David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
In 2015, it remains illegal for a pitcher to apply a foreign substance, such as pine tar and / or sunscreen with a few pats from the rosin bag at the back of the mound, to the baseball.
The Orioles' Brian Matusz and the Brewers' Will Smith were the latest offenders to get ejected this past week for having shiny, sticky forearms. Each faces an eight-game suspension.
Like the Yankees' Michael Pineda, who was caught with pine tar on his neck and suspended last season, violating Rule 8.02b instantly labels them cheaters, or "dirty" pitchers. But let's face it, the baseballs are hardly "clean" to begin with.
Every baseball -- all 10 or 12 dozen of them -- is rubbed up with mud in the hours leading up to each game.
That's right. Mud. Soggy dirt, farmed out from the Delaware River basin. With the newly minted baseballs, fresh from the box, deemed too slick to be game-ready, this age-old process of smearing mud on the balls usually is carried out by the home team's clubhouse staffers.
Not much uniformity there. Thirty different groups of clubhouse staffers, 60 different sets of hands for each stadium. Maybe some use more mud, some less. And you thought DeflateGate was ridiculous. At least visiting NFL quarterbacks get to use their own footballs.
Visiting Major League Baseball pitchers are at the mercy of a mud bucket-toting clubhouse kid who can rub up the baseballs to the specifications of his own starting pitcher that day. And many do. While the umpires are relied upon to inspect the baseballs, it's not as if there's a pressure gauge or any standardized test.
So what difference does mud make? Other than roughing up the ball for grip, there are nuanced advantages. But David Cone, a savvy pitcher who could exploit any crumb for an edge during his career, brought up something we hadn't even thought of.
"I'd like them to use a little more mud, make them a little darker," said Cone, the former Yankee and Met who now is a YES analyst. "And then Keith Hernandez would complain. There's always that illusion of them being darker and harder to see."
Of course, the home team's hitters also objected to that practice, as Cone mentioned. But they wouldn't know until they stepped into the box themselves -- or once a pattern with their own pitcher was established.
In the wake of the DeflateGate mess, which sabotaged Super Bowl week and resulted in the NFL suspending one of its biggest stars, the Patriots' Tom Brady, MLB sent out a memo to all 30 teams before Opening Day about slight changes made to its own ball-monitoring process for this season.
These mostly involve the supervision of the baseballs, from the umpire's room to the field, which is watched by an MLB authenticator. But as far as the mud-application process is concerned, there's nothing official. And that partly explains why pitchers are always searching for another, more effective substance to give them a more consistent grip on the baseball. A small dab of pine tar or sunscreen or hair gel goes a long way. And that's not necessarily a bad thing in extremely cold or wet conditions.
"Hitters know pitchers are all using something," Joe Girardi said. "We know that. C'mon. There's a lot of pitchers that do. And I think a hitter wants to know that a pitcher knows where the ball is going and that it's not slippery. That's the bottom line.
"I don't think hitters would care. And I think they'd probably prefer that they know there's one stuff, a substance they use, to help them with the tackiness of the balls. And that's it."
Coming up with that substance, however, isn't so easy. And how would it be applied? Replacing the rosin bag with a spray can? Would the umpires spray it on? And how much is too much? Would it affect the flight of the ball? As with the mud, it would vary on personal preference.
"There's a human element," Cone said. "I'm sure by the time you get into the fifth and sixth dozen, there wouldn't be as much mud. There wouldn't be as much consistency with the time spent on actually rubbing in the mud.
"A lot of times, it would just be mud smeared on the ball and it would still be slick. No two balls are rubbed up the same. There's no way to do it -- the amount of mud you use, the time spent on rubbing the ball up."
Another option could make more sense: improving the feel of the baseball itself by copying what already is done by Nippon Professional Baseball, the MLB's counterpart in Japan. The Mizuno-manufactured baseball has a texture and tackiness to the leather, which makes it better to grip straight from the box. No need for sticky additives -- legal or otherwise.
"It's fantastic," Cone said. "I think it's something they definitely should look into."
Why not? The game has been subject to a recent flurry of changes, from anti-collision rules to instant replay to pace-of-game alterations, so a subtle tweak to the baseball shouldn't be all that radical.
Of course, it would take some getting used to, but that's not impossible. It's the same thing for Japanese pitchers who must adapt to the larger, more slippery baseballs here in the States. And if you're improving the feel of the ball, few would object, right?
Not necessarily. Again, every pitcher is different.
"A new, slick ball would really sail," Cone said. "Some guys actually liked it that way. Jimmy Key liked it because he would hold a no-seam fastball on purpose. He wanted it to kind of squirt out -- it would take off, and run, and sail. Right out of the box. It was a little bit unpredictable. Some guys liked it, some guys didn't."
There's probably no way to eliminate this particular brand of cheating, regardless of the intent. But if MLB can make improvements that would cut down on the random nature of penalizing some offenders and not others -- depending on a manager's mood that night -- it's worth looking into.
"You don't want to get in a situation where you're having players suspended for eight days," Girardi said. "I don't care what you do. I said to one of the umpires, when it's a cold game, why don't they heat the ball bags and try to keep the balls warm?"
Not a bad idea. Or at least as logical as the pregame mud bath.