Tools of the Trade

In softball and baseball there are dozens of little tools you may have seen players use that are such an integral part of the game you didn’t take notice. Others you may never have known existed. Here are some of the most common substances of the game and how they’re used on, and off, the field.

Legal Substances

Photo: Bonn Capitals

Eye Black

If you’ve ever watched a game on television then gone to a game in Europe, you will likely have noticed one striking difference in uniform between players here and abroad. That difference is a strip of black under the player’s eye. Designed to absorb the sun’s glare, eye black keeps the sun from playing a key role on the field.

The black under their eyes absorbs sunlight helping to improve the player’s vision of the ball, and decreases their blinking, which means that their eye spends more time on the ball as it approaches their glove. In season 6, the television show MythBusters did a segment proving the scientific benefits of this tool (Ep. 5).

Grip Aids

When using an aluminum bat, players put grip tape on the handle to keep the bat from slipping. On contact, a player needs all the help they can get to hold onto the bat handle. By design bats are slippery so, in addition to wearing batting gloves, grip tape helps.

For wood bats, pine tar is often used for this same purpose. While some players opt for athletic tape or grips on wood, common experiences seem to dictate that the tacky benefits of pine tar outweigh the mess in your equipment bag.

Tongue Depressor

Play a game, of any kind, in cleats during the wet season and you’ll know how off kilter a bit of mud can make you feel. Players have employed many methods for cleaning on the fly but the tongue depressor is often the method of choice on the field. Available in most clubhouses, inexpensive and easy to slip in your back pocket, these sticks are readily available to help a player gain back their footing between pitches.

Rosin Bag

Especially on hot, humid days, you may have seen pitchers, between batters, reach for the rosin bag. Kept at the back of the mound this bag is used to help pitchers dry their hands and improve their grip. Similar in look to a chalk bag for gymnasts and filled with powder, the rosin, which comes from pine tree oil, has an element of stick to it.

Finger Tape

Some players tape their knuckles, others use white out or polish on their nails, some companies have even created stickers for easy removal after the game, whatever the method, catchers use these visuals to aide the pitcher in seeing the sign they are throwing.

The most common signs are:

One Finger = Fast Ball

Two Fingers = Curve Ball

Three Fingers = Slider

Four Fingers and/or Wiggle Fingers = Change Up

Drying Agents

Calcined clay, such as Diamond Dry, is used to absorb the water on a field following a rain delay. Some stadiums employ a combination method of irrigation and pumping the water out but most use a drying agent to finish the job. While teams on lower budgets have been known to employ kitty litter to help with reducing the water levels on the field, the litter cannot be left out on the surface of the playing field like the clay.

Baseball Mud

Since the 1950s every baseball in the major and minor leagues goes through one final step between being unwrapped and hitting the field. They get their very own mud baths!

Baseballs are leather and new, they can be incredibly slippery. Slick surfaces lead to errant pitches. That can cause pitchers to throw outside of their normal mechanics which, over time, can lead to injury. Changing the surface of the ball however can have an affect on the ball’s trajectory giving an advantage to either batter or pitcher.

While fishing a retired player named Russell ”Lena” Blackburne thought he’d come up with the solution to the slick ball problem, mud. Not just any mud however, the mud from the riverbank of the Delaware. The MLB thought so much of his idea that they even created a rule to support it! Rule 401(c) states “The umpire shall inspect the baseball and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.”


While all clubs are directed by the MLB to keep their baseballs in temperature controlled environments to maximize lifespan of the balls, it was league expansion back in 1991 that brought this to a whole new level. The first years of play in Coors Field, home to the Colorado Rockies, saw homerun records soar. They set, and in subsequent years shattered, their own record for homeruns in an MLB ballpark in a single season before installing a humidor.

Coors Field is located in Denver Colorado, the Mile High City. It gets that name because, at the base, it sits one mile above sea level. The atmosphere up there is not only thin but incredibly dry. Perfect conditions for letting a ball sail, uninhibited, out of a ballpark. The humidor adds moisture to the ball helping it weigh the same as it would in regular environments. Since the installation at Coors sports writers have enjoyed debating the use as teams across the league consider installing one of their own.

