Major League Baseball has an ongoing problem. It never seems to quite learn from past mistakes. MLB has always had the same reaction from amphetamines to steroids and now to pitchers leaning heavily on foreign substances to spin the ball at excessive rates. Aggressive inaction at the administrative level leaves players out to dry, such as how New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole found himself recently.
Amphetamines entered the clubhouse decades ago. Coffee pots labeled “leaded” and “unleaded” did not refer to caffeine content. Amphetamine use was, if not universal, then commonplace. MLB’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the rising use of steroids was identical to its lack of a stance on uppers. Today, the topic not under discussion is pitchers literally sticking it to hitters by using foreign substances to aid their grip.
Gerrit Cole left holding the bag
Gerrit Cole is facing accusations of doctoring the ball with sticky substances that date back to when he was with the Houston Astros. A reporter directly asked Cole whether he used a particular substance called Spider Tack to increase his grip on the ball.
His answer was a word salad delicacy worthy of the slipperiest of politicians. Cole was in the crosshairs over a confluence of issues.
It began when MLB finally said it intends to do more than pay lip service to some action against the use of foreign substances by pitchers. In Cole’s last start against the Tampa Bay Rays, after four minor-league pitchers drew 10-game suspensions for using foreign substances, his spin rate dropped dramatically. Finally, Minnesota Twins’ third baseman Josh Donaldson mentioned the spin-rate drop as an open-ended accusation.
Cole danced around the issue artfully, blaming mechanical flaws for the reduced spin on his pitches against the Rays. The reply to the question was painfully awkward.
“I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest.”Gerrit Cole
Then he rambled about customs and practices, MLB legislating “stuff,” and other non-answer type answers. But it’s not all Cole’s fault.
MLB started the problem by juicing up the baseball
Once upon a time, the ball used in MLB had high seams and leather that had some give when pressing one’s fingers into the ball. But over time, as MLB put more of a premium on juicing up scoring, the ball got slicker and less pliable. The seams got lower. Soon, pitchers complained the ball was too difficult to control.
Batters didn’t have a problem with pitchers using substances such as rosin-sunscreen mixtures or a bit of pine tar to facilitate a better grip. After all, it’s their heads that are in the path of those misfired pitches. But as with every unwritten rule in baseball, some practitioners took it too far. In baseball, there has always been a tolerance for a certain amount of cheating. Gaylord Perry using everything but mother’s milk on the baseball to make it drop and dive serves as a prime example.
Stephen J. Nesbitt of The Athletic talked to the inventor of Spider Tack, who had no idea pitchers in MLB were using his product. Mike Caruso developed Spider Tack to help strongman competitors like himself better hang on to the large Atlas Stones. Those stones weigh up to 160 kilograms (353 pounds), so not accidentally dropping them is prudent. Caruso’s intent was simple.
“The goal was to make the stickiest thing possible.”Mike Caruso, inventor of Spider Tack
Pitchers found it and bonded to it quickly (and literally). Donaldson believes Gerrit Cole is using the stuff. A cornered Cole tap-danced around a denial. Why? Because this is how things evolve in baseball.
MLB leaves players, managers, and fans living in a gray area
No other team sport in America has as long a history as baseball, which has been around since the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, the evolution of that history has been a tortured exercise in rules written and unwritten. The unwritten rules have been at the center of disputes of many varieties in recent years.
Since modern technology has allowed pitchers to measure their spin rates, it quickly became an obsession. Pitching became much less art and much more science. And if something you needed to use industrial solvent to get off your fingers gave you another couple hundred rpm, then let it rip (including your fingertips, apparently).
Is Gerrit Cole cheating, or is he cheating? In MLB, one of those is OK, and the other is not. But as the sport flounders through the modern age, it continues to do an abysmal job of letting its participants understand the difference.