He is baseball’s only purveyor of mud. This is a job that could soon be lost.

LONGPORT, NJ – A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a crowded garage along the Jersey Shore, filled to the waist with the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding. It’s nothing but frosty, viscous, gelatinous mud.

Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are made of.

This particular mud, scooped up by one man from a secret location along a New Jersey riverbank, is unique in its ability to impart a slippery sheen to a new baseball and provide a cushion for a pitcher who throws it at life-threatening speeds. Another person stands just 60 feet and six inches away.

Tubs of the substance are found in every major league ballpark. It is drawn from 144 to 180 balls used in 2,430 major league games played during the season as well as the postseason. “Pearling”—scooping an intact ball out of the box—has been a baseball custom for most of the last century, ever since a planter named Lena Blackburn introduced the mud as an alternative to tobacco stubs and field dirt. to turn the ball into a ripe plum.

Think about what that means: Major League Baseball — a multibillion-dollar enterprise that applies science and analytics to nearly every aspect of the game — ultimately depends on geographically specific dirt collected by a retiree with a gray tail, fuzzy tattoos and armbands. A flat-faced shovel.

“In the last six weeks, I’ve sent it to the Diamondbacks, the Rangers and the Blue Jays,” Mud Man Jim Bintliff said recently as he sat protectively next to a barrel in his garage.

But MLB executives aren’t exactly keeping tabs on the strange tradition of the Lena Blackburn baseball mudslinger, which they say is too often used inconsistently. To make the balls more consistent – and the game fairer – they tried to create a substitute, even assigning chemists and engineers to create a ball with the desired feel.

Score so far:

Lena Blackburn: 1

Major League Baseball: 0

Glenn Caplin, an MLB spokesman, said testing of “advance baseball” continues in the minor leagues. But reviews were mixed.

“If you change one feature of baseball, you sacrifice something,” Caplin said. “The sound of the bat was different. The ball was softer. The bar for changing the ball is very high. “

Still, he said, “This is an ongoing project.”

Bintleaf knows the game isn’t over. He said that the baseball’s apparent attempt to move him and his mud disturbed his sleep. Now, he says, he has become more philosophical.

“If they cut the order, the end of the tradition would be more of an annoyance than my last thought,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white Chuck Taylor shoes. “If they don’t want mud, they don’t have to buy it.”

The tradition began with Russell Blackburn, aka Lena, a jovial, soft-hitting inspector who bounced around the major leagues in the 1910s before becoming a major league coach and manager. A lifer seen in black-and-white photos alongside Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.

While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he heard an umpire complain about the struggle of getting ready to use the new balls. Blackburn experimented with water from a tributary of the Delaware River, not far from his home, and found that it cleaned the ball and mostly kept it white.

Now he had a side job. After a while, all major and minor league teams used what was sometimes called “Mississippi mud” – although “mysterious” would be more appropriate than Mississippi.

Before Blackburn died in 1968, aged 81, he made a bequest to an old friend who joined him in the mud-harvesting process: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to Bintliff’s mother, and his father, who passed it on to Bintliff in 2000.

Bintliff, 65, served in the Navy and worked as a printing press operator for decades, but the mystical mud remained a constant in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a skinny boy on the tracks, loading 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 not stuck to the business model. For example, he collected mud once or twice a year. But expanding their market to collegiate and professional football teams—including more than a few in the National Football League—required monthly returns to the riverfront.

The fundamental work, however, remains the same, timing depends on the tide.

Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado pickup truck 70 miles to a secret location and walk 50 yards through the woods. Along with a spade and buckets, he’ll have a machete for any overgrowth and a few cleavers for any inquisitors. Mud does wonders for his garden, he might say.

Then he returned home to the Jersey Shore. It takes more time to travel than to harvest.

Over the next four weeks, Bintliff will squeeze the mud into a rubber barrel, pour river water that rises to the top, use copious amounts of tap water to remove the odor, use a “self-treatment” he declines to describe — and let it all settle. .

