My friend Dirk Hayhurst is getting a lot of ink – and a lot of grief – for correctly identifying that Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox was doing something to his pitches in Toronto. Whether Buchholz is mixing rosin with sweat, water, or some other kind of gelatinous abomination, Hayhurst noted the trick, called it out, and gave a combination of rebuke and complement today.
I’ll leave it to The Baseball Police to determine to what degree Buchholz is cheating (i.e. acceptable or legal cheating, or unacceptable and thus illegal cheating). I’ll laugh out loud at the contention that Hayhurst is in some way homering this, or trying to make a name for himself, or trying to tear Buchholz down. Hayhurst was a major league pitcher, which means the odds that he cheated in some way are about 101 out of 100 (I’m on the pitchers’ side on this. All rule changes since 1893 have been designed to screw the pitcher into the ground to increase hitting).
Pitchers doctor the baseball in the big leagues. Buchholz isn’t innocent because nobody ratted him out before Dirk did. Teams don’t push it because then their pitchers will be policed (‘So seven of our guys cheat? We have tape of twelve of your guys cheating – and five of them are hitters’). If you look back at the bizarre Kenny Rogers ‘hand discoloration’ saga from Game Two of the 2006 World Series there is reason to hypothesize that Tony LaRussa went to Jim Leyland and said ‘this is over the top. Get that crap off his hand – and all your other guys’ hands – or I’m going to the Commissioner.’ I mean, that could easily explain why Tigers pitchers Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Justin Verlander made errors in the next 22 innings: they were having trouble holding on to the baseball.
But this is not really about any of that.
This is about a simple fact: I doctored a baseball.
I was taught to do it by an ex-big league pitcher, I used the skill while throwing out a ceremonial first pitch – and it worked like a charm.
“Hey, why can’t I hear you clearly?” asked my friend the ex-MLB pitcher (not Dirk Hayhurst).
I explained I was on the ferry to Staten Island to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees’ minor league game and the cell reception was mediocre. “Oh. I suppose you know what to do to raise your chances of not humiliating yourself, right?” I told him I hadn’t really thought about it. “Well first, what happens when somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch in the dirt?” I told him that to the best of my recollection, people booed or laughed derisively. “But what happens when they throw it over the catcher’s head?” I said there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing. “So aim high, not low.
“Second thing, don’t go up on to the mound.” No? “No! The mound is for pitchers. You are not a pitcher. All you can do with a mound is fall off it. Stand on the skirt of the mound in the front. This’ll give you the illusion of standing on the mound.
“But most importantly, get the baseball as early as possible.” Here he got very quiet. “Pick at the seams.” What did you say? “Pick. At. The. Seams. With your fingernails. Just pull up on the stitches with your nails. Get the baseball half an hour before the game, or if you have to, just find a ball somewhere and start picking at the seams, then use that for the first pitch.” Seriously? “Why would I make this up?” But what could it possibly do? “You’ll see.”
So given the undeniable logic of his first two suggestions about throwing high and not actually getting on the mound, as soon as I got to the Staten Island ballpark I grabbed a loose baseball and tried to pick at the seams with my fingernails.
I don’t know if I expected them to come loose, like that wandering thread in your suit or your sweater that turns out to be 44 inches long. All I know is, nothing moved. I could’ve used a nail file or a drill bit and I wouldn’t have been able to budge them. After 20 minutes of this, I realized that my friend the pitcher had just foisted one over on me. He had gotten me to pick at the seams of the ball as the equipment manager gets the naive batboy to go search for the “key” to the batters’ box.
Nevertheless, I went over to the catcher, P.J. Pilittere, and warned him I would be aiming head-high to avoid all those boos, and I stopped moving after I reached the skirt of the mound. And I pulled the ball whose seams I had pointlessly and with eminent futility pulled at for 20 minutes, went into a mock wind-up, and let go a pretty decent pitch that I could instantly see was going to hit the mitt, which Pilittere was appropriately holding face-high.
