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MLB’s remedy for baseball’s sticky situation? The Ball Mudder machine

Major League Baseball is not only severely cracking down on the use of banned foreign substances, but also is now trying to guarantee there’s consistency in the texture of baseballs.

MLB informed teams last week that the window to apply mud to baseballs has been reduced from five days to just two days before games, and no later than 24 hours before the first pitch. The hope is that this will reduce the variations of the feel and appearance of baseballs used in games.

The individuals who apply the mud, which started in Monday’s games, also no longer are required to use gloves, which was mandated during the 2020 season and the first 2½ months of this year because of COVID-19.

Yet, with the responsibility belonging to clubhouse attendants, some baseballs are darker, some are lighter, and hitters and pitchers alike can have a powerful influence on how those baseball are prepared.

This machine applies mud, or any substance MLB wants, to baseballs in a consistent and uniform manner.
Ball Mudder Inc.

If you’re a pitcher, you want your clubhouse attendants to make sure you get the light baseballs in the daytime, and the dark ones at night, making it as difficult as possible for hitters to see.

If you’re a hitter, slap as much mud as possible during the day, and light at night, making the ball crystal clear coming out of the pitcher’s hands.

You see pitchers often toss aside baseballs before throwing a pitch in hopes of getting a baseball to their liking.

The gamesmanship has been going on for years, and now that Major League Baseball is making sure the sticky stuff is removed from the game, guess where the players will be turning next to gain the most competitive advantage.

According to the folks of Ball Mudder, this is where they step in and can be of valuable assistance.

Phil Small, a high-end custom framer in Arlington, Texas, along with engineer Fred Bellio, have developed a machine that applies mud, or any substance MLB wants, to baseballs in a consistent and uniform manner. Small signed a non-disclosure agreement with MLB on Sept. 9, 2020, and the two parties are working on a prototype that can be used to create a consistent substance on every baseball.

As it is, clubhouse attendants rub mud that comes from the Delaware River on baseballs to remove the glossy and slick finish when taken straight from the box.

With the Ball Mudder, the texture and color of the baseballs will not only be the same, but the device will also apply a substance that changes the color of a baseball should a banned foreign substance be applied.

Phil Small, Ball Mudder
Everyone will have the same ball, and that’s what baseball wants. Both the pitchers and hitters want a level playing field, but right now balls are not consistently rubbed the same way.

No need for the umpiring crew to check, no need to debate what’s legal or illegal among substances, the cheaters will be detected in living color.

“Hey, we’re ready to go,’’ Small, 62, says. “You’re going to have baseballs that are consistent whether you’re in Atlanta, San Diego, New York or Florida. Everyone will have the same ball, and that’s what baseball wants. Both the pitchers and hitters want a level playing field, but right now balls are not consistently rubbed the same way. You have different people in different cities rubbing the balls differently on different nights.

“Our machine will rub the baseballs all of the same.’’

Small originally showed the concept to Texas Rangers GM Chris Young last summer when Young was working for Major League Baseball, and showcased it to MLB executives during the World Series. Young, who became the Rangers’ GM on Dec. 4, said he can’t comment on the Ball Mudder machine because of the signed non-disclosure agreement.

MLB has had preliminary talks with Small, according to a person with direct knowledge who is not authorized to speak publicly. The person also said that MLB is currently developing a prototype baseball that would provide a better grip for pitchers that could be ready by the start of the 2022 season.

Whatever the solution, pitchers insist they need a substance to keep from losing their grip on baseballs without cheating.

“Since I’ve gotten to the big leagues, there’s always been talks every spring about getting a baseball very similar to what they use in Japan,’’ New York Yankees veteran pitcher Zack Britton says. “Comes out of the box with a little bit of tack to it. It would probably prevent most players from using anything, even the rosin bag, just because it has a good grip already and there’s really no need to do anything else. …

“You can police the rule as much as you want if the baseball’s in good condition and you can grip it. There’d be no excuse to go to anything other than just throwing the baseball with nothing on your hands.’’

San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish says that if MLB is banning all illegal substances on the baseball, they have only one choice.

“I think the best thing to do is to change the ball,’’ Darvish says. “The right move MLB should make is to change the ball so it’s not so slick.’’

Padres starter Yu Darvish tosses the ball in the air in between pitches.

Padres starter Yu Darvish tosses the ball in the air in between pitches.
Gregory Bull, AP

Really, there may be no reason for MLB to continue using the Delaware River mud. MLB can use any synthetic substance, and Small says their patented machine can work with it.

“The process has been automated with the use of digital technology and photography,’’ Bellio said, “to manage the development of the color to the certified shade for MLB. Ball Mudder is capable of applying different substances, both natural and synthetic, by adjusting the digital controls for the unit.’’

And, if anything funny is going on, or an employee tries to alter the machine’s settings at their ballpark, it will be detected. Every ball will have a serial number and will be identifiable, letting MLB know where and when the baseball was handled.

The machine, which would be at each ballpark, is equipped to apply mud to a night’s worth of baseballs – about 240 balls – in 54 minutes. It can even disinfect the baseballs with an infrared light.

“Really, I think it’s perfect,’’ says Small, whose family has had season-tickets at Fenway Park, right behind the on-deck circle, since 1964. “This will negate any time of advantage pitchers and hitters are trying to get. Everything will be consistent.

“This will provide the even-playing field baseball wants.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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