Doctoring the ball with a foreign substance -- any foreign substance -- has been against the rules in baseball for 100 years or since the spitball was outlawed in 1920. But the practice of using it to improve one's grip became so widespread that baseball has simply looked the other way for years.
There is an old adage that the difference between baseball in the minor leagues and the majors is that, in the minors, they find out what you can do and in the majors they find out what you can't do.
As is the case with most adages, there's a lot of truth to that. When baseball was hit by a rash of home runs, brought on to a great extent by batters swinging from the heels in uppercut fashion, even with two strikes against them, it didn't take long for big-league pitchers to adjust. They found out what hitters can't do. So, they throw hard fastballs at the top of the strike zone and breaking balls down at the bottom. The combination is lethal. It's tough enough for a hitter to catch up with a heater in the high 90s thrown at the top of the zone, but to do so using an uppercut swing verges on the impossible. Pitchers at the big-league level know that. The result is that strikeouts are at an all-time high and batting averages are at an all-time low.
Doctoring the ball with a foreign substance -- any foreign substance -- has been against the rules in baseball for 100 years or since the spitball was outlawed in 1920. But the practice of using it to improve one's grip became so widespread that baseball has simply looked the other way for years. Now that it's being weaponized to improve spin rates and increase strikeouts, MLB has decided to crack down. It's going to find out, or says it will, if Jacob deGrom's habit of tugging on his belt has a nefarious purpose or is merely an innocent gesture.
Hurlers have always used sticky stuff on their fingers to enhance their grips. Baseball has always ignored the transgression when they used stuff like the combination of rosin and sun tan oil; after all, it added to the safety of the game -- you wouldn't want a 95 mile-an-hour fastball slipping out of a guy's hand, would you?
But then along came spin rates, baseball's hot new stat. We all became aware that the more a ball is spinning -- whether it be the backspin of a four-seam heater or the topspin of a breaking ball -- the tougher it is to hit. Sticky stuff enabled a guy to put greater spin on the ball, so it became all the rage. MLB has now decided to crack down on what was already illegal. All eyes are on the likes of Gerrit Cole of the Yankees and Jacob deGrom of the Mets who have -- or had -- extraordinarily high spin rates on their deliveries. Have they been breaking the law? Does that account for their great success?
Cole held a news conference recently in which he was asked directly about his use of Spider Tack, one of the trendy new products that enhances pitchers' grips and adds to their spin rates. Cole danced, he dodged, he bobbed, he weaved; but he wouldn't answer yes or no. He and all ball players are very well aware that, in 2005, Rafael Palmeiro, who had more than 500 hundred home runs and 3,000 hits during his career, wagged his finger at a congressional hearing as, under oath, he insisted, "I have never used steroids, period." The only problem was, he got suspended for testing positive a few short months later. It has forever marked him as a liar and a cheater. It has prevented his enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame and landed him instead in the Hall of Shame, a tarnished figure to be shunned at all cost. He learned the hard way the same lesson that Richard Nixon had learned 30 years before in the Watergate scandal -- that the cover-up can be a bigger sin than the original misdeed.
Is using foreign substances to enhance one's grip on a baseball on a par with using steroids? Certainly not -- at least not yet. But what was tolerated as recently as a season ago is regarded as a major offense today. The pressure is on the Gerrit Coles and the Jacob deGroms of the baseball world -- and it's on big time.
But it's nothing compared to the pressure on guys you probably have never heard of. They are the guys in high minor leagues, just one step from becoming big leaguers. Most of them will never make that final jump, but if they do, it will change their lives. The average salary on the Triple A level is about $15,000 a year. The major league minimum is $570,000. That's the very least someone with a big-league club can be paid. The guy who just got called up to that big club is going to do everything in his power to stay there, and if that means putting a little pine tar on his fingers, so be it. But now he might get suspended, his reputation tainted as a cheater before he even gets started. Just a short while ago, he'd have been lauded for doing the same thing. Things change, even in baseball.
For every former major leaguer living in a gated community and working on his golf game there are a hundred other former players who never made the big-time working at low paying jobs and leading unglamorous lives. The money in baseball, and in all sports, is crazy -- if you're lucky enough to make it. The days of former major leaguers down on their luck and reliant on the generosity of their old teammates are long gone. But they are still a fact of life for former minor leaguers.
Gerrit Cole has his 300-million-dollar deal, and the money is guaranteed -- as long as he doesn't get caught with sticky stuff on his fingertips. Which brings us to another difference between the major leagues and the minors. The money is better in the majors, and that's a big, big difference.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
Recent articles in the Culture & Events section
The best statistic of allMichael Reardon
The Catholic Union of BostonThomas Lester
The will of the peopleJohn Garvey
Report card timeDick Flavin