“It will age like a fine wine,” he said.

When the mud reaches its optimal vintage, he fills the outstanding orders — $100 for the 2.5-pound professional size, $65 for the 1.5-pound institutional size and $25 for the 8-ounce “personal” size — and goes to the post office. Sending some more mud-packed plastic containers to the office.

Bintliff said his profits are modest. For example, he said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to send 10 pounds of Lena Blackburn mud to each of the 30 major league teams. If the team needs more during the season, he will address it directly.

According to him, the money is less of a motivation than the wonder of it all. Imagine: this mud, which contains a special mineral composition, is used to bless every major league baseball. And if prodigy eludes Major League Baseball, then Bintliff said, “So be it.”

The question of where Lena Blackburn’s mudslinger fits into today’s game comes as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred steers toward consistency. But in a sport of countless variables, that pursuit can sometimes seem quixotic.

For starters, baseballs look like snowflakes; Although each one is handmade and bound with 108 red stitches, no two are identical. Moreover, they behave differently depending on the local environment—a challenge that MLB has tried to meet by requiring all baseballs to be stored in a humidor set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57 percent Fahrenheit (The Colorado Rockies ballpark has a humidifier set at 65 percent relative humidity at high times to accommodate the altitude.) .

Humidifiers are a true gem reflection of simple baseball. Less than three inches in diameter and weighing about five ounces, it’s the sun around which the game revolves—albeit a sun that rises, turns, bends, and dodges.

In order to supply the baseballs, MLB became a part owner of the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls in a factory in Costa Rica. The move also likely gives MLB a finished product.

To protect baseball’s dignity, MLB has taken several steps, including spraying balls with substances similar to gorilla glue, which allow pitchers to increase their spin rate and achieve an almost wiffle ball motion.

Nevertheless, the dirty matter of the mud remains.

According to Caplin, the MLB spokesman, the front office began receiving complaints that some field balls did not have the desired power and “chalked to the touch,” perhaps lingering too long at the bottom of the ball bags. MLB launched an investigation that included asking 30 teams to send in videos of their clubhouse staff “jamming” balls for game-day use.

“What you found was 30 different ways to use mud,” Caplin said. “Some guys would just use a towel, and some guys would really pour it on and soak it into the skin.”

MLB executives responded last month by sending a memo to all teams with updated regulations for “baseball storage and handling.” The instructions on how to smash a baseball are Talmudic.

“All baseballs scheduled to be used in a particular game must be broken down within 3 hours of the day all other baseballs used in that game are used, and must be broken down on the same day they are used… Baseballs must not be outside. humidor for more than two hours at any point on the first pitch…Mud shall be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds to ensure that the mud is thoroughly and consistently applied to the entire leather surface of the ball…”

The memo directed team officials to refer to the “Mudding Application Standards” poster displayed at every clubhouse to ensure that the color of the mud ball was neither too dark nor too light, but just right.

Three major league teams – the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals – refused to allow a reporter to watch a club employee perform what was a seemingly innocuous but apparently sensitive task – mud in baseball. Fortunately, MLB also sent every team a 50-second instructional video that demonstrates the almost worshipful care expected to properly sprinkle pearls.

Water is poured into Lena Blackburn’s mud jar. The hands of the unknown club lightly dip the tips of three fingers into the mud, then select a virgin ball from the ten box. For the next 36 seconds, your hands rub, roll, and rub the mud into the grain and along the seams before returning the now-white ball back to the box.

The simple act is remarkably solemn, as if the entirety of the national pastime depended on communion between a ball made in Costa Rica and the paddles of the Jersey River.

But Jim Bintliff, the mud picker, knows better than most that the tides are forever changing. All he can do is continue to honor a ritual that began in a largely forgotten era of balls that lives on with every pitch thrown.

The next day, Bintleaf threw his flat-blade shovel into his pickup truck and headed back to the secret location. It’s back with 20 cubes of beautiful, shiny tradition.

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