Joy in Mudville
August 19, 2019 4:51 AM   Subscribe

Mud is not a lucrative business. This might seem simultaneously self-evident and strange: It’s mud, but it’s an essential piece of a multibillion-dollar business, a feature without which an official baseball game cannot be played. Mud Maker: The Man Behind MLB’s Essential Secret Sauce
posted by chavenet (31 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
The quote said that it wasn't a lucrative business but when I got to the part where they say how much he makes in a year I stilll immediately thought "that's it?" But at the end of the day I guess it is just a couple of jars of mud for each team every year so how much could he earn from it?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:27 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the total cost involved is surprisingly small for what is apparently an essential, unreplacable (so far) input for a multibillion dollar sport.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on August 19 [6 favorites]


Am I the only one thinking it's kinda weird to so casually play off "multi-billion dollar business requires resource from public lands, pays one family a pittance to go steal it for them yearly"? Like, OK, it's probably not that much mud, and it's probably not something that MLB would pay a huge amount for (though they seem willing to spend a lot of R&D money to try to get away from needing it), but this guy's family business involves having to lie about what he's doing less because someone might find his mud source and compete with him, but because his mud source isn't his to take and sell.
posted by tocts at 6:08 AM on August 19 [14 favorites]


"multi-billion dollar business requires resource from public lands

Is it made clear that it is public lands that this is coming from? I had assumed (possibly incorrectly) that he is digging on the shores of private lands, which helps explain the need for secrecy. (States vary in how they regulate what you are and are not allowed to do within the highwater mark, as well; possibly another reason to stay below the radar screen.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:17 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


But at the end of the day I guess it is just a couple of jars of mud for each team every year so how much could he earn from it?

I have to think the minor-league teams use mudded balls, too, though. How else would pitchers learn to throw mudded balls? It seems like this is something left out of the story, for some reason. If you add in the minors, the income produced goes up substantially. Heck, I wonder if college teams don't use it, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:19 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


but this guy's family business involves having to lie about what he's doing less because someone might find his mud source and compete with him, but because his mud source isn't his to take and sell.

Yea it seems pretty clear he doesn't own the land he's getting the mud from.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:51 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


I don't know anything about baseball, but early in my career I worked for a company that developed 'specialty chemical' formulations -- cleansers, etc.

There is an ASTM-standard 'mud' formula that is used to test the effectiveness of cleansers, and one day we ran out of our stash and I was tasked to make more, following the instructions in the standard. The new batch didn't perform correctly, so I had to make it again. And again. And again.

Eventually we determined that the 'standard formula' didn't include the fact that the 'mud' needed to age for a while before using.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:51 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


Is it made clear that it is public lands that this is coming from?

Well, two of the three lies he gives out for why he's digging up mud are literally "I'm with a government agency that would have a reason/right to do this", and the article says the people he has to lie to are boaters, swimmers, and fishermen. It's possible that this is a privately held tract of the river bank, but it feels more likely that it's public. It seems 100% likely in either case that he doesn't own the land nor have rights to be digging up the mud.
posted by tocts at 6:53 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


So MLB wants to put an honest working guy out of business, as well as annoy a whole bunch of pitchers, all for $12,000 per year? When they make billions? Jesus.
posted by Melismata at 8:04 AM on August 19 [5 favorites]


But, modest as it is, Bintliff’s business is facing an existential threat. In 2016, MLB approached Rawlings about developing a baseball with a naturally improved grip, right out of the wrapper. It made sense: From MLB’s perspective, there are several reasons to abandon mud. It would no longer have to be so dependent on Mother Nature, no longer have to rely on a single secret spot, and, perhaps most crucially, would no longer have equipment managers rubbing dozens of baseballs in idiosyncratic ways.

Oh good grief, the only sensible reason for MLB to abandon mud is the eventuality that this guy will not live forever, and no-one else will have the combination of 1) expertise and 2) willingness to use that expertise to harvest, process, and package mud for below-minimum wage rates.

Pay this guy more, FFS.
posted by desuetude at 8:12 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


So MLB wants to put an honest working guy out of business, as well as annoy a whole bunch of pitchers, all for $12,000 per year? When they make billions?

