By Dan Barry
- July 26, 2022
Listen to This Article 14:35
LONGPORT, N.J. — A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a cluttered garage along the Jersey Shore, filled waist-high with what looks like the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding. It is nothing more than icky, gooey, viscous, gelatinous mud.
Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are made of.
This particular mud, hauled in buckets by one man from a secret spot along a New Jersey riverbank, is singular in its ability to cut the slippery sheen of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for the pitcher hurling it at life-threatening speed toward another human standing just 60 feet and six inches away.
Tubs of the substance are found at every major league ballpark. It is rubbed into every one of the 144 to 180 balls used in every one of the 2,430 major league games played in a season, as well as those played in the postseason. The mudding of a “pearl” — a pristine ball right out of the box — has been baseball custom for most of the last century, ever since a journeyman named Lena Blackburne presented the mud as an alternative to tobacco spit and infield dirt, which tended to turn the ball into an overripe plum.
Consider what this means: That Major League Baseball — a multi-billion-dollar enterprise applying science and analytics to nearly every aspect of the game — ultimately depends on some geographically specific muck collected by a retiree with a gray ponytail, blurry arm tattoos and a flat-edged shovel.
“Within the last six weeks, I’ve shipped to the Diamondbacks, the Rangers and the Blue Jays,” the mud man, Jim Bintliff, said recently, as he lingered protectively beside his garaged barrel of goop.
But M.L.B. executives do not exactly get all misty-eyed over the whimsical tradition of what is called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they say is too often inconsistently applied. In their quest to make balls more consistent — and the game more equitable — they have tried to come up with a substitute, even assigning chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the desired feel.
The score so far:
Lena Blackburne: 1
Major League Baseball: 0
Glen Caplin, an M.L.B. spokesman, said that “pre-tack baseballs” are continuing to be tested in the minor leagues. But the reviews have been mixed.