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MLB'S Newest Substance Problem


Major League Baseball has a new substance abuse problem. No, we're not talking about steroids that roiled the sport a few years back. It's not enhanced players this time. It's sticky baseballs. And unless you like watching batters strike out a bunch, it's becoming a real issue. Joining us now to talk all about it via Skype is Stephanie Apstein, who reported on this for Sports Illustrated.


STEPHANIE APSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So can you just explain how a stickier baseball makes a pitcher better?

APSTEIN: Any time you change the way the baseball behaves, it will behave differently. And so batters have watched hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of pitches over their career. And they've all behaved a certain way. If you see it at a certain point doing something, it will likely end up in the place you expect it to end up. In this case, baseball is ending up in a different place. So the more complicated answer is that it makes the ball spin faster, which makes it move more. And that makes it much harder to hit.

CHANG: OK. And the balls that you're describing in your reporting - I mean, some of them have so much sticky stuff that you could see a pitcher's fingerprints on them. Sometimes you can hear the actual rip when the pitcher releases the ball. What is this sticky stuff exactly?

APSTEIN: Yeah. People are telling me crazy stories about - you can touch your palm to a baseball and lift it just without gripping it. It's, like, so sticky.

CHANG: It's like Velcro.

APSTEIN: Exactly. There are a number of different kind of concoctions the players use. Some of them even brew their own. There's some that are sort of semi-legal. Everybody - they want - when the baseball comes out of the package, it's very slick, and so it's hard to get a grip. And so the league wants you to have some grip, or else you might hit a batter in the head 'cause you don't know where the baseball's going. So there's a little bit of a sticky substance behind the mound called rosin, and they're allowed to use that. It starts - you know, it's a slippery slope, right? First, they realize that if you use spray-on sunscreen - a lot of it - on your arms, you can mix that with rosin, and it gets even stickier.


APSTEIN: So that's a little bit stickier than what's allowed, but it's not a huge deal. And then on the other end of that would be a substance called Spider Tack, which is basically glue that's supposed to help iron men lift stones, hold stones together.

CHANG: Whoa.

APSTEIN: And it's so - that stuff is so sticky that usually you can't even - if you touch your fingers together when you have it on your hand, your fingers get glued together.

CHANG: Yeah.

APSTEIN: You have to remove it with rubbing alcohol. It's crazy. It's really sticky stuff.

CHANG: But the thing is pitchers have been doctoring balls almost as long as baseball itself, right? Like, how is this problem different now than, say, the spitball, which I think has been around for - what? - more than a century?

APSTEIN: Yeah. Well, basically the whole history of baseball is pitchers trying to doctor the baseball. The reason it's different now is that they have technology. And so they set up this device called a TrackMan that tracks what the baseball is doing. And you can apply sunscreen and rosin, and you can throw, and you can look at the TrackMan and see how many times the baseball spun while it was on its way to the plate. And then you can apply something like Spider Tack, the stickier stuff. And you can look at the TrackMan, and you can see just how much of a difference that made.

And so guys can be much more scientific and much more efficient in the way they're using it, whereas in the past, you would kind of apply something and guess. And you weren't sure if it was helping. It was all based on the eye test. Now they can look at it, and they have the data to tell them this is working.

CHANG: Which leaves the question, what is Major League Baseball going to do to stop the spread of ball doctoring?

APSTEIN: They intend, they say, to start cracking down on this soon. They've been actually collecting baseballs from every pitcher all season and looking at them to see how sticky they are. They've decided it is quite a lot. And so they say that in the next couple of weeks, they're going to start cracking down. They are going to empower umpires to go out there and say, hey; I think I see something under your hat. Get the hat out of here. And if you do it again, we're going to eject not just the hat but also the player. Part of the problem right now is that usually they rely on the opposing manager to say, hey; could you go check that pitcher? But all the managers know that their players are doing it, too.

CHANG: Yeah.

APSTEIN: So you don't really want to call out the other team because you know that they'll come and get you next.

CHANG: Stephanie Apstein from Sports Illustrated, thank you very much for joining us today.

APSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.