On MLB And Its Eternal Fight To Level The Playing Field

MLB And Spider Tack

MLB has long been waging the fight to keep a level playing field between pitchers and hitters. The fact is, though, pitchers are smarter.

The response by MLB to halt or at least curb the cheating pitchers epidemic is nothing new and part of a lineage that stretches back to the inception of baseball during the latter part of the 19th Century.

MLB Historian John Thorne
MLB Historian John Thorne

Consider this from MLB Baseball Historian John Thorne’s Pitching: Evolution And Revolution:

” In the first surviving rules of baseball, drafted by William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker for the Knicker­bocker Base Ball Club in 1845, Article 9 (the only one about the pitcher) read:

The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.”

“Damn it, Contursi, make ’em hit the ball” are words that still ring in my ears from Coach Bennison during my days as a high school pitcher, when the only goal I had in life was to strike everybody out, a theory that worked in practice at the same rate that I walked hitters.

However, the force of that rule is not lost on the fact that, initially, pitchers played the role of the straight man to the guys who get all the laughs, the hitters.

Pitchers, as we know now, would have none of it, because as Thorne relates, “Jim Creighton, a seventeen-year-old pitcher for the amateur Niagaras of Brook­lyn (all teams were amateur then), created a stir in 1858 with a pitch that was not only faster than any seen before but also sailed or tailed or climbed or dipped”.

MLB Pitchers Taking Charge

MLB: Candy Cummings Debuts The Curveball
MLB: Candy Cummings Debuts The Curveball

From there, the always tinkering and cerebral pitchers continued to dream up ways to get the hitter out instead of pitching the ball “for the bat.”

The revolution reached a dramatic stage on October 7, 1867, with Candy Cummings debut of the curveball, a pitch that would eventually usher in the Dead ball Era in MLB, an age that lasted until Babe Ruth led a counter-revolution, signally the Modern Era of baseball – and the home run.

The rest, as they say, is history and probably more familiar to fans of MLB today.

A deluge of news pitches from those always thinking pitchers emerged to counter the few hitters (think Ted Williams) who saw hitting as a science instead of the “see the ball, hit the ball” mentality so prevalent in MLB today.

The Left Hand Of God - Sandy Koufax Photo Credit: ESPN
The Left Hand Of God – Sandy Koufax Photo Credit: ESPN

The split-finger fastball, so prominent in the Hall of Fame careers of pitchers like Rollie Fingers and Jack Morris, the slider, a weapon in the arsenal of nearly all MLB pitchers today, the “screwball,” a pitch used primarily by lefties like Warren Spahn, to the butterfly action of the knuckleball, made famous by Hoyt Wilhelm and the Niekro brothers – all have had a significant impact on MLB over the years.

And as we know, when Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson built their careers with trademark usage of missing bats, MLB felt the need to step in to level the playing field by lowering the pitcher’s mound after the 1968 season.

MLB History As A Backdrop For Today

So, with that backdrop, we consider what MLB is attempting to do by confronting the pitcher’s use of foreign substances to grip the ball better.

MLB's Legalized Foreign Substance
MLB’s Legalized Foreign Substance

Ironically, though, MLB has long-used a foreign substance applied to baseball to ensure pitchers have an adequate grip on the ball, paying for an oozy substance (commonly called mud) that one family harvests in a secret location along the Delaware River.

The “mud” is the job of the umpires to rub into all baseballs scheduled for use that day. Apparently, however, pitchers feel they need more than the substance legalized by MLB.

Gaze into the on-deck circle, and you’ll see a host of ammo used by batters, anything from pine tar sticks and rags to weights used for practice swings, and pitchers will ask, “Are these not foreign substances too”? – and that’s not to mention the artificial armor and gloves hitters wear in the batter’s box.

Back and forth, it goes in a timeless battle to seek an advantage over the enemy, whether it be a pitcher or a hitter.

This is probably why, for instance, that Pete Alonso, the New York Mets slugger and Rookie of the Year in 2019, took a ho-hum, what else is new, attitude the other night when he was asked about pitchers “cheating.”

Stating that pitchers have been doing it (using foreign substances) for years, Alonso went on to say not only does he not have a problem with it, and in fact, he welcomes it.

Citing his witnessing of a horrible scene when his teammate Kevin Pillar was hit with a 95mph fastball directly in the face, an incident that forced a delay in the game to clean up the blood at home plate, Alonso sees a better grip on the ball as a safety issue to protect him from errant pitches that “get away” from a pitcher’s hand.

Either way, according to new guidelines issued by MLB, pitchers entering or leaving a game are subject to an umpire’s random search of his cap, glove, and person, with fines and suspensions for multiple offenders.

