Read a certain way, the Angels firing a clubhouse attendant for reportedly aiding opponents is amusing. Why wasn’t he (cynical chuckle) helping the team that employed him instead?
Read a different way, however, the dismissal of Brian “Bubba” Harkins is a serious reaction by the club and MLB to the scandals that have roiled the sport late in the offseason and into spring training.
The Orange County Register reported Thursday that the Angels dismissed Harkins, who had worked in the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium since 1990 and started with the club in 1981, after an MLB investigation determined he provided opposing pitchers with foreign substances that could be applied to balls.
Harkins’ firing appears to be the product of baseball stepping up its enforcement of rules prohibiting pitchers from applying substances to baseballs. The New York Post reported in February that new MLB vice president Chris Young, a former pitcher, was visiting spring training camps to inform players of the increased vigilance.
MLB’s effort also can be viewed as a reaction to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and, perhaps, complaints by Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer that Astros pitchers have benefited greatly in recent seasons from applying pine tar or other sticky substances to balls.
Players who are caught doctoring balls are subject to ejection from games, but such penalties have been rare because players accept the widespread practice. Hitters especially want pitchers to have the best possible control of fastballs thrown at speeds around 100 mph.
MLB, though, can’t ignore the anecdotal evidence that pitchers gain a big advantage by using banned substances to improve their grip.
Bauer told HBO Sports for a story in February that about 70 percent of MLB pitchers use such substances, which help to increase the spin rate on their fastballs and make those pitches more effective. Bauer believes doctoring balls gives pitchers “a bigger advantage than steroids.”
He said he tried it himself for an inning, and the data indicated his fastball spin rate increased significantly from its usual measurement, but he told HBO his “morals” won’t allow him to do it on a regular basis.
After a winter of discontent among its players, MLB appears to be having its own moral reckoning. Bubba Harkins has become one of the first people to feel the effect.