Friday, May 2, 2014
HISTORY OF THE FUNNY BALL
If you Google ‘history of doctoring the ball in baseball’ you get incredible results. The top five specifically are Whatever Happened to the Spitball; Biggest Cheaters in Baseball; Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz accused of doctoring ball; Gaylord Perry; and Spitball.
Even if we didn’t go any further into the controversy behind the funny ball, you can deduce that doctoring the ball involves spitting, cheating and pitchers. But it is much more than that. It’s something that has always been a part of the game and it is never going away unless it is successfully proven to hurt the game of baseball and its integrity much in the way PEDs has.
According to BaseballReference.com, “Doctoring the baseball is altering the baseball in some way so the pitchers are able to create unusual amounts and types of movement on pitches.” Not really a big fan of that definition frankly because one could say that Mariano Rivera “created unusual amounts and types of movements on pitches.” He virtually patented the infamous cutter and he did so without doctoring.
Then there are the knuckle ballers like RA Dickey and retired Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield. These guys get lots of movement on the ball but they are not doctoring the ball, they are gripping it in an intentional way.
But whatever happened to the spitball, greaseball, shineball, slimeball? Why is it so bad? Who are the worst offenders?
The shineball made famous by pitcher Eddie Cicotte of the notorious Black Sox, was created by lathering “special oil used to treat infields onto the ball, creating a shine on one side and making the ball move in ways that confounded even the best hitters. Depending on what they smeared on the ball and how good they got at manipulating oozy substances, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters, all while using their same old throwing motions,” stated Jonah Keri in his 2012 Grantland blog post picked up by ESPN.com. There were a number of pitchers over the years who were accused or even suspended for doctoring the ball.
Guys like Gaylord Perry, Joe Niekro, Whitey Ford, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale all spit, greased and applied a foreign substance on the ball. Four out of the five pitchers listed are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
In more recent years, we saw Kenny Rogers, Clay Buchholz and now Michael Pineda get caught with their hands in the mysterious substance goo jar. But why do it if it is considered illegal? It helps pitchers grip the ball in cold spring and fall games. It gives pitchers more movement on the ball. According to Keri’s post, doctoring the ball has helped “extend the careers of countless fading arms throughout baseball history.” Can it hurt the batter? Sure it can, much like an inside pitch that gets away from a hurler. A spitball even killed a batter (before helmets were mandatory) in 1920. Incidentally, it was Yankee pitcher Carl Mays.
Why did the spitball go away for a while? "Pitchers got reluctant to do it simply because they didn't know how to do it," said Jim Hickey, pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays and a former minor league pitcher. That knowledge base eroded so badly that today, "it's like a hitter trying to change the way he positions his hands. He's afraid to do it, even for one at-bat, because he doesn't want to go 0-for-1. Pitchers now are afraid of using an experimental pitch, getting whacked, and losing the game because of it,” stated Hickey in an interview with ESPN.com.
The spitball also is said to have disappeared for a while when Bruce Sutter developed the now famous splitter or split finger fastball, which gave the ball the magical movement that the spitball can give. The spitball may have gone away for a while but guys like Gaylord Perry brought the demon back in the 70s and early 80s. You never knew if or when he would throw it and Perry liked having that reputation. I have to be honest, it was kind of cool to watch him pitch because there was always some sort of controversy and I guess some anticipation in wondering when the funny ball would come.
The difference between what happened with Pineda recently and what happened with Rogers and even Buchholz is that Pineda was blatant and about as subtle as a bull in a china shop. Sure, we didn’t have HDTV when Niekro and Perry were pitching but use a little discretion. Accusing Buchholz of throwing a spitball in the a game last season, Blue Jay analyst Jack Morris stated that he “found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game," Morris said. "I didn't see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, 'What do you think of this?' and I said, 'Well, he's throwing a spitter. Cause that's what it is,” according to MLB.com.
Umpires are trained to watch a pitcher very closely. A pitcher has to step off the rubber when he puts his hand to his mouth or grabs the rosin bag. And if managers or coaches draw attention to something suspicious with their pitcher or the opposing team’s pitcher, it can throw of the pitcher’s game and rhythm, which is never a good idea.
I am not advocating spitting, ever. Not on the ground, not at someone and not on a baseball. But, if guys are going to doctor the ball to get a good grip or feel more confident about their performance, then okay, but don’t flaunt it and don’t be stupid about it. Two words- Be Discrete! Throw hard but don’t get so wrapped up in wanting perfection that you forget to keep your eye on the ball.
--Suzie Pinstripe, BYB Opinion Columnist
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