By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Rob Manfred seems like a fella who likes to fix his problems with a hammer.
Whether that hammer strike comes down anywhere close to the source of the problem seems to be a secondary matter. The key is to strike and strike hard so that everyone notices.
That much was evident when he came down with magnificent punishment for managers and bench coaches and GMs but zero players in the Astros’ cheating situation, and it appears to very much be the case after one night of MLB umpires checking pitchers for foreign substances — known more as sticky stuff — between innings.
Clearly, MLB has a bit of a problem on its hands with the use of Spider Tack among pitchers. In an era where spin rate is considered to be of vital importance, the substance purportedly allows pitchers to increase their spin in a way that sunscreen, rosin, sweat, and pine tar combinations never could. While everyone in baseball is comfortable with a certain level of substance use for grip, it seems to be largely agreed upon that products like Spider Tack cross the line in terms of creating an unfair advantage for pitchers.
Ergo, it has to go.
Ergo, in a situation where some nuance and understanding could go a long way, Manfred has decided to bring a sledgehammer to the meeting room.
We got our first glimpse of what Manfred’s crackdown looks like on Tuesday night. It was amusing, sure. But it was also ridiculous.
Nobody made a bigger show of it all than Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer. As anyone who’s ever watched a baseball game knows, Scherzer is … moderately insane during his starts. He can be scary. So when an umpire approaches him after an inning to inspect his hat, glove, and belt for foreign substances, well, you can imagine he’s going to have a reaction. And he did.
At first, it was kind of funny.
I … uh … don’t think Scherzer likes these … pic.twitter.com/9IQm3jO3r3
— Michael Schlact (@michael_schlact) June 22, 2021
Then it became a little ridiculous.
Terrible look on MLB pic.twitter.com/li5gsXYOjz
— Dillard Barnhart (@BarnHasSpoken) June 23, 2021
Then it got flat-out heated. All hell broke loose.
Joe Girardi gets ejected as Max Scherzer throws up his hat and gloves. pic.twitter.com/n8YNXPoeKG
— Justin Groc (@jgroc) June 23, 2021
Out in Texas, A’s reliever Sergio Romo was ready to get naked on the field for his inspection.
Oakland A’s reliever Sergio Romo was checked for “sticky stuff” and might have upstaged Max Scherzer in the process. pic.twitter.com/wL1jqt4CgE
— Chris Halicke (@ChrisHalicke) June 23, 2021
Around the entire league, the path from the mound to the dugout looked more like a nightmarish combination of a sobriety checkpoint and border crossing inspection booth.
Mind you, it wasn’t all that long ago when umpires were required to wear face masks on the field, with all personnel advised to remain socially distant while being wary of COVID-19 protocols. Now, umpires are going face to face with pitchers in various states of undress, rubbing their belts … and their hair. Things change quickly in Rob Manfred’s MLB.
As a result of Tuesday’s events, we’ve now got a war of words brewing from Nats GM Mike Rizzo and Phillies manager Joe Girardi.
“It’s embarrassing for Girardi, it’s embarrassing for the Phillies, it’s embarrassing for baseball,” Rizzo said about Girardi, who appeared to have gotten into a shouting match with Scherzer, only for Jomboy to later show that the fight was with Kevin Long. “He’s a con artist … he’s been doing that for years on TV. … I know him well. I know him well.”
Scherzer explained that he had to keep grabbing his head for moisture so that he could grip the ball. He said he was legitimately worried that he might hit a batter in the face with a fastball. (Hitters, as you might expect, have expressed this concern, too. Hence, why batters don’t mind a little substance being used for gripping the baseball.) While he probably won’t be sending any Edible Arrangements to Giradi any time soon, it seemed like most of his anger was directed at the commissioner.
“These are Manfred rules. Go ask him what he wants to do with this. I’ve said enough,” Scherzer said. “Go ask Alec Bohm how he feels about 95 at his face. I don’t need to say anything more about this.”
These. Are. Manfred. Rules.
With those four words, Scherzer has probably framed this whole sticky stuff conversation in the proper way. Because it would be harder for the head of a league to have handled this matter much worse than Manfred has over the past several weeks.
It’s no surprise, really, considering Manfred’s entire tenure as commissioner of baseball has made him seem like … someone who either doesn’t really understand baseball or someone who actively dislikes baseball. When he referred to the World Series trophy as a “piece of metal,” he showed just how deep his disconnect with the sport really was.
His intent desire to ignore feedback and suggestions from the actual players in his league is unwavering, and those players have gleefully taken shots at him to try to change this. It’s happened a lot. Like, a real lot. It’s not working. It may be getting worse.
It’s impressive, in a sense, that in a world where Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman run major sports leagues in America, Manfred has really managed to shine the dimmest. The over-the-top sideshows of policing across MLB ballparks on Tuesday night was merely the latest example of this undeniable reality.
That, though, won’t change. Manfred’s got the job, and no matter how badly he bungles instances of cheating — perceived, real, and otherwise — he will seemingly keep that job for a long time. That’s how things go. Life isn’t fair. No need to dwell.
But as for the present matter at hand, this can’t continue. It’s ridiculous. It’s akin to stopping every single car on the road because a few cars were speeding. It’s untenable. It’s illogical. It’s obnoxious.
It may have made for some chuckles and laughs on Tuesday night, but if it lasts any longer, it’s a budding disaster. Players are pissed, batters are endangered, and freaking managers are challenging hitting coaches to fist fights in the middle of baseball games, with GMs coming out the next day to trash that manager. On one hand, the WWE-type entertainment is funny. On the other, it’s clear that we are looking at a dysfunctional league.
While most people would agree that policing Spider Tack out of the game would be ideal, there are better ways to do it.
We do, after all, live in an era of information. And we do have instant access to spin rates. You can track them live, during games. And by “you,” I do mean you; this is not proprietary information. Baseball Savant has it all. Using data, MLB does have the power and ability to take note of a pitcher who may have curiously high spin rates on a given night. In that case, maybe a mid-inning inspection is in order, instead of hastily checking everyone every couple of innings.
A competent commissioner might also listen to players and managers and coaches when they say that they need a little bit of substance to create a tack to get a feel for the slick baseballs, in order to control where it’s going. That may, obviously, lead into a bit of a gray area in terms of determining what is allowed, what isn’t allowed, and how an umpire is supposed to know the difference in the middle of a baseball game.
Fair enough. There’s not a simple, cookie-cutter solution there. But it’s also not rocket science. Establishing a list of approved products and determining ways to know whether a substance is legal or illegal can actually be done. It merely requires input from the people involved, something that Manfred never seems to value. There’s a level of humility required for any leader to accept that he does not have all the answers. Manfred has never once shownthat he has it.
This time, though, he’s going to have to. If Tuesday night was any indication, than a player revolution will be here before long. Some might criticize the players for complaining or whining or being big rich babies, but when everybody’s treated like a criminal and nobody’s suggestions get any consideration by the people in charge, there are only so many ways to react.
We all enjoyed a little bit of lighthearted comedy around Major League Baseball on Tuesday, sure. But that should be enough of this ill-conceived and shortsighted “solution” to a problem where creativity and nuance are absolutely required for the man in charge of fixing it. Those certainly aren’t touchstones of the Manfred era, no. But in this case, he’ll have no choice but to come up with a better solution — and quickly. The longer those dog and pony shows go on, the more embarrassing it is for the league and for Manfred.