This is a crackdown?

Liam Hendriks

If MLB’s worried about near-universal foreign substances while still monkeying around with baseballs, why doesn’t MLB develop and approve its own new fashioned medicated goo, as White Sox pitcher Liam Hendriks suggests? Easy—it makes too much sense, and it’s probably way above Rob Manfred’s pay grade.

Does baseball’s government really prefer the symbolic slap on the wrist over the far more symbolic realistic discipline? Did anybody really think a game administration that can’t bring itself toward realistic suspensions of headhunting pitchers was going to bring itself toward a realistic approach to the pitching stickums, sauces, and syrups?

This is baseball government’s idea of a crackdown: ten-day suspension, with pay. For a relief pitcher that could hurt a little bit more, since he usually pitches a short spell on three, maybe four days out of seven. For a starting pitcher, it could cost one start at minimum, two maximum, depending on when he was frisked, busted, and booked.

“This pitcher shakedown,” Thomas Boswell told an online chat with readers Monday, “is going to be a hoot.”

“One objection raised by some players and managers was the league’s listing of rosin as the only substance permissible for pitchers who want to create additional tackiness on the ball,” writes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. ” . . . A combination of rosin and sunscreen can be more effective in enhancing grip without producing the massive jumps in spin rates that occur with pine tar and especially advanced substances such as Spider Tack. But the [MLB crackdown] memo explicitly lists sunscreen as a prohibited substance.”

“Don’t think everything is going to be perfect,” says umpire Joe West, a man about whom it could be said in that context that it takes one to know one. “It doesn’t happen that way.”

Indeed. And then there was the little matter of Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow suffering a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament Monday night—after he quit using mere sunscreen to help him grip this year’s dubiously made baseballs and changed his normal motion to accommodate.

“Injuries already are a major problem in 2021,” Rosenthal writes. “It’s possible some pitchers will stay healthier if they adjust to the diminishment of their stuff by throwing with less effort to gain more command. It’s also possible others, perhaps trying to make up for lost spin, will suffer a fate similar to Glasnow, who is one of the top pitchers in the sport.”

The memo says the only acceptable substance helpmate for putting a little more friction on the ball is rosin, but Athletics manager Bob Melvin told Rosenthal not so fast: “Rosin on a cold night doesn’t work.”

One of Boswell’s Monday chatters posted a real money question: “Would severely restricting pitchers’ ability to doctor balls be as simple as requiring them to pick up and deposit a cap into a bucket before and after each inning?” Would it? And maybe a better question might be, if the pitchers are stripped of their syrups, will that mean automatically that the hitters are going to abuse them all over again?

These days pitching can be problematic enough. Too many hard-throwing pitchers with speed to burn and no clue of exactly where to put their pitches. With 861 hit-by-pitches as of this morning, one batter’s getting drilled every twenty innings pitched on average. There’s one wild pitch every twenty innings played, too.

And, with the three-batter minimum still in force for relief pitchers, unless they came into a jam and finished the previous inning, managers are throttled from getting a particularly wild pitcher out when it’s obvious he has no control but might inflict serious damage with a ball. Even a de-juiced baseball can cause serious injuries.

Padres reliever Austin Adams leads the Show with eleven hit batsmen. With 24 innings pitched as of this morning, that’s 46 percent of the time a batter’s taking one for the team against him. Numerous position players have told several writers in recent weeks that if the syrups are keeping pitchers from wildness the syrups don’t really bother them. Not even if they’re looking as though they swing pool noodles instead of bats.

That’s the pitchers who aren’t trying to put holes in hitters’ heads. But baseball hasn’t exactly been that firm on the genuine headhunters, either.

If the Show’s government isn’t willing to send stronger messages against the real headhunters—suspending starting pitchers ten starts instead of ten days; or, suspending such relief pitchers according to their average weeks’ work assignments—what made anyone think it was going to do something truly substantial against pitchers brewing syrups not to handle the ever-monkeyed-around-with baseball more reasonably but to get every last little subversive edge they can get?

Where do you draw the line? It doesn’t appear Manfred and his crew have so far. If blending rosin and sunscreen alone improves a pitcher’s grip without giving a shot of rocket fuel to his pitch spin rate, as Rosenthal observed, why on earth did the anti-syrup memo show the crew decided sunscreen should be on the verboten list?

Manfred’s critics often enough accuse him of knowing about as much about baseball as a butcher knows about neurosurgery. This crackdown, such as it might be, is liable to get him as many further such accusations as it might damnation with faint praise.

There was already a rule in the book against foreign substances on the ball. What took Manfred and his crew this long to decide to enforce it, when the new syrups were around before this season? But then you’d have to ask such questions as why Manfred and his crew can’t order umpires to call and enforce the written strike zone and knock it off with their individual zoning laws.

