When the call is 'Play ball,' some of those pitches aren't quite legal
Vero Beach Fla. — I have always disliked writing about a controversial subject without being able to mention the source of my information by name. But sometimes this is the only way you can get people close to a situation to talk -- by promising to protect their identity.
What this story deals with are the percentage of major league pitchers who doctor the baseball illegally in a way that causes it to dive or sail -- thus making the ball tougher to hit.
The four principal ways to do this are to apply a foreign substance like Vaseline to the ball; rough it up with sandpaper; cut it with a thumb tack; or load it up with moisture, such as saliva.
"In my opinion, the percentage of major league pitchers who cheat is approximately 30 percent and there are some on every team," one former big league manager who is still active in the game told me on my rounds of training camps in Arizona and Florida this spring.
"I know who most of them are; the umpires know them; their managers know them of course; and the people who run baseball have a book on them," he continued. "But it's been going on for so many years that it has become an accepted part of the game and nobody wants to do anything about it."
This ex-manager claims that if baseball tried to make an honest man out of every pitcher, the mess and confusion it would cause on the field wouldn't be worth it. In fact, nobody with any power in baseball wants to do anything about it because if the umpires tried to police it all you would get is a boring, four-hour ball game.
"I cheated as a minor league pitcher and I continued to cheat after I got to the majors and I never had anyone suggest that I work any other way," he explained. "I think doctoring the ball helps pitchers in certain situations, but I don't think it ever made a 20-game winner out of a guy who normally is good enough to win 15.
"If one of our pitchers wants to cheat, we let him," he continued. "If a guy wants to throw a spitter on a hot day, he's generally got enough natural moisture right in the palm of his hand to do the job. And if he prefers Vaseline or some other foreign substance, there are at least seven places on his body where he can hide it.
"The umpires know all about this and they could stop it by making the pitcher go to the rosin bag with his throwing hand before every pitch. But again it's the time element, the feeling it would only bore the fans, plus the fact that they know league officials don't really care."
According to this former manager, quite a few pitchers are now either cementing a tiny piece of sandpaper onto the index finger of their glove hand or else hiding a thumb tack inside with which they can cut the ball. The tack is fastened in such a way that part of the point sticks through the glove's palm.
But he also claims that unless the ball is scuffed or cut so badly that opposing managers complain, most umpires simply put a new ball in play when they notice the problem and ignore the cause of the situation.
Although balls that have suspicious damage are supposed to be turned over to the league office for possible action, that ends as soon as new umpires discover that almost never is anything done. One year when he was still managing, he says, he sent 16 cut baseballs to headquarters and never even got a reply.
Asked how he would clean up cheating among pitchers, he replied: "I wouldn't do anything about it and everybody in baseball that I know feels the same way. It's been around so long now that it's become a part of the game."
One veteran umpire I talked with doesn't believe that cheating among pitchers is quite as high as 30 percent.
"I know some illegal stuff goes on out at the rubber, but when you know your bosses don't care, why get involved," he explained. "Most of the time I can tell when a guy is using Vaseline or cutting the ball or throwing a spitball because of the way it breaks.
"But if the hitter or his manager doesn't come up to me and lodge a formal complaint I'm not going to do anything about it," he continued. "Besides, I've noticed that good hitters drive that kind of pitch safely just as often as they do the curve or changeup."
This umpire did admit that when he hears about a pitcher who cuts the baseball, he makes it a point to check his body, his uniform and his glove regularly until he is convinced that nothing illegal is going on.
"There is one pitcher in the league I work for who has had a reputation for scuffing up the ball for years," he said. "I've checked that man at least 20 times and never found a thing. Then one day another umpire tells me that this guy started that rumor himself to try to get a psychological edge on the hitters. You know something, I believe that story!"