“Bubba, you got a minute?”
The question caught Brian Harkins by surprise. It was March 3, 2020, and he was finishing a load of laundry at Angels spring training in Tempe, Ariz., the sort of tiresome, thankless task that defined his lifelong career of behind-the-scenes baseball work. He was entering his 31st season as the Angels’ visiting clubhouse manager and his 39th overall with the team. An affable Angel Stadium fixture known as Bubba and remembered among players for his spiked blond hair and his decades-long tradition of playing Dumb and Dumber in the clubhouse before day games, Harkins had never, he says, received a single complaint about his performance.
But now Billy Eppler, the team’s GM at the time, was escorting Harkins into a nearby room where Angels general counsel Alex Winsberg sat waiting.
Harkins says that Eppler handed him a copy of a league memo issued less than a week earlier declaring that team employees were “strictly prohibited from providing, applying, creating, concealing, or otherwise facilitating the use of foreign substances by players on the field.” Then Eppler informed Harkins that an MLB investigation had concluded he had violated these rules, and that he was fired.
“I said, ‘Billy, you’re firing me over something that’s all over your clubhouse right now,’ ” Harkins tells Sports Illustrated in his first interview since that day. “He didn’t say a word to me. He got up from the table, walked out and left the rest of the meeting with the Angels’ lawyer.”
Angels spokesperson Marie Garvey says that the team cannot comment on employment information or pending litigation, as Harkins has filed a defamation lawsuit against MLB and the team (which a judge dismissed, but Harkins is appealing). Through Garvey, Eppler says he “cannot comment on pending litigation.”
MLB spokesperson Glen Caplin says, “Due to an active appeal of the judge’s dismissal of this lawsuit, we cannot comment on the specifics of Mr. Harkins’ comments.”
Harkins remains stunned at his status as the first—and so far only—casualty of MLB’s recent war on pitch doctoring. He does not deny the allegations; he readily admits that he’d been supplying both Angels and opposing pitchers for more than a decade with his home-cooked mixture of liquid pine tar, solid pine tar (often called Mota stick) and rosin. He claims he’d done special orders for some of the biggest names in the game, including Nationals ace Max Scherzer and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, then with the Astros. Harkins shared with SI screenshots of text messages that support his claims, including an exchange with a contact who identified himself as Cole, the hurler who has been at the center of much of the recent controversy around pitch doctoring. Harkins also shared the underlying phone numbers for all text exchanges; SI used various public records databases to confirm that the numbers are associated—or were associated at the time they were sent—with the people Harkins claimed to be texting with.
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole,” came a message from Cole’s number in January 2019. “I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation,” the text continued, along with a winking emoji. “The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold, can you come up with, or do you have a mix that will play better in cold weather?”
“Hey Cole, the only thing I think I can do is put more tar in it and less [Mota] stick,” Harkins responded. “I’ll play around with it and see.”
The reply from Cole’s phone: “We tried mixing the liquid in it and it definitely helped but it was a sloppy mess. I feel like incorporating a different ratio from the beginning of the process would be more ideal.”
Two weeks later, Harkins mailed Cole a made-to-order canister with more pine tar and less Mota stick than usual. Then one more message was sent from the ace’s phone: “Thanks Bubba you tha man” with an O.K. hand sign emoji.
Scott Boras, who represents both Cole and Scherzer, declined to address whether his clients had used Harkins's sticky stuff. Instead, he says the focus should be on how teams encourage and sometimes require players to break the rules and use foreign substances. "This is what every great player or average player is taught by teams and coaches to advance and produce quality major league pitchers,” he says. “This is a custom-and-practice dynamic that the commissioner’s office and everybody in the league has been aware of for decades."
Harkins’s beef is simply that he’s been singled out. “If they did an investigation and only found me,” he says, “it’s a pretty bad investigation.”
Pitchers have been doctoring the ball for more than a century, but over the past two or three years, they’ve gotten very good at it, using increasingly tacky versions of what they call “sticky stuff.” What started out as a grip enhancement—sunscreen mixed with league-issued rosin—has become a performance-enhancing substance that can make pitches spin faster and move more. The proliferation of pitch-tracking technology allows them to experiment like scientists, applying a layer of goo, then immediately identifying how much nastier it makes their offerings. For years, MLB looked the other way while teams ignored and in some cases encouraged the cheating, hiring chemists and teaching players how to use the organization’s preferred concoction. Often these are industrial glues much more sophisticated than Harkins’s stuff. This season, the league started collecting baseballs for analysis but has not punished offenders (though it says a crackdown is coming). Meanwhile, pitchers have become even more brazen, digging into their gloves before every pitch. Offense has cratered. The sport is confronting a crisis.