Illegal substances

Baseball is a game rooted in fair play. Maybe that’s why some of the most infamous versions of being ‘caught red-handed’ went just as they should…

We start with a legal substance, pine tar. As we’ve seen, pine tar is a perfectly legal substance used not only for bat grip but, in resin form, to help pitchers as well. While meant as a tool to aid in grip, there are some definite limitations.

MLB Rule 3.02 (c) (1.10) “The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance. Any such material or substance that extends past the 18-inch limitation shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.”

In 1983, with the game on the line, two outs in the top of the 9th, Royals down by a run, George Brett stepped up to the plate and went yard against one of the Yankees’ all-time best pitchers, Goose Gossage. The pitcher recounted the backstory of the incident for Sports Illustrated but you can see the footage for yourself.

The thief, Gaylord Perry, didn’t get too far. Security locked the locker room door from inside the tunnel and the bat was confiscated on the spot. Brett would later be exonerated however. The American League President ruled that the home run stand and the game was restarted nearly a month later. The final outcome? That two-run homer was the last score of the game.

Brett reflected on the incident 30 years later:

“In the 1980 World Series, I left a game because of hemorrhoid pain. After that, every city I went to, I was ‘The Hemorrhoids Guy,’ ” he said. “Well, I heard every hemorrhoid joke in the world –- my best response is, ‘My troubles are all behind me.’ … From October of 1980 to July 24, 1983, that’s what I heard. And from that July 24 to 2013, now I’m the pine tar guy. So it’s really the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Thank you, Billy Martin.”

In an entirely different way, a pitcher used pine tar to increase his grip on the ball which, under MLB rules, is entirely illegal.

(3.02) No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery- paper or other foreign substance.

PENALTY: The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games. For rules in regard to a pitcher defacing the ball, see Rules 6.02(c)(2) through (6) (Rules 8.02(a)(2) through (6).

(c) (8.02) Pitching Prohibitions The pitcher shall not: (4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball; (5) deface the ball in any manner; or (6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 6.02(c)(2) through (5) or what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball or “emery” ball. 7) Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.

Pine tar is quickly becoming the duct tape of a baseball field. As useful as duct tape can be in a pinch, you still don’t want to use it to tape someone’s mouth shut. Here’s one pitcher who tried to pull off a baseball equivalent.

Petroleum Jelly

We’ve talked about taking the slip off the leather but some pitchers would rather have a bit left behind. For those looking for an edge on their release, lard and petroleum jelly have been tried and true methods. Before HD cameras and night games it was a lot easier to get away with this cheat however.

Nail File

Just like in the prison films, nail files are contraband within the confines of a baseball field.

As Cy Young, Triple Crown, All Star pitcher Jake Peavy puts it, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting that timing”. Many pitchers would love to play doctor with the ball. Peavy became the pitcher that got to live the dream… and it was all above board.


Bats were filled with them at the turn of the century during the heyday of the modern homerun era and shattered bats. The bats were burrowed and filled with cork to make them equally large and powerful, but lighter. In theory, this meant the swing was faster and therefore, the ball went further because the force was stronger. As MythBusters proved in their Baseball Myths episode, the theory, just like the bat it’s based on, simply didn’t hold weight.

6.06 A batter is out for illegal action when:

(5) He uses or attempts to use a bat that has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve distance or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc. No advancement on the bases will be allowed (except stolen base, balk, wild pitch, passed ball), and any out or outs made during a play shall stand. In addition to being called out, the player shall be ejected from the game and may be subject to additional penalties as determined by his League President. A batter shall be deemed to have used or attempted to use an illegal bat if he brings such bat into the batter’s box.

As you’ll see, Chris Sabo had to learn the hard way… seven games, and $25,000 later, we hope he learned his lesson. By the looks of things, he had no shortage of wine on-hand for his time away from the field.

There you have it legal substances, illegal substances and legal stuff being used in illegal ways. What are some things you’ve seen going on, in the dugout or on the field, that have caught your eye? Let us know!