The Sticky MLB Problem

For Gaylord Perry, today’s pitcher’s mound would be a candy store. Perry was a gifted pitcher in the 1970s and later a Hall of Fame inductee, but he was also a notorious cheater. His favorite baseball healing substance was petroleum jelly, although in his book “Me and the Spitter” he said he had tried fishing line oil before. Today, however, Perry would revel in the arsenal of substances commonly used by this generation of pitchers. Solar cream. Hair gel. Coca-Cola distilled. And of course, Spider Tack.

Spider tack? Yes, a gooey substance that competitors in strongman tournaments use to help grab 300-pound stones has become a favorite with desperate throwers looking for an edge.

Last week, Major League Baseball announced a crackdown on doctored baseballs. Pitchers caught cheating will be expelled and suspended for 10 games. Although the use of foreign substances to alter the movement of the pitch is almost as old as the sport itself, the ubiquity of doctored baseballs has reached new heights. League officials have checked thousands of bullets used this season and sent suspicious bullets to labs for analysis, The New York Times reported. The verdict: Most of these bullets had been contaminated with a foreign substance.

And so, once again, the American hobby curls up in shame. As Yogi Berra said, it’s like déjà vu, once again. Barry Bonds is not about enduring greatness but the infamy of steroids. The Houston Astros still bear the brunt of the sign-stealing scandal in their 2017 World Series run and the following year, a $ 5 million fine, suspensions and lost draft picks.

The new black brand of baseball potentially has deeper ramifications for the sport. The advantage for pitchers who modify the ball threatens to make the game look duller. Baseball is already looking for ways to spice up games, even as at the minor league level experimenting with moving the pitcher’s mound back one foot to give batters a better chance of hitting doubles and triples. But surreptitiously dabbing a little Pine Tar or Spider Tack onto a ball gives the pitcher more grip, which creates more spin and, as a result, shots that become more and more impractical. Strikes are increasing, hits are decreasing, interest in the game is decreasing.

If they keep turning to sticky grime for help, MLB pitchers face the same tinge of ignominy that befell Lance Armstrong, Sammy Sosa, the Russian Sports Ministry and countless other cheaters.

In other words, pitchers will have to improve without the gunk.

But cynicism won’t help. Emerging from the pain of the pandemic, we need baseball more than ever, for our collective psyche, for our return to relative normality. The game will not be saved if it is surrounded by disgrace.

And as the Little Leaguers, high school kids, and college players return to diamonds across Chicago and the rest of the country, the last thing they need is the message that Alchemy on the Mound is part of the game.

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