It’s a rule casually broken hundreds of times a day by players on every team in baseball. Umpires will not enforce it unless asked to, and even then they would rather leave well enough alone.
“The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” That is what Rule 8.02(a)(4) plainly states. But the reality is almost every pitcher uses some kind of sticky substance to get a better grip on the ball, particularly in cold or windy conditions.
It’s a speck on the scandal meter compared to the lingering question of whether Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ordered footballs deflated before the AFC Championship game in January. But around the majors, what should or shouldn’t be on the ball is a growing topic of conversation.
“It’s about time we addressed this,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Enough of pretending we don’t all know what is going on.”
By the letter of the law, it’s cheating. The rule was written in 1920 to keep pitchers from using spit, grease, or some other slick substance to make the ball dip and dive in the strike zone, a tactic that was popular decades ago.
But modern pitchers aren’t doctoring the ball to gain a competitive advantage; they just want a better grip on it.
They prefer a slightly sticky ball, not a slippery one.
“It’s purely just to have a good grip on the ball while you’re throwing the pitch,” Twins righthander Phil Hughes said. “Nobody is trying to make the ball do something. To be honest with you, I don’t know how many guys in my generation have any idea how to throw a spitball.”
Most hitters support the idea. They’re looking for a ball thrown in the vicinity of the plate, not one that slips and could hit them.
Infielders and catchers use substances, usually pine tar, to improve their grips. They understand what pitchers face.
“We’re facing some guys who are throwing 98 or 99. You’d like them to have some idea of where it’s going,” Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “Hitters know what the pitchers are doing. Most of the time we’re fine with it. It’s all part of the game.”
Sox righthander Clay Buchholz was accused of using a foreign substance by Blue Jays broadcasters during a game in 2013. But the Jays never asked the umpires to check.
“I get my hair wet and my uniform wet before the inning, just enough to get some moisture on the ball,” Buchholz said. “Everybody does something. It’s a game within the game; you just have to be discreet about it.”
Some pitchers lack that ability. Michael Pineda of the Yankees slathered pine tar on his neck during a game against the Red Sox early in the 2014 season and was ejected. He served a 10-game suspension.
Two pitchers — Milwaukee lefthander Will Smith and Baltimore lefthander Brian Matusz — were suspended this season for eight games. Both had a mixture of sunscreen and rosin on their forearms that glistened in the stadium lights. Smith was caught on May 21 and Matusz two days later.
That pushed the antiquated rule back into the news.
Showalter and three other prominent managers — John Farrell of the Red Sox, Joe Girardi of the Yankees, and Mike Scioscia of the Angels — have called for baseball to amend the rules and allow pitchers to use some kind of approved substance.
Pitchers currently can only use a rosin bag, which is on every mound. Rosin is a powdery form of tree resin and the small bags are typically white sanitary socks with the ends tied off.
Rosin is helpful on hot days to dry up sweat, pitchers say. But it doesn’t help much when it’s cold or windy. Indoor stadiums also present a challenge. An application of sunscreen usually solves the problem.
“This whole situation begs the question of why it’s acceptable that there’s a substance for when it’s really hot and dry and you’re sweaty but nothing for when it’s cold? Why cover one extreme but not the other?” said Sox reliever Craig Breslow, a veteran of 10 seasons.
“If tomorrow sunscreen or pine tar were legal, I don’t believe that anybody who currently uses it would use it more. More is not better.”
The only pitchers who prefer a smooth baseball are knuckleballers. Any tackiness affects their ability to push the ball out of their hands and deaden the rotation of their pitch.
“I would throw the ball back all the time and get a new one,” said Tim Wakefield, now retired after throwing a knuckleball for 19 seasons in the majors. “I’d come out for an inning and the ball would be full of pine tar or sunscreen and I’d get rid of it.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the issue is something baseball should explore.
“In the event that either the rules committee or the competition committee wishes to address this topic, we will be prepared for such a conversation,” MLB spokesman Mike Teevan said. “We are aware of the comments that managers and players have made on this issue and we will be open to determining whether there is a better solution.”
Since 1949, the MLB rulebook has been amended 54 times, so there is ample precedence for change and that could come after the season when executives meet. The question is how best to rewrite the rule.
“You can’t say anything goes. We’re just looking for something that does a pretty good job,” Breslow said.
In the meantime, the rule is loosely enforced. Umpires will only check a pitcher if requested by the opposing manager. But most managers would prefer not to open that door, knowing one of their pitchers also could get inspected.
“It’s tricky,” Farrell said. “You only go to the umpire when you have no other choice. Then they’ll ask, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
The problem starts with the ball. Major league baseballs, which are manufactured by Rawlings, come out of the box glossy and with a slippery feel. The umpires are responsible for preparing the balls by rubbing them down with a coating of mud, a dirty job that often falls to a locker room attendant.
Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud is the only product officially allowed on the ball. It’s literally mud from a tributary of the Delaware River in New Jersey discovered in 1938 by Blackburne, who was a coach with the Philadelphia Athletics.
The product, which has the consistency of pudding, takes the shine off the ball but does not necessarily improve grip.
“It’s still like a cue ball,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said.
Said Showalter: “They’re always different because some umpires rub the ball up a little more or a little less. It would be like NBA players having a different basketball every night.”
The problem has been solved in Japan. There, the balls are manufactured with a tacky feel to them and no doctoring is needed.
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara brought a Japanese ball to Fenway Park and tossed it to the reporter to inspect. The difference was noticeable.
“It took me a while to adjust when I came to the majors,” Uehara said with the assistance of translator C.J. Matsumoto. “Rosin is not enough to get a good grip.”
Uehara smiled when asked what he uses.
“I do what everybody else does,” he said. “But I’d rather not talk about it.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.