And the only person who has faced more than fleeting discipline for his role in it has never thrown a pitch.
One spring training in the mid-1990s, Harkins says, star Angels closer Troy Percival asked him for a can of soda, then immediately poured the contents into the sink.
“What are you doing?” Harkins recalls asking.
“I’m gonna make some stuff for my fingers,” he says Percival replied.
Harkins recalls what happened next like this: Percival asked him for a utility knife, rosin, liquid pine tar and Mota stick. Percival showed him how to saw off the can’s lid and combine the ingredients, holding a lighter under the bottom to melt the contents before pouring it into a three-ounce tin to reharden. “It’s like taking ketchup and mayo and making Thousand Island,” Harkins says now. “Three simple ingredients that every clubhouse has.” (Percival declined an interview request.)
Harkins, an Anaheim resident since childhood who’d been a teenage batboy for the Angels before dropping out of community college in 1986 to join the team as an assistant clubhouse attendant, had spent almost as much time around sticky stuff as he had around baseball. “I unloaded, for 38 years, all the visiting players’ bags,” he says. “[There were] loaded gloves, loaded hats, other jars of stuff that people have made, and I’d just open them up and go, ‘Huh, that’s pretty good.’ For years, people other than me were helping players get a grip on the ball.”
At first, his involvement was limited to fetching soda cans in spring training. (One good batch of stuff could usually last the season.) In 2005, though, Percival left for the Tigers, and other Angels pitchers asked Harkins to take over. “That was the first time I was ever asked to make it,” Harkins says. A year or two later, with Percival gone, then Detroit ace Justin Verlander approached Harkins during a road trip: Harkins recalls, “He said, ‘Hey, we had Troy Percival on our team last year, and he shared the stuff that he was using and we started using it—and we called him and said, ‘We would like to get some; what do we need to do?’ He said, ‘Well, talk to Bubba.’ ” (Verlander did not respond to requests for comment.)
Word of Harkins’s acumen spread fast throughout the league. “Joba Chamberlain was on the Tigers; that’s how he became familiar with it,” Harkins recalls. “And then he went to Cleveland [where] Corey Kluber got a hold of it. Now, when Corey comes into town, he asks me. I’m like, ‘O.K.’ So never ever did I solicit anyone. Never. It was just, they would come and ask me. And of course, I'm gonna accommodate, being that that’s my job.” (Chamberlain, who retired in 2017, did not respond to requests for comment. Kluber’s agent, B.B. Abbott, says, “Bubba Hankins [sic] never personally gave anything of the sort to Corey Kluber nor has he ever used any substance prepared by Bubba Hankins [sic] in a MLB game. If he is saying anything contrary to that, it is a blatant lie.”)
Harkins mostly stuck to Percival’s recipe, but he never measured any of the ingredients. “It was just eyeball this, eyeball that,” Harkins says. “Like somebody that knows how to make great buttermilk biscuits but doesn’t have anything written down.” He did refine the process, though, buying a “little blowtorch” to replace the lighter. He swears he never demanded payment, but screenshots of text exchanges with players, which Harkins provided to SI, show that they often tipped $100 per tin. (Until teams took on the cost of providing food after the 2016 CBA, clubbies largely subsisted on tips; from a financial perspective, opposing players were as much Harkins’s employer as the Angels.)
Throughout the 2010s, Harkins estimates, he was supplying sticky stuff to between 15 and 20 pitchers each year, including some of the top arms in the game. As part of a lawsuit he would eventually file against the Angels and MLB, Harkins identified 21 pitchers on the Angels and other clubs who he alleged had “used the Sticky Stuff,” including all of the players named as using it in this article. To back his claims, Harkins has provided to SI additional corroboration—most of which was not included in his suit nor previously made public—in the form of text messages, Venmo transaction records and photos of tracking labels and shipping receipts showing the addresses of the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse (to the attention of a visiting team staffer) and the Nationals’ spring training park.
“Bubba, Max need 2 batches please,” said one text, which came from a Nationals staffer’s number, in February 2017. (Scherzer was the only Max on the roster; returning to his argument that pitch doctoring is a systemic, not individual issue, Boras, who represents Scherzer, points out, “That isn’t a Max [text]. That’s a Nationals [text].”) Harkins later sent to the staffer’s phone a photo of a UPS label listing the Nationals’ spring training complex as the delivery address, complete with a tracking number. A follow-up was sent from the staffer's phone in July: “Edwin Jackson would like an order of the stuff please.” A year later, in February ’18, came another request: “Bubba, Max needs the stuff ASAP. He will pay for overnight shipping please.” In February ’19, Harkins texted that he was “making Max stuff”; the response from the staffer’s phone included the address of Washington’s spring training ballpark. In February ’20 the pattern repeated, with a text sent from the staffer’s phone: “It’s that time. Can I get 2 please?” Harkins replied with another UPS label, and soon afterward a Venmo account labeled with the name of the Nationals staffer sent Harkins $200 “for stuff,” according to transactional records Harkins provided to SI. (Neither the Nationals nor Jackson responded to a request for comment.)
