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It is the sole supplier of baseball mud. It’s a job you can lose soon.

LONGPORT, NJ — A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a crowded garage along the Jersey shore, waist-deep in what appears to be the world’s most unappetizing chocolate pudding. It is nothing more than a gelatinous, sticky, viscous and disgusting slime.

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

This particular mud, hauled in buckets by one man from a secret location along a New Jersey riverbank, is unique in its ability to cut through the slippery gloss of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for the launcher who hurls her at life-threatening speed toward another human standing just 60 feet six inches away.

Tubs of the stuff are found in 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 postseason. Muddying a “pearl,” a pristine ball fresh from the box, has been a baseball custom for most of the last century, ever since an official named Lena Blackburne introduced mud as an alternative to tobacco spit and dirt. of the field, which tended to turn the ball into an overripe plum.

Consider what this means: that Major League Baseball, a multibillion-dollar company that applies science and analytics to nearly every aspect of the game, is ultimately reliant on geographically specific garbage collected by a retiree with a gray ponytail, faded tattoos on the arm and a flat-tipped shovel.

“In the last six weeks, I’ve gone to the Diamondbacks, the Rangers and the Blue Jays,” mud man Jim Bintliff said recently as he stood protectively beside his barrel of goop stashed in the garage.

But MLB executives aren’t exactly teary-eyed over the whimsical tradition of what’s called the 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 more equitable, they have 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-attacked baseballs” continue to be tested in the minor leagues. But reviews have been mixed.

“If you change a property of a baseball, you sacrifice something,” Caplin said. “The sound from the beginning was different. The ball felt softer. The bar to change a ball is very high”.

Still, he said, “it’s an ongoing project.”

Bintliff knows that the game is not over. He said baseball’s apparent efforts to displace him and his mud used to disrupt his sleep. Now, he said he, he has become more philosophical.

“If they stopped ordering, I’d be more upset about the end of the tradition, not my bottom line,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white Chuck Taylor high-tops. “If they don’t want the mud, they don’t have to buy it.”

The tradition began with Russell Blackburne, also known as Lena, an energetic and weak infielder who hit the major leagues in the 1910s before establishing himself as a major league coach and manager. A playboy, seen in black and white photos alongside the likes of Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.

While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he heard an umpire complain about the difficulty in preparing 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 took the shine out of the ball while keeping it mostly 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 have been more suitable than Mississippi.

Before Blackburne died at the age of 81 in 1968, he bequeathed the secret place to an old friend who had joined him in collecting mud: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to Bintliff’s mother and 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 mud remained a constant in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a rail-thin kid 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 modified the business model. For example, he used to collect mud once or twice a year. But expanding its market to school and professional soccer teams, including more than a few in the National Football League, has required monthly returns to the riverbank.

However, the fundamental work remains the same, and the time depends on the tide.

Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado approximately 70 miles to the secret location and walk 50 yards through the woods. Along with his shovel and buckets, he will have a machete for any weeds and some lies for any inquisitor. The mud works miracles in his garden, I could say.

Then back to his home on the Jersey shore. The journey takes longer than the harvest.

Over the next four weeks, Bintliff will strain the mud into the rubber barrel, clean the river water that rises to the surface, use copious amounts of tap water to remove the odor, apply a “proprietary treatment” he refuses to describe, and let let everything settle. .

“It ages like a fine wine,” he said.

When the clay has reached its optimum vintage, it fills the pending 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 he heads to the post office to send in more mud-filled plastic containers.

Bintliff said his profit is modest. For example, she said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to have 10 pounds of Lena Blackburne mud shipped to each of the 30 Major League teams. If a team needs more during a season, deal with them directly.

He said he is less motivated by money than by the wonder of it all. Imagine: this mud, which contains a very particular mineral composition, is used to bless all major league baseball. And if the wonder escapes Major League Baseball, then Bintliff said, “So be it.”

The question of where Lena Blackburne’s mud fits into today’s game comes as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spearheads the push for consistency. But in a sport of myriad variables, this quest can sometimes seem quixotic.

Baseballs are like snowflakes to begin with; Although each one is handmade and joined with 108 red stitches, no two are identical. In addition, they behave differently depending on the local environment, a challenge MLB has sought to address by requiring each ballpark to store baseballs in a humidor set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57 percent relative humidity (the humidor for the Colorado Rockies ballpark is set to 65 percent relative humidity to adjust for the high altitude).

Humidors are a reflection of the true preciousness of a simple baseball. Less than three inches in diameter and weighing about five ounces, it’s the sun the game revolves around, albeit a sun that rises, bounces, curves, and dodges.

To ensure replenishment of the baseball supply, MLB has become part owner of Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls at a factory in Costa Rica. Presumably, the move also gives MLB some say in the finished product.

And to protect the honor of baseball, MLB has taken several steps, including eliminating ball tampering with Gorilla Glue-like substances that allow a pitcher to increase spin rate and achieve near-Wiffle ball motion.

Still, there remains the messy business of mud.

According to Caplin, the MLB spokesman, the game’s main office began receiving complaints that some game balls did not have the desired grip and were “chalky to the touch,” perhaps from sitting in the bottom of bags too long. balls. MLB launched an investigation that included asking each of the 30 teams to submit videos of clubhouse employees “muddying” balls for use on game day.

“What you found was 30 different ways to apply the mud,” Caplin said. “Some guys just used a towel, while some guys really rubbed it in and got it embedded in the leather.”

MLB executives responded by sending a memo last month to each team with updated regulations for “Storage and Handling of Baseballs.” The instructions on how to muddy a baseball are talmudic.

“All baseballs intended to be used in a specific game must be mudned within 3 hours after all other baseballs are used in that game, and must be mudned the same day they are to be used. Baseballs should not be out of the humidor for more than two hours at any time before the first pitch… Rubbing mud should be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds, making sure the mud rubs off completely and consistently over the entire leather surface of the ball…”

The memorandum instructed team employees to refer to the “Mud Application Standards” poster, which is posted in all locker rooms, to ensure that the color of a muddy ball is neither too dark nor too light, but rather the color of a muddy ball. Right.

Three major 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 delicate task of putting mud on a baseball. baseball. Thankfully, MLB also sent all teams a 50-second instructional video that demonstrates the almost adoring care that goes into properly mudlining a pearl.

A splash of water is poured into the Lena Blackburne clay jar. An unknown player’s hands dip three fingers into the mud and then select a virgin 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 dropping the now-whitish ball back into the box.

The simple act is surprisingly solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime depended on the communion between a ball made in Costa Rica and mud shoveled from a Jersey River.

But Jim Bintliff, the mud collector, knows better than anyone that the tides change forever. 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 with every pitch thrown.

The other day, Bintliff dumped his flat-nosed shovel in his truck and headed back to the secret spot. He came back with 20 buckets of beautiful dirty lore.

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