The old saying says that it's not illegal if you don't get caught. In baseball, sometimes it isn't illegal even if you do.
I'm fairly certain, for instance, that last night, the entire world caught Michael Pineda shamelessly loading the ball up with the gunk he was keeping on his pine-fresh palm. Bud Selig didn't send investigators to the scene of the crime, though, nor is there—to the best of my knowledge—a suspension looming on the horizon. The umpires did their best Sergeant Schultz impression, Pineda claimed it was just dirt, and the Red Sox did their part by deeming it all no big deal.
Thus, despite Pineda having been caught brown-handed, it was like the whole thing never happened.
This shouldn't be any surprise. Advances in broadcast technology have made it so that everyone can see what people on the field always have—pitchers with various foreign substances slathered on their person, compulsively rubbing them all over the ball. Even with instant replay, additional eye-in-the-sky umpires, and HD cameras, though, these mysterious substances go completely ignored. When someone like Pineda cheats so obviously that it has to be acknowledged, it's discussed in terms of a ludicrously weak explanation that all players seem to accept: Loading the ball is not about cheating; it's about getting a grip.
Since it seems like everyone could stand to get a grip on this form of cheating in the majors, let's talk some of the ways pitchers go about getting one. This is a strange thing, existing in a sort of no-man's land. It's not really illegal, since no one gets called out for openly doing it, and yet it's not quite legal, given that no pitcher would ever just waltz out to the mound and set a towel full of pine tar down next to the rosin bag. Pitchers having to act like this is something they could get in trouble for leads to all sorts of chicanery, which at times reaches the level of fine art. To discuss it, we have to know how it's done.
Since it's a popular topic right now, we'll start with pine tar.
Pine tar comes into the locker room in a tube, bottle, and stick, but there is really only one way a pitcher will use it: He'll take the pine tar towel from the hitters' helmet cubby, or have a hitter make an extra towel for him.
Why a towel? Why not just apply the tar straight from the tube or bottle? Because pine tar can get everywhere in a hurry, and the key to using a foreign substance effectively is knowing how much is enough, as more isn't always better.
To do it right, get a towel from a training room, fold it over, tape it together and then continue taping until the outside is lined with athletic or duct tape. Next, fill the inside of the towel with pine tar and fold it over at the center like a book. When you're done, you should have one side of the towel laminated with stripes of tape and the inside bare towel smothered in pine tar. When you close it like a book, the pine tar will make it stick shut.
Make your tar towel big enough that it wraps around a bat handle (or your wrist). Don't overfill it, because you want the tar to be thin, not sludge. It's better to go back to the towel for extra than to overapply. Remember, once you're on the mound you can always go to the rosin bag if you need a little extra tack. Asking a trainer to come out and clean the tar off your fingers, however, is a sure-fire way to get in trouble.
While pine tar's ability to add tack is unquestionable, science has improved on it with the invention of Firm Grip. While I do enjoy calling out ball doctors now that I'm a broadcaster, I won't act like I didn't doctor a baseball myself when I played. When I did, I used Firm Grip.
Go to the training room to find Firm Grip—it won't be too far away from where you found that towel you just filled with tar. Firm Grip has the same tack that pine tar has, but that tack gets stronger with friction. The tighter you abrade against it, the tighter it grips back.
Firm Grip comes in a tube and has a consistency similar to toothpaste, so you don't need to make a towel to apply it. It has other advantages, too. It's easier to get off, doesn't harden into a candy shell-type coat, doesn't get runny when it gets hot—pine tar's viscosity changes with heat—and you can rub it into the fabric of your clothes without it leaving obvious brown smudges. (Actually, it often looks like sweat when rubbed into your shirt.)
The flexibility of Firm Grip is important, because a doctoring pitcher will likely place a foreign substance in a spot he'll routinely touch during the course of game. Routine counts when it comes to getting scrutinized. If you go about your business a certain way for long enough, odds are that you'll fly under the radar, because even if what you're doing is ostensibly cheating, no one will call you on it. In baseball, "Oh, he's always done that" is a powerful argument that justifies pretty much anything.
Unfortunately, to earn that benefit of the doubt, you have to stick around for a while, at least long enough for everyone to get used to your routine. This makes a pine tar smudge damning to a younger pitcher. An established reliever like Grant Balfour, on the other hand, can—and does—get away with it.
Another not-so-obvious but readily available cheat is shaving cream, specifically the gel stuff. On its own, it's not that helpful: It gives you a little tack for a short period, but is virtually useless after a few throws. But shaving cream is not meant to be applied alone. Think of it as foreign substance primer. If you put on shaving cream before you get your rosin, pine tar, or Firm Grip on, it all sticks much better.
