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MLB experiments with new baseballs

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Will “rubbing mud” be a thing of the past?

T-Mobile Home Run Derby Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

What is more fundamental to baseball than actual baseballs? I have long been fascinated by baseballs; in fact I collect them as a way of understanding and appreciating the game in all its historical nuance.

Each ball in major and minor league baseball is rubbed with a special mud for the purposes of removing the shine and making it less slick. There are some great stories about this. Umpires were simply using any mud available, with problematic results, until 1938, when Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne discovered the perfect baseball mud along the New Jersey banks of the Delaware River. By the late 1950s, Lena Blackburne rubbing mud was standard in every ballpark.

But Major League Baseball continues to consider ways to produce baseballs that would be less slick. The main goal is to eliminate the need for pitchers to use pine tar or rosin to be able to grip the ball (and thereby decrease the opportunities for pitchers to doctor balls illegally).

Two years ago, experimental MLB balls, marked with a T, were used in two Arizona Fall League games. Luckily for us, Nick Ciuffo caught one of the games. Immediately after, I asked what he thought of the new ball. “It’s not good.” I tried to get one. No luck.

In 2018, a few balls found their way into the Cactus League marked “Prototype” across the sweet spot. Discovering this and finally able to obtain one, I tried to learn something about the project.

Prototype baseball
Joseph McMahan

The ball itself appears to be coated with something other than mud. The coating is shinier and in some places there is a very mild stickiness. Whatever it is, it’s either very mild or wears off. Indeed, this is one problem that has slowed the adoption of these baseballs: Rawlings has yet to figure out a way to retain ball’s tacky surface.

Seeking more information, I reached out to MLB. “Anything used in testing is quarantined for study,” I was told. I couldn’t get any other information. Next, I reached out to Rawlings whose contact person was “not willing to divulge any information on the project as it’s under wraps at the moment.”

So, I reached out to Nick Ciuffo again. According to Ciuffo, players were told about the project a week before the game. Before the day the game was played, the balls were used in a batting practice session. They seemed to carry farther, but they slipped more often. The stickiness was less than that of a sticky note.

He did not mince words in sharing his thoughts on the prototype ball: “The idea was great. The execution was not great.” I offered to keep his name out of any public shared information. “You can say I didn’t like it. I told MLB I didn’t like it.”

Early reports had suggested that this new ball could be introduced to regular season games as early as 2018. As they are still not in use, we have to assume that MLB felt they were not ready for action. So for the foreseeable future, vats of Lena Blackburne’s Delaware River mud will continue to hold a place of honor in every major league baseball park.