There’s a rosin bag behind the mound and it’s there for everybody to use every inning after our warm-up. Put rosin on my arm throughout the game. Sweat, water, whatever. … Sometimes I put a little thing of water on my hip just to get moisture on your hands. Cause sometimes the balls that they throw to you feel like cue balls off a pool table. Got to find a way to get grip. But yeah, I mean, definitely no foreign objects or substances on my arm.” – Clay Buchholz, quoted by MassLive, May 2, 2013
The furor over Buchholz’ shiny forearm and his frequent touching of it before several pitches was first raised by Toronto talk radio host Dirk Hayhurst, who noticed the ritual and took to Twitter to blow the whistle. Although Hayhurst later tempered his allegation, Morris, who works on the Blue Jays’ television broadcast, picked up the baton. Morris’ further accusations drew an angry response from several in the Boston media, including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who blasted his contemporary for being “clueless”, particularly regarding the age-old practice of pitchers using a tacky substance to “get a grip”.
There are countless examples and anecdotes that support Eckersley’s defense. Throughout baseball history, pitchers have frequently tried to improve their grip by using a foreign substance. However, although common, that practice is not permissible under the rules. In fact, there are even strict prohibitions on the use of rosin. In other words, if Buchholz did as he said, the right hander was technically cheating.
What exactly do the rules say about the issue? Perhaps the most unequivocal reference comes from Section 8.02, which deals with all of the things that a pitcher “shall not do”. And, included among them are not only the broad references made by Ecksersley, but also the specific admission offered by Buchholz.
If at any time the ball hits the rosin bag it is in play. In the case of rain or wet field, the umpire may instruct the pitcher to carry the rosin bag in his hip pocket. A pitcher may use the rosin bag for the purpose of applying rosin to his bare hand or hands. Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag; neither shall the pitcher nor any other player be permitted to apply rosin from the bag to his glove or dust any part of his uniform with the rosin bag.” – Rule 8.02 (comment) of the Official Baseball Rules
Rule 8.02 specifically states that a pitcher may apply rosin to his bare hand. There is no permission granted for using rosin on any other part of the body. In addition, there is a stated prohibition against applying rosin to the uniform. When you also consider various other references to banned substances, it’s easy to infer that combining rosin with water is another violation.
Just because Buchholz may be in technical violation of the rules doesn’t mean he intended to cheat. In fact, Rule 8.02 gives the umpire discretion to determine intent and substitute punishment for a warning. However, it does not give the pitcher the right to continue violating the rule indefinitely, which seems to be the issue going forward.
There have been recent examples of pitchers who were disciplined for, as Eckersley euphemistically put it, trying to get a better grip. Although tacit approval has seemingly created an unwritten override to a very specific rule, the umpires are not at liberty to disregard a protestation. However, it should be noted that this particular controversy stems from an observation by members of the media, and not a complaint by John Gibbons or a member of the Blue Jays organization. Why isn’t the Toronto organization joining the fray? Probably because several of their pitchers also make creative use of rosin and various other substances.
Has Buchholz’ 6-0 start been aided by the use of an illegal substance? It’s doubtful. Did he break the rules? Undoubtedly. So, does that make Buchholz a cheater? Even though his actions probably didn’t yield a competitive advantage, in this day and age when the term cheater is thrown about liberally, it is accurate, albeit unfair, to refer to him that way.
The semantics are just fodder for each team’s partisans. However, that doesn’t make the incident much ado about nothing. On the contrary, Major League Baseball should take the opportunity to refine its rules on what a pitcher can and can not use to improve his handling of the baseball. “Every one is doing it” only works as an excuse for so long. Baseball recently found that out the hard way. Instead of waiting for a more formal protest at an inopportune time to emerge, it’s time for baseball to get its own grip on yet another of its many contradictions between rules and enforcement. Otherwise, the sport is inviting the kind of unwanted controversy that makes people overlook the impressive performance of a rising star and focus instead on whether he is a cheater.