He is baseball’s only mud supplier. It’s a job he could soon lose.
LONGPORT, NJ – A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a cluttered garage along the Jersey Shore, filled to the waist with what looks like the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding. It’s nothing more than a gooey, gooey, slimy, jelly-like slime.
Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are made of.
This particular mud, hauled in buckets by a man from a secret location along a New Jersey shoreline, is singular in its ability to cut through the slippery splinter of a new baseball and provide a firm grip on the thrower who throws it at deadly speed towards another human standing only 60 feet and six inches away.
Bins of the stuff can be found at every major league ballpark. It is rubbed on each of the 144 to 180 balls used in each of the 2,430 major league games played in a season, as well as those played in the playoffs. Sludge from a “pearl” – a pristine ball straight out of the box – has been baseball’s custom for most of the last century, ever since a journeyman named Lena Blackburne introduced mud as an alternative to tobacco spit and dirt inside, which tended to turn the lump into an overripe plum.
Consider what that means: that Major League Baseball — a multibillion-dollar company applying science and analysis to nearly every aspect of the game — ultimately depends on geographically specific slime collected by a retiree with a gray ponytail, fuzzy arm tattoos and a flat spade.
“For the past six weeks I’ve dispatched the Diamondbacks, Rangers and Blue Jays,” mud man Jim Bintliff said recently as he lingered protectively next to his barrel of goop parked.
But MLB executives aren’t exactly misty-eyed over the fanciful tradition of so-called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they say is too often applied inconsistently. In their quest to make the balls more consistent – and the game fairer – they tried to find 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 MLB spokesman, said “pre-tack baseballs” continue to be tested in the minor leagues. But reviews have been mixed.
“If you change one property of a baseball, you’re sacrificing something,” Caplin said. “The sound at the start was different. The ball was softer. The bar for changing balls is very high.
Still, he said, “It’s an ongoing project.”
Bintliff knows the game is not over. He said the baseball’s apparent efforts to move him and his mud disturbed his sleep. Now, he says, he has become more philosophical.
“If they stopped ordering, I’d be more upset about the end of tradition, not about my results,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers. “If they don’t want mud, they don’t have to buy it.”
The tradition began with Russell Blackburne, aka Lena, a feisty, weak outfielder who hit the major leagues in the 1910s before settling as a major league coach and manager. A lifer, seen in black and white photos alongside Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.
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While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he overheard an umpire complaining about the difficulty of preparing brand new balls for use. Blackburne experimented with mud from a tributary of the Delaware River not far from his home in New Jersey and found that it dulled the ball while mostly retaining its whiteness.
He now had a side job. After a while, all major and minor league teams were using what was sometimes called “Mississippi mud” — although “mystery” would have been more appropriate than Mississippi.
Before Blackburne died aged 81 in 1968, he bequeathed the secret location to an old friend who had joined him in the mud harvest: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to mother and father. Bintliff’s father, who in 2000 passed it on to Bintliff.
Bintliff, 65, served in the Navy and worked for decades as a printing press operator, but the mystical slime remained a constant in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a rail-thin boy loading buckets of freshly collected mud into the back of his grandfather’s Chevy Impala.
Over the years, Bintliff and his wife, Joanne, who handles the administrative work, have tinkered with the business model. For example, he used to harvest mud once or twice a year. But expanding their market to school and professional football teams — more than a few of them in the National Football League — has required monthly bank returns.
The fundamental work, however, remains the same, with timing depending on the tide.
Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado pickup truck approximately 70 miles to the secret location and travel 50 yards through the woods. In addition to his shovel and buckets, he will have a machete for any overgrowth and some lies for the inquisitors. Mud does wonders for his garden, he might say.
Then back to his Jersey Shore home. The journey takes longer than the harvest.
For the next four weeks, Bintliff will filter the mud in the rubber barrel, skim the water from the river that rises to the top, use lots of tap water to eliminate odors, apply a “proprietary treatment” which he refuses to describe – and let things settle. .
“It ages like fine wine,” he said.
