Detroit Tigers: The Brian Moehler Sandpaper Story

Brian Moehler, Pitcher for the Detroit Tigers on the mound during the Major League Baseball American League East game against the New York Yankees on 10 April 1999 at Yankee Stadium, New York, New York, United States. The Yankees won the game 5 - 0. (Photo by Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images)
Brian Moehler, Pitcher for the Detroit Tigers on the mound during the Major League Baseball American League East game against the New York Yankees on 10 April 1999 at Yankee Stadium, New York, New York, United States. The Yankees won the game 5 - 0. (Photo by Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images) /

With all the recent news of some former Detroit Tigers pitchers allegedly using a foreign substance on the ball, we flashback to May of 1999 to revisit the Brian Moehler incident.

Tony Paul of the Detroit News recently reported the story of Justin Verlander and a few other Tigers pitchers accused of using a “sticky substance” for a better grip. This is coming from Brian Harkings, the former Angels employee who was fired last March shortly after Major League Baseball sent out a notice to teams that pitchers who were doctoring baseballs was illegal.

While it seems strange that since the days I started paying attention to baseball, I can remember stories like Mike Scott scuffing balls in 1986, the late Joe Niekro getting ejected from a game in 1987, or Gaylord Perry’s famous “spitball”,  there was always “something” on the ball.

But when I read the story Paul wrote, it triggered a memory from 1999 involving the Detroit Tigers and right-handed pitcher Brian Moehler.

May 1, 1999

The Tigers were playing on the road against Tampa. Brian Moehler took the hill and was pitching into the seventh inning. The Tigers were tied with then known Devil Rays at 3.  After getting the first out, Moehler allowed back to back singles to Paul Sorrento and Mike Difelice. That got Tigers manager Larry Parrish to make the call to get lefty Sean Runyan ready in the bullpen as Kevin Stocker came to the plate.

As Moehler got ready, he was ejected by umpire Larry Barnett. The reason? Barnett said there was a piece of sandpaper smaller than a dime on his left thumb.  As Tom Gage of the Detroit News reported, Moehler said it was dirt and didn’t argue the ejection. But Barnett saw it differently.

“I looked at his glove and then I said ‘give me your thumb’.” said Barnett. What did Moehler say to him after that?

“Nothing”. Barnett said. “He was like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. He knew he was caught. I just said “son, you’re gone”.  (The quotes were pulled from the Detroit News from May 2, 1999)

It was Tampa manager Larry Rothschild brought to the attention of Barnett, which made then Tigers manager Larry Parrish upset. (By the way, as a pitcher, Rothschild made his major league debut for the Tigers on September 11, 1981)

“To me, it’s something that goes on”. Parrish said. “All the years I’ve been in the majors, that’s been a part of baseball. There’s not a pitching staff that doesn’t have a guy who defaces the ball, including guys like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan. Guys who throw like that.

Parrish finished the quote with this stinger to the Rays.

“Their starting pitcher did it tonight”. Parrish said. “Bobby Witt is throwing a pretty good cutter he didn’t use to have.”

One player who noticed who is never short for words was Jose Canseco. 

“Oh, he’s a carpenter now,” Canseco said about Moehler. “I might just have to go and cork my bat. I noticed it look like he was grinding his thumb into the ball. His pitches were moving a whole lot, I know that”. 

Moehler stuck to his story that was dirt and he never wavered from it.

May 3, 1999

On Monday, May 3rd, Moehler received a 10-day suspension. He didn’t fight the suspension, he just wanted to move on from the incident and maintain that Barnett saw nothing but dirt. Moehler did not get a late-night appearance on TV unlike Joe Niekro, who also received a 10-game suspension.

What makes this whole story stranger was after his suspension, in four out of his first five starts starting with his first one back on May 13, he gave up three runs or less. (32 IP, 27H 16R 22K 9BB ERA of 4.22) After a rough few starts in June, Moehler threw a complete-game shutout against the Twins on June 25.  Nothing drastic changed in his numbers.  It was a season that he would like to forget, compared to his 1998 season, which was much better.  (14-13, an ERA of 3.90)

From sandpaper to sticky stuff

My whole takeaway from the story was I just found it odd that MLB, who has witnessed this type of behavior for years, as I would agree with Brandon Day of Bless You Boys,  the league is shooting itself in the foot.  They have been exploring ways to make the ball easier to grip. So why is the league suddenly cracking down on a known element?

Do they need the good PR victory post the Astros cheating scandal or you rather not have pitchers, say like Trevor Bauer come out again and explain how he and 10 other pitchers tested a meltdown of Firm Grip, Coca-Cola with pine tar to improve grip.

The results? There was an increase of up to 300-400 RPM at around 70 MPH according to Bauer. He is looking to make a lot of money. With ownerships discussing financial losses, it is rather strange that the enforcement started just two years when grips were discussed more out in the open.

Unlike pitchers in the past, the modern pitcher is just being more transparent. They want to ensure that the ball they are throwing at 100 MPH is going where it is supposed to go. MLB looked the other way during the steroid era of the late ’90s and early 2000s when ERA’s exploded.

This brings me to the irony of this whole story of Brian Moehler and that day in Tampa. Jose Canseco called him out. Yes, he helped clean up the problem that ran through baseball. But at the time, to call out Moehler was rather ridiculous.