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MLB gets a grip on sticky substances: 10-game suspensions

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas on Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: AP/LM Otero

When it comes to Spider Tack or Pelican Grip or Bullfrog sunscreen, Major League Baseball is now ready to make the penalties stick for abusing those outlawed substances with 10-game suspensions, starting June 21.

Commissioner Rob Manfred finally unveiled the zero-tolerance policy Tuesday after a week’s worth of suspenseful buildup as word leaked out that stricter enforcement of Rule 3.01 and Rule 6.02 (c) was coming soon. MLB had been tracking pitchers’ use of these substances since the end of spring training, and with the sport’s entertainment value crippled by a historic erosion of offense, Manfred ultimately chose to take action.

"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 field," Manfred said Tuesday in a statement. "I 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. This is not about any individual player or club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed. We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game."

MLB collected hundreds of baseballs during the first two months of the season and discovered that many had "dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch." That field research, combined with the technological evidence provided by spin-rate data — and also complaints by players — pushed Manfred & Co. to enlist the umpires to closely scrutinize pitching staffs.

According to Tuesday’s memo, the umpires have been told to "strictly enforce" those rules pertaining to the doctoring or discoloring of the baseball with any illegal substance (the only permitted tool to improve grip is the rosin bag, which is placed on the back of the mound). Umpires will perform periodic checks of pitchers, regardless of whether they suspect a rules violation, and starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check per game — between innings or during a change — so that hats, gloves and fingertips can be inspected.

Any pitcher found with illegal substances will be ejected and subject to a suspension, which is for 10 days — but with pay, a punishment that some don’t view as stringent enough.

"The only thing about the rule I don’t really like is the fact that if somebody breaks the rule, they get suspended but I believe they’re getting paid," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "So it’s like a 10-game vacation a little bit. So are they getting dinged? They’re getting a public relations [smear] thrown their way, but they’re getting their full pay and the team has to play short, and that’s a difficult hardship to be dealing with."

The Yankees have enough problems without losing say a Gerrit Cole or Aroldis Chapman for 10 days, but there could be a physical toll to pay, as well, for the pitchers who suddenly scrub themselves clean of the sticky stuff. Rays ace Tyler Glasnow railed against Tuesday’s edict, blaming his struggle to the grip the ball — minus his preferred mixture of sunscreen and rosin — for a partial UCL tear and flexor strain in his elbow.

"Do it in the offseason," he told reporters. "Give us a chance to adjust to it. But I just threw 80 innings, then you tell me I can’t use anything in the middle of the year. I have to change everything I’ve been doing the entire season. I’m telling you I truly believe that’s why I got hurt."

After Glasnow’s last start, when he pitched clean, he said he woke up sore in places "he didn’t know he had muscles in." Could Glasnow’s injury be a harbinger of troubles to come? Since reports first surfaced earlier this month the crackdown was coming, the data has shown plunging spin rates, so that hardly seems like a coincidence. But will that translate to instant offense, or transform the sport’s pitching elite into mere mortals? Time will tell.

"There’s probably a pretty large percentage of pitchers that use something that now is not going to be acceptable," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Everything from a guy trying to gain a little extra grip to where we’ve seen people take it too far to help their pitch design and really gain an edge. So I’m not going to speculate on how it’s going to affect different individuals. I think we ‘ll look at it as the weeks and months unfold and I’m sure we’ll all make our judgments how it’s affected us as a sport and as an industry."

With Erik Boland

Spider Tack is super-sticky paste commonly used by powerlifters and athletes in strongman competitions to grip Atlas Stones, which are five heavy, spherical stones that increase in weight. Spider Tack takes its name from its sticky web-like consistency. Spider Tack is sold on Amazon.com ($19.99 for a 2-ounce can) and comes in three types: competition grade, which is the original and works in both cold and heat, heavy, which is thicker and less webby and works in the hottest temperatures, and light, which is the thinnest substance and works in cold and hot temperatures. Spider Tack is produced at a Colorado pharmaceuticals lab owned by Spider Strength, LLC, whose CEO Mike Caruso was a former power lifter.

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