06 July 2021

Ellis Millsaps: Baseball Edition 2021


I told you not long ago that I'd be moving back to my continuing sagas and my recurring character authors like the cranky English major and your erstwhile Porterdale correspondent. I still intend to do that but right now I have to do one of my semi- annual installments on baseball. Don't like that? Well, sugar pie honey bunch, I can't help myself.

MLB kept the 2020 covid rules changes I wanted to see gone and nixed the one I wanted to keep.. We still have seven inning double headers, the start of extra Innings with a runner on second and no designated hitter in the National League. I hear that all three of these things will be reversed next year.

 The covid  aberrations aside, I've stressed how few rule changes there have been in the history of baseball and how important that is to the integrity of the game and its sacred record keeping, but something like a major rule change happened recently. It's not really a rule change but rather a decision to enforce a rule of long-standing that has lain dormant for years: no foreign substances on the baseball. 

The rule was enacted a hundred years ago to outlaw spitballs. It didn't work very well.

Watching baseball in the sixties I regularly saw umpires examining baseballs at a batter's request but not many cheaters were caught and penalized. Gaylord Perry won 300 games and induction into the Hall of Fame riding the spitball. He learned the pitch in 1964 but wasn't caught at it and given a 10-day suspension until 1984 even though one of his catchers has said that sometimes Gaylord's ball was so slimy he couldn't throw it back to the mound accurately.

He had to walk halfway and flip it to him. 

The spitball was effective because it stopped or slowed the backward spin of the fastball caused by the grip of the top two fingers. That tends to elevate the pitch against the pull of gravity. The addition of a lubricant-- in the spitball’s heyday Vaseline spread under the bill of the cap-- to the fingertips of the index and middle fingers took away the friction producing the backward spin  and caused the ball to sink at the last instant.

 The development of the split-finger fastball in the 1970s negated the need for the spit ball since the split-finger produced the same effect. I haven't seen or heard of a pitched ball being examined for a foreign substance in fifty years until two weeks ago.

 The baseball powers announced last month that they were cracking down on the application of sticky substances to the baseball. Apparently this has been rampant for several years although this is the first time I've heard it. To date there has been one 10- day suspension because of it.

A sticky substance has the opposite effect of Vaseline, increasing the spin and therefore the break on breaking balls: curves, sliders, cut fastballs, screwballs, etc. In an age where 75% of pitchers are throwing 95 mph or better, throw in the sticky ball and it’s not surprising that batting averages across the board have dropped to a near historic low. At the present the average major league team batting average is down to .240. The record low of .237 was set in 1968. The next year they lowered the mound from an elevation of fifteen to ten inches.

Chipper Jones has talked about the rule change. He says the sticky business is so bad that in 2017 a ball stuck to Yadier Molina's chest protector. Apparently the substance of choice is called Spider Tack. Although he strongly supports the rule, he says letting pitchers use pine tar like the way batters do would be fair.

There are so many things wrong with that idea.

 Because of what our short attention spans can abide, I’m going to stop here but I'm not through yet. This piece is to be continued. I know this is somewhat techno-scientific for baseball talk but at least I'm not talking about Bitcoin.

- Ellis Millsaps

Ellis "Da" Millsaps is a recovering Attorney but has worn many hats over the years: father, bus boy, stand-up comedian, novelist, wiffle ball player, rock'n'roll band manager, and at one time wrote a popular and funny column for The Covington News. A Fannin Co. mountain boy originally, Mr. Millsaps now stays at the mill village of Porterdale by way of 20 years in Mansfield.