Editorial: MLB’s tacky problem: It’s time to clean the gunk from baseballs and America’s pastime

For Gaylord Perry, today’s pitcher’s mound would be a candy store.

Perry was a gifted pitcher during the 1970s and later a Hall of Fame inductee, but he also was a notorious cheater. His go-to substance to doctor a baseball was Vaseline, though in his book, “Me and the Spitter,” he said he once tried fishing line oil. Today, however, Perry would delight in the arsenal of substances routinely used by this generation of pitchers. Sunscreen. Hair gel. Distilled Coca-Cola. And of course, Spider Tack.

Spider Tack? Yes, a gluey substance that competitors in strongman tournaments use to help grip 300-pound stones has become a favorite for pitchers desperate for an edge.

This week, Major League Baseball announced a crackdown on doctored baseballs. Pitchers caught cheating will get ejected and suspended for 10 games. Though using foreign substances to alter the movement of the pitch is almost as old as the sport itself, the ubiquity of doctored baseballs has reached new heights. League officials have checked thousands of balls used this season, and sent suspect balls to labs for analysis, The New York Times reported. The verdict: Most of those balls had been tainted with some foreign substance.

And so, once more America’s pastime cowers in shame. As Yogi Berra said, it’s like déjà vu, all over again. Barry Bonds evokes not enduring greatness but steroid infamy. The Houston Astros still bear the stain of the sign-stealing scandal during their 2017 World Series run and the year after that yielded a $5 million fine, suspensions and lost draft picks.

Baseball’s new black mark potentially has deeper ramifications for the sport. The advantage that ball-altering pitchers have threatens to make the game duller. Baseball already is scrambling for ways to spice up games — even to the extent of, at the minor league level, experimenting with moving the pitcher’s mound back a foot to give batters a better chance at swatting doubles and triples. But surreptitiously dabbing a bit of pine tar or Spider Tack on a ball gives the pitcher more grip, which creates more spin and consequently, pitches that become increasingly unhittable. Strikeouts multiply, hits dwindle, interest in the game wanes.

If they continue turning to tacky gunk for help, MLB pitchers face the same taint of ignominy that befell the likes of Lance Armstrong, Sammy Sosa, the Russian Sports Ministry and countless other cheaters. It’s a fate they can avoid, simply by relying solely on savvy, resolve and God-given talent to refine sinkers, sliders and curveballs. Will players and managers get the message? We like Cubs manager David Ross’ embrace of the MLB’s crackdown.

“This may have to come down to guys that are going to have to learn to pitch to the corners and move the baseball around, and the art of pitching,” Ross said. “Is there an element to holding the baseball that’s important? Sure, sure. But if I’m in MLB’s shoes and I have to govern this, I can’t have any gray area, right?”

In other words, pitchers will have to get better without the gunk.

It would be easy to get cynical about baseball’s latest scandal in the same way Chicago and Illinois get cynical about our pantheon of corrupt politicians. Our long list of political cheaters spans decades and across quite a few prison camps. We grow numb. “Oh, that’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it always will be.” Reform never gains traction.

But cynicism won’t help. Coming out of the pain of the pandemic, we need baseball more than ever, for our collective psyche, for our transition back to relative normalcy. The game won’t be salve if it’s enshrouded in disgrace.

And as Little Leaguers, high schoolers and college players return to diamonds across Chicago and the rest of the country, the last thing they need is the message that alchemy on the mound is just part of the game.