“Bubba it’s Chatwood,” said a text from a phone number associated with Tyler Chatwood, then with the Cubs, in May 2018. “You think we can get some of your stuff sent over for us?” Then a follow-up: “Is that the stuff verlander is using.” Harkins said it was, and later sent a photo of a UPS receipt with tracking info. (Through a Blue Jays spokesperson, Chatwood declined to comment.)
“Bubba! This is adam wainwright. Can I give you a call?” said a text from a phone number associated with the Cardinals righty in April 2019. Five days later, a new message pinged from Wainwright’s phone: “Got it,” it said. “Thanks. Very thick stuff!” More texts came from Wainwright’s phone that June: “Hey Bubba, couple guys asking about some secret stuff. Anyway you can send a couple batches with the angels when they come?” The team was already on the road, Harkins replied, but he would mail some. Later a Venmo account labeled with the name Adam Wainwright sent Harkins $300, writing that the money was for “Kale salad and beans.” The Venmo transaction occurred the same day that a text was sent from Wainwright’s number to Harkins saying that he paid him. (Wainwright did not respond to requests for comment made through the Cardinals.)
“Bubba, it’s Bails!” said a text from Andrew Bailey, then the Giants’ pitching coach, in February 2020. “A few guys were asking about the jars you make...was wondering if you had any in stock?” Harkins later texted that he had sent him two cans via UPS; Bailey said he would pay in cash the next time they saw one another.
Through a San Francisco spokesperson, Bailey says, “I placed that order and had that exchange with Bubba Harkins in February of 2020. Shortly after, we had our meeting with MLB on 2/22 where they made clear their position on foreign substances. I didn’t distribute the cans to our pitchers and have not distributed anything since that MLB would deem to be a foreign substance.” Bailey also sent a photo to SI of what he says are the two tins with their lids off, showing them to be unused.
Looking back, Harkins wonders how his reputation—and income—would have been affected if he had refused any of these requests. He points out that, until the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, visiting clubbies were responsible for providing and paying for three meals a day for players, plus scores of toiletries, candy, sodas and other locker room amenities. “[If] I said no to Verlander, he’d go [to his teammates] and go, ‘Hey, guys, Bubba said no; he’s not making it for us,’ ” Harkins says. “And I’m pretty sure some of them would be like, ‘Well, I’ll show you how displeased we are’ when they write me a check to cover my expenses.”
Didn’t Harkins worry about helping the opposing team? As a visiting clubhouse manager, he says, he felt his job was to accommodate players. The Angels were on the road half the time, and he wanted to treat opponents well so the staff at other ballparks would treat them well. It was technically cheating, but sticky stuff was as common in the game as athletic tape. If a pitcher preferred his recipe to someone else’s, so be it. “I made it knowing that it was not frowned upon by MLB,” Harkins says. “Sure, it’s in their rulebook, but they don’t even enforce their own rulebook.”
Besides, Harkins insists his sticky stuff only enhanced grip on the naturally slick baseball, not movement. Pitchers offer varying assessments.
“It doesn’t make anything that I do exceptional,” says one NL reliever who used Harkins’s stuff. “I’ve thrown on the TrackMan with it and without it, and my spin rate does drop, [but only] less than 100 [rpm] if I don’t have it on.”
Another NL reliever, who says he does not use anything, scoffs at this argument. “It makes you a better pitcher,” he says. “Half the game is about being able to control the ball. Everyone still talks about Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine because of their incredible command.”
Boras agrees: “It’s control-enhancing, so it’s performance-enhancing,” he says. “The minute you increase the pitcher’s control through grip [it helps]—like, why did they allow rosin? Is rosin performance-enhancing? You better believe it is!”
In any event, many pitchers soon graduated beyond Harkins’s mix. These days, clubbies unloading players’ bags uncover hats and gloves slathered in Spider Tack, a glue originally intended to help World’s Strongest Man competitors lift Atlas Stones. No one at MLB seemed worried about Harkins’s stuff or anything similar to it; why not try something a little stickier?