When the slime has reached its optimal vintage, it fills the backorders – $100 for the 2.5-pound professional size, $65 for the 1.5-pound institutional size, and $25 for the “personal” size 8 ounces – and heads to the post office to ship more plastic containers filled with slime.
Bintliff said his profit was modest. For example, he said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to have 10 pounds of Lena Blackburne mud sent to each of the 30 major league teams. If a team needs more in a season, they deal with him directly.
He said he’s driven less by the money and more by the wonder of it all. Imagine: This mud, containing a very particular mineral composition, is used to bless all major league baseball. And if the Marvel escapes Major League Baseball, then Bintliff said, “So be it.”
The question of where Lena Blackburne’s mud fits in today’s play arises as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred leads the search for consistency. But in a sport with innumerable variables, this pursuit can sometimes seem chimerical.
For starters, baseballs are like snowflakes; although each is handmade and maintained with 108 red dots, no two are the same. Additionally, they behave differently depending on the local environment – a challenge MLB attempted to address by requiring each ballpark to store baseballs in a basement at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57% humidity. relative (Colorado Rockies stadium humidor is set at 65% relative humidity to accommodate high altitude.).
Cigar humidors are a reflection of the true precious value of a single baseball. Less than three inches in diameter and weighing around five ounces, it’s the sun the game revolves around – albeit a sun that hovers, bounces, bends and eludes.
To ensure a resupply of baseballs, MLB became part owner of the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls at a factory in Costa Rica. This decision also presumably gives MLB some influence over the finished product.
And to protect the honor of baseball, MLB has taken several steps, including cracking down on treating balls with Gorilla Glue-like substances that allow a pitcher to increase spin speed and achieve ball movement. almost Wiffle.
Yet there remains the disordered matter of mud.
According to MLB spokesman Caplin, the game’s front office began to receive complaints that some game balls lacked both the desired grip and were “chalky to the touch”, possibly because they lingered too long at the bottom of the bags of bullets. MLB launched an investigation that included asking each of the 30 teams to send in videos of their clubhouse employees “boiling” the balls for game day use.
“What you’ve come up with is 30 different ways to apply the mud,” Caplin said. “Some guys just used a towel, while others really rubbed it, rooting it into the leather.”
MLB executives responded by sending a memorandum to each team last month with updated regulations for the “storage and handling of baseballs.” The instructions for mud from a baseball are Talmudic.
“All baseballs to be used in a specific game must be muddy within 3 hours of using all other baseballs in that game, and must be muddy the same day they are going to be used… Baseballs should not be out of the humidor for more than two hours at any time before the first pitch… Mud Rub should be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds ensuring mud is rubbed off carefully and evenly over the entire leather surface of the ball…”
The memorandum instructed team employees to consult the “Mudding Application Standards” poster, posted in each clubhouse, to ensure that the color of a muddy ball is neither too dark nor too light, but just.
Three big league teams – the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals – refused to allow a reporter to watch a clubhouse employee engage in the seemingly innocuous but seemingly sensitive task of scrubbing mud on a baseball. Fortunately, MLB also sent all teams a 50-second instructional video demonstrating the almost venerable care expected to properly grind a pearl.
A splash of water is poured into Lena Blackburne’s mud pot. An unfamiliar clubbie’s hands lightly dip three fingers in mud, then select a blank ball from a box of a dozen. For the next 36 seconds, the hands rub, roll and massage, working the mud into the grain and along the seams before returning the now off-white ball to the box.
The simple act is startlingly solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime depended on the communion between a Costa Rican-made ball and the mud shoveled from a Jersey river.
But Jim Bintliff, the Mud Harvester, knows better than anyone that the tides are always changing. All he can do for now is continue to honor a ritual started by a nearly forgotten infielder from the dead-ball era who lives on with every pitch thrown.
The other day, Bintliff threw his flat shovel into his pickup and headed back to the secret location. He came back with 20 buckets of nice muddy lore.
Sound produced by Parin Behrooz.