Los Angeles Angels fire clubbie who gave aid and comfort to the enemy

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Practice balls on the infield before the Los Angeles Angels play the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 27, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Practice balls on the infield before the Los Angeles Angels play the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 27, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

MLB tipped the Angels that their now-fired clubhouse man Brian Harkin provided ball doctoring substances to opposing pitchers. Oh, brother!

When it comes to on-the-field gamesmanship, as opposed to off-field-based Astrogate-like cheating, let’s face it. We’ve always enjoyed little snickers of delight knowing that one or another pitcher has been or is merely suspected of performing open-ball surgery.

We might be righteous about the rules where they, ahem, apply, but we also get a hearty kick out of watching the Houdinis of the mound who might be putting something more on their pitches than their fingers. And we’re not really ready to strip those who made it since the spitball was formally outlawed out of the Hall of Fame.

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But when was the last time you heard of a team catching and purging a worker mixing up some medicated goo for the other guys to try on their pitches? Isn’t gamesmanship supposed to be on your own guys’ behalf?

Don’t the Los Angeles Angels have enough trouble with their own pitching without a three-decade-plus clubhouse guy maybe giving opposing pitchers a few breaks? Not to mention giving dives, swerves, spins, and other aid and discomfort to the enemy?

Apparently, the Angels think so. They’ve just fired Brian (Bubba) Harkin, their man tending the Angel Stadium visitors’ clubhouse, for providing the opposing marksmen with a melted-down blend of pine tar and rosin. That’s about as close to baseball treason as you can get. We think.

The Angels are coming off four consecutive losing seasons. Mike Trout to one side, enemy pitchers have had about as much to worry about from Angel hitting as the Harlem Globetrotters had about facing the Washington Generals. What on earth could have made Harkin think they’d need extracurricular medicine?

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The Los Angeles Times says baseball government itself let the Angels know what Harkin was up to. That’s likely a part of the commissioner’s office sending memos around the clubs reminding them that the rules say your pitchers aren’t allowed to put anything on their pitches other than their fingers and palms.

It’s not that the spitter was making any noticeable comeback in the last decade, so far as anyone could tell. Some have suspected that today’s pitchers think the spitter and other ball doctorings are just so last century. Maybe Cincinnati pitcher Trevor Bauer‘s previous huffings about the Houston Astros pitching staff going goo to swell more than the spin rates got them a little paranoid. Who knows?

But the game’s overseers worry that it’s not that big a jump from just getting better grips on your pitches to trying to make them tie you up in mental knots. Get a grip, sure. Yank the bottom out, not so fast.

Now, ‘fess up. You miss the classic greasers, gunkers, gooers, cutters, sanders, and shiners. Even the sun tanners. (Hall of Fame pitcher Jack Morris, as a Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster, once accused Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz of doing something naughty with his heavily sun-screened arm. Morris walked the chargeback fast enough, but who can’t help laugh over a Coppertone ball?)

That was the on-field gamesmanship you got behind, from the kinds of outlaws you could get behind, especially when the hitters delivered the classic response to the outlaw spitters: “Hit it on the dry side”; or, wait for the one that doesn’t break. Because the one that doesn’t break sits up there practically on a tee, with a ticket for exotic locales or at least river landings over the fences attached.

You miss Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry and that classic little pantomime he’d perform on the mound without once going to his mouth against the rules. That little routine of tapping the bill of his hat twice, tapping what was left of his hair twice on the side, maybe tapping his jersey or his belt a time or two, whenever he wanted the hitter to think he was getting loaded.

(You also laughed your fool heads off when Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda suggested Perry’s Hall of Fame plaque should have not an asterisk attached but a tube of K-Y jelly, Perry’s reputed lube of choice. You might even have wondered who dared to name Perry’s suspect services after a certain vulgar four-letter euphemism for a certain part of the female anatomy.)

You miss Hall of Famer Don Sutton responding to all the charges against him, “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it.” (One of Sutton’s nicknames is Black & Decker.) You miss the naughty notes he’d hide in his pockets or his glove fingers, the classic having been, maybe, “You’re getting warmer. But it isn’t here.”

