LONGPORT, N.J. — A forty five-gallon rubber barrel sits in a cluttered garage along the Jersey Shore, filled waist-high with what looks just like the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding. It’s nothing greater than icky, gooey, viscous, gelatinous mud.
Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are manufactured from.
This particular mud, hauled in buckets by one man from a secret spot along a Latest Jersey riverbank, is singular in its ability to chop the slippery sheen of a latest baseball and supply a firm grip for the pitcher hurling it at life-threatening speed toward one other human standing just 60 feet and 6 inches away.
Tubs of the substance are found at every major league ballpark. It’s rubbed into every one among the 144 to 180 balls utilized in every one among the two,430 major league games played in a season, in addition to those played within the postseason. The mudding of a “pearl” — a pristine ball right out of the box — has been baseball custom for a lot of the last century, ever since a journeyman named Lena Blackburne presented the mud as an alternative choice to tobacco spit and infield dirt, which tended to show the ball into an overripe plum.
Consider what this implies: That Major League Baseball — a multi-billion-dollar enterprise applying science and analytics to just about every aspect of the sport — ultimately relies on some geographically specific muck collected by a retiree with a gray ponytail, blurry arm tattoos and a flat-edged shovel.
“Inside 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 don’t exactly get all misty-eyed over the whimsical tradition of what is named Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they are saying is simply too often inconsistently applied. Of their quest to make balls more consistent — and the sport more equitable — they’ve tried to provide you with a substitute, even assigning chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the specified feel.
The rating to date:
Lena Blackburne: 1
Major League Baseball: 0
Glen Caplin, an M.L.B. spokesman, said that “pre-tack baseballs” are continuing to be tested within the minor leagues. However the reviews have been mixed.
“If you happen to change one property of a baseball, you sacrifice something,” Caplin said. “The pontificate the bat was different. The ball felt softer. The bar to alter a ball may be very high.”
Still, he said, “It’s an ongoing project.”
Bintliff knows the sport isn’t over. He said that baseball’s apparent efforts to displace him and his mud used to disrupt his sleep. Now, he said, he’s turn out to be more philosophical.
“In the event that they stopped ordering, I’d be more upset by the top of the tradition, not my bottom line,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers. “In the event that they don’t want the mud, they don’t should buy it.”
The tradition began with Russell Blackburne, a.k.a. Lena, a feisty, weak-hitting infielder who banged around the main leagues within the 1910s before settling in as a major-league coach and manager. A lifer, seen in black-and-white photos beside the likes of Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.
While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he heard an umpire complain concerning the struggle to organize brand-new balls to be used. Blackburne experimented with mud from a Delaware River tributary, not removed from his Latest Jersey home, and located that it de-glossed the ball while mostly maintaining its whiteness.
He now had a side job. After some time, every major and minor league team was using what sometimes got here to be called “Mississippi mud” — though “mysterious” would have been more apt than Mississippi.
Before Blackburne died at 81 in 1968, he bequeathed the key spot to an old friend who had joined him in mud harvesting: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to Bintliff’s mother and father, who, in 2000, passed it on to Bintliff.
Bintliff, 65, served within the Navy and worked for a long time as a printing-press operator, but the magical mud remained a continuing in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a rail-thin boy loading pails of freshly collected mud into the back of his grandfather’s Chevy Impala.
Through the years, Bintliff and his wife, Joanne, who handles the executive work, have tinkered with the business model. For instance, he used to reap mud a few times a yr. But expanding their market to scholastic and skilled football teams — including greater than just a few within the National Football League — has required monthly returns to the riverbank.
The elemental work, though, stays the identical, with timing depending on the tide.
Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado pickup 70 miles or so to the key spot and walk 50 yards through woods. Along together with his shovel and buckets, he can have a machete for any overgrowth and just a few fibs for any inquisitors. The mud does miracles for his garden, he might say.
Then back to his Jersey Shore home. The drive takes longer than the harvest.
For the following 4 weeks, Bintliff will strain the mud into the rubber barrel, skim the river water rising to the highest, use loads of tap water to eliminate odor, apply a “proprietary treatment” he declines to explain — and let the stuff settle.
“It ages like a superb wine,” he said.
