Why MLB's foreign substance issue might not become historic scandal after all

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Rob Manfred at podium in front of MLB logo
Rob Manfred at podium in front of MLB logo

In the coming days, months or years, this column could end up wrong, or even embarrassing (wouldn’t be the first time for either -- such is the risk of publishing reported opinions).

A whistleblower like Mike Fiers could emerge to call into question the results of a season already played. Superstars could see their reputations ruined. The Sticky Stuff era could take its place alongside the Black Sox, steroids, and electronic sign stealing as the game’s most prominent scandals.

All that could happen. I just … think it won’t.

For a number of reasons, foreign substance-gate doesn’t seem ready to rise to the level of a major long-term story. We’re not downplaying the need to clean it up, or pushing back on hitters’ anger about it. We’re just saying, it might not be an historically significant situation.

Consider this reporting and opinion:

Rob Manfred is clearly applying hard lessons learned from the Astros scandal

Teams complained about Houston and a few other clubs for years, and ended up frustrated that it took Fiers’ on-the-record comments to The Athletic to commence a major, public-facing investigation.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred looks on before game two of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred looks on before game two of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals

In using last Thursday’s owners’ meeting to announce plans for a new crackdown, Manfred is making an effort to end this form of cheating before journalists expose a major scandal. Time will tell if that works, but it is definitely a modified approach.

Did you see the spin data of a few high-profile pitchers in their previous starts? These behaviors already appear to be stopping.

Follow-up is required to validate this point. And some in baseball are still saying privately that it has taken too long. But the fact remains that the crackdown is beginning before a major public scandal, not the other way around.

There will be player discipline this time

Fans and even some players were upset last year when Manfred declined to discipline Astros players in order to get their testimony. Well, league sources fully expect suspensions for pitchers caught using illegal foreign substances. It’s another way that this scandal will be different.

GMs and managers don’t want to be the next Jeff Luhnow or A.J. Hinch

Let’s say you are running a team on which your pitchers are using foreign substances. Now let’s say you want to keep your job, rather than be fired in disgrace for lax enforcement.

Astros manager AJ Hinch speaks to the media during the 2019 American League Championship Series.
Astros manager AJ Hinch speaks to the media during the 2019 American League Championship Series.

Would you look the other way, as Luhnow and Hinch did while the Astros were cheating, or would you focus on compliance within your clubhouse? You don’t even have to be ethical; you just have to be looking out for your own behind.

Sticky stuff doesn’t capture the public imagination the way steroids and trash cans did

A needle shooting steroids into a player’s butt cheek. An Astros player banging on a trash can. These are tangible actions that any fan -- and really any child -- instinctively knows is wrong. It’s clear and instinctual. Those details helped steroids and sign-stealing become major national stories.

Will a pitcher applying goo to his fingers strike the general public as dramatic -- or leave them scratching their heads and needing to ask follow-up questions about what the sticky stuff actually does?

Steroids were illegal and had no legitimate purpose in baseball

It’s hard to equate foreign substances to steroids. Steroids were illegal in the country and used to help players cheat.

Foreign substances actually evolved from a legitimate need to control pitches and avoid hitting batters. In fact, MLB now needs to help pitchers understand what they will be allowed to do in order to keep batters safe.

Make no mistake: The behaviors crossed over to cheating. But it feels like a stretch to compare to PEDs, which originated with that purpose.