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.”