Few professional sports can trace their roots as far back as Major League Baseball. From the early seasons in the late 1800’s through the most recent ones here in the 21st century, baseball is littered with history and tradition.
During these years we have watched baseball evolve into the magnificent game it is today. Fielding gloves were introduced (1875), the World Series created (1903), batting helmets mandated (NL in 1956, AL in 1958), a maximum mound height set (15 inches in 1904 to 10 inches in 1969), integration (1947), the designated hitter (1973), expansion franchises added (1961, ’62, ’69, ’77, ’93 and ’98), instant replay implemented (2008) and so on.
And while the game would be almost unrecognizable to those first chaps who suited up for the Cleveland Forest Cities and Ft. Wayne Kekiongas in 1871 there is one constant they would likely recognize, pitchers cheating.
It wasn’t always called cheating. In fact manipulating a baseball with the likes of an emery board, pine tar, grease and the like were all perfectly legal until 1920. It was then when the final guidelines were put in place for pitchers, more specifically, what you were not allowed to do to a baseball during competition.
The pitcher shall not
And with that Major League Baseball solved its problem of pitchers manipulating baseballs to make them move, dive, cut and drop unnaturally, ultimately creating an even playing field for hitters around the league. Or so MLB thought.
Pitcher’s cheating is a time honored tradition, one that has been passed on from generation to generation. Putting on a professional uniform invites you into the club and privy to stories and lessons of how pitchers cheat and attempt to cheat. These conversations are a stark reminder that most professional baseball players are willing do whatever it takes, illegal or not, to gain an edge.
My first lesson in gaining an edge came in scuffed baseballs, the most important factor in which was how to use one. I knew nothing about scuffing a baseball as an amateur. And I wouldn’t have known the first thing about how to use one in the early years as a professional.
It wasn’t until a veteran broached the subject in the bullpen one day about four, five years into my career. I was a wide-eyed sponge.
What you must first understand is the simple physics of a baseball. A major-league baseball is perfectly round. In a vacuum with no outside influences, it will travel in an uninterrupted straight line.
That’s no good for pitchers because when thrown, straight baseballs are easy to hit by major leaguers, regardless of velocity. We as pitchers learn to sink them, cut them, curve them and change speeds on them with our own natural ability to fool hitters and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. But there is no better way to make a baseball move sharply at a high velocity than to take its most consistent property away, its’ roundness.
A scuff in a baseball doesn’t have to be drastic. Just the slightest change in its surface, in the right spot, in the right direction, can produce wonderful results. The perfect place for a scuff for me and most was right in center of the horseshoe. From there I could do some pretty fun things.
As a left-handed pitcher I had a decent sinker, a fastball that when held with two seams would run down and away from a right-handed hitter. I gave up 1-3 mph of velocity to make it move, but that was a tradeoff I gladly made.
If I had a scuffed baseball, one that was just slightly less round than the usually perfectly round one given to me by the umpire, I suddenly had Derek Lowe’s sinker. Those were fun to throw and I would throw them with much more confidence then my non-scuffed two-seam fastballs, starting them right down the middle of the plate and watching them dive away with a depth I usually never saw with my natural ability.
It was important that I placed the scuff on the inside of the ball, between my index finger and thumb. This was critical. In doing so the baseball was now lighter on the inside and heavier on the outside side. This imbalance helped carry the ball away from a right-handed hitter much more than it ever did on its own, creating nearly unhittable sink.
If I was creating the scuff on my own (more on that later) the direction in which I scuffed the ball was also important. I wanted the scuff to be made right to left or front to back. What that did was create a slight raise in the baseball’s skin, giving the initial opposing wind some resistance which would create additional sink.
A major-league baseball weighs anywhere from 5 to 5¼ ounces. It doesn’t take much to throw off the balance.
In contrast if I were throwing a slider or a cutter, a pitch for me that as a left-handed pitcher would break in towards a right-handed batter, I would then place the scuff on the other side of the ball. This ball was now lighter on the outside of my hand and the heavier side on the inside, helping it break even more so in the direction I wanted.
A scuffed baseball also works well with a change-up, fork ball or split finger. I never noticed a difference in throwing a curveball using a scuffed baseball.
