Major League Baseball’s crackdown on sticky foreign substances led to several tense moments on Tuesday night as a fuming Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer and Oakland Athletics reliver Sergio Romo demonstrably unbuckled their pants for umpires to prove they weren’t hiding any grip enhancers on their bodies.
MLB umpires began a crackdown on Monday by regularly examining pitchers for tacky substances that can give them a better grip on the baseball. Managers also can request a check, although umps can deny it if they believe it’s not in good faith.
Romo, who was checked by the umpires after giving up a homer in a win over the Texas Rangers, furiously flung his belt onto the turf and dropped his trousers.
After being checked for sticky substance 3 times tonight, Max Scherzer stared down Phillies Manager Joe Girardi while walking to the dugout. Girardi then left his dugout and had some words for Scherzer, which led to Girardi being ejected.pic.twitter.com/3laApv2YdR
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) June 23, 2021
‘He’s a playful guy,’ Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. ‘I don’t think he meant anything by it. … That won’t happen again.’
Scherzer was even angrier than Romo, and threw his glove and hat to the grass, then stared down Phillies manager Joe Girardi after getting checked for a third time during a 3-2 win in Philadelphia.
‘These are Manfred rules,’ Scherzer said, referring to the crackdown by baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. ‘Go ask him what he wants to do with this.’
Scherzer (6-4) looked sharp in his return to the rotation after missing a start due to a groin injury, striking out eight in five innings, but Girardi apparently didn’t like what he saw.
In the fourth, Scherzer whizzed a fastball high and inside to Alec Bohm, sending him sprawling to the ground before striking him out. Prior to the next batter, Girardi asked the umpires to check Scherzer after he noticed the Nationals ace touching his hair.
‘It was suspicious for me,’ Girardi said.
The fiery Scherzer already had been checked by second-base umpire Alfonso Marquez after the first and third inning, with the crew chief doing an inspection of the right-hander’s glove, hat and belt.
So when Marquez approached Scherzer for a third time, this time at Girardi’s request, the three-time Cy Young Award winner tossed his glove and hat to the ground, unbuckled his belt and appeared ready to take his pants off in what became a bizarre scene.
‘I would have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight when everybody’s antenna is so far high they’d look for anything,’ Scherzer said. ‘I have absolutely zero on me. I have nothing on me. Check whatever you want. I’ll take off all my clothes if you want to see me.’
Scherzer explained that he was having trouble gripping the baseball and the pitch to Bohm was a byproduct.
‘I almost put a 95 mile an hour fastball in his head because the ball slipped out of my hand,’ he said. ‘The whole night I was sick of kind of licking my fingers and tasting rosin the whole night.’
Trying to find a way to get a grasp on the baseball, Scherzer reached for his sweaty hair, saying that’s the only place he could find enough moisture without constantly licking his hands after applying rosin — something he said tasted ‘gross.’
Girardi said prior to the contest that he would not ask a pitcher to be checked merely for gamesmanship; rather, he would do it only if he legitimately believed there was cause.
‘I got nothing,’ Scherzer appeared to repeat to the umpires, before glaring at Philadelphia’s dugout, brushing his hair with his hands and yelling, ‘Just wet!’
‘Nothing but sweat,’ Marquez said afterward.
Scherzer sent the Phillies down in order in the fifth and stared hard toward Girardi while walking back to the Nationals dugout. Girardi then became unglued, hopping onto the field, motioning with his hands and screaming toward the Nationals dugout.
Plate umpire Tim Timmons intercepted Girardi and ejected him.
‘I’m not playing games, I’m trying to win games here,’ Girardi said. ‘I have respect for what Max has done in his career, but I have to do what’s right for our team.’
Scherzer mocked Girardi from Washington’s dugout, holding up his hat and glove as if to ask the Phillies skipper if he wanted to check one more time.
‘Hopefully the players across the league understand that what were doing right now, this is not the answer,’ Scherzer said. ‘There is a problem with Spider Tack in the game and we’ve got to get rid of that, but I also think there’s a way to handle this in a better way.’
‘We’re going to continue to have more events like this happen,’ Scherzer added. ‘As pitchers evolve to this, pitchers aren’t going to be too happy doing this because we’re tying to play by the rules.’
Umpires’ searches of Scherzer and Romo did not find any banned substances, nor did a recent search of New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.