Shaving cream, which can be found in the bathroom of every major league locker room, has another use, too. It's better for breaking up accumulated layers of spray sunscreen and old, gunked-up rosin than washing your hands.
Think of your grip like washing your hair. Sometimes, a little hair spray and oil buildup makes your hair look better than if you had just washed it. The same goes for your feel of the baseball and your grip. Clean hands don't always have the same feel on a ball that, for the lack of a better term, worn-in hands do. Shaving cream can take that top layer of grip aid off without heating up or scrubbing smooth your touch points the way a good lather and rinse will.
Good cleaning technique is especially useful if you're going to use the industry standard ball-doctoring combination of sunscreen and rosin, which tends to layer and congeal with each wipe of the brow, neck, and rosin. This flaw aside, the rosin-and-sunscreen combo is by far the most versatile, non-cheaterish cheat a pitcher can use. The beauty of it is that these are two things that, when used separately, aren't cheating.
A major league trainer will have lots of sunscreen, some of which is kept around just because it's the best to mix with rosin. However, if you're going to do it, I suggest a cream-based screen over a spray. The spray has a lot of alcohol in it and will dry faster; the cream will sit on top of the skin for longer, making it easer to mix over a longer period. Put the screen on your arms and neck, and don't rub it in until you feel dry. (A slightly greasy feeling is good.) Dust your arms with rosin, then go to those locations as needed throughout the game.
If you already have a body-touching routing in place, as advised above, you can easily throw a pitch, wipe your neck and arms, smack the rosin bag—and repeat. This combination works just as well as pine tar.
If you feel you've overloaded, or if your fingers are getting gunked up, take your hat off, run your fingers through your hair, then wipe your sweat-soaked hand harshly against your pant leg until you've cleaned some off. This will tide you over until you make it back into the dugout. (It's also why you see otherwise clean pitchers in their home whites with brown streaks on the side of their throwing-hand leg.)
There are other gripping agents out there besides pine tar, rosin, and sunscreen, Firm Grip, and shaving cream, but they're by far the most common.
When it comes to slicking agents, however, there are only two real options: lube or spit.
For the record, I don't recommend the spitball. It's a complicated pitch to throw, with a large margin of error. Getting some tack on the ball to increase the tightness of spin and supply late break is relatively idiot-proof. Learning how to properly grease a ball to get the optimal amount of control and late sink in the zone—as opposed to losing control and hitting the backstop or the batter—is much harder.
If you're going to throw it, though, you should know that you don't need a lot of lube to make the spitball work. Most pitchers put too much lube on the ball and get no result, when a tiny amount on the pressure points of your fingers can get you some vicious downward action. While you need a good grip to throw every one of your other pitches, you only need to get your fingers lubed when you're throwing the spitter, and you can wipe the stuff off once you've thrown it.
Spit can work, but it can be absorbed into the leather of the ball quickly unless you really hock one onto it, which will draw attention. Unfortunately, most lubes will also absorb into the skin or else wipe off too quickly. They also have a tendency to run or drip.
In my experience, the best place to store a little lube is in your lower lip or hair, assuming you have some. A light coating of Vaseline along the gum line wont go anywhere until you wipe it out, and if you have long, greasy hair, you may not even need lube at all.
Of all the cheats I've listed here, only lubing is considered an actual cheat within the baseball community. This is, if you ask me, rather myopic, if not hypocritical.
The baseball community says that performance enhancing drugs are wrong because they skew the playing field. While there is no doubt that PEDs have enhanced or prolonged some players' careers, you can't directly correlate that to every player. With ball doctoring, there is an immediate edge gained.
While lubing the ball gives you a turbo split-finger, adding a gripping agent makes all pitches thrown under its aid spin more tightly. Tighter spin means the ball travels through the air looking more like a fastball. The dot on the slider is smaller and less distinguishable. The curve is tighter, its break sharper and later. The cutter has sharper action, and the two-seamer/sinker has more downward tilt. Bear in mind that it's not extra movement that eats up a batter; it's how late and sharp that movement is. Any big leaguer can crush a hanging breaking ball or a loopy slider. The gripping agent ratchets all that stuff down—a little for some, a lot for others.
While a lubed ball can create a nasty pitch where no such pitch existed before, which makes players distinguish it as the more cheaterly of the two, a gripping agent enhances a pitch beyond its current limitations—which is why pitchers use it.
Sure, pitchers will say that it's all about getting a grip, and it most certainly is. But you wouldn't believe what a professional player can do with that increased, unnatural grip. That's why there's a rule about it in the rulebook.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former MLB pitcher, broadcaster, and author of Bigger Than The Game: Restitching a Major League Life.
Art by Jim Cooke.