When the mud has achieved its optimum vintage, he fills the outstanding orders — $100 for the two.5-pound skilled size, $65 for the 1.5-pound institutional size, and $25 for the 8-ounce “personal” size — and heads to the post office to ship some more mud-packed plastic containers.
Bintliff said his profit is modest. For instance, he said, Major League Baseball pays lower than $20,000 a yr to have 10 kilos of the Lena Blackburne mud sent to every of the 30 major league teams. If a team needs more during a season, it deals directly with him.
He said he’s motivated less by the cash than by the wonder of all of it. Imagine: This mud, containing a really particular mineral composition, is used to bless every major league baseball. And if the wonder escapes Major League Baseball, then, Bintliff said, “So be it.”
The query of where Lena Blackburne’s mud suits in today’s game comes as M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred heads up the drive for consistency. But in a sport of countless variables, this pursuit can sometimes seem quixotic.
To start with, baseballs are like snowflakes; though every one is handmade and held along with 108 red stitches, no two are equivalent. What’s more, they behave in another way depending on the local environment — a challenge that M.L.B. has tried to handle by requiring every ballpark to store baseballs in a humidor set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57 percent relative humidity (The humidor for the Colorado Rockies ballpark is ready at 65 percent relative humidity to regulate for the high altitude.).
The humidors are one reflection of the true preciousness of a mere baseball. Lower than three inches in diameter and weighing about five ounces, it’s the sun around which the sport revolves — albeit a sun that soars, bounces, curves and eludes.
To make sure a replenishing supply of baseballs, M.L.B. has turn out to be part-owner of the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls in a factory in Costa Rica. The move also presumably gives M.L.B. some say-so within the finished product.
And to guard the baseball’s honor, M.L.B. has taken several steps, including cracking down on the doctoring of balls with Gorilla Glue-like substances that allow a pitcher to extend the spin rate and achieve almost Wiffle ball movement.
Still, there stays the messy matter of mud.
In keeping with Caplin, the M.L.B. spokesman, the sport’s front office began receiving complaints that some game balls were each lacking the specified grip and “chalky to the touch,” perhaps from lingering too long at the underside of ball bags. M.L.B. began an investigation that included asking each of the 30 teams to send videos of their clubhouse employees “mudding” the balls for game-day use.
“What you found was 30 alternative ways of the way to apply the mud,” Caplin said. “Some guys just used a towel, while other guys really rubbed it in, getting it ingrained into the leather.”
M.L.B. executives responded by sending a memorandum last month to each team with updated regulations for the “Storage and Handling of Baseballs.” The instructions for the way to mud a baseball are Talmudic.
“All baseballs projected to be utilized in a particular game should be mudded inside 3 hours of all other baseballs getting used in that game, and should be mudded on the identical day that they’re going to be used … Baseballs shouldn’t be out of the humidor for greater than two hours at any point prior to first pitch … Rubbing mud needs to be applied to every baseball for a minimum of 30 seconds ensuring that mud is rubbed thoroughly and consistently into the complete leather surface of the ball … ”
The memorandum directed team employees to seek the advice of the “Mudding Application Standards” poster, on display in every clubhouse, to be certain that the colour of a mudded ball is neither too dark nor too light, but excellent.
Three big league teams — the Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals — declined to permit a reporter to observe a clubhouse worker engage within the seemingly innocuous but apparently sensitive task of rubbing mud right into a baseball. Fortunately, M.L.B. also sent all teams a 50-second instructional video demonstrating the just about worshipful care expected in properly mudding a pearl.
A splash of water is poured into the jar of Lena Blackburne mud. The hands of an unknown clubbie dips three fingertips flippantly into the mud, then selects a virgin ball from a box of a dozen. For the following 36 seconds, the hands rub, roll and massage, working the mud into the grain and along the seams before plopping the now off-white ball back within the box.
The easy act is surprisingly solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime trusted communion between a ball made in Costa Rica and dust shoveled from a Jersey river.
But Jim Bintliff, the harvester of mud, knows higher than most that the tides are endlessly changing. All he can do for now could be to proceed honoring a ritual begun by a mostly forgotten infielder from the dead-ball era who lives on with every thrown pitch.
The opposite day, Bintliff threw his flat-edged shovel into his pickup and headed again to the key place. He got here back with 20 pails of gorgeous, mucky tradition.