Two weeks after his firing, in late March 2020, Harkins joined a conference call from the office of his lawyer, Daniel Rasmussen. MLB had requested a meeting. For the next two hours, as attorneys for the Angels and MLB listened, Harkins says he spelled out his sticky stuff history, describing how Percival taught him the recipe and naming many of the pitchers who came to use it. At one point, Harkins says, MLB officials read out loud portions of the league’s rulebook that dealt with doctoring baseballs. “They’re like, ‘Were you familiar with that?’ ” Harkins recalls. “I go, I heard something about that, but no one ever gave me a rulebook or asked me to [read] a memo. Then, I said, ‘You guys aren’t doing a thing about [pitchers’ using] pine tar on the field.’ ”
Indeed, although one recently retired pitcher believes that “80 to 90%” of the league uses sticky stuff, discipline is rare. In 2014 the Yankees’ Michael Pineda was banned 10 games for having a shiny splotch of pine tar on his neck. The following season, the Brewers’ Will Smith and the Orioles’ Brian Matsuz were each ejected and suspended eight games. No one has been suspended since.
MLB defends its deliberate approach to regulating foreign substances. Caplin, the league spokesperson says that, before this season, the league sent a memo to teams outlining plans to increase monitoring of pitch doctoring by collecting game-used balls and analyzing spin rates and other metrics. “Based on those findings, and other information we have received, we have been engaged in an ongoing process towards increased enforcement to ensure fair competition on the field,” Caplin says.
Meanwhile, Harkins’s firing quickly became national news. “I thought I was just being let go, and just came home, to deal with the fact that I’m unemployed,” Harkins says. “Not picked apart. … I wasn’t ready for that.” But he also says he received scores of supportive messages. “I had some people say, ‘If you’re fired, there’s a lot of people in the game who should be fired,’ ” he says. And while Harkins says only a handful of players have reached out—including Verlander, though Harkins felt it was mostly “to clear his chest that he wasn’t the person that named me” in MLB’s investigation—several others who spoke to SI for this story felt that Harkins had taken an unfair fall.
“It doesn’t sit well with me that Bubba was the only guy who was treated like that,” says reliever Jerry Blevins, who pitched for four teams over 13 years before retiring in April.
“It blew my mind when MLB came after him,” says Kevin Jepsen, an Angels reliever from 2008–14 who says he sometimes used liquid pine tar, but not Harkins’s stuff, throughout his career.
“It just feels like [MLB was] looking for a scapegoat,” says Brad Ziegler, who pitched for four teams over 11 years before retiring in 2018.
And so, in late August 2020, Harkins sued the Angels and MLB for defamation in the Superior Court of California, Orange County. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in January. “Essentially what is claimed to be unfair is that Mr. Harkins was punished for it when others were not and that he should not have been fired for it. That may be a basis for an employment action, but not for defamation,” the judge wrote. Harkins has appealed. In April, the Angels and MLB filed a motion asking the trial court to compel Harkins to pay their attorneys’ fees, nearly $160,000—more than twice Harkins’s base salary of $75,000 in his final season with the team. The judge awarded them $35,000.
Four months after the meeting that changed his life, the sports world emerged from quarantine, the 2020 MLB season finally began and Harkins turned on his TV to watch the Opening Day matchup of the Nationals’ Scherzer and Cole, by then with the Yankees. Harkins wondered whether he would see umpire Ángel Hernández stride out to the mound in the top of the first, inspect Scherzer’s glove or hat, find a dollop of sticky stuff—Harkins’s sticky stuff—and eject the All-Star on the spot. “You [would] have seen both bullpens pick up the phone and call the clubhouse and say, ‘We need 12 brand-new hats out [here], quick,’ ” Harkins says. “But it didn’t happen.” (There is no proof that either Cole or Scherzer were using Harkins’s stuff that day.)
Of course, there was no crackdown. Harkins turned off the TV. “It just sickened me to watch the players … grabbing their wrists and thumbing their gloves and hats,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, one guy got fired over it, and it was me. And they’re going to supposedly clean up the mound, which they haven’t.’ ”
That seems to be changing. In late May, umpire Joe West confiscated Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos’s hat, which appeared to have a dark spot on the brim. A few days later, umpires ejected and suspended four minor league pitchers for using foreign substances. The week after that, MLB officials gave a presentation at the owners’ meetings detailing the extent of the problem and agreed to proceed from analysis to enforcement. A person familiar with the league’s plans says that MLB will “imminently” begin empowering umpires to enforce the rules and the league will hand out suspensions to offenders.
Meanwhile, Harkins remains unemployed. He has sent his résumé to 25 MLB clubs; three told him they would keep it on file. He is beginning to doubt he will ever work in baseball again and is considering trying to break into the hotel industry. He watches baseball with his wife, Paula, and their rescue cat, Angel, from their home less than two miles from Angel Stadium, where he says the Angels refused to let him pick up the contents of his old office.
As baseball reckons with its own path forward, Harkins proposes two ideas. The league could legalize sunscreen and rosin, he says, but ban everything else. Alternatively, the league could brew another agreed-upon substance that pitchers could use at will. He suggests his own.