And about fifteen feet in front of the plate the ball dropped like it had been hit by a poison dart. It split the strike zone perfectly and nearly hit Pilittere in his privates except that he deftly swung the glove down and grabbed my textbook cutter. And as I stood there amazed he ran out towards me with a big smile on his face and said exactly four words: “Picking at the seams?”
I got my friend the ex-pitcher on the phone immediately. “Told you so.” I asked him how on earth the ball could have been defaced when I had no sense whatsoever that the picking had had any impact at all. “That’s physics. I was a Communications major. All I know is: it doesn’t take much. That’s why they throw out your first inning warm-up ball and give you a fresh one nowadays. But in school I used to get the game ball half an hour before first pitch and I never threw anything except strikes, just like that one. An artificial cut fastball. Which all the batters would then be convinced I had in reserve all game long.”
He added one more thing: “You’re welcome.”
With Mark Buehrle’s loss Monday, and Dallas Braden getting scratched from his start last night, the combined record since their achievements of the three active pitchers to have tossed Perfect Games has dropped to 8 wins and 18 losses.
Jim Hunter Before: 32-38, .457Jim Hunter After: 191-128, .599Jim Hunter Improvement: 142Sandy Koufax Before: 133-77, .633Sandy Koufax After: 31-10, .756Sandy Koufax Improvement: 123
Koufax is a bit of an aberration, since that 31-10 record, gaudy as it seems, represents only one season plus about a month, before his retirement in November, 1966.
David Wells Before: 110-86, .561David Wells After: 128-71, .643David Wells Improvement: 82Don Larsen Before: 30-40, .429Don Larsen After: 51-51, .500Don Larsen Improvement: 71Mike Witt Before: 37-40, .481Mike Witt After: 79-76, .510Mike Witt Improvement: 29Dennis Martinez Before: 173-140, .553Dennis Martinez After: 71-53, .573Dennis Martinez Improvement: 20
For everybody else, the Perfect Game has meant comparative disaster. We can again discern some unrelated factors: many pitchers threw their masterpieces late in their careers (Cone), late in life (Joss died about 30 months after he threw his), or not long before injuries (Robertson and Ward, the latter of whom would switch positions and become a Hall of Fame shortstop).
Dallas Braden Before: 17-23, .425Dallas Braden After: 0-5, .000Dallas Braden Dropoff: 425David Cone Before: 177-97, .646David Cone After: 16-29, .356David Cone Dropoff: 290Lee Richmond Before: 14-7, .667Lee Richmond After: 61-93, .396Lee Richmond Dropoff: 271Roy Halladay Before: 154-79, .661Roy Halladay After: 2-3, .400Roy Halladay Dropoff: 261Mark Buehrle Before: 132-90, .595Mark Buehrle After: 6-10, .375Mark Buehrle Dropoff: 220Jim Bunning Before: 143-89, .616Jim Bunning After: 80-95, .457Jim Bunning Dropoff: 159Len Barker Before: 33-25, .569Len Barker After: 40-51, .440Len Barker Dropoff: 129Charlie Robertson Before: 1-1 .500Charlie Robertson After: 47-79, .373Charlie Robertson Dropoff: 127Addie Joss Before: 140-79, .639Addie Joss After: 19-18, .514Addie Joss Dropoff: 125Cy Young Before: 382-216, .639Cy Young After: 128-116, .525Cy Young Dropoff: 114Randy Johnson Before: 233-118, .664Randy Johnson After: 69-48, .590Randy Johnson Dropoff: 74Johnny Ward Before: 80-43, .650Johnny Ward After: 81-60, .574Johnny Ward Dropoff: 46Tom Browning Before: 60-40, .600Tom Browning After: 62-50, .554Tom Browning Dropoff: 46Kenny Rogers Before: 52-36, .591Kenny Rogers After: 166-120, .580Kenny Rogers Dropoff: 9
Rogers’ fall off is not even what the typical decline of a pitcher would suggest, and Browning’s and Ward’s aren’t very spectacular. Then again, neither are the improvements of Witt or Martinez.