Regardless of such conditions as the balls themselves, or the actual or alleged approaches and attitudes of batters at the plate, there’s one thing that’s as much a baseball tradition as the ballpark hot dog—pitchers will look for any break they can get against batters, whether it’s actual subterfuge or just planting the ideas into the batters’ heads that they’re up to something subversive on the mound.

Even the mere allegation that this pitcher or that pitcher has something more than his fingers on a pitch can knock points off a hitting average and an earned run average alike. Hall of Fame Gaylord Perry once claimed he had extracurricular help almost any place he could think of around his uniform, but he wasn’t above putting the spitter on the brain first and foremost, either.

Maybe you won’t believe this, and maybe I can’t blame you, but when Candy Cummings first came up with the curve ball baseball’s overseers actually debated whether it was a newly-discovered skill or a deceitful trick. Imagine what they must have debated when the first knuckleball performed its first salsa on the way to the plate.

To this day, though maybe this coming “crackdown” might change it just a fragment (and that could be a big maybe), managers are as Boswell told his Monday online chatters: “Managers never ask—the guy could be on another team the next day, so why would he tell you his secrets. But managers always protect their pitchers—because there are so many skeletons in closets.”

That’s usually the main reason why managers aren’t in that big a hurry to swear out a search warrant for the other guys’ pitchers, too. The guy you had frisked, arraigned, cuffed, and stuffed today might be the guy joining your pitching staff at the trade deadline if not sooner.

Don’t forget: managers and their designated partners in crime (grounds crews and so forth) haven’t been immune to a little tricking and treating themselves. “Freezing the balls overnight to help your bad pitching staff, sloping the foul lines to help or hurt bunts (as suits your team) and turning the base path between first and second into a swamp with overwatering to inhibit base stealing have been around forever,” Boswell wrote sixteen months ago. “That slippery slope from brainy to gamesmanship to cheating exists in every sport.”

It also happens when the criminal mind spots an opportunity provided with the best of intentions. MLB installed replay rooms in both dugouts at the ballparks mostly because it was embarrassed by the blown Jim Joyce call at first base that denied Armando Gallaraga his perfect game. It turned to using the replay rooms as helpmates for old-fashioned sign-stealings (they still depended on baserunners sending the purloined numbers to the batters), and in due course to the flagrant extremities—the illegally-used computer algorithms, the illegal additional cameras, clubhouse monitors, and trash cannings—of Astrogate.

There’s a point to be taken when White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks says, well, if MLB is concerned that mere grip enhancement on constantly monkeyed-around-with baseballs is turning into a few pitchers crossing the line to cheating, why doesn’t MLB do something substantial about it—and develop and distribute its own acceptable grip goop?

“I still think a universal substance needs to be added,” said Hendriks, who applauds the crackdown-to-be, to yet another Athletic writer, James Fegan. “Because if you’re coming into the ninth inning of a game, these balls have been sitting down for however long and they’re just pretty much dust. It’s interesting how everything is kind of ‘follow the rules, this way, this way, this way,’ but the balls are kind of left out the entire time and it’s controlled by the home team.”

There’s only one problem with Hendriks’s call. It makes too much sense. Of course, it would make a lot more sense if Manfred hadn’t misapplied his sacred pace-of-the-game crusade and decided the balls themselves have needed remaking/remodeling the past few seasons. Among other steps that make a klutz resemble Joe DiMaggio.

Manfred also doesn’t get that pitchers looking for edges with foreign substances (where have you gone, George Frazier: I don’t use foreign substances—everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.) have been around since the days of pitching underhand departed major league baseball.

“Only now, as the sport returns to its first full 162-game season since 2019, with a new baseball, does MLB find itself in hot water for years of feigned ignorance and not enforcing its own rules,” wrote yet another Athletic writer, Brittany Ghiroli, earlier this month.

This time though, the league hasn’t just been slow to stop the sticky substances, it has — perhaps inadvertently — made the problem worse.

Consider this: The players don’t get a say in the constant tinkering to the baseball, the latest version of which has higher seams and — as early as spring training — was already being buzzed about for its ability to favor pitchers with movement . . . [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? Does anyone think asking professional athletes to police themselves and follow the rules when there are millions of dollars and livelihoods at stake would work?

. . . Here we are in early June, with the league moving quickly to resolve things, preparing to give umpires the power to inspect all pitchers without warning in order to not show any favoritism toward certain players or teams. 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 the league that allowed it, which — again — has waited and waited until a problem blew up to actually address it. Just like steroids. Just like the video review room.

How did we get here? By the sport closing its eyes and looking away from the problem, game after game, year after year.

Commissioner Nero thinks a ten-day suspension with pay is really going to fix the problem? I’d like to be proven wrong, but I have the feeling I got the first three words of that sentence wrong. Especially since, to most of us mere saps, there’s a word for ten days off with pay—vacation.

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