All Major League Baseball pitchers will be checked repeatedly and randomly for foreign substances by umpires under the plan being swiftly advanced -- and perhaps implemented within the next 10 days to two weeks.
Major League Baseball is expected to instruct its umpires to enforce a rule that has long been on the books but mostly ignored.
However, with pitcher strikeout rates at an all-time high, and batting averages at an all-time low -- and with position players increasingly enraged by what they consider to be an unfair advantage for pitchers -- change is imminent. Major League Baseball is typically slow to change, but in this case, the groundswell of concern and anger over what is perceived to be a widespread use of foreign substances is driving officials within the sport to move quickly.
Following the owners' meetings this week -- during which some of the collected evidence was presented, including baseballs, hats and gloves slathered with various substances -- a conference call was held among officials Friday. According to two sources, the plans for enforcement of the existing foreign-substance rules are being finalized, and a memo could be sent to teams as soon as the week ahead, with full-blown action beginning in earnest in games as soon as June 14.
Among the final possibilities being discussed:
- Pitchers will be checked randomly by umpires, with every starting pitcher likely to be checked at least two times per start. With officials cognizant of having equipment checks slow a sport in which the pace of play is already thought to be too deliberate, pitchers might be checked as they walk off the field at the conclusion of an outing. One management source estimated that there will be eight to 10 random foreign-substance checks per game.
- The discussion about penalties has been centered on suspending offenders 10 days without pay. Upon hearing this in a meeting the other day, one owner noted that the MLB Players Association might file a grievance, and the broad response around him was that the issue was too important to allow someone to get away with a light penalty. "The issue is too important for us now," said one executive.
- Position players will be subject to foreign-substance checks, although the conversations are around issuing warnings initially to non-pitchers, with umpires warning catchers and others to clean up an area of concern.
The contentiousness over the use of foreign substances has boiled over to the degree that a lot of the evidence being presented to central baseball oversight has been video provided by position players angry over what they see as blatant violations of the rule. "You've got players turning in other players," said one official.
It's through the use of video and observation that baseball officials have now compiled what amounts to specific scouting reports on where and how pitchers are using substances, according to one source. "Such as, on his belt on his left side, or between the third and fourth fingers of the glove, or underneath the hat," said one source.
"They know all the spots -- the pitchers who are pulling on the strings on their glove, or going to a spot on their belt."
Said another source: "It's gotten completely absurd, and it's time to clean it up."
In a game in recent weeks, the sources on one team say, it was so obvious that a pitcher on the opposing team was cheating that players began screaming at him to stop cheating -- and the feeling on the enraged team was that they intimidated the pitcher into stopping. Teams say pitchers are using various types of homemade glue, Pelican Grip, SpiderTech adhesive or high volumes of pine tar. The substances being used, said one team staffer, have some players concerned about applying too much to their skin lest they do damage.
The rule on the books is 6.02c, which umpires have the power to enforce. But in recent decades, the culture around the rule has evolved into a benign gentlemen's agreement. Umpires would not check pitchers unless asked to do so by managers, and except in very rare cases, managers wouldn't ask out of fear that their own pitchers would be checked. It is within that vacuum of inaction that the pitchers' uses of foreign substances has seemingly exploded within recent years, with some learning how to spin fastballs and sliders with greater efficiency -- to the detriment of hitters increasingly overwhelmed.
The hope is that once umpires check pitchers regularly, the use of foreign substances will dissipate -- and as some players are inevitably busted, the gentlemen's agreement between managers will evaporate and teams will more aggressively police each other through their use of in-house video.
Major League Baseball and the Players Association has been talking for weeks about ways to address this issue, moving toward a fragile understanding for all sides. On May 26, veteran umpire Joe West confiscated the hat of Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos, enraging MLB officials who felt the sport was not yet prepared to move ahead with enforcement of a rule that is on the books. But all sides have moved past that incident.
What is occurring now with foreign substances has so many parallels with another cheating scandal in the sport's history: performance-enhancing drugs.
As Major League Baseball transitioned out of what was known as the steroid era, the greatest change within the sport was not the implementation of testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Rather, it was a devotion to a level playing field among players -- like young players within the White Sox who staged a minirevolt in the spring of 2003, in order to help ensure that PED oversight would become a permanent part of the sport.
But that occurred only after shifting stages of perspective -- for which there are parallels in baseball's current foreign-substance crisis.
A lot of players who didn't use steroids in the late '80s and early '90s initially had a benign curiosity about the erupting musculature and production of some of their peers. All-Star outfielder Tony Gwynn told a story about going into the spring training workout room of the Athletics -- the team of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire -- and seeing the charts tracking the individual weightlifting, and being blown away.
Some players like Gwynn clung to a stubborn competitiveness, the belief that no matter the choices of users, he could find a way to prevail. But those feelings -- perhaps naïve -- began to generally fade, when a lot of non-users began realizing what they lost in a zero-sum game: A lot of success of the users came at the direct expense of non-users, in opportunity and the attached money. An Orioles player told me the story of seeing a mediocre organizational peer zooming past him, getting at-bats in the big leagues, which probably would've gone to somebody else in a baseball world without steroids. The Orioles player, like a lot of his brethren, resented the choice forced upon him: either break the rules to keep up, or fall behind in his profession of choice.
By 2002, the anger of the non-users began to fully manifest, into the union's adoption of PED oversight.
The current players seem to be going through a similar cycle now, as they process the impact of foreign substances.