Major League Baseball’s desire to bring uniformity to even the darkest corners of its game frequently runs head-on into the unwritten rules and accepted practices of its players.
A defamation lawsuit brought by a middleman in this tango lays this conflict bare, ensnaring some of the biggest pitchers in the game.
In court filings opposing MLB and the Los Angeles Angels’ motion to dismiss his lawsuit, former Angels visiting clubhouse manager Brian “Bubba” Harkins revealed in specific detail the long-accepted pitchers’ use of foreign substances on baseballs to maintain a better grip, a practice rooted in safety but now facing greater scrutiny for its benefit in helping pitchers spin the baseball.
Harkins, hired as an Angels batboy in 1981, was the club’s visiting clubhouse manager from 1990 until his March 3, 2020 firing, less than a week after MLB distributed a memo noting team employees were banned from facilitating the use of foreign substances by players.
Harkins admits to providing pine tar-like mixtures to both Angels and visiting players but his suit contends he did not “doctor” baseballs, and notes that the club’s firing framed him as a turncoat for providing substances both to Angels pitchers and opponents – a practice his own club was well aware of.
Harkins’ firing startled many in the game, including at least one future Hall of Famer, and opposition briefs filed Thursday revealed a stable of pitchers with career earnings that will approach $1 billion who relied on Harkins for substances to aid their craft.
“Bubba, it’s JV,” two-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander said in a March 6, 2020 text message to Harkins according to court filings obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “Firstly, I’m so sorry to hear about this. Please give me a shout whenever you can.”
In a subsequent phone conversation, Harkins recounts Verlander confirming that “the league has let this go on for 100 years,” that it was “(expletive)” that Harkins’ name was circulated in the media and reiterated a longstanding complaint that baseballs are wound too tightly.
He also said MLB had learned teams “hired chemists” and commissioned studies “to come up with stuff more advanced to create spin rate,” using that proprietary information to lure free-agent pitchers.
A view of Angel Stadium. (Photo: USA TODAY Sports)
MLB and the Angels both declined comment, citing the ongoing litigat.
The Houston Astros, already in MLB’s crosshairs thanks to their sign-stealing scandal, have long been a target of not-so-subtle accusations that they were pushing the margins of acceptable practice in boosting their pitchers’ spin rate. Verlander and Gerrit Cole’s uptick in performance upon joining the Astros in 2017 and 2018, respectively, drew particular scrutiny.
Harkins’ filing produced a January 2019 text message from Cole, referred to the “sticky situation” he was in, complete with winking eye emoji, noting that the Astros would not visit Anaheim until May and played road games in cold-weather series before then.
“The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold,” Cole said, before apparently requesting a fresh supply of Harkins’ mix.
Verlander and Cole finished 1-2 in 2019 AL Cy Young voting, after which Cole signed a $324 million contract with the New York Yankees. In subsequent interviews, Cole cited Astros pitching coach Brent Strom’s plans of attack, and not foreign substances, to explain his success in Houston.
Trevor Bauer, the 2020 National League Cy Young winner and a current free agent, frequently jabbed at the Astros for their mysterious, and ostensibly nefarious, improvements in pitcher performance. Three days after he appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports” and estimated some 70% of pitchers were using foreign substances, MLB’s Feb. 28, 2020 memo from Young was distributed, stating: “Although not expressly addressed in the Official Baseball Rules, under the policy of our office, Club personnel are strictly prohibited from providing, applying, creating, concealing, or otherwise facilitating the use of foreign substances by players on the field. Any persons employed by or acting at the direction of the Club, including but not limited to players, coaches, uniformed personnel, dugout staff, clubhouse staff, and equipment staff found to have assisted players in the use of foreign substances in violation of the Official Baseball Rules will be subject to discipline by the Commissioner, including suspensions without pay.”
Harkins was fired later that week, a move startling enough that Angels bench coach Mike Gallego, who knew Harkins as a staffer and a player, texted him: “I just wanted to say I am sorry that this game is using you as a scapegoat!! You have been a PRO all these years and will always be a brother to all of us in this fraternity!”
Harkins’ “fraternity” spanned the entire major leagues. Former Angels closer Troy Percival, Harkins said, developed the substance that Harkins distributed, and cited a swath of Angels pitchers spanning several eras that used it, from Percival to Brendan Donnelly to active big leaguers Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton, Yusmeiro Petit, Matt Andriese and Dylan Bundy.
Visiting players, the filing stated, who obtained the substance upon visiting the affable Harkins’ quarters included Cole and Verlander, and various All-Star or veteran stalwarts like Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Edwin Jackson, Cory Kluber and Adam Wainwright.
Harkins’ filing in opposition to strike MLB’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit includes testimony from former major leaguers Wally Joyner and Mike Sweeney, who recount several anecdotes from their playing careers in which umpires blatantly ignored Rule 6.02, which bans foreign substances.
“Brian Harkins did not distribute an ‘illegal substance’ to anyone,” Joyner and Sweeney state. “There was nothing ‘illegal’ about what Brian Harkins did nor the substances he mixed for them. He was just doing his job.”
Harkins’ filing contends that umpires’ failure to enforce Rule 6.02 – and players’ general acceptance of flouting it – rendered it irrelevant. And it perhaps unintentionally distills why the Astros’ sign-stealing provoked such outrage within the game and among its fans – while a firing of a rules-flouting employee was viewed as scapegoating.
“Baseball,” the filing states, “is a game; it can be played however the players and umpires see fit.”
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