Every pitcher who takes the mound in an MLB game, under the league’s new protocols for eliminating some of the more egregious forms of ball-doctoring, is supposed to be checked for sticky stuff by an umpire at least once, usually as they leave the field at the end of an inning or of their appearance. The league designed it this way at least in part so that the minute or two devoted to the average uneventful goop check wouldn’t lengthen a game. A knock-on benefit of doing it during a stoppage is in most cases this spares the pitcher from the spectacle of being frisked by umpires on the mound. Starting pitchers, since they are expected to work through the opposing lineup a couple times, are automatically checked twice.
Airline travelers in the United States have been subjected to more rigorous security measures and more thorough and time-consuming personal inspections for going on 20 years now, and it is still not all that uncommon to read about TSA screenings leading directly to someone getting tasered and arrested. Enhanced pat-downs for pitchers are in their first week; they take place in view of tens of thousands of spectators, dozens of colleagues, and a television audience; they are conducted by officials with preexisting and in some cases rocky and adversarial relationships with players; they are being done to enforce a sweeping prohibition on foreign substances that many pitchers view as overreaching; and professional baseball players are, in general, in the 98th percentile of redassedness among the greater population. Even when this settles into a stable routine, the process of Ángel Hernández inspecting the inside of some recently roughed-up reliever’s belt is never going to be all that enjoyable a moment. But here at the outset, when feelings are still running hot about the whole big thing, there will for sure be some acutely unpleasant interactions.
Tuesday night, which for a handful of teams was their first experience with baseball’s enhanced program, presented a couple spectacularly awkward moments. Zach Wheeler of the Phillies and Max Scherzer of the Nationals were both checked following the third out of their first inning of work, with no discovery of foreign substances; Scherzer, one of baseball’s true lunatic competitors but also a member of MLBPA’s executive committee and a recent player member of MLB’s rules committee, did some theatrical eye-rolling but otherwise consented to the pat-down. Both pitchers were checked again, per the rules, following their third outs of the third inning. Under normal circumstances, both pitchers would’ve now experienced their final frisking of the night, and umpires would’ve been off the hook for this stuff at least until the first reliever entered the game.
Scherzer had already whiffed six Phillies and the Nationals had dinked their way to a 3-1 lead entering the fourth inning. After Scherzer blew away Alec Bohm with a runner on first in the bottom of the frame, the game came to an unexpected halt, and umpires trudged out to the mound for an impromptu third check of the pitcher’s person. Phillies manager Joe Girardi, evidently troubled both by Scherzer’s dominance and by his habit of running his pitching hand through his hair, asked the umpires to perform another personal inspection, this time in the middle of an inning, with Scherzer standing on the mound. Maybe some part of this was pure gamesmanship, but also this is what the new rules permit and encourage and what the new emphasis demands. If Girardi sincerely suspects an opposing pitcher of actively cheating, this is what MLB says he should do about it. This third inspection was a real scene:
The best part of this is Scherzer preparing to drop his pants right there on the field, and umpire Alfonzo Marquez wisely and hastily talking him out of it. Marquez was the cool head in this, telling Scherzer, “Hey, don’t get ejected over this—let us just do our job and then we’ll be fine.” Nationals manager and reliable hothead Davey Martinez joined the huddle to animatedly complain on behalf of his veteran pitcher; his protestations and gesticulations angered Girardi, who marched to the top step of the dugout to direct a challenging stare at his counterpart and the ornery pitcher who he’d offended with his suspicions. I’m sure this was a headache for everyone involved, but it made for tremendous television.
The hair thing turned out to be perfectly above-board. Pitchers are allowed to use rosin for grip; Scherzer is used to mixing sweat with rosin—also perfectly allowable—in order to achieve his preferred tackiness. It was unseasonably cool in Philadelphia Tuesday night, and so the only part of Scherzer that was producing sweat was his scalp. He said he made an effort to get by with spit, but said he was “was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin all night.” Maybe Scherzer, one of baseball’s real spin freaks, has used foreign substances in the past, but with MLB’s crackdown he at least was not using them against the Phillies. Had Scherzer been applying foreign substances, presumably this ambush would’ve caught him goop-handed. He wasn’t—after the game he said he’d “have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight”—but rules are rules and once Girardi summoned the umpires the inspection had to proceed. That doesn’t mean Scherzer had to enjoy the experience, nor that he should take very kindly to an opposing manager essentially calling him a cheater in the middle of a game.
The show didn’t end with the third check. Scherzer went back to work and eventually escaped a minor jam with consecutive foul-outs. In the fifth he sat down the heart of the Phillies lineup in order. On his way off the field, at 106 pitches and with his evening of work concluded, Scherzer directed a long stare at the Phillies dugout. This caught the attention of Girardi, who in a moment of hilarious macho foolishness decided to challenge an opposing player to a physical confrontation, on a baseball field, during a by-God professional baseball game. For this display of hot-tempered temporary insanity, Girardi was given the boot.
Going to such lengths to neutralize an opposing pitcher, and still having him rampage through your lineup, and then challenging him to fisticuffs for looking at you, and then getting ejected from the game for it, while an opposing coach openly mocks your “hold me back” bravado—this will not be an episode that Girardi recounts fondly when looking back on his career. In fact it is an all-time corncobbing: You can practically hear him deflating like a leaky balloon as he makes his way to the bowels of the stadium, propelled by hot compressed air gushing from his chapped butthole. Owned!
And this wasn’t even the night’s most spectacular response to a search for sticky stuff! Oakland reliever Sergio Romo was subjected to a mandatory check following a late inning of work in a 13–6 A’s win over the Rangers, and responded by actually dropping his pants on the field:
Turns out the juice baseball has been lacking all these years was men angrily offering to yank their trousers off right there on the infield grass. This was an unanticipated side-effect of new rules about the use of foreign substances, but damn if it hasn’t made the average game 100 percent more fascinating.