MLB wants to remove the human element from the game as much as possible. Laser defined balls and strikes, etc. If that means removing the heart and soul of baseball, so be it.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:16 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


It doesn't look worth worrying about too much at the scale they run it. Unless they're causing significant erosion or otherwise messing up the environment? If the mud is very site-specific, could they be just one flood away from losing it?

If it's a problem, MLB could pay the Bintliffs what it's worth up front and then work out a proper deal with the nation to help preserve the continuity of the national pastime. They wouldn't want all the sacred baseball stats to split between before and after mud.
posted by pracowity at 8:56 AM on August 19 [4 favorites]


If it's a problem, MLB could pay the Bintliffs what it's worth up front and then work out a proper deal with the nation to help preserve the continuity of the national pastime. They wouldn't want all the sacred baseball stats to split between before and after mud.

According to reports, they've already made the seams flush with the leather and messed with the core. I think that ship has sailed.
posted by Fukiyama at 10:34 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


MLB wants to remove the human element from the game as much as possible. Laser defined balls and strikes, etc. If that means removing the heart and soul of baseball, so be it.

You have it backward. The MLB is dragging its feet on robot-umps. The fans are calling for them, and by "calling", I mean they are pretty close to driving up to Avenue of the Americas en masse and burning the MLB HQ down.

The way things are going, it wouldn't surprise me if the Yanks have to forfeit a game this season because too many players/coaches got thrown out of a game to field a team for arguing balls/strikes.
posted by sideshow at 10:37 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


I think it's awesome that at the very heart of baseball, the so-called "national pastime", is a retired press operator in Jersey furtively digging mud from a riverbank, and packaging it in little jars.

I imagine there are similarly absurd underpinnings to many serious, expensive things/businesses/systems people hold dear -
posted by niicholas at 10:37 AM on August 19 [5 favorites]


According to reports, they've already made the seams flush with the leather and messed with the core. I think that ship has sailed.

Well, they've been making the balls too close to the ideal spec. These "too good" balls are getting launched out of the stadium.

But yeah, if you've been following baseball for the last three seasons, you've heard people talk about a stats "split" before/after the "juiced" balls ad nauseam.
posted by sideshow at 10:41 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


but because his mud source isn't his to take and sell.

Yeah I don't think the article gave us nearly enough information to make this determination. Even if it was the case, though, it sounds as though this guy takes maybe a few dozen gallons of mud (probably much less once you siphon off the water like he does) each year from this location, and he or his forefathers have been doing that for the last 80 years.

The bigger issue here is that he's doing it for less than the hot dog vendors are making every year. He should stop shipping the mud next February to bring the MLB to the table to negotiate a fair market rate for his work / product. He's kind of doing his kids a disservice not to. FFS, the lowest paid pitchers in the league make over half a mil.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:56 AM on August 19 [6 favorites]


But yeah, if you've been following baseball for the last three seasons,

The last three seasons? People have been complaining off and on that the "ball is livelier this year" since the live-ball era began in the 1920s.
posted by Melismata at 11:02 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I wouldn't try to roll the push for robot umps calling balls and strikes into this argument. That's not a case of trying to quash the humanity out of baseball. It's about trying to get rid of silly bullshit like this.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:10 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


The last three seasons? People have been complaining off and on that the "ball is livelier this year" since the live-ball era began in the 1920s.

The Twins on track to hit 313 home runs this year, which obliterates the current record of 267 set by the Yankees..last year. #30 of the all time team HR list (1999 Pittsburgh Pirates with 171) would only 20th best in the 2019 season, and there is still just under a quarter of the session left to go. Even before this year, 8 of the 30 highest totals that have ever been hit happened in 2017 and 2018. By the end of 2019, it's going to be more like 20 of the top 30 have happened in these three seasons.
posted by sideshow at 11:34 AM on August 19 [4 favorites]


Part of the explanation for the increased number of home runs is that between the shift and sabermetrics' focus on the 3 true outcomes you see less focus on contact hitting and more focus on swinging for the fences. The rest can be explained by juiced balls.
posted by I paid money to offer this... insight? at 12:06 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


Setting all the stuff about legality and whether this guy's getting paid enough (or whether he should be paying someone else for the use of maybe-public land), I have to say that I didn't know they used a specific kind of mud to make baseballs grippy in a certain way, and everything about this story reminds me of why I love baseball. You have a guy who's been trained in the family business of collecting, filtering and packaging mud from a secret source, being paid a relatively small amount of money to be a tiny but crucial pillar holding up a massive national sport business, and discovering he's irreplaceable even when industrial means are brought to bear to replace his secret sauce.