Pete Alonso Fanning The Flame

Supercharged Pete Alonso (NY Daily News)
Supercharged Pete Alonso (NY Daily News)

To fan the flames even more, Alonso added to his “What’s the big deal?” mantra with the stunning accusation that MLB itself is cheating by varying the manufacturing of baseballs, depending on the nature of next year’s free-agent class.

If Alonso reasons, the bulk of a particular year’s free-agent class is dominated by hitting talent as next year’s market is destined to be, MLB “adjusts” the baseball to ensure these players have off years, thereby reducing the money they can command from team owners.

Missing in action (at least publicly) and a much-needed force of self-government is the Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA). Arguably, the players as a group should want to find a way to police themselves rather than have MLB do it for them, but…

Individually, players are having their say, and they are doing it publicly.

Former MVP Josh Donaldson Weighs In Too

For Blue Jays MVP, Josh Donaldson, now with the Twins, recently picked a fight with Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole, and Donaldson came well-prepared for the task offering actual research.

Josh Donaldson Sounds Off
Josh Donaldson Sounds Off

Donaldson alleges that once Cole heard that 12 minor leaguers were caught using foreign substances, he went cold-turkey in his next start, in which his spin-rate was noticeably down, leading to giving up five runs.

Cole counter-punched that he just had a bad day and his mechanics were off, but he didn’t help himself much with several ‘ers and ‘ahs and long pauses during a press conference answering questions about his use of the “sticky stuff.”

In the court of public opinion, not answering an accusatory question with a strong denial is the same as saying, “I did it,” which is exactly how Cole emerged from his inadequate and dilatory answers.

For his part, Donaldson now says he didn’t mean to pick in Cole because everyone in baseball knows most pitchers are cheating.

Moreover, though, why isn’t anyone asking a more glaring way for the cheating to occur – and it’s not with pitchers – it’s with catchers who want to “help” their pitchers and team.

Consider that all a catcher has to do is catch the ball in his glove that has been doctored up, returning the ball to his pitcher already locked and loaded. And yet, there are no searches of catcher’s gloves planned that I know of.

MLB Players Are Shooting Themselves In The Foot

But here’s the rub, and this gets into the genuine harm the whole episode is dispensing on MLB.

The question posed is this – does greatness now automatically become attached to the tag that says – cheater?

Do we now assume that Jacob deGrom has to be cheating out of this planet because how else can he be doing what he’s doing by totally dominating the games he pitches in?

Is that where we are heading, and if it is, where is MLB to keep it from happening?

MLB Fans Stuck With No Dog In The Race

The matter is of little consequence for the average MLB fan, and it falls into the same category as the endless wars they see between Democrats and Republicans in Washington – the inference being, just give me my baseball.

But for players and owners, it’s an integral part of the tug-o-war that will reach its final stage when the current agreement between the two sides expires in December, leading many to believe that if tempers remain high as they are now, the possibility of a strike or lockout rises accordingly.

Presumably, no one wants that, and yet we seem to be in one of those he-said-she-said wars with MLB standing by to play referee.

Gerrit Cole (right) as a young Yankees fan (Photo: Newsday)
Gerrit Cole (right) as a young Yankees fan (Photo: Newsday)

A final thought returns us to Gerrit Cole, who ironically occupies a unique position as one of the accused; simultaneously, he holds a leadership position within the player’s union as the Yankee’s team rep.

Guilty or not, Cole would seem to be in a position where he can work with other player reps behind the scenes to come up with measures to stop the sticky stuff without damaging the reputations of his peers who are bound to “get caught” sooner or later.

Other than that, it is our misfortune as fans to know that sometime during the airing of games shortly, we’ll need to listen to “discussions” on the subject from broadcasters and announcers – instead of enlightening exchanges about why a manager didn’t try to hit-and-run in that situation…

There are no winners on this one – only losers.

Here’s What Readers Are Saying…

John Kaniuk Smarter? A dummy could have seen those hats were doctored. MLB is not that smart.

Tom Wilson What’s the difference between doctoring the baseball and getting a better grip so you don’t accidentally hit the batter in the head with a 93 mile an hour fastball?😃

Hubie Mercado Good article. Someone has to have the edge if it improves the game; so what, if pitchers use some type of substance.

Mark Anthony Ramirez Idk about that. The fact is MLB leans towards giving hitters an upper hand. The other fact is today’s young hitters are focused on analytics instead of hitting. Walks and launch angles. The .300 hitter is becoming a thing of the past. If you hit .220 with 30 home runs and walk nearly 100 times you’re a star but you’re also striking out over 100 times and leaving players and runs wasted on the base paths.

Sher Heide Level playing field, ha. Why did MLB deaden the ball this year, why is Manfred constantly tweaking the rules to consistently take away baseball as we know it. Sometimes it gets harder and harder to watch.


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Steve Contursi
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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.