Muddy baseball on a diamond

If there is such a thing as the perfect summer read, this might be it.

First, it’s about baseball. Even if you’re not seduced by the sport, the writing it has inspired through the years can be superb — as precise as a fastball over the edge of the plate, as romantic as dusk at the ballpark, as summer as a hotdog and cold beer.

Second, it’s a true “who knew?” That’s something quite rare in the derivative world of journalism, especially journalism about sports, and especially when that sport is bit languid, leaving ample time to ponder the most esoteric of details. Is there anything as stat-studded as baseball?

Third, it’s by Dan Barry. If baseball has come to define American culture, Barry may define the American nonfiction narrative, at least that done within the miracle once known as the newspaper. There seems to be no subject The New York Times scribe won’t mine with pick-axe reporting, then shine into a smooth and sparkling diamond. His resume includes a Pulitzer Prize, two Pulitzer finalists and a list of other top journalism awards as coveted as any baseball trading card.

The frequency of his appearances in Storyboard doesn’t make those stats, but reflect his reach and consistency. Not all of his featured work pops up in a quick search; SEO smarts have changed over the last 12 years. But a quick sampling shows his range of story subjects: Ireland’s shameful treatment of unwed mothers, the suspicious death of a sex worker from China, children huddled in migrant detention camps at the U.S.-Mexico border, a reflection on the first 100,000 COVID deaths in the U.S., springing his father-in-law from a senior apartment complex. The guy can even make mud worth reading about.

Mud. That’s what Barry wrote about most recently (July 26, 2022) in an elegiac piece that combined a who-knew storyline, the romance of baseball, stats and more stats and, yes, mud. Or, as Barry writes in his lede:

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

For those not steeped in the lore, what “dreams are made of” is a baseball reference. Fun if you know the inside writing pitch; a lovely bit of foreshadow even if you don’t.

From there, after describing this particular mud as “the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding,” Barry takes us through a pitch-perfect story.

We meet Jim Bintliff, who inherited a secret spot on a New Jersey riverbank from his father and grandfather before that. It holds the magical mud that is shoveled and schlepped and seasoned and shipped to every Major League Baseball team in America, where it is rubbed into every baseball pitched, hit and caught in every game. Who knew? Yes, a couple of my sports-fan friends said that they, of course, knew that baseballs are “mudded” to rough up the slick surface for better handling. But even they didn’t know the whole storys.

We learn history: Who Lena Blackburne was and why the “rubbing mud” was named for him.

We get stats and more stats: the number of baseballs used by each team in each game of a major league season (144 to 180); the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate (60 feet, 6 inches); how far it is for Bintliff to get to the mud treasury (70-mile drive and 50-yard trek); how the mud is hauled to Bintliff’s studio (a Chevy Silverado pickup); what sized barrel it’s stewed in (45 gallon); how long it ages (four weeks, “like a fine wine”) and what Bintliff is paid for it (a lot that, with additional math, isn’t very much).

We are welcomed into the secret, suspicious, superstitious world of baseball. We are clued into insider language, like “pre-tack baseballs,” “pearls” (pristine balls right out of the box), the no-two-alike “snowflake” quality of baseballs, the dead-ball era of the game and, of course, “mudding” the balls. For the latter, there are rules, as there are in all things baseball. To impose some element of uniformity, aka fairness, the Major League has a raft of regulations for the “Storage and Handling of Baseballs:”

“All baseballs projected to be used in a specific game must be mudded within 3 hours of all other baseballs being used in that game, and must be mudded on the same day that they are going to be used … Baseballs should not be out of the humidor for more than two hours at any point prior to first pitch … Rubbing mud should be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds ensuring that mud is rubbed thoroughly and consistently into the entire leather surface of the ball … ”

“Mudding Application Standards” are posted in every team clubhouse to regular the color of a “mudded ball.” Or, as Barry simply and more elogquently writes:

The instructions for how to mud a baseball are Talmudic.

Along the way, Barry manages to weave in a bit of whimsy: Bintliff, now 65, watches his artisanship toward toward a likely end as the league works to find more equal and modern (chemically-balanced) ways rough a ball for readiness. Even this game, it seems, isn’t sacred.

Baseball may not be your game. But if writing is, Barry has hit another home run.

Further Reading