GunkWatch: Baseball’s New Sticky Stuff Protocols Finally Bust A Guy
9:46 AM EDT on June 28, 2021
Baseball's great oobleckoning reached an important milestone Sunday evening: Reliever Hector Santiago of the Seattle Mariners became the first player disciplined under the league's new ball-doctoring enforcement protocols when he was ejected from an eventual win over the White Sox after umpires conducting a fifth-inning inspection discovered a blob of performance-enhancing ooze inside his glove. Enforcement of the new rules kicked in on Monday, June 21; in the days since some 92 games have been played. Figure at least three pitchers per team per game, two checks per starter and at least one per reliever, plus an extra one for Joe Girardi to troll Max Scherzer, and you've got somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 total ooze checks. Santiago isn't the first pitcher in all that to have a suspect piece of equipment—Diego Castillo of the Rays had his hat confiscated earlier in the week for a suspicious greasy spot—but he's the first to have been found with sticky stuff after pitching, and therefore is the first to earn the boot.
The explanation offered after the game by Santiago and manager Scott Servais makes a kind of crooked sense, once you factor in the very special way the brains of professional baseball players work: Basically, because it was unseasonably hot and humid in Chicago Sunday, Santiago all but rolled around in a big pile of rosin between innings, and a good deal of it accumulated in the sweaty interior wrist area of his glove. Servais said because there was "85 to 90 percent humidity" at game-time, Santiago "had rosin all over himself," something Servais saw fit to categorize under "doing the right thing." Maybe a normal person wouldn't think to coat their body in powdered evaporated pine milk as a heat-management strategy, but then again no one in history has ever for even one second confused a professional baseball player with a normal person. These guys are fuckin' weird.
Rosin is allowed by baseball's new rules, as is any mixture of rosin and sweat or spit. But rosin and sunscreen is a no-no, and of course the more advanced lab-concocted goos are out of the question. Santiago says umpire Phil Cuzzi, who issued the ejection, told him you can't use rosin on your glove hand. Crew chief Tom Hallion, speaking after the game, sounds an awful lot like he's saying the issue was with the nature of the slime, and not where on Santiago's person the slime was discovered: "What we do is we go around the whole glove, feeling for anything that would be sticky or something. It was very noticeable, and then the rest of the crew inspected to make sure we were all in agreement. All four agreed that it was a sticky substance and that's why he was ejected ... You just use your judgment on what you would consider is sticky, and not a norm for what we have seen over all our careers in baseball."
It's useful to note that the new protocols, the umpires charged with game-day enforcement, and the players themselves all agree that there's a difference between the rosin-and-sweat mixture, which ostensibly is used for grip, and "sticky stuff," which is used to impart spin on a baseball in excess of what is generally considered possible with a normal human hand. Santiago was adamant after the game that once baseball does "all this science stuff" on his glove—it was wrapped and preserved and will be tested by the league office to determine the nature of the offending muck—they will find "sweat and rosin" and nothing more. That the entire umpiring crew agreed on the foreign substances determination gives this a veneer of credibility, but it is nevertheless sort of hilarious that baseball's system for identifying cheaters relies on a group of umpires muttering together under the hot sun and then making a forensic determination that might later be overturned by an actual laboratory. If the half-assed scratch-and-sniff test turns out to have been wrong, Santiago will have been kicked out of a baseball game because a group of guys who despite years of training can't manage a strike zone misidentified a mystery slick of tacky junk from the extremely-unpleasant-to-think-about moist interior of his rosin-caked glove.
Even if the lab confirms Cuzzi's impression of the goop, this is a system with some fairly significant vulnerabilities. And if it doesn't, all umpires will have done is labeled a guy a cheater, hit his team with a competitive disadvantage, and damaged the credibility of baseball's anti-muck enforcement strategy. A lot's on the line! If Santiago's slime is in fact rosin and sweat, he will be cleared and will face no further punishment. If it's something else, Santiago may find himself occupying another ignominious spot in history, as the first player suspended under the league's new protocols. Gaylord Perry would be proud.