Pitchers and catchers are still a month away from reporting (assuming that spring training comes off as planned), and we’re already talking about pine tar and other banned substances in meaningful ways.
For that we can thank Brian Harkins, the former visiting clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels, who’d been on the job since 1990 but was fired back on March 3 for providing pine tar and other sordid material to opposing pitchers, “as a courtesy,” he said. Now, he’s suing.
This is just starting to unroll, and already it’s juicy. Harkins is claiming to have been scapegoated in violation of labor laws, and that the substances he provided have been tacitly approved by Major League Baseball inasmuch as there has never been a focused crackdown on their usage. There is something to the idea that team employees should know better than to help the opposition in that kind of way, but on Harkins’ latter point he is unequivocally correct. Pine tar can be found in every dugout in the league, and unless a pitcher has blatantly ignored the simple courtesy of trying to be subtle about using it, the commissioner’s office hasn’t done a damn thing about it, pretty much ever.
When MLB moved to dismiss the suit, Harkins ratcheted up the heat, claiming that a veritable All-Star roster of pitchers—including Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander—use the type of stuff he was canned for providing. Harkins said that he was taught to mix rosin and pine tar into a potent concoction back in 2005 by a pitcher believed to be Troy Percival. The smoking-gun piece of evidence he provided for his larger claims was a text from Gerrit Cole in 2019 in which the then-Astro asked about getting hooked up:
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”
Harkins’ point is the same one that I made in The Baseball Codes back in 2010, which was true long before I wrote it and which has been true ever since: tacky substances like pine tar help pitchers grip the ball in cold or wet conditions, which is essential in their line of work. As guys like Trevor Bauer have recently pointed out, pine tar also helps spin rate, which helps movement, which helps pitchers succeed.
And they will do it with or without the likes of Brian Harkins.
The real story here is the timing, which leads to an easy conclusion of hypocrisy. Last spring, in the wake of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, MLB announced that it would be strictly enforcing (maybe for the first time) rule 8.02, prohibiting pitchers from loading up baseballs with any kind of foreign substance. Sign stealing had been going on for decades, but it took the Astros breaking the system for the league to crack down on it. Apparently cheating is cheating, and substances are banned, and MLB has an image to maintain.
One week after that announcement, Harkins was fired. Now he’s in court, demanding a jury trial.
It is clearly in MLB’s best interest to settle this thing (something the Angels should have considered, perhaps, before firing the guy), because if it does go to court we’ll get to see how much more of the iceberg is submerged beneath Harkins’ claims.