'Everything’s under such a microscope now': MLB rules crackdown comes with confusion

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s not so much about the fired clubhouse manager. It’s not even, really, about pitchers and the substances they use to hold the baseball. Nor is it solely about televisions in clubhouses or buzzers under jerseys or phantom ailments occupying injured lists.

It’s about all of it. 

It’s about a game that has veered into gray areas and yet covered by a rule book stamped in black and white. It’s about Houston Astros players squealing to investigators that everyone else was doing it too, and the Boston Red Sox players who promised not to do that again and two years later had to be dragged in for more questioning and, yeah, the guy in the bullpen slathering himself with the latest potion out of Anaheim.

It’s about identifying who is best at baseball, just baseball, and not who is best at reverse engineering and then gaming the system, and not who is best at making up an entirely different game, and not who is best at not getting caught.

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Advances in — and the unintended consequences of — technology explain some of what tugs at the game’s soul. They may also account for, even be held up to justify, what some league officials view to be a backslide in so many other areas.

There is too much non-uniformed personnel in places — clubhouses, replay rooms, dugouts, hallways leading to those areas — it is not authorized to be. Uniformed personnel, primarily coaches, not allowed on the bench during games are on the bench during games.

Players, coaches and front-office employees have opened massive holes in what was supposed to be a closed replay system.

The injured list is freely and grotesquely manipulated.

Umpires are subjected to unnecessary abuse.

Amid renewed MLB emphasis on enforcing rules of all sorts, the Los Angeles Angels fired a clubhouse attendant this week for allegedly distributing a concoction that helps pitchers get a better grip on the ball. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Pitchers openly dab, spray, smear and lacquer their pitching hands with foreign powders, ointments, oils and goos.

At a time when it seems almost everything within the game has a fresh wobble, Major League Baseball seeks a reset on the rules as they are written. Therefore, in its communications with team officials and players, it has stressed that, for example, any substance on a baseball that is not human skin or human sweat or Delaware River mud or dirt or rosin from the bag behind the mound is illegal.

In the course of that very broad pursuit of a more honest game, baseball officials heard more than once about the stuff being produced — and sold — out of the visitors’ clubhouse in Anaheim, among two or three other places. They called Angels management.

Angels clubhouse attendant fired amid foreign substance crackdown

Brian Harkins is a big guy with dyed blond hair that sometimes bordered on platinum, usually spiked. Everybody knows him as Bubba. For three decades he worked the visiting clubhouse at Angel Stadium, unpacking arriving teams, seeing to their needs for three or four days, then packing them up and preparing for the next bus to pull in. The work can be relentless. He supervised a handful of young men who cleaned spikes and lugged laundry and emptied and refilled equipment trucks. Bubba lifted his share of duffel bags, seemed always to have a carpet sweeper attached to one hand, and managed the details. He is very friendly.

The Angels fired him Thursday.

An Orange County native, he’d taken his first job with the team when he was in his teens. He leaves at 54.

Harkins is suspected by Major League Baseball and the Angels of concocting and distributing a signature mix of pine tar and rosin designed to improve pitchers’ grips on the baseball and be undetectable, sources said Friday. Pitchers came to swear by it. Some, according to a source, received batches in the mail.

MLB is planning to keep more thorough watch over the substances or combination of substances pitchers use to grip the ball on the mound. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Assuming they had proof or a confession, the Angels could only fire him. They could not continue to employ a person they came to believe had for years provided methods to beat them. Whether Angels’ pitchers were customers is unknown. It seems likely, given the proximity — down the hall and to the left.

That Harkins had allegedly operated in baseball’s gray area, and probably would have viewed it as a practice accepted by pitchers and hitters and therefore harmless, is precisely the target of the league’s freshened standards. He is a casualty of that, perhaps unintended. He never threw a pitch.

Pitchers seeking additional tack contend it is to enhance their control of a baseball that can be slippery. They say batters are otherwise in danger. They also know that revolutions per minute (or spin rate) — on fastballs and breaking balls — is a pitcher’s new currency, and that the longer the ball is on their fingers the better off they are. Therefore, allegedly, they called Bubba.

As one source said Friday, “They say everybody does it. They say they need it. Well, nobody worries about the guys who follow the rules.”

They read:

“No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance. PENALTY: The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games. For rules in regard to a pitcher defacing the ball, see Rules 6.02(c)(2) through (6).”

The important one over there: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.”

A new, uncertain read on the rule book

Minnesota Twins right-hander Jake Odorizzi is three weeks from his ninth major league season. He viewed the sacking of a clubhouse attendant over grip maintenance as notable.

“I think everything’s under such a microscope now,” he said. “Obviously the rule-breaking that went on in Houston has shined a light onto the old-fashioned rule book.

“Cleaning up the game is one thing, as far as the technical aspect. And I understand a rule’s a rule at some point.”

Veteran Twins starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi is entering his ninth major league season, and may encounter an entirely new mode of rule enforcement regarding the substances pitchers use to grip the ball, a part of the game that had been largely left to the players. (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

He added, because he was somewhat confused, and because there seemed to be a tacit agreement between pitchers and hitters that a little extra tack was best for everyone, “Maybe they need a full-on rewrite. You need to put it on paper. It’s left to interpretation right now. That’s the issue … it’s all interpretation. We need somebody from the league to write something and submit it to us or come into the clubhouse and tell us. What can and can’t you do? How is it enforced? What are the penalties?”

They would tell him, in short, a rule’s a rule, and that the league does not intend to undress pitchers on the mound, and that if a pitcher chooses to artificially enhance his grip he does so at his own risk.

Veteran lefty Rich Hill, now Odorizzi’s teammate in Minnesota, recalled an afternoon two seasons ago in which a league official approached him and offered two baseballs. One was from Japan, where the baseballs are tackier. The other was an official MLB ball. The difference was stark. Hill gathered from the encounter that MLB knew its product could be — and should be — improved. The ball remained the same. Some say the ball has become even slicker. Pitchers, therefore, continued their own systems of grip maintenance.

The league is watching again and reminding players and coaches and general managers there are no small infractions, not on the field or in the dugout or, especially, in the box scores. It is watching. And it is holding a rule book.

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