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MLB's Sticky Situation

With everything that's happening in our tumultuous world, you can be excused for missing a rather amusing tale coming from the world of major league baseball last week.

As scandals go, this one appears rather tame compared to the PED uproar of the 1990s and early 2000s or the Astros' sign-stealing scheme.

Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times first reported the story after a court proceeding in Los Angeles involving former Angels visiting clubhouse attendant Brian "Bubba" Harkins.

While Harkins, who worked for the Angels for more than 30 years before being fired last March, is an unfamiliar name, people like Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Cory Kluber and Felix Hernandez are easily identifiable. All were mentioned in last week's reporting.

Seems that Harkins allegedly concocted a potion of pine tar and rosin which could benefit pitchers by helping them grip a baseball for increased control and spin rates. Apparently former Angels' closer Troy Percival introduced Harkins to the mixture during his 10 years (1995 - 2004) in Anaheim in which he recorded 316 saves. Percival once attended the University of California-Riverside, although no one has investigated whether his major was chemistry. Nor has it been ascertained whether a lab is required for creating this illegal substance.

Because Harkins lost his job with the Angels and was immediately unemployable by other ballclubs, he filed a defamation suit last August against the Angels and Major League Baseball. Back on Nov. 2, MLB countered with a motion to dismiss the suit, and last week Harkins' attorney responded by opposing the dismissal. This time Harkins named names along with a text he had saved from Gerrit Cole, the Yankees' $324 million pitcher. Hence DiGiovanna wrote his account.

"Hey Bubba, it's Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation," Cole texted in January 2019. "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."

What's comical about all this hubbub is that both pine tar and rosin are found in every clubhouse at all levels of the game. As long as I have watched ballgames, there always has been a rosin bag resting behind the pitcher's mound, helping pitchers, whose hand might be wet and slippery on a hot summer day, get a decent grip on the ball, thus lessening the chances of an errant missile that could severely injure the batter. I assumed that rosin was some kind of chalk but, according to Baseball Reference, it's "a sticky substance extracted from the sap of fir trees."

Rosin bags have a much longer history than pine tar, a somewhat different animal which, according to the rules, can be applied to the lower (basically the handle) 18 inches of the bat in order to, again, get a better grip.

Of course, no one gave pine tar much attention until 1983 when Yankees manager Billy Martin asked the umpire to examine Kansas City's George Brett's bat after Brett's two-run, ninth-inning homer in a late July game gave the Royals a 5-4 lead at Yankee Stadium. The ump ruled that Brett had misapplied pine tar and called Brett out. The iconic video of an enraged Brett sprinting from the dugout to wreak havoc (or worse) on the umpiring crew is among the most intense images in the history of the game. Furthermore, Brett's lumber has occupied a permanent home in the Hall of Fame since 1987.

Aside from the legality, or lack thereof, of applying this substance to the ball, wouldn't you think that a pitcher, many of whom are esteemed because of their baseball intelligence and acumen, could figure out on his own how to manufacture the mixture? You don't need a fir and pine tree because both components are readily available, and, taken individually, infringe on the rules in no manner whatsoever. Getting caught with rosin or pine par isn't a crime anywhere as far as I can tell.

On a visit to Anaheim, couldn't someone like Cole approach Harkins and simply ask, "Now Bubba, how many parts pine tar to rosin should I use?" My uninformed answer would be "equal parts," therefore, making the sticky stuff about as easy to employ as taking Play-Doh out of those plastic eggs that hold the blobs.

Forget about selecting the specific kind of steroid or PED or learning how to inject oneself or finding someone else to do the job. Pre-schoolers would be good candidates for combining pine tar and rosin. They'd probably enjoy the task.

As long as we're talking about an endeavor one level above manufacturing mud pies, consider the can of worms MLB has opened here. Will voters think twice before checking their Hall of Fame ballots for the likes of Verlander and Scherzer? After all, if what Harkins says is true, they technically have been cheating.

I also wonder how many other clubhouse personnel knew about Harkins' concoction. He couldn't be the only one. Furthermore, would any of this have become public knowledge if MLB and the Angels had paid off Harkins to just go away once he filed suit? The situation might have been resolved with a check for far less than what they pay a utility infielder. Part of the settlement could have been a non-disclosure agreement which is used de rigueur in this litigious age. Write him a check, hold your breath, and issue a statement to every team that suspensions will result if any pitcher applies anything more than rosin to the baseball.

Of course, Harkins is the victim here. He possibly made more in tips each season than his salary for handing out jock straps and towels to the visiting team. Now he's a pariah while elite millionaire pitchers may suffer a tinge of embarrassment, and, possibly more importantly to them, a few less rotations on their spin rate.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jan 11, 2021