(You also laughed your fool heads off, too, admit it, when longtime Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said, “Sutton’s set such a fine example of defiance that someday I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”)

You’d have loved to be there when Sutton (then an Angel) and fellow scofflaw Tommy John (then a Yankee) squared off in old Anaheim Stadium one fine day in August 1987. When Yankee owner George Steinbrenner badgered manager Lou Piniella into trying to get Sutton frisked, cuffed, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted, and executed in the same breath after catching something naughty around the mound early in the game.

“George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, the Angels will have them check T.J. and they’ll both get thrown out,” Piniella replied. “Whatever they’re doing, T.J.’s doing it better. So let’s leave it alone for now.” After the Yankees won the game, a scout in the press box snarked, “Tommy John and Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

You know that even the umpires might occasionally catch you red (or sandpaper) handed and throw you out one day—but they might chat you up agreeably about it the next. Umpire/ humourist/raconteur Ron Luciano told it on Perry once upon a time. An ump who’d ejected Perry one day ran into him in town the next, got talking, and mentioned his own Little League-pitcher son’s team getting murdered day in and day out.

“Gaylord,” the ump pleaded, “can you teach my kid how to throw that thing?”

You admired learning how some pitchers really did sweat for their supper out there—literally, in the case of Phil (The Vulture) Regan, last seen as the New York Mets’ octogenarian pitching coach but once upon a time gone from nothing special to never better as a relief ace. (He came into his own with the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers, where no less than Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax hung him with his fabled nickname.)

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Everyone suspected Regan of something tricky but nobody knew what it was for years. Then we learned: Regan sweat profusely enough that all he had to do was let the sweat run down his arm to the ball. Regan persevered until a combination of Leo Durocher‘s use, misuse, and abuse (when he was a Chicago Cub) burned him out at last.

“I don’t use foreign substances,” said another one-time Yankee pitcher, George Frazier. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.” While you laughed at Frazier’s audacity (and maybe his comeuppance at being the last man to get hung with three losses in a single World Series), did you also wonder why pitchers on the mound when a little rain begins to fall didn’t sharpen up enough to think about letting Mother Nature do them a favor?

Or maybe they did. Hope we didn’t give them any more cute ideas.

John may have gotten away with murder (depending on your point of view) simply because he was sharper than most. One of his tricks may have been just to wait for a ball not yet tossed out of the game to come back to the mound. Let there be scuffs and John could turn that one into a double-play grounder. He once admitted he had, quote, “Four basic pitches plus eight illegal ones.”

But he may have gotten the naughty ones purely by happenstance. And that should put you in mind of one of the risks in ball doctoring—the one that isn’t tossed from the game before the sides change. It happens now and then.

And there might be a deliciously doctored ball waiting for the other guy to start the inning. Legendary Angels pitcher/playboy/flake Bo Belinsky once said he loved pitching against Ford because of just that possibility. If a Ford mud ball survived for a pitching change, Belinsky once said, “I had two outs waiting for me right there.”

Happenstance is one thing. So is gamesmanship. Whether it is or isn’t loading, doctoring, shining, or soaking a ball. “I don’t throw any illegal pitches,” Perry once pleaded. “I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around.” During the late 1970s, speculation emerged that Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley was suddenly throwing loaded balls. Miller laughed it off, claiming Stanley himself started the rumors.

“When you’re going bad,” Miller told Thomas Boswell, “it’s a good way to get an extra pitch. Just planting the idea in the hitter’s mind is almost as good as having an illegal pitch. I was misquoted last year as saying Dennis Leonard had a good spitter. He came up to me this spring to chew me out and I said, ‘Dennis, you should thank me. Nobody can do a pitcher a bigger favor than saying they’ve got a hell of a spitter’.”

But outright conspiracy is something else again. As if major league teams didn’t have enough to worry about when it comes to potential Astrogate-like off-field-based espionage, now they have to worry about whether someone in their own ranks is giving aid and comfort to the enemy to take onto the field? For whatever perverse reasons? (We don’t know yet just what Harkin was thinking.)

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Let an opposing pitcher who doesn’t think the doctored ball is just so last century throw something up to the plate that does what the late Jim Bouton swore about Ford’s mud ball, “sing, dance, break-in, break out, or sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’.” Can you picture the victims not appealing to the umps but diving into the clubhouse to round up the unusual suspects on their own payroll?