Max Scherzer’s ejection exposes MLB’s utter sticky-stuff failure


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Max Scherzer was becoming unglued on the field, and it’s hard to blame him. While he was booted from a game and is now in line for an “automatic” 10-game ban, that isn’t close to Scherzer’s real issue now.

The integrity of a first-ballot Hall of Famer is in question now.

And it’s all over a judgment call.

Judgment calls are fine when it’s a check swing, a ball or strike or even whether a batter is truly set in time. But when someone’s making a judgment about whether someone else cheated, we have a problem.

MLB’s heart is in the right place. It’s trying its level best to level the playing field. And Phil Cuzzi’s heart is, too, even if he is the one umpire who in three years of sticky-stuff rules has ever made the judgment that a pitcher is “over the line.”

Over the line. That is one phrase Cuzzi used to describe what was going on with Scherzer’s sticky hand and fingers.

Here are a few more from Cuzzi and crew chief Dan Bellino, who’s heart also is in the right place (even if he is a trained lawyer, too).

“As far as stickiness, level of stickiness, this was the stickiest that it has been since I’ve been inspecting hands,” Bellino said. “The entire hand was stickier than anything we had inspected before.”

“It was far stickier than anything we felt today and anything this year,” Cuzzi said.

“There was something likely more than just rosin,” Bellino added.

Yep, judgment calls, one and all.

When asked if they could identify what foreign substance they believe Scherzer was using, Bellino said, “You know, I couldn’t. I would only have to speculate and I don’t think it’s fair to speculate.”

Here’s the big problem: The whole thing is speculation. And it’s all unfair.

The nice thing about PED rules is you know when you get someone, no matter what bizarre excuse they make up. (My personal favorite: Manny Ramirez suggesting he took PEDs to help him get pregnant. Thanks Dr. Manny.)

The bad thing about the sticky-stuff rule is that, while well intended, it is an utter failure. In three years they’ve “caught” three perpetrators when we have to know many more pitchers are trying to game the system. And here’s the clincher: In three years, the only umpire who’s caught anyone is Cuzzi.

Mets pitcher Max Scherzer (l.) is ejected by umpire Phil Cuzzi (c.) for having a sticky hand against the Dodgers on April 19, 2023.

Maybe he’s the only one of 100-plus umpires who’s an excellent judge of stickiness. Maybe he went to a special school to judge what’s good sticky and what’s bad sticky. Of course, maybe he just happened to be scheduled for games with “cheaters.”

“The Cuzzi on-field spectrometer is not the answer,” Scherzer’s agent Scott Boras texted me. “MLB needs to employ available scientific methods (not subjective) to create verifiable certainty of rules.”

Want to catch a game? The Mets schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

I feel for the umpires, who are now expected to time batters and pitchers, and police pitchers, too. Cuzzi warned Scherzer twice so he wasn’t looking for a headline. The problem is there needs to be a strict rule, not just a standard.

In Hector Santiago’s case, the umpires (yes, Cuzzi) impounded the glove and MLB tested it. They couldn’t well impound Scherzer’s hand. Maybe they need a way to test it on the spot.

Umpire Phil Cuzzi (pointing) ejects Mets pitcher Max Scherzer (r.) on April 19, 2023.
Umpire Phil Cuzzi (pointing) ejects Mets pitcher Max Scherzer (r.) on April 19, 2023.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Bellino said he understands the importance of their decision to eject Scherzer. Although he didn’t elaborate, the importance goes way beyond the two or three extra innings Scherzer might have gotten out of a game where his stuff wasn’t good (Is that exculpatory evidence?). Bellino surely understands a man’s reputation is at stake.

And not just any man. Middle reliever Santiago was the first “cheater,” and he was later caught with PEDs. Journeyman Caleb Smith was the second “cheater,” and he received the same penalty although MLB believes his case was less obvious. Again, more judgment.

Now we have a first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s been “caught,” at least we still think he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So folks are finally going to start to look more closely at the sticky-stuff rules.

Fair or not, many will believe Scherzer tried to get away with something, and maybe he did. But we will never know for sure.

Max Scherzer (21) and Mets manager Buck Showalter (l.) react after Scherzer is ejected on April 19, 2023.
Max Scherzer (21) and Mets manager Buck Showalter (l.) react after Scherzer is ejected on April 19, 2023.
Getty Images

According to MLB bylaws, pitchers can’t use “foreign” substances, which means anything other than rosin. But they can’t use too much rosin either.

MLB’s recent memo states that the “use of rosin must be consistent with the requirements and expectations of the Official Baseball Rules,” which means that just the right amount of rosin must be applied. But who’s to say what that is?

While Scherzer said he only used rosin, the umpires believe something else might have been involved. Maybe.

Scherzer revealed he washed his hands with alcohol in front of an MLB official after being warned to remove the rosin. Is it possible the alcohol combined with rosin residue created stickiness? One former All-Star pitcher told me alcohol can actually cause stickiness. So maybe it’s all about how Scherzer removed the rosin.

Mets manager Buck Showalter (l.) and Max Scherzer (r.) after Scherzer's ejection on April 19, 2023.
Mets manager Buck Showalter (l.) and Max Scherzer (r.) after Scherzer’s ejection on April 19, 2023.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

“Not tacky,” Bellino emphasized to the pool reporter about Scherzer’s hand. “Sticky.”

“It sounds silly,” he continued, “but there’s a difference between tackiness and stickiness.”

Right, some tackiness is allowed, and even a bit of stickiness. But not too much.

From here, the rule, while well intended, seems a bit tacky. Hopefully, it doesn’t stick.

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