This can’t go on.
Major League Baseball’s attempt to legislate illegal substances off pitchers’ bodies and out of the game couldn’t even make it through the first full night of games before it devolved into a sideshow of showmanship, head games and performance art.
Start with Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi’s daft challenge of future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer — the first skipper to touch that third rail of undressing an opposing pitcher without significant probable cause — and continue through the dozens and dozens of post-inning inspections, capped by Sergio Romo’s disrobing, and one thought comes to mind.
This is the worst possible development for the game.
Oh, the intent is noble. Not unlike the so-called steroid era, big league pitchers’ willingness to rub the nastiest substances on their persons in order to spin the ball like a Greek waiter spins plates has warped the game. Spider Tack’s gotta go, along with many of the homemade concoctions that turn any pitch into a stick-and-spin scenario.
But not like this.
Apparently Sergio Romo also thinks these umpire checks are ridiculous pic.twitter.com/gHJcXA1rMc— The Rickey Henderson of Blogs (@RickeyBlog) June 23, 2021
When a pitcher is stopped and searched — or a manager demands an extra check in good or bad faith — an undeniable signal is sent to fans both avid and casual:
This game is screwed up.
And that favorite pitcher of yours? We think there’s a decent chance he’s cheating.
There’s lots of ways to clean up a sport. We found out Tuesday night that doing it in full public view is not one of them. The slow drip of the steroid era, its heyday spanning nearly two decades, was certainly no fun. Yet a player was never asked to submit a urine sample between innings.
After just two days of MLB’s enhanced enforcement of its foreign substances ban, you almost wish the game would return to the shadows. After all, the league’s offensive futility didn’t just disappear because pine tar and its stickier cousins were in the crosshairs. Tuesday’s scoreboard had a 3-0 and a 2-1 and a 3-2 and a 5-0 and a 3-0 on it.
Nope, just because sunscreen and pine tar are eradicated doesn’t mean the field will suddenly tilt toward batters. So it’s tempting to think, let the kids spray.
Then you look at Gerrit Cole’s spin rate.
The Yankees’ $324 million man has been under fire after a meandering non-denial about his use of Spider Tack. On Tuesday, in his first start since the crackdown, he continued a recent trend of massive spin rate drops. Cole’s sinker was down 364 rpms from his season average, or 15%. His fastball was off 245 rpms, his slider 243.
Those are what we might call statistically significant reductions. At this moment, we truly have no idea why. But it’s surely in the best interests of the game to do away with the most offensive substances and find out.
Cole pitched OK against Kansas City — seven innings, two earned runs, six strikeouts — yet he was far from the guy who punched out nearly 13 batters per inning since 2018, when he was traded to the Houston Astros and leveled up to become the game’s most dominant pitcher.
Like Cole, Scherzer was named in a lawsuit filed by former Angels visiting clubhouse manager Bubba Harkins as a pitcher who ordered tins of homemade sticky substance from Harkins. If nothing else, Girardi had a decent idea Scherzer — who pitched five decent innings in an eventual 3-2 win — might have a hard time going cold turkey off the sticky stuff.
The Phillies manager claimed that in a decade of managing against Scherzer, he’d never seen him go to his hair between pitches.
“I’m not playing games,” Girardi insisted. “I have respect for the people over there and respect for what Max does.”
So Scherzer, for a third time, offered up his glove and his cap and yes, even his balding dome for umpires to forage through, apparently finding nothing more than locally sourced perspiration.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi and Max Scherzer got into a stare down after Girardi requested umpires check Scherzer for foreign substances for a third time.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 23, 2021
Girardi was ejected after the altercation. pic.twitter.com/3B6kGLbudL
Afterward, Scherzer hit all the high notes of righteous indignation, saying that a slightly colder night in Philadelphia forced him to seek perspiration from his head, rather than his mouth or other parts of his body, to mix with the state-supplied rosin.
“I don’t want to eat rosin. It tastes gross,” he said.
The spot checks?
“I’ll take off all my clothes if you want to see me.”
Was Girardi acting in good faith?
“I’d have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight, when everybody’s antenna is so high to look for anything.”
They are all valid retorts, yet, like Scherzer’s concern for a pitch that got away from him and could have struck Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm, they do little to prove or disprove anything.
Bring on the summer of calling bluffs.
“We were so stupid as hitters, saying, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s for control. We just don’t want them to hit us.’ That was such a cop-out,” says Cubs slugger and pending free agent Kris Bryant. “I love that things are kind of going the other way. If we get hit, we get on-base percentage.”
The back-and-forth consumed a significant amount of oxygen on a night celebrated prospect Wander Franco debuted in smashing style, hitting a three-run homer and reaching base three times for the Tampa Bay Rays. That alone should be alarming to MLB.
So, what now?
Well, we’re finding out just how hard it is to upend decades of accepted practice nearly halfway through a season. Logical solutions are out there — a unified and approved substance, perhaps the universal legalization of pine tar — but none that likely can be put in place midstream.
There will be more Girardi-Scherzer dust-ups. At some point, a pitcher might actually get caught, ejected and suspended. And if a manager’s demand for a pitcher inspection turns up no contraband, that skipper should be subject to “repercussions,” suggests Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw,
Pitchers vs. Hitters vs. Managers vs. MLB isn’t what fans came to see. It’s clear that whatever justice is served, whatever marginal pitchers are exposed as frauds, the massive distraction and disruption to the sport won’t be worth it. No sense marring a season halfway through when it’d be far more pragmatic to use an off-season to workshop a solution and allow a full spring training for pitchers to grasp their new reality.
Perhaps the Scherzer saga will fast-track this system into the game’s dustbin, its New Coke of enforcement.
“Hopefully,” says Scherzer. “And hopefully, the players across the league understand that what we’re doing right now, this is not the answer.”
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