The search is on for unauthorized foreign substances that pitchers can use to doctor baseballs, long against the rules but rarely enforced until now. The crackdown began Monday when major and minor league umpires started regular checks of all pitchers for tacky substances used to get a better grip on the balls, but can also increase the spin of the balls and make hitting them more difficult.
‘I said, ‘What all do you guys need?’ ‘Glove, hat and belt,’ they said. I handed them that stuff and then went along my way,’ said deGrom, the first to get inspected since he was the first pitcher to take the mound on the day baseball’s new enforcement directive went into effect. He started the first game of New York’s home doubleheader against Atlanta.
The Mets and Braves were among 14 teams who played Monday, six days after a five-page memo to teams about the pending change in enforcement that followed what baseball Manfred called an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect.
‘I think I’ve seen everything in baseball, but this is new, setting a new precedent,’ said Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, in his 24th season as a big league manager after 19 seasons as a player.
Asked whether such substances were tacitly allowed in the past, Baker responded, ‘You just didn’t really make a fuss about it, but it was against the rules, so we’ll see.’
Rangers starter Kyle Gibson and Oakland’s Frankie Montas weren’t checked until after pitching in the second inning in Texas. Both were smiling after getting inspected on the field, and then getting a tap on the chest from plate umpire Dan Iassogna. They got checked again three innings later.
Texas manager Chris Woodward said before the game that Gibson said he has never used anything on baseballa.
‘He’s kind of a unicorn nowadays … to have a guy who is so good who doesn’t use anything,’ Woodward said. ‘It’s probably rare.’
Manfred said last week that the enforcement of foreign substances was needed ‘to level the playing field’ after two months of comprehensive data collection, including inspections of balls used in games and testing by third-party inspectors. That came with the league batting average at a more than a half-century low along with record strikeouts.
Fans at Citi Field booed loudly when plate umpire Ben May halted deGrom on the pitcher’s path off the field after the right-hander had two strikeouts in the first inning. After being cleared by crew chief Ron Kulpa, who had jogged in from third base to do the inspection, deGrom walked on to the dugout, laughing with catcher Tomás Nido about the exchange as the fans cheered.
Kyle Muller, who was making his first big league start for the Braves, was similarly stopped and inspected after the bottom of the first.
DeGrom appeared to ask May after the top of the second if he’d need to be inspected again, but May waved him on that time. He was inspected again after the fifth, prompting more boos from the fans while their hometown pitcher was cleared again.
‘Honestly, I didn’t mind it. It was quick and it went pretty easy,’ deGrom said.
There was a strange occurrence in Phoenix when Milwaukee left-hander Brett Anderson was checked by umpires while leaving in the middle of the second with an undisclosed injury.
Anderson was slowly walking off the field when he was approached by plate umpire D.J. Reyburn. After his glove and cap were quickly checked, the pitcher was allowed to go to the dugout.
The umps had inspected Arizona starter Merrill Kelly after the top of the second.
Any suspended players would not be replaced on a team’s active roster. Braves manager Brian Snitker emphasized that when he met with players Sunday and discussed crackdown at length.
‘I think the biggest thing we wanted to reiterate is if you get popped, we can’t replace you,’ he said Monday from New York. ‘That’s a big deal. I think everybody’s aware of what’s going to go on and how serious it is, to not mess around and get suspended, because that’s a definite blow to your club when you got to go short like that.’
Chicago Cubs manager David Ross, a former big league catcher, was asked whether hitters needed to be more careful in the batter’s box due to potentially slicker baseballs.
‘So the information so far in the last 10 days, batting average has gone up, on-base has gone up, (slugging percentage) has gone up. Spin rates are down on fastballs, breaking balls, and hit by pitches are exactly the same,’ Ross said. ‘So you draw your own conclusions.’
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who was not worried about any issues with his pitchers, figured that everybody around the league would be on their best behavior with everyone watching the first night.
‘I’m sure there’s going to come a day when it’s a hot day and everybody’s a little irritable that something will probably happen,’ Francona said. ‘MLB’s been pretty open that there might be a hiccup or two. But I do think for the most part, I think the majority of everybody wants the same thing. Just how you get to it some days, you know, you’re dealing with competitive people and sometimes you get your ire up a little bit or something. Something will happen, I’m sure.’
