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Drug through the mud in Cincinnati

Baseball is a never ending battle between traditionalists and those who want to improve the game or at least make it more efficient.

But one time-honored tradition that has gone unnoticed for decades is in the spotlight, likely thanks to the shenanigans of Reds manager Dusty Baker.

Cardinals pitchers have noticed baseballs at Cincinnati's home park -- at least the ones being supplied to opposing pitchers -- have little or no mud on them. "Mud" is literally mud -- from the banks of the Delaware River (although the owners of the Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud Co. keep the exact origin a closely guarded secret.) It's the only substance that is allowed to be applied to a major league baseball. Anyway, up until a couple of years ago, it was the umpires' job to rub up several dozen baseballs before a game with the stuff to make the baseballs more gritty and easy to grip when it dries. The rule book states that new baseballs, still sealed in their box, should be delivered to the umpires whose jobi it is to remove their natural sheen.

blog post photo

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Reds skipper Dusty Baker meet before their teams' opening day match up. La Russa and Baker have been no strangers to controversy, accusing each other of trying to intimidate players and otherwise knock them off their game dating to Baker's time with the Giants and Cubs. AP photo.

Chris Carpenter complained to umpires during Monday's season opener about the balls. And opening day wasn't the first time the non-standard baseballs have been noticed at the Cincinnati park. Another pitcher with a pretty impressive resume, future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, complained about the lack of mud when he pitched for the Cardinals against the Reds last season.

I'm not sure if the men in blue thought they were above it or if the teams wanted more control, but that tradition was scrapped and now clubhouse attendants who are employed by the home team are in charge of rubbing up the balls.

So, is Trusty Dusty, always one to try to play mental games with the opposition, ordering his clubhouse guys to take it easy with the mud? Some might say a move like that is akin to letting the infield grass grow tall in the infield if you have a team of speedsters or sloping the field so grounders roll foul if you don't.

But I think it's just a better organized way of doctoring baseballs, something that has been outlawed by the baseball rule book since the 1930s. That sort of thing, which pitchers have tradtionally had to do themselves on the mound using Vaseline under the bill of their cap or an emery board in their pocket, can give a hurler who knows how to make the most of it a tremendous advantage.

I'm not sure if the Reds pitchers are getting the same balls as the opposition. But, even if they are, it must be a nice that they are at least used to throwing the slick baseballs. But this goes beyond a home field advantage. It's a bona fide safety issue.

Carpenter, with a Cy Young Award to his credit to prove he knows a little something about pitching, said the slick baseballs were difficult to control and that he was afraid a hitter was going to get hurt by a wayward pitch. If Carp, who has excellent control under normal circumstances, is worried about himself what about a guy like Jason Motte -- who has a 99 MPH fastball and not a real good idea about where the ball is going to end up -- standing 60 feet, six inches away from the batter.

So, I don't care if it's cheaper, faster or more efficient to let the clubhouse attendant rub up the baseballs before a game. Let's get back to the rule book on this one and put it to rest before someone gets hurt. Let the umpires rub up the baseballs like they always have before -- and like has always worked in the past -- and put Dusty Bakers latest mind games to rest so we can just play ball.