He is the sole soil supplier of baseball. It’s a job he might soon lose

Longport, NJ — In a cluttered garage along the Jersey Shore sits a 45-gallon rubber barrel that looks like the world’s least delicious chocolate pudding. It’s nothing more than icky, gooey, sticky, gelatinous slime.

Ah, but what a mud. The clay from which dreams are made.

This special clay, carried in buckets by a man from a secret location along the New Jersey River, is remarkable in its ability to cut the slippery sheen of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for throwing the pitcher at life-threatening speeds. does. Another human stands at a distance of just 60 feet 6 inches.

Tubs of the substance are found at every major league ballpark. This includes each of the 144 to 180 balls used in each of the 2,430 major league games played in a season, as well as in games played in the post season. The rumble of a “pearl”—an ancient ball right out of the box—has been a baseball custom for much of the last century, ever since a traveler named Lena Blackburn presented mud as an alternative to tobacco spit and infiltrated dirt. , which was in vogue. To turn the ball into an overripe plume.

Consider what that means: That Major League Baseball — a multi-billion dollar enterprise that applies science and analytics to nearly every aspect of the game — eventually ended up with a gray ponytail, smudged arm tattoos and a flat-edged shovel.

“Within the last six weeks, I have sent off Diamondbacks, Rangers and Blue Jays,” said clay man, Jim Bintliffe recently, as he leaned protectively near his garaged barrel.

But MLB executives don’t quite get the wrong look at the whimsical tradition of Lena Blackburn baseball rubbing mud, which they say is often applied inconsistently. In his quest to make the balls more consistent – ​​and to make the game more equitable – he has tried to come up with an alternative, even allowing chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the desired feel. appointed to do.

Score so far:

Lena Blackburn: 1

Major League Baseball: 0

MLB spokesman Glenn Caplin said testing “pre-tack baseball” in the minor leagues is ongoing. But reviews have been mixed.

“If you change an asset of baseball, you sacrifice something,” Caplin said. “The sound off the bat was different. The ball felt soft. The bar to change the ball is too high.”

Still, he said, “it’s an ongoing project.”

Bintliff knows the game isn’t over. He said that baseball’s apparent attempts to displace him and his clay disturbed his sleep. Now, he said, he has become more philosophical.

“If they stop placing orders, I’ll be more upset by the end of the tradition, not my bottom line,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers. “If they don’t want slime, they don’t have to buy it.”

The tradition began with Russell Blackburn, aka Lena, a spirited, weak-hitting infielder who exploded into the major leagues in the 1910s before settling down as a major league coach and manager. A lifesaver as seen in black and white photos with the likes of Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.

While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he heard an umpire complain about the struggle to prepare a brand new ball for use. Blackburn experimented with mud from a Delaware River tributary not far from his New Jersey home, and found that it de-glossed the ball while maintaining its whiteness.

Now he had a side job. After a while, every major and minor league team was using what was sometimes called “Mississippi slime” – although “mysterious” would have been more appropriate than Mississippi.

Before Blackburn’s death in 1968 at the age of 81, he gave the secret to an old friend who had joined him in harvesting the soil: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to Bintliffe’s mother and father, who in 2000. I gave it to Bintleaf.

Bintliffe, 65, served in the Navy and worked as a printing-press operator for decades, but the mysterious slime remained a constant in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a railroad-thin boy loading a bucket of freshly collected clay into the back of his grandfather’s Chevy Impala.

Over the years, Bintliffe and his wife, Joan, who handles administrative work, have tinkered with the business model. For example, he used to harvest the soil once or twice a year. But the riverfront needs monthly returns to expand its market for educational and professional football teams – including more than a few in the National Football League.

However, the fundamental work remains the same, the timing of which depends on the tides.

Bintliff will drive its Chevy Silverado pickup 70 miles or more to a secret location and 50 yards out of the woods. Along with his shovels and buckets, he’ll have an ax for any overgrowth and a few fibers for any curious. He can say that soil does wonders for his garden.

Then back to your Jersey Shore home. Drive takes longer than harvest.

For the next four weeks, Bintliff would pressurize sludge into rubber barrels, propel river water upstream, use plenty of tap water to eliminate odors, apply a “proprietary treatment” that he Refuses to describe – and let the stuff settle.

“It ages like a fine wine,” he said.

When Slime has achieved its optimum vintage, it fills outstanding orders—$100 for a 2.5-pound professional size, $65 for a 1.5-pound institutional size, and $25 for an 8-ounce “personal” size— And head to the post office to send a few more clay-filled plastic containers.

Bintliff said their gains are modest. For example, he said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to send 10 pounds of Lena Blackburn mud to each of the 30 major league teams. If a team needs more during the season, it deals directly with them.

He said that he is less motivated by money than by the wonder of it all. Imagine this: This clay, which has a special mineral composition, is used to bless every major league baseball. And if the surprise escapes Major League Baseball, then, Bintliffe said, “so be it.”

The question of where Lena Blackburn’s slime fits into today’s game comes in the form of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s drive for consistency. But in a game of countless variables, this finding can sometimes seem bizarre.

To begin with, baseballs are like snowflakes; Although each one is handmade and connected with 108 red stitches, no two are alike. What’s more, they behave differently depending on the local environment—a challenge that MLB has attempted to address by requiring every ballpark to store baseballs in a humidor set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57% relative humidity. have tried. (The humidifier for the Colorado Rockies ballpark is set at 65% relative humidity to accommodate for the higher altitude.)

Humidors are just a reflection of baseball’s true preciousness. Less than 3 inches in diameter and weighing about 5 ounces, this is the sun the game revolves around—albeit a sun that rises, bounces, decreases, and escapes.

To ensure a supply of baseball supplies, MLB became part-owner of the Rollings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls at a factory in Costa Rica. This move probably calls something MLB into the finished product.

And to protect baseball’s honor, MLB has taken a number of steps, including cracking down on doctoring the balls with substances such as gorilla glue, which allows the pitcher to increase the spin rate and achieve near-failed ball movement.

Yet the dirty matter of mud remains.

According to MLB spokesman Caplin, the game’s front office began to receive complaints that some game balls lacked the desired grip and “chocky to the touch”, perhaps from lingering under the ball bag for too long. MLB launched an investigation asking each of the 30 teams to send videos of their clubhouse employees “soiling” the balls for game-day use.

“You got 30 different ways to apply soil,” Caplin said. “Some people just used a towel, while others actually rubbed it into the leather.”

MLB officials responded last month by sending each team a memo with updated rules for “storage and handling of baseballs.” The instructions on how to mud a baseball are Talmudic.

“All baseballs used in a specific game must be scavenged within 3 hours of all other baseballs used in that game, and must be scavenged on the same day that they are being used… Must not be outside Humidor for more than two hours at any point before the first pitch … Rubbing Mud should be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds, ensuring that the Mud is thoroughly and consistently against the ball. is rubbed into the entire leather surface … “

The simple act is surprisingly serious, such that the integrity of the national pastime depends on the dialogue between a ball made in Costa Rica and clay extracted from the Jersey River.

But soil harvester Jim Bintliffe knows best that the tide is changing forever. For now all he can do is continue to honor a ritual started by a forgotten infielder of the dead-ball era, who keeps up with every pitch thrown.

The other day, Bintliffe threw his flat-edged shovel into his pickup and went to the secret location again. He came back with 20 buckets of beautiful, lucky tradition.

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