The last pitchers suspended for using foreign substances were Baltimore’s Brian Matusz and Milwaukee’s Will Smith for eight games each in May 2015. Both appealed, and Smith’s penalty was cut to six games while Matusz’s ban was upheld.
MLB’s policy changes will effectively begin June 21.
Teams have already received league reports naming pitchers who have been caught using foreign substances, two unidentified general managers told ESPN.
In anticipation of the crackdown, some teams asked pitchers to work on throwing in the bullpen without the use of foreign substances, two players and an official told ESPN.
MLB’s rulebook makes no distinction between the kinds of substances that will be prohibited, which ESPN reports could cause some consternation among pitchers.
For years, pitchers have improved their grip by inconspicuously mixing rosin and sunscreen lotion, but more recently, they’ve allegedly gained an advantage with the use of Spider Tack, a sticky concoction favored by weightlifters. (Pitchers are permitted to use a bag of dried rosin on the mound to help keep their hands dry)
A source described as a ‘high-ranking person on the players’ side’ told ESPN that there is a ‘broad consensus among players that Spider Tack is over the line,’ but other foreign substances are seen differently.
Recently New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso told reporter he doesn’t care if pitchers use foreign substances: ‘I would rather them have control.’
In a statement, the players’ union responded to ESPN’s report about the impending 10-game suspensions for violators.
‘The Players Association is aware that Major League Baseball plans to issue guidance shortly regarding the enforcement of existing rules governing foreign substances,’ read the statement. ‘We will communicate with Players accordingly once that guidance has been issued. We anticipate future discussions with the League regarding on-field issues, including the foreign substance rules and the baseballs themselves, as part of ongoing collective bargaining. Our continued focus will remain on fundamental fairness and player health and safety.’
ESPN is also reporting that several unidentified pitchers have said they will stop using Spider Tack and switch to pine tar, which hitters use to improve their grip on the handle of the bat.
Last week, a former Los Angeles Angels clubhouse attendant accused a second New York Yankees pitcher of doctoring baseballs, naming two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in report after previously implicating Gerrit Cole in a defamation lawsuit.
Brian ‘Bubba’ Harkins, who was fired in 2020 for providing sticky foreign substances to MLB pitchers, revealed to Sports Illustrated that Kluber was among a list of clients that included Cole.
In response to the allegation, Kluber’s agent, BB Abbott, told Sports illustrated that Harkins is lying.
‘[Harkins] never personally gave anything of the sort to Corey Kluber nor has he ever used any substance prepared by Bubba [Harkins] in a MLB game,’ Abbott told SI in defense of his client. ‘If he is saying anything contrary to that, it is a blatant lie.’
Harkins, who served as the Angels’ visiting clubhouse manager, sued the Angels and MLB for defamation in August of 2020 after becoming the only staffer to be fired amid the league-wide crackdown on doctored baseballs. He claims that Kluber became a regular customer of his when the All-Star was pitching for the Cleveland Indians after hearing about it from a teammate.
In his lawsuit, Harkins argued that the practice was widespread. He also shared an alleged text message from Cole in a January filing showing the All-Star requesting a concoction he claims he learned from former Angels reliever Troy Percival, who has since admitted to doctoring balls with a mixture of pine tar and rosin.
‘Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation,’ the pitcher wrote, according to Harkins’s filing. ‘We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.’
Harkins’s lawsuit has since been tossed by a judge, who demanded that the former clubhouse attendant pay $35,000 in legal fees for the team and league.
Cole was pulled back into the controversy earlier this month when Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson made comments correlating a drop in Cole’s spin rate with MLB’s anticipated crackdown.
Earlier in June, Cole sidestepped questions about his suspected use of Spider Tack.
‘I don’t… I don’t know,’ Cole told reporters on a Zoom call in between several pauses. ‘I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest.’
The spin rate on Cole’s four-seam fastball declined amid the recent crackdown, decreasing by 125 rotations per minute as he gave up five runs in five innings during a loss to Tampa Bay.
But rather than the sudden absence of Spider Tack, Cole blamed the diminished spin rate on his mechanics.
‘I’m just not quite bringing out my best delivery,’ Cole said. ‘Of course it’s something that we monitor. Of course there are other variables that we monitor as well when we’re evaluating our performance from every game. You try to take as much information as you can as a player, and certainly that’s one of them.
‘We’re trying to get better this week and put in the work, and I’ll be as prepared as I possibly can for my next start.’