The Fix Is In: Clay Buchholz and the Spitball Issue

Dale Perth | Updated May 03, 2013


Take a close look at the glove arm of Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz in the image accompanying this story. Does it look shiny? Does his sleeve look like it has a wet, greasy spot? That’s because it’s probably not perspiration. The TV cameras caught not only Buchholz’s arm but the furtive gestures he made with his pitching hand onto that arm during his start against the Blue Jays last Wednesday, a decisive 10-1 victory for Boston.

Blue Jays analyst Jack Morris, himself a former 20-game winner with a World Series ring, accused Buchholz of doctoring the ball. Another Blue Jays analyst, former catcher Geoff Zahn, said during the broadcast that because Jays manager John Gibbons did not get the umpires to check what Buchholz was doing on the mound, and because “there was no nail file flying out of a pocket,” his assertion was that “no one cares.”

Therefore, we must assume it’s totally OK to cheat as long as no one calls you on it. Being of good character doesn’t count as much as winning. In fact, getting away with something like this adds an edgy element to the proceedings. Buchholz said it: “That’s the way the world works.”

He ought to know: Buchholz was just named the American League Pitcher of the Month for April because of his 6-0 record. Was he aided by a slather of goop on his non-pitching arm? We don’t know and, according to observers like Zahn, we don’t really care. Results are all that matter.

After all, cheating is nothing new. We’ve gone through a series of incidents such as the Ben Johnson steroid scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the Lance Armstrong affair, among others, which tells us that evading and even breaking the rules is how competitors find an “edge” to get a desired outcome.

Spitballs and doctoring the ball in other ways — with an emery board, for instance — is as old as the game of baseball itself. That time-honored tradition could be a holdover from cricket, where to this day it’s allowed for the bowler to shine up the ball on his uniform and even spit on it if he wants. Baseball pitchers were also allowed to doctor the ball in any way they saw fit until 1919, when the spitball was outlawed in a two-stage process. Yet despite being banned, here it is again almost a century later as a talking point.

The lesson here? Don’t worry about it. Rules are only a minor inconvenience on the road to glory and riches. Don’t like it? Deal with it. After all, we are told, it’s the way of the world. But don’t be cynical about it, because that would be a bad thing.