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BenFred: Wainwright's candid answers about sticky-stuff experiment in 2019 show grip conundrum MLB must solve

BenFred: Wainwright's candid answers about sticky-stuff experiment in 2019 show grip conundrum MLB must solve

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Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright pitches in the fourth inning during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Sunday, May 23, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright’s answers Monday night about his name appearing in a Sports Illustrated story about some of the top pitchers in baseball using one of the sticky concoctions the league has now decided to crack down on left me with three conclusions.

• Number one is that it’s hard for me to get worked up about pitchers using a product that consisted of a mix of pine tar, Manny Mota grip stick and other substances we see slathered all over hitters bats and batting helmets, especially when they were doing so long before the league showed any noticeable interest in caring about the trend, let alone stopping it. Wainwright experimented with the stuff in 2019, he said. He ordered one batch of the concoction this week’s Sports Illustrated story centered on. Fewer than 10 games he used it, he said. Check out his numbers from that 2019 season. Didn’t seem to help him much. He said he ended up giving the rest of it away, likely to his teammates, who I’m sure used it, too. Specifically, Wainwright said he could not find a good place to smear the substance. He didn't like the way it altered his release point, either. 

“I tried it,” Wainwright said. “Didn’t like it. I got rid of it. Haven’t pitched with it in years. So, I got nothing to hide. If that gets me in trouble because I did it years ago, then so be it. I pitched without it for however many years that is until 2019, and I’ve pitched without however many years since 2019 without it. I’ve got nothing to hide. You can check my glove. You can check my hat. You can watch me like a hawk all game long. You will never see me with any of that stuff on me, ever. I’ve got nothing to hide. The truth shall set me free.”

• Number two is that poor Brian “Bubba” Harkins got the short end of the sticky. Harkins is the former Angels employee who unsuccessfully sued the team that fired him for making this specific pine-tar based concoction and supplying it to players across the league, including some of the most prominent pitchers in the game. Hawkins lawsuit got tossed but his point is accurate – he got fired for being part of something everyone was doing. It’s an obvious case of the little man losing. The players who were texting Bubba for the goods haven’t been quick to stick up for him after he lost his job. I asked Wainwright about that. Does he feel bad?

“I do feel bad for Bubba in a way,” Wainwright said. “Because, honestly, it’s like pine tar and rosin. There are another couple of things in there. But it’s junior league, minor league stuff that is made for weightlifters and stuff like that. I have already told you every truth I can tell you, so I might as well lay it out there. There is a tremendous difference in that stuff and this really high-grade stuff.” (Wainwright said he's never used Spider Tack. What is Spider Tack? Keep reading.)

• Number three is a better understanding of just how messy this situation is, pun intended. The rosin bag behind the mound is OK, everyone agrees. The camp on pine-tar concoctions like the one Harkins used to cook up, or sun-screen and rosin combos that lead to pitchers patting their wrist in between every pitch seems to leave folks split; some say it’s fine others think it’s over the line. But most seem to agree the “extreme” stuff is what has spilled the talk about goop out into the public. What Wainwright called “the really high-grade stuff” is stuff like Spider Tack, the weightlifting adhesive that started driving up spin rates when rosin and sunscreen suddenly wasn’t enough. Good luck drawing clear lines between each type of sticky stuff and enforcing punishment in real time. Especially if baseball is going to decide some things are OK and others are not. You want Cowboy Joe West out there trying to decide if the rosin and sunscreen guy is allowed to pitch but the pine tar guy can’t – while the Spider Tack guy might be hiding in the weeds? Again, good luck. Why not just ban it all? I’ve heard that argument, and that seems to be the way baseball is leaning at the moment, based on the memo that was reported on Monday night. But that might not be such a good idea, either. Guys are throwing harder than ever before, and those balls are slick.

“Major League Baseball has taken inventory, and now they’re going to roll out their plan,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “I’ll support their plan. I’m glad there is a plan. My biggest thing is differentiating. Look, it’s a black and white rule, and we are probably going to have to spend some time muddling through before there is a crystallization of something that is a little more universal that is going to give these guys a grip. No one is going to complain about gripping a baseball, including the hitters. But everybody wants the synthetic stuff that is creating unnatural stuff taking place with baseballs eliminated. It’s going to put an onus on somebody, including umpires, to differentiate what that looks like. And I hope that differentiating takes place. Because the fact of the matter is, if you took away sunscreen and everything that puts a grip on the baseball, Commish (Hall of Fame Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel) might end up pitching a few innings this year . . . Listen, it’s been in the game for a long time. The sunscreen. The rosin. Maybe a little pine tar mixed in. Does it create a little bit of advantage on spin? Maybe a little bit. But you are seeing significant rates go up. Teams have chemists. I mean, come on. That’s the stuff that has no business in our game on any level whatsoever.”

The effort to start regulating the problem seems to be working. ESPN’s Buster Olney noted that the league batting line read .236/.312/395 between April 1 and June 4. Since details emerged on how umpires were going to start checks for foreign substances, that batting line has climbed to .247/.318/.414. This a problem worth fixing, clearly. Baseball is going to have a hell of a time figuring out how. Trying to retroactively punish Wainwright and others for past use of something the league showed no interest in addressing, though, is not a productive approach, and will not be pursued. Credit to Wainwright for coming clean. He’s on the right side of the line, he says, and has been ever since.

Good thing, because now every umpire is watching like a hawk.

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