Baseball Reference says close to 700 individuals have taken the mound in an MLB game this season, a week or so shy of the halfway point of the regular season. That sounds like a lot! I am brain-tired and a poor researcher, but with 30 MLB teams that means something like 23 dudes per team have pitched at least once. Wow. Probably some of them were position players. Anthony Bemboom sounds like someone I created in a video game 20 years ago. Chaz Roe? Clearly this individual is not real. Point is, give or take a few obviously fictional names, lots and lots of people pitch in a baseball season, and this season—the first featuring MLB’s new protocols for curbing the age-old practice of ball-doctoring—that means lots and lots of people will be stopped and frisked by umpires on the hunt for the dreaded sticky stuff.
This provides opportunities for lots of different kinds of interactions, not all of them of the red-assed, hyper-macho, get-tossed-for-trying-to-pick-a-fight-over-sweaty-hair variety. Let’s say you are a towering adonis who upon birth was evidently kissed tenderly on the forehead by God, and who in the years since has developed into a dazzling two-way star the likes of which the sport has not seen in living memory: What is a between-innings pat-down but a silly and delightful reminder that crude lesser beings must defile the baseball with slime in order to produce outcomes you conjure up effortlessly, even on your worst days? Ha ha ha, yes, small umpire fellow, I invite you to peek inside my trousers, so that you may truly gaze upon the infinite:
Mickey Jannis of the Orioles is so different from Shohei Ohtani in terms of raw physical tools and career arc that he might reasonably be described as his opposite. Ohtani stands 11 feet tall and throws 140 miles per hour and at 26 years old is already one of the biggest stars of the sport; Jannis is shrimpy and a knuckleballer and at 33 years old and suffering from male pattern baldness made his MLB debut Wednesday night against the Astros, in relief duty in the back half of what would eventually be a 13–0 Orioles loss. As a knuckleballer whose whole utility as a pitcher depends on imparting as little spin as humanly possible on the baseball, he would have no earthly reason to use sticky stuff, but as a person who took the mound in a regular season baseball game in the year 2021, he must submit to a body search for foreign substances. What can you do? Do you bother to point out to the umpire how hilariously silly a goop search is for a bottom-rung major leaguer whose fleeting chance at sticking with a team depends entirely on the ball leaving his hand with the absolute minimum of friction? Or do you just clench your jaw and smile politely and go through the motions?
Thankfully, Wednesday did provide a reminder that there’s a real and informed purpose in checking to make sure pitchers aren’t loaded up with oobleck: Diego Castillo of the Rays took the mound for the ninth inning of an eventual win over the Red Sox with a vaguely suspicious patch of discoloring slime on his cap; to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, umpires confiscated the offending headgear. The Rays sent out a fresh one, Castillo was allowed to stay in the game and pitch, and he struck out a pair of batters en route to a clean inning. The process may be clunky and embarrassing, but it’s refreshingly above-board. Castillo probably did not intend to cheat—most likely he’s just a gross man who wears a gross hat—but with the object of suspicion removed we can all feel better that his excellent performance was all skill and blessedly slimeless, and that’s the whole idea.