ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — Baseball is ready to do something about its sticky situation—but do the league’s plans to combat foreign substance use among pitchers simply trade one problem for another?
With strikeouts on the rise and batting averages plummeting across the sport, MLB has finally chosen to address the game’s dirty little secret, the rampant deployment of ‘sticky stuff’ by pitchers throughout the league.
A Sports Illustrated article released earlier this week detailed the involvement of former Angels visiting clubhouse attendant Brian “Bubba” Harkins, who was fired last year after he was found to have been in violation of league policies with regard to foreign substances. Over the years, he had regularly supplied a homemade concoction of pine tar and rosin to numerous pitchers throughout the league, at the request of those players. As the article outlined, Harkins was far from alone in his participation in what has been a common league-wide practice, but he has nevertheless been made into a scapegoat for his role in facilitating that which MLB has now decided crosses the line into cheating.
The SI article featured text message records from Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, detailing that he had inquired about the stuff and eventually purchased an order of it from Harkins during the 2019 season. Following his outing on Monday night, Wainwright went on the record to clear the air about his experience with Harkins—and with ‘sticky stuff’ in general.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Wainwright said Monday. “What Bubba said is true. I tried it in 2019. Honestly, it didn’t work for me. You can check the order. I only had one order with that guy and I gave it away very soon afterwards. It’s something that you have to apply and go to every pitch. You’ll never see me go to my arms or my glove and touch that—I don’t like doing any of that stuff. I tried it. Didn’t like it. I got rid of it. And haven’t pitched with it in years... If that gets me in trouble because I did it years ago, then so be it. But I pitched without it however many years that is until 2019 and I pitched without it however many years since 2019. You can check my glove, you can check my hat, you can watch me like a hawk all game long. You’ll never see me with any of that stuff.
“I’ve got nothing to hide. I feel good about that. The truth shall set me free. We’ll see. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I have nothing more to add, because there is nothing more to add.”
Wainwright estimated he used Harkins’ mixture for six or seven games in 2019, but explained that he quickly gave it up for several reasons—not only did Wainwright find it difficult to apply and maintain, but he also didn’t like the way it impacted his release for certain pitches.
"The problem with it is, if you put it on—which, I never put it on my glove anywhere—if you put it on your hand, by the time you get done with your warm-up pitches, it’s gone," Wainwright said. "If you don’t re-apply every—that’s why you see guys going to their glove every pitch. I don’t like doing that.
“Honestly, I pitched for so long without it—it changes your release point. It changes where you’ve got to release stuff. It changes how you do a lot of things. That changed the way I pitched and I didn’t like it. So I ditched it.”
Many pitchers across the game have fiddled with concoctions of various ingredients—sunscreen, rosin, pine tar, etc.—long before Bubba Harkins ever became a distributor for such endeavors. For a long time, MLB simply wasn’t concerned with it. But the truth about what has forced MLB to reckon with the issue is the way the sophistication of these efforts throughout baseball have since evolved far beyond that which Harkins was known for supplying.
A substance known as Spider Tack, which was originally created to help weight-lifters grip cartoonish-sized Atlas Stones in strongman competitions, has found its way into baseball as pitchers discovered how the goop could be used to manipulate spin rates on baseballs. It’s now common knowledge that some teams have gone as far as to hire chemists to experiment with various substances in order to determine which ones will provide the most significant, targeted impact for pitchers.
Adam Wainwright sees a major difference in some of the substances floating around the game today compared to that with which he dabbled in 2019, thanks to Harkins.
“I do feel bad for Bubba, in a way. Because it really is, honestly, it’s like pine tar and rosin,” Wainwright said of the famed Harkins concoction. “Maybe a couple other things in there. But it is like junior league, minor-league stuff compared to this other stuff that is made for weight-lifters and all that stuff, it really is.
“There’s a tremendous difference between that stuff and this really high-grade stuff. I’ve never once seen a jar of that stuff, in person. I’ve never once come in contact with it other—I mean, I know some guys are using it around the league or whatever—but I’ve never seen it in person to know how sticky that stuff is, honestly.”
A few weeks after Cardinals manager Mike Shildt ranted on baseball’s inconsistent approach in its attempt to crack down on the use of foreign substances, MLB released its new guidelines on Tuesday outlining that pitchers found to be in violation of the league’s policies will be suspended for 10 games.
Interestingly, though, instead of simply bringing the hammer down on pitchers for their participation in substance use of the high-tech variety, MLB has decided to enforce a ban on essentially all substances—other than the approved rosin bag that pitchers find on the back of the mound each game. Even run-of-the-mill sunscreen and rosin mixture, for which some pitchers have articulated a preference in order to improve grip on the slick MLB baseballs, will be banned and enforced league-wide beginning June 21.
MLB released the new substance rules for pitchers: pic.twitter.com/AaJ56faeuR— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) June 15, 2021
“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred, Jr. said. “I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before. It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else – an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field. This is not about any individual player or Club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed. We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game.”
The concern expressed so far by some players has been with an eye on player health and safety. Hitters have never taken exception to the pitchers using a little something extra to aid in grip—nobody wants to wear 95 mph in the ear—but the issue has arisen with the intense increase in the technology behind some of these behaviors. With MLB enforcing a blanket ban on substances—even the ones that are genuinely more about grip than RPMs—could have an unfortunate impact when it comes to injuries. And not just to the hitters.
Tyler Glasnow, a starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, went on the injured list Tuesday with an elbow issue that he attributes to his recent abandonment of sunscreen as a gripping agent, a move he made in anticipation of Tuesday’s league memo. In his Glasnow's view, he adjusted a long-accepted practice mid-stream in order to comply with MLB's new stance on how such matters will be handled—and he's already paying the price for it.
Tyler Glasnow just went off about the midseason crackdown. He stopped using sunscreen a couple starts ago and felt sore afterwards due to difficulty with grip. Same last night. Says it contributed to his current injury. He’s hopeful to be back at the end of the season.— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) June 15, 2021
Glasnow just gave a very honest rant:"I just threw 80 something innings & you just told me I can't use anything. I have to change everything.I truly believe 100% that's why I got hurt. I'm frustrated MLB doesn't understand. You can't just tell us to use nothing. It's crazy."— Tricia Whitaker (@TriciaWhitaker) June 15, 2021
“I think it’s going to be adapted at some point to create some kind of standard for grip,” Shildt said of the mid-season enforcement of the foreign substance guidelines. “The rule is on the books. It’s in black and white and here it is. They’ve created a line. It’s really nothing new, this is just the enforcement of it.”
Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a member of the executive board of the MLB Players Association, said Tuesday that the feedback he’s received from players so far has been the abrupt fashion in which long-accepted practices are suddenly being viewed in a different light.
“I think one of the concerns that I would have and that I’ve heard is this seems like the cold turkey approach,” Instead of giving, and I guess maybe MLB would argue there’s a buffer zone. A rule’s a rule, also. But there’s not a whole lot of time for guys (that have been using it). Some guys haven’t hidden it as well as others, some guys are starting to be more forthcoming. But the chance to adapt—I imagine guys that have been using stuff are throwing bullpens without it or playing catch without it, as they should be, and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive."
It's apparent that Pandora's Box has been opened on the subject of foreign substances in baseball, but the level to which players should brace for impact isn't entirely clear in the days leading up to the official enforcement of the guidelines.
“We’ll see,” Miller added regarding how all of this might play out throughout the game, post-June 21. “I wish I had a crystal ball. “It would help a lot in my life, but I don’t have it right now.”
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