AUDIE CORNISH, host: When the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers face each other tonight in Arlington, Texas, southern New Jersey will be represented. That's where a special ingredient comes from, one that's been part of every fast ball curve and change-up in Major League Baseball for more than 50 years. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Carolyn Beeler explains.
CAROLYN BEELER: Behind every pitch in professional ball is a guy like Dan O'Rourke, rubbing up baseballs in the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse.
DAN O'ROURKE: I'm just, I'm applying mud to the baseball to take the sheen, the shininess off the ball so the pitchers have something to hold onto.
BEELER: He plucks a ball from a stack of boxes between his knees, prepares his hands, then gives the ball a few quick turns against his palm.
O'ROURKE: Mud and water - I put my hands in mud and then I dab it in water and I do roughly three to four balls at a time.
BEELER: Since the 1950s, all the mud used in every Major League clubhouse has come from the same secret spot in Southern New Jersey.
JIM BINTLIFF: I'm Jim Bintliff. I guess you'd call me a mud farmer. I'm the president of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud Company.
BEELER: That's right, baseball rubbing mud.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
BEELER: Bintliff is standing in shallow water on a muddy bank of a tributary of the Delaware River. He's shoveling the top inch or so of mud off the surface, where it's the smoothest.
BINTLIFF: It's the texture, it's like a cold cream. If it's too gritty it can damage the leather on the ball.
BEELER: Legend has it that players started rubbing up baseballs after an errant pitch killed a batter back in the twenties. They tried tobacco juice and infield dirt to rough up the new leather. Turns out, what worked best was mud drawn from the favorite fishing spot of a friend of Bintliff's grandfather. It's now the standard in professional ball.
MIKE KOPLOVE: There are times that an umpire will throw me a ball and I'll just throw it right back to him and say can I have a different one, 'cause it's either not rubbed up enough or too much.
BEELER: Mike Koplove played for the Arizona Diamondbacks and other teams. He says a brand-new ball feels almost like a cue ball. One that's rubbed up has a bit of texture, which is especially important for curveballs and sliders.
KOPLOVE: You have to use your fingers to impart a really tight topspin or a sidespin on the ball, and if your fingers just kind of slide right off, the ball's not going to curve as sharp or as hard.
BEELER: James Bintliff says harvesting, filtering and packaging the famous mud is hard work, but it's worth it.
BINTLIFF: It doesn't take long to think this mud is on baseballs that are in the hall of fame. It's kind of a neat connection.
BEELER: It's a connection most fans won't even notice in tonight's game, as slightly dirty baseballs fly off the pitcher's mound. But Bintliff, he'll know his mud was there. For NPR News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME")
CORNISH: This is NPR News.
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