Un-fouled Balls: The MLB’s Attempt to Prevent its own “Deflategate”

January 5, 2016


By Cole Rodocker – Thompson Rivers University JD Candidate

Baseball is not a sport unaccustomed to controversy. In the wake of the early 2000’s steroid scandals and congressional tongue lashings, Baseball seemingly wised up and, at least partially by dint of keeping out of the more scandalous headlines, has seen a resurgence in popularity. While doping and player enhancing substances are the current topic de jour, “Deflategate” has increased the scrutiny surrounding equipment violations. Corked baseball bats (whose supposed benefits may be entirely psychological) have long since gone the way of the dodo; this brings us inevitably to the ball itself. An examination of the eponymous baseball shows just how thorough the MLB is, and must continue to be, in order to avoid a challenge to the legitimacy of their sport.

Given the nature of a baseball, it would seem that there is little that could be done to modify it. This, however, could not be further from the truth. Unbeknownst to many, baseballs are “rubbed up” with a special mud in order to remove the gloss from the ball and give the pitcher more control over a ball with a now slightly grainier texture. This process is even enshrined as rule 3.01c in the MLB rule book. This was largely a response to a player being killed by an errant pitch in the 1920’s, the first and only recorded incident of a player being killed by a pitch. Baseballs are fastidiously checked by umpires upon being struck, as the scuffs and dings that the ball may have suffered can lead to an unfair advantage to the pitcher who can gain more control over the ball by virtue of the damage.

Pine tar, emery boards, nail files, chewing tobacco and many other items have been used to try and modify the characteristic of the balls during play. As a result of Deflategate, the MLB has put new supervisory practices into place with which to monitor and protect the balls before they even enter a pitcher’s glove. Not only are MLB representatives accompanying balls from the back rooms to the back stop, they have also supplanted the roles of ball girls and ball boys who formerly fetched more balls for the umpire upon running out in order to prevent any tampering in transit. This monitoring helps to avoid legal issues surrounding agency, as, if a case were ever brought before a court, it would no doubt be a quagmire of half truths and outright lies in trying to frame a players cheating as being directly guided by the management on its behalf such that the corporate veil might be pierced and a lawsuit levied directly against the heads of an MLB team. Less dramatically, it also makes teams and players less likely to be subject to fines, the perennial black eyes dished out by every major sporting league.

In addition, the MLB recently sent out a communique to all 30 teams informing them of how they must store their baseballs prior to game time. This comes in the wake of the Colorado Rockies long used technique of storing balls in a humidor in order to combat the effects of Colorado’s natural air quality and elevation which, if untreated, will see more balls turned into homeruns based on the simple physics of the ball becoming more dense and thus, springing off the bat in a more lively fashion. Were one team to find another attempting to gain a concrete advantage in this day and age, the legal options available to it may be limited, as even if they were to sue for tortuous interference with business, the proceeding embarrassment to the league would do irreparable damage to all teams, not just the ones involved. There is no doubt that Robert Manfred, the current commissioner of the MLB, is not interested in participating in the kind of legal wrangling that Roger Goodell partook of, given that the dispute resolution mechanisms in baseball are not terribly dissimilar from those used by the NFL.

Ultimately, all of these issues speak to both the desire to have a level playing field, as well as to have fair play while on it. Only the most naïve would think that players will not continue to gain a competitive advantage. Baseball even seemingly allows some forms of cheating such as sign stealing and analysis as a kind of necessary conceit. Teams and players agree to have a uniform set of rules and code of ethics based on rules that have remained largely unchanged for a century. Attempting to circumvent these rules not only hurts the integrity of the game, but may bring up legal questions that should not be dealt with by a multi-billion dollar empire trying to stay above the fray.

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