- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Once Major League Baseball and the players' association leadership dig into the discussion about foreign substances -- and presumably they'll get around to it, because everybody in uniform is talking about the problems with the current rule -- they'll ask the root question: Why are so many pitchers using something to help them grip the baseball?
The answer, some veteran players and staff members explained over the weekend, is not because they're looking for a competitive advantage. Rather, it's because the condition of the baseballs they are handed varies from venue to venue, from day to day, from inning to inning, and often they are difficult to grip. It's about quality control.
The baseball is the heart of the sport, bearing the signature of commissioner Rob Manfred, and yet club employees, staff members and players say they believe there is little consistency in how the baseball is prepared after being pulled from the manufacturer's box. Some staffers believe MLB should work to ensure that the baseballs are properly prepared for each game, and that a baseball put into play at Safeco Field is in about the same condition as a ball in Fenway Park or Petco Park. Major League Baseball has already stepped up the security around the baseballs, as The Associated Press reported earlier this month, but more quality control is probably needed.
The expectation is that the umpires rub up baseballs with mud before each game, to roughen the smooth surface and give pitchers a better chance to grip and control the ball. But the reality, club staffers say, is that more often than not, a clubhouse attendant is left the task of rubbing up the baseballs. "Some do it better than others," said one staff member. "But some [clubhouse attendants] don't know anything about how to do it. You might get a clubhouse kid who's never done it before."
A longtime pitcher tells the story of tipping the clubhouse attendant extra money on the days that pitcher started, because he asked the attendant to use sunscreen in the preparation of the baseballs. Another veteran pitcher heard that story over the weekend, nodded and said, "That's how it's done."
Maybe the most interesting suggestion I heard over the weekend was that Major League Baseball should explore the idea of using the same preparation for baseballs used in Japan, where the balls have more tackiness on the surface than the baseballs used here.
This is all part of the larger discussion about the flawed and antiquated foreign substance rule that was borne out with two pitchers ejections in three days.
Brian Matusz is appealing his suspension. So is the Brewers' Will Smith, another caught in the serendipitous situation, and when I reached out to Smith's agent, Jeff Berry, to ask about the nature of the pitcher's appeal, Berry had this response, via text:
"The issue here is not only the rule itself but its uneven enforcement. Is it really possible that the only pitchers using something to gain a better grip are the ones pointed out by the other team? Given generally accepted practices, and in light of the recent Smith and Matusz situations, without some degree of clarification or adjustment, opposing managers will continue to use the rule as a weapon that selectively seeks enforcement only when it has the potential to impact the outcome of close games.
"I don't think anyone really wants that."
No. Which is why this is something that should be sorted through as soon as possible.
As Major League Baseball reconsiders the foreign substance issue, there is an inconsistency noted in this Roch Kubatko piece: A team that loses a player for a foreign substance suspension cannot replace him on its roster, but on the other hand, a team can replace a player busted for PEDs.
It makes no sense that the Orioles and Braves will play short-handed as Matusz and Smith serve out their suspensions. An adjustment is needed to address that.
Rangers keep on winning
The Rangers could get back to .500 Tuesday, and after spending a couple of days around them over the weekend, it's pretty evident that in spite of their flaws, in spite of their desperate need for pitching, this is an extremely dangerous team.
Prince Fielder is healthy and reinvigorated, and on pace for about 230-plus hits, and this is a group that seems invested in each day in a manner rarely seen. Fielder and Adrian Beltre have made careers of playing every day -- they have long and established track records -- and they are both working to push the others in a very positive way, challenging teammates. Over the weekend, there was a moment when Delino DeShields seemed to lose focus on a ball hit to the outfield, and before the coaching staff made a move to speak to him at the end of the half inning, Fielder -- who remains in the dugout throughout the game in his role as DH -- said, "I got this one," and he spoke to DeShields. The perception of Fielder within the organization is that his first extended time away from baseball in his lifetime -- last summer, as he recovered from neck surgery -- reminded him of what he loved about the sport, and this changed him.
Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Martin Perez are all expected back from the disabled list sometime in the next two months, which will help the pitching staff. Maybe they'll make the playoffs, maybe not, but it's apparent that the effort and will is going to be there.
In today's notes, Buster Olney examines and explains why pitchers apply foreign substances to baseballs, discusses the Rangers' hot play and more.