Much like the rest of us, Zack Britton saw the drama that unfurled in the baseball world Tuesday — a day marked by absurdity, and anger . . . and dropped pants. And he was not pleased.
It was the first day MLB’s new foreign substance enforcement rules were used on a full slate of baseball games, and the videos that emerged were nothing less than surreal. Here was Phillies manager Joe Girardi urging umpires to keep checking Max Scherzer, who angrily doffed his cap and undid his belt after getting examined three times. The situation finally bubbled over when Girardi, taking exception to Scherzer’s reactions, apparently challenged him to a fight [the manager was ejected]. Finally, there was A’s pitcher Sergio Romo, who tried to expedite the process by simply dropping his pants to his knees in front of several thousand fans at Globe Life Field. Both pitchers were clean, but that didn’t stop the videos from going viral.
It also proved to Britton that something needs to change.
"As someone who loves the game, I was watching other teams and I was embarrassed," the Yankees player’s union representative said. "We’re talking about that, we’re not talking about Wander Franco’s debut. We’re not talking about how well Gerrit [Cole] threw or how well Max Scherzer threw . . . We’re talking about guys getting checked on the field, guys dropping their pants on the field, guys throwing their belts off. I just think the optics are absolutely embarrassing for the game and that’s not what I want to wake up and read about regarding our game in the morning. There’s a better way to do it but it takes more than just me or other players saying it. It takes talking with MLB."
Britton’s perspective was the polar opposite of commissioner Rob Manfred, who gave a rare interview to The Athletic Wednesday, saying the first two days of enforcement "have gone very well." Manfred has not spoken to the media at large in over a year.
"We’ve had no ejections [for foreign substances]," he said. "Frankly, the data suggests that we are making progress with respect to the issues [in spin rate] that caused us to undertake the effort in the first place. I understand the incident in Philadelphia was less than ideal, but that was one incident. And we expect that we will continue, as the vast majority of cases so far, without that kind of incident."
But Britton said he didn’t have a problem with rule enforcement on its own — the use of foreign substances has been banned for a century — but the way baseball was going about it. He’s tried to talk to MLB about it, he said, but to no avail.
For one thing, he said, the checks should be done in private — in the dugout or in the bullpen — and MLB can use the same in-person monitors that they used to ensure that teams were adhering to COVID-19 regulations. The umpires he's spoken to have said they don’t enjoy enforcing the rules, which require all pitchers to get checked once and starters to get checked twice, he said. It also ruins the fan experience, he said.
"If I’m a young kid at a game and I’m asking my dad, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Why are they getting checked?’ Think about what he’s going to say. ‘Well, they think everyone is cheating.’ I mean, is that what we want the game to be about? We’re assuming you’re cheating?"
Manfred said he tried to make the checks as "unobtrusive as possible" but that broadcast partners were going to televise it if it was on the field. He added that he had discussions with players when they began discussing dealing with the foreign substance situation in March. Britton corroborated this, but said conversations stalled since then. He, along with other players, have reached out to baseball to talk about the rule’s implementation, he said, but heard nothing from Manfred, even though the commissioner was in Buffalo when the Yankees were playing the Blue Jays there.
Manfred appeared to refute his reputation for being inaccessible, telling The Athletic, "I have not been reluctant to talk on this topic. When people call, I am taking the call."
Britton, who spoke before Manfred’s interview went public, didn’t seem to believe that was true. "I would love to hear from MLB [and have them] answer questions to the media like we do," he said. "I would love to hear Manfred answer questions."
Britton may have gotten his wish, though it may not be what he wanted to hear.