Before the 2021 season started, Major League Baseball claimed that it was about to start enforcing the rule against applying foreign substances to the baseball. Why. one might wonder. As Part I described, baseball has been casual about this rule for a long time, and the pattern goes back even longer than when Ethics Alarms first discussed it. In 1920, the game, trying to clean up its tarnished image in the wake of 1919 Black Sox scandal, banned the spitball as well as other “trick pitches” that involved altering the ball itself a few pitchers who were regarded as “spitball specialists” were “grandfathered” meaning that they were allowed to keep throwing the otherwise illegal pitch while others were not. This is not the way to make a rule against cheating, and the ambivalence about the spitball continued well into the 1980s. Baseball, and especially sportswriters, seemed to think this particular kind of cheating was cute. Only a few pitchers could throw a spitball, and those who did, notably Gaylord Perry, now in the Hall of Fame, were only occasionally caught and punished. Baseball finally made a rule that a pitcher couldn’t bring his fingers to his mouth; if he did, an automatic ball was called. Meanwhile, umpire searches of a suspected pitcher using other substances like K-Y jelly, usually hidden in a cap, became the stuff of comedy, as in the famous sequence from “The Naked Gun” above.
MLB became lax about enforcement, and predictably, some pitchers, and eventually most pitchers, took what was accepted as a “little” pine tar to get a better grip on the ball and, aided by modern chemistry, began using so-called “sticky stuff” to get higher rates of spin on the ball than they could with their natural talents. This development accelerated after 2018, when home runs became more common than ever before. When the rate of homers reached absurd levels in 2019, breaking the rules against putting foreign substances on the ball was viewed as a matter of professional survival. Pitchers experimented, trying Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack, a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions and whose advertisements show someone using it to lift a cinder block with his palm. Some combined several of those products to create their own personal “sticky stuff.” Their clubs used Edgertronic high-speed cameras and TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking devices to see which version of the glue worked best.
MLB noticed, but it was trying to cut down on home runs too: this year’s balls were deadened. So it never followed through on its threat to start searching pitchers again…until hitting collapsed to levels of futility not seen in more than 50 years, with the batting average of both leagues plummeting to a historically pathetic .236. And obviously, something had changed drastically in the past couple of years. A recently retired pitcher estimated “80 to 90%” of pitchers are using “sticky stuff” in some capacity. Players say they can hear the friction when the ball leaves the pitchers’ hands, and that it sounds like a band-aid being ripped off. High-speed cameras and granular data showed that doctoring the ball with “sticky stuff” could make it nearly impossible to hit.
Having allowed the problem to develop by shrugging off its own rule, MLB put out the word last month out that this time a crackdown was really coming. On June 12, the baseball brass warned teams that the new enforcement rules would be announced in days Three days later, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued an edict:
“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing fieldI understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before. It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else – an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.”
Umpires are now instructed to check each pitcher (multiple times for starters) from both teams. Position players can also be ejected and suspended for foreign substance use, but only if the umpires determine the position player applied the substance to the ball for the benefit of his pitcher. Pitchers will still be permitted to use rosin bags on the mound but are prohibited from “intentionally (combining) rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness.” Non-player personnel who encourage or facilitate players using foreign substances (or who help mask their use after the fact) are subject to discipline, including fines and/or suspensions. Pitchers caught using “sticky stuff” will be suspended for 10 games, and their teams will not be allowed to replace them during the suspension.
The new era begins next week.
The same day the Commissioner’s statement was released, Tamp Bay Rays pitching ace Tyler Glasnow was found to have suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, as well as a flexor strain in his forearm, in his previous night’s start. He is likely to miss a large portion of the season, which he had begun in stellar fashion. Glasnow then made a shocking allegation, saying “I just threw 80 something innings and you just told me I can’t use anything. I have to change everything I truly believe 100 percent that’s why I got hurt. I’m frustrated MLB doesn’t understand. You can’t just tell us to use nothing. It’s crazy….I’m just frustrated that they don’t understand how hard it is to pitch, one, but to tell us to do something completely different in the middle of a season is insane.”
Well, you know, Tyler, the rule book has always been there, and using “sticky stuff” on the baseball has always been illegal. But as with steroids, and other forms of cheating and misconduct that authorities choose not to enforce, there is always a valid if not persuasive argument that the rule has been waived. But rules exist for good reasons, and when cultures ignore them long enough, they begin to see why the rules existed in the first place. Just as the chaos at our southern border shows why ignoring immigration rules leads to disaster, MLB saw the data…
…and realized that its “everybody does it” attitude toward doctoring the ball had reached a crisis point in 2021. Sports Illustrated received dozens of comments on the situation:
“People need to understand the significance of spin,” says one of the team executives. “It is every bit as advantageous as a [performance-enhancing drug]—except it has been sanctioned by the league and there are no [harmful] consequences for your body.”
“We’re just doing the same thing we did during the steroid era,” says the other team executive. “We were oohing and ahhing at 500-plus-foot home runs. … A 101-mile-an-hour, 3,000-rpm cutter, isn’t that the same thing as a 500-foot home run? It’s unnatural.”
“It’s like steroids,” says one of the NL relievers. “For us that refuse to use sticky [stuff], we get pushed out, because ‘you don’t have great spin rate.’ Well, no s—, because I don’t cheat.”
Next week, baseball will start enforcing a rule it allowed to be broken for years, indeed decades. Many are predicting chaos. If they are right, it should be an excellent lesson in the costs of ethics obtuseness.
Source: Sports illustrated