You do not need to watch the Miami Marlins every night to be reminded that baseball is hard, although that is certainly an effective and depressing way to remind yourself of that unassailably true fact. It's to their credit, if that's the word, that the Marlins go about proving this with somewhat less keystone koppery than the virtuoso GIF-auteurs in Houston, but the Marlins still bear the game's difficulty out with a bleak and transparent constancy. It's strange, maybe even a little unfair, how intuitive and simple your Carlos Beltrans and Mike Trouts and Clayton Kershaws and weird-bodied savants like Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz make this impossible game look. The Marlins don't do that.
The Marlins are all frailty, fully human, and their abhorrent ownership aside there's something goofily honest about their difficulty with the game. The Marlins try to do something very difficult and make it appear exactly that difficult. Opponents' scorching two-hoppers go on to three- and four- and five-hop hotly into the outfield. Their curveballs don't curve, and gift helicopters up in the zone from opposing pitchers become humpbacked outfield putouts. And when they try to cheat to make a difficult game easier, they wind up on television in real time, slopping big wet loogies directly onto the surface of the baseball. There's a GIF of Marlins starter Alex Sanabia doing this, and it's not any more fun to look at than it sounds. They're the Marlins. This is what they do. But that is not quite the whole story with Sanabia's loaded-up pitch.
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Alex Sanabia is still 24, and has been a more effective big leaguer than you probably think, but he is a marginal major leaguer. He is pitching at the back of the rotation for the worst team in the National League, with a 1.17 SO/BB ratio through nine starts. If anyone has to spit directly onto a baseball, right there in the middle of a baseball game, it's Alex Sanabia.
This is against the rules, of course, and has been for a long time; it's No. 8.02 in Major League Baseball's rulebook. In 2007, MLB mandated that any player scuffing or slicking or defacing or disgracing the surface of a baseball would be ejected and suspended for 10 games. Neither happened to Sanabia or seems likely to; the Phillies broadcasters tasked with talking over the footage of Sanabia's baseball-as-gross-handkerchief routine didn't even mention it.
But while Sanabia's behavior was both unsanitary and unscrupulous, it's also difficult to get too bothered about. For one thing, Sanabia's spitball was both too literal -- as Deadspin's Barry Petchesky points out, the reason that pitchers scuff or smear Vaseline or pine tar on baseballs is that those things alter the ball's spin more reliably and effectively than saliva ever could -- and not nearly effective enough. The next, wet pitch that Sanabia threw was far enough out of the strike zone that even free-swinging Reginald VelJohnson impersonator Delmon Young didn't bother to swing at it. A juicy, illegal pitch from Alex Sanabia was exactly as mediocre as a clean, by-the-book Alex Sanabia pitch. This, it's worth mentioning, is generally how it goes. If baseball is hard, effectively altering a baseball isn't all that easy, either.
There are exceptions to this. Mike Scott was a barely replacement-level starting pitcher for most of his career, until he either instantly mastered the split-finger fastball or the scuffball in 1986, with the Houston Astros. The former or the latter or both, Scott was the best pitcher in baseball that year and the National League Cy Young winner; his 8.2 Wins Above Replacement made him the most valuable player in baseball. In 2011, Scott made a hilariously qualified and plumply Rumsfeldian admission to the high baseball crime of which he was accused most famously by the Mets but also by other teams during that season. "I've thrown balls that were scuffed," Scott said, "but I haven't scuffed every ball that I've thrown." This is pretty smooth for a guy who pitched with a quarter-inch of Vaseline on the brim of his hat.
There are two things that set Scott apart from the majority of his fellow baseball-defacers. The long and successful careers of (suspected) scuffing scofflaws like Joe Niekro, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry aside, most of the pitchers who messed with baseballs 1) got caught and 2) didn't get all that much from it. Scott won a Cy Young for his efforts. Niekro won 221 games and got a World Series ring at the age of 42; Sutton and Perry are both in the Hall of Fame. But most baseball-alterers -- "spitballer" is literally accurate in Sanabia's case, but seems somehow insufficient as a description of the many ways in which balls have been messed with -- are a lot like Alex Sanabia. They're an end-of-the-road Kevin Gross, with sandpaper in his glove. They're Rick Honeycutt, unintentionally opening a cut on his own forehead with his own thumbtack rig during a 10-17 season. They're desperate, in short, because they're not-so-great baseball players trying to make a living at a very difficult game. They're doing what they can to do so.
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"If I had my way," the former baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick told the Milwaukee Journal in 1955, "I'd legalize the old spitter. It was a great pitch and one of the easiest to throw. There was nothing dangerous about it."
Major League Baseball hasn't quite done this, although only Joel Peralta --suspended for putting pine tar on a ball last year -- has been suspended for breaking rule 8.02 since 2005. Clay Buchholz, who may or may not have put pine tar on a ball earlier this month, hasn't faced any disciplinary action. It's not legal to load up a baseball, and probably never will be. But baseball also seems content to restrict disciplinary action to those blatant or goofy enough to get caught.
There are reasons to fuss over this, although they all converge on "rules are rules," which is the sort of point defended most passionately by curmudgeons and scolds. Rules are rules, of course, but people don't exist in perfect -- or much more than grudging and intermittent -- harmony with the rules in baseball any more than they do anywhere else. But that's just it -- there's a balance that exists, even if it's not quite the balance that the rulebook seeks to dictate, and that balance is tenable enough even with the odd shined-up, scuffed-up or greased-up baseball in play. It has been for the entire life of the game. As the commissioner said, there's nothing dangerous about it, primarily because -- in most cases -- it doesn't work.
What Alex Sanabia tried to do with that long, grossed GIF-ed wad of spit was the same thing that Graig Nettles tried to do when he filled his bat with bouncy balls -- as if the secret to greater slugging could be purchased for a quarter from a vending machine next to the one selling holographic stickers at the Safeway. That's something silly, mostly, because it's futile, which is all sort of a long way of saying it's something very human. It's also something baseball will survive, whether Sanabia or Buchholz or whoever's next gets a suspension or a fine. Baseball is tough enough -- both difficult enough and strong enough -- to survive this sort of rulebreaking. Baseball wouldn't quite be baseball without it.