Tigers pitchers, including Justin Verlander, accused of doctoring baseballs ‘for years’

Detroit News

Tony Paul
 
| The Detroit News

Former Tigers ace Justin Verlander is among several major-league pitchers who have been accused of using a grip concoction engineered and widely distributed by a fired Los Angeles Angels staffer.

Several Tigers pitchers allegedly began inquiring about the so-called “sticky stuff” as far back as 2005, after being told about it by new Tiger and longtime Angels closer Troy Percival, according to filings in California state court Thursday.

That year, 2005, was the rookie season for Verlander, who has been using the foreign substance “for years,” according to the former Angels employee.

“Tiger players visiting the Angels clubhouse began asking me to prepare it for them and that Percival told them I knew how,” Brian Harkins, the fired Angeles employee, wrote in a declaration as part of his lawsuit against the Angels and Major League Baseball.

“I did so as a courtesy. After all, my job was hospitality for visiting players.”

Harkins joined the Angels as a batboy in 1981 and became visiting clubhouse manager in 1990. It was a job he held until March 3, 2020.

The Angels fired Harkins shortly after MLB sent notice to teams that pitchers doctoring baseballs was illegal. That memo went out shortly after the investigation into the Houston Astros’ sign stealing, which rocked the baseball world last offseason.

Verlander was part of the Astros team that won the World Series in 2017 and later was found to have relayed opposing pitch selections to their hitters by using dugout video to get the signs and banging on trash cans to get those signs to the hitter. Verlander was never implicated in that scandal; there were no allegations against Astros pitchers.

Verlander hasn’t yet commented on the accusations that have come to light in Harkins’ lawsuit, which was filed in August with additional evidence filed Thursday. Among the evidence, a text message from Verlander to Harkins shortly after Harkins’ firing.

“Bubba, it’s JV,” Verlander wrote in a text message at 11:08 a.m. Friday, March 6. “Firstly, I’m so sorry to hear about this (expletive). Please gimme a shout whenever you can. (Martin) Maldonado just told me he heard something that’s totally not true! So I wanted to speak with you directly.”

Verlander and Harkins then spoke by phone the following day, according to notes kept of the conversation and submitted by Harkins in Thursday’s court filing.

The wording of a portion of the notes makes it a bit unclear, but his attorney, Daniel Rasmussen, confirmed to The News that Harkins wrote that Verlander had heard from another player that he was the one who gave Harkins’ name to Major League Baseball investigators. “That’s what I understand from the notes,” Rasmussen said.

Harkins wrote that Verlander had said, about the ball-doctoring, “the league has let this go on for 100 years,” and that Verlander wanted to publicly stand up for Harkins, but “feels with the scrutiny that their team is under it will be very difficult.” According to Harkins’ notes, Verlander also suggested the Angels might be “shook up” in the wake of the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs in July 2019. Skaggs had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system, and the drugs allegedly were supplied by a now former Angels employee.

A message left by The Detroit News for Verlander’s agent, University of Michigan alum Mark Pieper, wasn’t immediately returned. The Tigers declined comment, saying “you are best to reach out to MLB.”

Harkins admits making the grip concoction, which includes rosin, pine tar and Mota stick (a harder pine tar), which he said was first taught to him by Percival in the 1990s, when Percival was among the most dominant closers in the game. Percival signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Tigers before the 2005 season. He pitched just 25 innings before a forearm injury ended his season in July. He didn’t pitch in 2006.

Harkins said he supplied the mix to dozens of players over the years, including several Angels pitchers and visiting pitchers, including, he claimed, ex-Tiger Max Scherzer. A message left for Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, wasn’t immediately returned.

Scherzer and Verlander are two of the biggest names mentioned. They have combined to win five Cy Youngs and sign contracts worth more than a half-billion dollars.

Harkins has contended that the mixture is for safety and control purposes more than anything, and that it doesn’t improve a pitcher’s performance. It can be difficult in cold weather to get a good grip on a baseball, and even in warm weather due to sweat. But some have disputed that using such a substance is truly all about safety; pitcher Trevor Bauer, a one-time Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians star who now is a free agent, has long argued that grip concoctions can increase a pitch’s spin rate.

Gerrit Cole, now with the New York Yankees, was questioned about his spin rate rising significantly after he joined the Astros in 2018. He credited the Astros staff, and disputed it had anything to do with foreign substances. A text message from Cole to Harkins was included in Thursday’s evidence filing.

“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole,” he wrote at 11:39 a.m. Jan. 17, 2019. “I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation (wink-face emoji). We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold-weather places. That stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”

The Astros made the World Series again, but lost, in 2019 with Verlander and Cole atop the staff. Cole signed a nine-year, $234 million deal with the New Year Yankees following the 2019 season.

Verlander was traded to the Astros in 2017 by the rebuilding Tigers, with whom he pitched 13 seasons, winning rookie-of-the-year (2006), Cy Young and MVP awards (2011) and throwing two no-hitters (2007, 2011). He’s considered arguably the best pitcher in franchise history, and a near-certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. He led the Tigers to five postseasons and two World Series.

He also at one time was an outspoken critic of cheating, particularly when it comes to steroids.

Among other visiting players who have used the mixture, according to Harkins’ filing: former Tigers Edwin Jackson and Joba Chamberlain, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, Adam Wainwright and Tyler Chatwood. No years were associated with Scherzer, Jackson or Chamberlain in Harkins’ court filings.

Among Angels pitchers cited by Harkins, who had been called a “traitor” among initial reports that he only provided the mixture to opposing pitchers: Percival, Brendan Donnelly, Kevin Jepsen, Cam Bedrosian, Kenyon Middleton, Yusmerio Petit, Luke Bard, Matt Andriese, Dylan Peters, Jose Suarez, Caleb Cowart and Dylan Bundy, as well as, most recently, Shohei Ohtani. Several Angels coaches also were aware of its use, Harkins claims, and the mixture was readily available in the bullpen.

Harkins also said ex-Angels pitcher Andrew Bailey, now pitching coach of the Giants, requested “Sticky Stuff,” as did the Minnesota Twins before the 2019 postseason.

Harkins said he didn’t do the mixture for money, but he often was tipped. It’s customary for players to tip the visiting clubhouse staff at the conclusion of a series.

Harkins, in his lawsuit, said he is being made the scapegoat by MLB and the Angels for something that’s been practiced in the game for decades. Rarely has a pitcher been punished. Ejections can occur if a manager complains and an umpire then finds evidence. More often, pitchers are subtly warned, as happened in Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, when Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers was spotted one inning with a dark substance on his hat, but then was wearing a new hat the next inning.

Baseball allows pitchers to use a rosin bag, placed behind the mound, though that is often not effective, said longtime major-league players and former Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner. He provided a statement of support for Harkins, which read, in part, “Rosin alone is insufficient to provide a good grip on the ball.”

During cold weather, pitchers typically are allowed to blow on their hands. They also are allowed to lick their fingers, but must wipe them off before throwing the ball. Pine tar can be used on bats for gripping purposes, but not baseballs.

Harkins claims he was doing nothing illegal in making and providing the substance, nor did he apply the mixture to the baseballs, as he said had been alleged.

“It was not a secret,” Harkins wrote in his latest court declaration.

Harkins remains the only person disciplined in MLB’s investigation into baseball doctoring. As with the Astros scandal, no players have been disciplined. As part of the Astros fallout, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended for all of 2020 and subsequently fired, as was Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora. New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran was fired before managing a single game. Hinch has since been hired by the Tigers, and Cora rehired by the Red Sox.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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