB’s wants, either. Not just because the sport is about to unwrap what’s been speculated to be a firm crackdown on the pitchers’ sticky syrups, either.
“[T]hough it was already expected, it’s becoming all the more obvious that there will be a fight between the Players Association and MLB with the sport’s current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in just six months,” she reminds us. “Both sides have been publicly combative in recent years, and many around the league believe a potential strike could be in play.”
As though the owners were strangers to manipulating, undermining, or wrecking the free agency market before, you know.
Not those straightforward owners whose forebears abused the ancient reserve clause into making players chattel; forced a strike or two with harebrained ideas about compensation pools; colluded to suppress legitimate free agency markets; and, forced a truly ruinous strike (and a cancelled World Series) by trying to strong-arm players into stopping them before they over-spent, mis-spent, or mal-spent yet again. Not them.
Alonso admits he’s not thinking hard-line about the pitchers’ stickum, gripum, syrup, honey, wax, whatever, because he’s even more concerned about batter safety at the plate—particularly after every Met player, coach, official, and fan had the daylights scared right out of them when Kevin Pillar took an out-of-control fastball right smack in the sniffer last month.
Even if you admit that the subtexts include too many baseball organisations hunting speed first and control on the mound almost as an afterthought, Pillar’s proboscis is only a fraction’s distance from the sport facing another Conigliaro tragedy—if not another Chapman one.
“I would rather [pitchers] have control,” Alonso told Thosar. “I don’t care what they use.”
For me, I use pine tar to hit. I have lizard skin, I have batting gloves. I have the most advantage when it comes to holding onto my bat. So I wouldn’t care. On our on-deck bag we have a pine tar rag, we have a pine tar stick, a special sticky spray with rosin. I mean you name it, we have it.
“I wouldn’t care if they had that behind the mound to help hold onto the ball, because when we start getting into these hotter months, guys start to sweat. And let’s say if they lose a fastball arm-side, I mean we all saw what happened to Kevin Pillar. That’s scary. We’re lucky that he only had a broken nose. It could be a lot worse depending on where it hits a guy.
It was a lot worse when Tony Conigliaro got hit in the eye by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball in mid-August 1967. A comeback or two to one side, Conigliaro was never really the same player again, his eyesight damaged for life—and we’ll never know whether continuing aftereffects of that drill led to the stroke that sent him into a coma for the last eight years of his life. (He died at 45.)
It was a lot worse than that when Ray Chapman got drilled and killed in a time when batters wore no helmets and pitchers were just about allowed to put anything on the ball they could think of—until the fear that an out-of-control Carl Mays spitter did the dirty work prompted a formal ban on spitters and other kinds of ball doctorings.
Which didn’t stop the mound’s Houdinis and Copperfields, of course. News flash: Various pitchers have continued looking for various edges—sometimes even using various edges—on their pitches all these decades since. Depending upon the atmospheres of enforcement, managers have either 1) let it ride because a few of their own men might be loading or scuffing; or, 2) called for immediate arrests and arraignments because . . . a few of their own might be subjects of sworn warrants.
Today’s honeyballers just might be the spiritual great-grandchildren of Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, whose late-career tricks and treats included a secret sauce of rosin, turpentine, and baby oil he said helped him grip his breaking balls better, har har. Depending on the depth and substance of the coming crackdown, today’s brewers won’t be too quick to plead the Ford defense: “Better ideas, driven by you.”
Nobody among baseball’s government wants to admit to another dirty little secret: Among its other self-inflicted problems, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers makes it impossible for a manager to get an out-of-control pitcher the hell out of there, before he does worse than Genesis Cabrera did to Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius opening a relief inning back-to-back last month. Grigorius got it in the ribs. Right after Harper took one off his honker onto his wrist—and Harper hasn’t been the same hitter since.
Even a de-juiced baseball can still break a human beak.
Does Alonso have tin foil under his hat? Or, is he onto something substantial? He’s implied what The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli comes right out to ask, then answer, in part:
[W]ho enabled the system that allowed these pitchers to cash in? Who decided to ignore the sticky stuff for years? Was the initial hope that the entertainment value — like performance-enhancing drugs — would perhaps translate into more eyeballs and excitement for the sport?
. . . The onus now, all of a sudden, is on upholding the integrity of the game. But what took so long?
Whatever new rules or regulations are put in place will be to enforce an existing rule. And while it’s easy to pile on the pitchers and pitching coaches and teams who knowingly broke the rules, the blame should not start there.
It should start with Commissioner Nero. Ever fiddling—with unneeded rules, with refusing to enable the needed one or two, with the baseballs themselves—while baseball burns.