My favourite part is how the heir to this weird business seems to be chosen solely by how much they love going on the mud trips as a kid. My second favourite part is how both the current heiress and Jim's spouse are really into this weird thing right alongside Jim himself. It's so wholesome, anachronistic and idiosyncratic I could cry.
posted by chrominance at 12:54 PM on August 19 [7 favorites]


I know that baseball is a weird and idiosyncratic sport (I love, for example, that there are no standard outfield dimensions and that results in some very different fields -- at least among the older, legacy fields), but the fact that part of the official equipment is a very particular type of mud from a secret location is just baffling. I know it's tradition, but the fact that the ball "as-is" isn't rules-compliant equipment until it's been coated with magic mud is wild and absurd and I don't know if I love it or hate it.
posted by asnider at 12:55 PM on August 19 [3 favorites]


The bigger issue here is that he's doing it for less than the hot dog vendors are making every year.

He runs a business based on a monopoly, so you would think he could charge what he likes. So maybe it's not a completely secure monopoly. I suspect he's charging what he thinks he can get away with for sneaking 1,000 pounds of mud from some stretch of riverbank every year and selling it by the tubful. Maybe he knows certain other people know (or could find out) where the mud is. It's somewhere around here, apparently. If you were an expert in mud (a mudologist, for example), you could buy a tub of the real stuff and then start looking around there for mud that matches.
posted by pracowity at 1:06 PM on August 19 [3 favorites]


It's so wholesome, anachronistic and idiosyncratic I could cry.

Which is another example why this guy is so grievously underpaid, because this story is public relations gold.
posted by JHarris at 1:36 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


I sort of felt that this article could bring him all sorts of trouble, as delightful as the story is.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:37 PM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I wouldn't try to roll the push for robot umps calling balls and strikes into this argument. That's not a case of trying to quash the humanity out of baseball. It's about trying to get rid of silly bullshit like this.

I mean, I have seen people arguing that the fallibility of umpires ought to be taken in stride as part of the game for years now. It just seems unlikely that this school of thought will win out at this point, because the way the deployment of tracking technology for analysis has outpaced its integration into the game has given fans a lot of opportunities to see the state of officiation as unfair.
posted by atoxyl at 2:02 PM on August 19 [2 favorites]


I think I'll save my anger for DuPont's exploitation of the Delaware River, rather than this mud guy.
posted by ryanrs at 2:47 PM on August 19 [5 favorites]


What do you bet there's some little living thing in that mud making it homogenous and just right?

Doesn't look like anybody sterilizes it at any point.
posted by jamjam at 3:13 PM on August 19 [3 favorites]


She wasn’t allowed, though—yet. They were legally wed, yes, but sharing the specifics of the family secret represented an entirely different kind of intimacy for Jim. This was new, and he wasn’t quite sure if he was ready to open up. But after five years of marriage, and the birth of two daughters, he took her out to see the mud at last. She’s been going ever since.

Ok, maybe this is just me being naive, but I don't think I would marry someone I couldn't trust with my mud? Or have two children with them? Who puts mud before marriage?
But even being cautious... Five years?
posted by Acid Communist at 7:22 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Ok, maybe this is just me being naive, but I don't think I would marry someone I couldn't trust with my mud?

You always start out thinking you can trust them with the family mud secret. A few years later, maybe you're slinging mud at each other and fighting for mud custody. Five years is nothing. The average marriage lasts about seven years.
posted by pracowity at 7:54 AM on August 20 [3 favorites]


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