Treat a man like a child, and he’ll act like one: MLB's early sticky stuff inspections don’t feel right

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Cole back turned umpire inspection home whites
Cole back turned umpire inspection home whites

In Texas, Sergio Romo dropped his pants. In Philadelphia, an umpire ran his fingers through the wet hair of a raging Max Scherzer (ew).

And in the Bronx, Gerrit Cole walked off the mound after the second inning. He looked once, then twice at the home plate umpire, worried about accidentally evading his checkpoint. An inning later, he submitted to the humiliation in front of approximately 20,000 people.

Did anyone else find these scenes impossibly awkward? The optics unacceptable?

After the Yankees game ended, Cole slumped in his Zoom room seat and appeared exhausted. I asked him if he was comfortable with the manner in which these foreign substance searches were being conducted.

“Umm…” he began, shaking his head, shrugging, and probably calculating the trouble of making any kind of headline. “I don’t really know. I don’t think it's really a super comfortable situation for anybody, but it is what it is and maybe we’ll get more comfortable with it going forward.”

Cole doesn’t want to say it, so we will. While MLB’s new enforcement of an old rule is a good idea, even a necessary one, there’s something off about the way the inspections themselves make the league’s labor force look like criminals before they have even been proven guilty.

So-called sticky stuff is a systemic problem, which is why it has never been fair for a pundit or Josh Donaldson to single out Cole, Scherzer or Trevor Bauer. This is about cleaning up an entire culture that slid into bad habits.

As Cole and Scherzer’s agent Scott Boras told SNY recently, “All players are taught methods of practice to optimize performance when they enter professional baseball. Asking [Cole] specifics about those customs and practices creates an unfair perception.”

Now that we’re actually witnessing the checks -- an era that began on Monday when an ump ordered Jacob deGrom to unfasten his belt in the middle of a crowded stadium on Monday -- it just feels … off.

In fairness to MLB, it’s not easy to come up with a better suggestion that would actually discourage pitchers from using the stuff. Perhaps the pitcher and ump could dip into the dugout for the check? Then at least a few teammates could gather around the scene and block it from full view?

That’s not perfect, either. But imagining myself in Scherzer or Romo’s situation on Tuesday night, it was easy to imagine acting with similar defiance. This isn’t about disagreeing with the policy. It’s about being a grown man subjected to public indignity. That doesn’t generally bring out the best in people. Treat me like a child, and I’ll probably act like one.

(Or be Joe Girardi, and act like a child simply because you’re wired that way … but we digress).

Like so much else that has transpired between MLB and players over the past two summers, these scenes ratchet up the concern that the sport itself will shut down before the 2022 season even begins.

As if myriad economic issues aren’t enough, the acrimony between players and the commissioner remains personal, at least to the players.

“These are Manfred rules,” Scherzer said after Tuesday’s game. “Go ask him what he wants to do with this. I’ve said enough.”

Star pitchers feel singled out by the commissioner. Scherzer and Cole are among the most prominent leaders in the Players’ Association. The events of this week certainly aren’t serving to build a bridge to a new collective bargaining agreement.

That’s the big-picture view. Another part of the big-picture is that the game is better with more offense and fewer strikeouts. Manfred was right to address it.

But zoom in for the human side, and we can clearly see that the first two days of the crackdown felt undignified. Hopefully people smarter than I can find a slightly better way.