You can get lucky and sometimes be given a scuffed baseball. A batter may hit the ball hard in the dirt creating a scuff that you’ll get back from an infielder. Pitches in the dirt are always checked by umpires these days and even the slightest damaged baseball is thrown out the game but every once in a while you’ll get a usable scuffed baseball back.
But the best way to acquire a scuffed baseball is to create one on your own … or enlist help.
Catchers can be helpful in scuffing baseballs. One way is that after finishing your final warm-up pitches to start an inning a catcher may intentionally throw the ball down to second base in the dirt. This comes at the request of the pitcher and when he gets the ball back, it will likely have a scuff on it. I’ve also heard stories about catchers intentionally scuffing a baseball by harshly grazing it against their catcher’s gear, usually somewhere on the shin guards, creating a nick in the ball before returning it to the pitcher.
Another option is to do it yourself and the most common way is by using sandpaper. That usually would include gluing a tiny piece of sandpaper, one that matches the color of your glove, in an inconspicuous spot on your glove or even you belt.
One pitcher showed me an even sneakier, nearly foolproof way to bring sandpaper to the mound. He would take a hole puncher and punch out a tiny hole of sandpaper. He would then super glue the small circular piece to the inside of his middle finger of his non-throwing hand. When he wanted a scuff he would take his glove off and rub the ball in the ideal place, creating a perfect scuff.
If he were checked by an umpire he would simply flick the tiny circle off and it became virtually untraceable in the infield grass or the mound dirt. He also told me if he could not get the piece to come off his finger he would simply raise his hand to his mouth and eat the sandpaper. Whatever it takes.
Another way, one that I may or may not have tried a few times, is to use your own fingernail. I used to grow both my thumb and index fingernails of my left hand slightly long and kept them well filed for my knuckle curveball. An ancillary benefit to this was that I had a sharp weapon that could (allegedly) scuff the surface of a baseball with a few well-hidden aggressive passes on the ball. I might sometimes do it with the ball in my glove or while I was walking around the mound with the ball by my side when I knew most people’s attention was elsewhere.
Sneaky? Immoral? Illegal? Probably. Kind of. Yes.
Smart pitchers who scuff baseballs don’t use them all the time. You pick your spots, like when you really need a strikeout or groundball. Using one every time is likely to raise eyebrows. If you throw the occasional better-than-usual sinker an opposing hitter is unlikely to notice or say something. If you’re consistently better than you usually are, suspicion is raised and the opposing team is likely to keep a close eye on you as well as examine foul balls that make their way into the dugout. (See: Kenny Rogers, 2005 World Series)
I picked my spots. There were times I specifically remember throwing scuffed baseballs, whether it was an intentional acquisition or just luck that one came my way. After an inning was over my catcher would say something like, “That last sinker was nasty!” I’d look at him and respond, “Yeah, you might want to make sure that ball is out of the game before you hit.” He immediately knew why.
One of the more unbelievable attempts to alter a baseball, one I saw happen in a major-league game was, for lack of a better term, “the dirt ball”. What this pitcher told me, and what I watched him do was both incredibly creative and borderline insane.
This pitcher with tremendous accuracy would spit on the baseball while standing off the mound. He would then reach down for the rosin bag with that ball in his hand and a freshly minted loogie on the outside of the ball. From there he would touch the rosin bag without lifting it from the ground while at the same time pressing the moist side of the baseball firmly into the pitcher’s mound dirt.
The result? A large chunk of dirt stuck to the side of the baseball. He would quickly place the ball inside his glove and deliver a fastball. A fastball that was so heavily unbalanced that you would see the bottom fall out of it, and also what appeared to be a large dark object on the ball.
The beauty of the dirtball, besides its creative genius, was that once the ball hit the catcher’s glove or by some off chance, the hitter’s bat, the dirt would fall off and any evidence of shenanigans vanished.
You’re welcomed to argue that this is cheating, illegal and players caught participating in scuffing and alternating baseballs should be at least suspended or possibly kicked out of baseball. You’d have a reasonable argument.
I see it differently. It is an intricacy of the game. An illegal one yes, but one that has gone on for centuries, and while that doesn’t make it right, it is a part of my professional baseball experience that is an endearing memory for me.
With HD technology, super slow-motion replay and what seems like 20 cameras at every game, pitchers have to be sneakier than ever. I applauded their plight as they come up with new and inventive ways to slay the enemy. Whatever it takes.
As the old adage in the game goes: If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. Catch me if you can.