On the first day of May in 2013, in the start that ran his season record to 6-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.01, Clay Buchholz limited the Toronto Blue Jays to five baserunners and no runs over seven innings. It was as good as Buchholz got in a season in which he was better than he’d been before or has been since. He was still Clay Buchholz, and so missed most of June and all of July and August with an injury, but he finished with a 1.74 ERA and a 14-1 record in just 16 starts. By many metrics, Buchholz was one of the very best starting pitchers in baseball that season, but it is more important to our work here to note that, by any measure, Buchholz was undeniably the wettest. It was that last bit that got him in trouble after shutting down Toronto.
The former big league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst said on local sports radio that Buchholz was “absolutely cheating” with some sort of foreign substance that he’d slathered first on his arm and then on the ball. “Forget the hair,” Hayhurst tweeted. “I just saw video of Buchholz loading the ball with some Eddie Harris worthy slick’em painted up his left forearm.” Sportsnet, the Jays’ television network, found what they claimed was footage of him doing it. The “forget the hair” part of Hayhurst’s tweet, which we will be disregarding here, referred to the fact that the alleged substance, whatever it was, had been strategically concealed by the fact that Buchholz looked the way he looked when he pitched, which was like someone who had been recently pushed off a shrimp boat. Clay Buchholz was just absolutely wet as hell, in short, and the Blue Jays were sure there was a reason for it.
When Sportsnet confronted Buchholz with the allegations, they found him “coolly strumming a guitar in the Red Sox clubhouse” and ready with an answer. “I’m throwing stuff in my hair too, right?” Buchholz said. “No, that’s water. You can look at as much video as you want after every inning I go in there and pour a bottle of water on my head.” It’s a perfectly reasonable response, with one biggish caveat—why would you do that? As the population of Wet Baseball Guys has grown in the years since Buchholz’s soggy heyday, the question remains: Why are so many baseball guys so wet?
As it happens, Buchholz had an answer for that, too. The wetness, he said, was all about moisture. “They don’t want you licking your fingers on the mound,” he told the Boston Globe. “So it’s a way to have moisture. I wipe it off every time I touch my hair.”
But that can’t quite be the end of it. While Buchholz eventually cut his lank fettuccine hair into something a little less troubling—this seems like a nice place to note that Clay Buchholz made five starts this season for Toronto—he was not just making a pragmatic, baseball-related decision when he decided to style himself as a Wet Guy. Buchholz was joining a long line of baseball players that made a similar choice. Before joining the Yankees and cleaning up his look, Jason Giambi achieved levels of lank and glossy wetness most frequently associated with WWE’s Attitude Era. There have always been sweaty baseball players, naturally, as baseball is a sport played (mostly) outdoors in the heat of the summer by people who, for nearly all of the game’s history, have subsisted on amphetamines, pork, and amber liquors. But Giambi was working on something else, and sweatiness is not really what we’re talking about, here.
Giambi’s wet look was part of the distinctively turn-of-the-millennium dirtbaggery that defined Giambi’s broader vibe; he told Cigar Aficionado in 2008 that his ideal non-baseball job would be as “a bouncer at a strip club” and listed his five desert island movies as “The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gladiator, and three of Jenna [Jameson]’s.” But while Giambi is still the last player to greet the assembled media wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “PARTY LIKE A ROCK STAR. HAMMER LIKE A PORN STAR. RAKE LIKE AN ALL-STAR,” his personal dedication to wetness has endured, and been passed forward over the last two decades to today.
Clay Buchholz was, in a sense, standing on Giambi’s slippery shoulders, just as surely as later avatars of baseball wetness—well-traveled reliever and memoirist Jason Grilli, journeyman starter Vicente Padilla, long-tenured Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, reliably soggy veteran innings-eater Jason Vargas—were influenced by Buchholz’s work. Today, most big league teams have at least one Wet Guy and, in 2015, Josh Donaldson became the first Wet Guy to win an MVP since Giambi accomplished the feat in 2000. In Hunter Wood, a relief pitcher traded earlier this season from Tampa Bay to Cleveland, and by my assessment the current Wettest Guy In Baseball, we can see where the future of baseball wetness is headed. He is precise and almost neat where Giambi was wild and deliriously sloppy, intentional where Buchholz strayed towards the unfortunate-fire-hydrant-encounter accidental.
In the end, there are only so many ways for a baseball player to look. Every player has to wear the same uniform, and yet every one of them yearns as surely as any other human to express themselves within the strictures dictated by their workplace and its culture. Stirrups and hat brims and double-knit uniforms with lame things like “Cincinnati” sewn onto them only offer a player so much room when it comes to that sort of expression. While there may be practical or medical reasons for the emergence of the Wet Guy as an aesthetic archetype, it is now clearly an established way of being within the sport. Somewhere in the minors, a kid who grew up wanting to be just as good and wet as Chase Utley is taking batting practice. A kid who once wondered whether Freddy Garcia had wandered through a car wash is playing long toss in the outfield and dreaming of big league glory. The work continues.