He is the sole supplier of baseball mud. This is a job that he may soon lose.

LONGPORT, New Jersey. A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a cluttered garage on the Jersey Shore and is filled to the waist with what looks like the least appetizing chocolate pudding in the world. It is nothing more than an unpleasant, sticky, viscous, jelly-like mud.

Ah, what a mess. The dirt that dreams are made of.

This particular dirt, hauled in buckets by one man from a secret riverside location in New Jersey, is unique in its ability to wear off the slippery luster of a new baseball and provide a firm grip to a pitcher hurling it at life-threatening speed at another person standing only 60 feet away and six inches from him.

Jars of this substance can be found in every major league stadium. It is rubbed into each of the 144-180 balls used in each of the 2,430 major league games played in a season, as well as games played in the playoffs. Soaking the “pearl” – a pristine ball straight out of the box – has been a baseball custom for most of the last century, ever since an apprentice named Lena Blackburn introduced mud as an alternative to tobacco spit and homemade dirt, which tend to turn the ball overripe. plum.

Consider what that means: This Major League Baseball — a multibillion-dollar enterprise that applies science and analytics to nearly every aspect of the game — is ultimately dependent on some geographically specific nastiness put together by a retiree with a gray ponytail, blurry tattoos on his arm, and a shovel with flat blade.

“For the past six weeks, I’ve been going to the Diamondbacks, the Rangers, and the Blue Jays,” dirty man Jim Bintliff recently said as he lingered thoughtfully beside his slurry barrel in the garage.

But MLB executives aren’t exactly clouded-eyed by a quirky tradition of what’s called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they say is too often applied inconsistently. In their quest to make the balls more stable – and the game more fair – they tried to come up with replacements, even commissioning chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the desired feel.

Rating so far:

Lena Blackburn: 1

Major League Baseball: 0

Glen Caplin, an MLB spokesman, said “tack-to-pot baseballs” continue to be tested in the minor leagues. But reviews were mixed.

“If you change one property of a baseball, you are sacrificing something,” Caplin said. “The sound on the air was different. The ball is softer. The bar for changing the ball is very high.”

However, he said, “It’s an ongoing project.”

Bintliff knows the game isn’t over yet. He said baseball’s apparent attempts to dislodge him and the dirt made it difficult for him to sleep. Now, he says, he has become more philosophical.

“If they stopped ordering, I would be more upset about the end of the tradition than my profits,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and white Chuck Taylor high top sneakers. “If they don’t want dirt, they don’t need to buy it.”

The tradition began with Russell Blackburn, also known as Lena, a brash, weak fielder who played in the major leagues in the 1910s before settling as a major league coach and manager. A lifer who can be seen in black and white photographs next to Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.

While coaching third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he overheard an umpire complaining about the difficulty getting the new balls ready for use. Blackburn experimented with mud from a tributary of the Delaware River near his home in New Jersey and found that it reduced the luster of the ball, mostly keeping it white.

Now he had a side job. After a while, every major and minor league team used what was sometimes referred to as “Mississippi mud”, although the word “cryptic” would be more appropriate than Mississippi.

Before Blackburn died at the age of 81 in 1968, he bequeathed the secret site to an old friend who had joined him in collecting dirt: Bintliff’s grandfather, who left it to Bintliff’s mother and Bintliff’s father, who gave it to Bintliff in 2000.

Bintliff, 65, served in the Navy and worked as a printer operator for decades, but the mystical filth remained constant in his life. Even now, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a skinny kid loading buckets of freshly picked dirt into the back of his grandfather’s Chevy Impala.

Over the years, Bintliff and his administrative wife, Joanna, have refined the business model. For example, he collected dirt once or twice a year. But expanding their market to include high school and professional football teams, including several in the National Football League, required monthly riverside profits.

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

Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado pickup about 70 miles to a secret location and walk 50 yards through the woods. Together with a shovel and buckets, he will have a machete for any thicket and a few inventions for all sorts of inquisitors. Dirt does wonders for his garden, he might say.

Then he returned to his house on Jersey Shore. The road takes longer than the harvest.

Over the next four weeks, Bintliff will strain the mud into a rubber barrel, collect the river water rising up, use large amounts of tap water to eliminate the odor, apply a “patented treatment” he refuses to describe, and let it settle. .

“It ages like fine wine,” he said.

When the dirt has reached its optimum exposure, it fills outstanding 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 heading to the post office to send a few more clogged plastic containers.

Bintliff said his profits are modest. For example, he says Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to send 10 pounds of Lena Blackburn dirt to each of the 30 major league teams. If the team needs more during the season, it deals directly with him.

He said it wasn’t money that motivated him so much as the miracle of it all. Imagine this mud, containing a special mineral composition, used to bless every major league baseball. And if a miracle escapes Major League Baseball, then, Bintliff said, “So be it.”

The question of where Lena Blackburn’s dirt fits into today’s game comes up as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred leads the persistence movement. But in a sport with countless variables, this pursuit can sometimes seem quixotic.

To begin with, baseballs are like snowflakes; although each is handmade and stitched together with 108 red stitches, no two are alike. What’s more, they behave differently depending on local conditions, a problem that MLB tried to solve by requiring every baseball stadium to store baseballs in a humidor set to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57 percent relative humidity (baseball stadium humidor). stadium in the Colorado Rockies is set to 65 percent relative humidity to accommodate the high altitude.).

Humidors are one reflection of the true value of a simple baseball. Less than three inches in diameter and weighing about five ounces, this is the sun around which the game revolves, though the sun soars, bounces, curves and eludes.

To ensure the restocking of baseballs, MLB co-owned the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls at a plant in Costa Rica. The move also appears to give MLB some say in the finished product.

And to protect the honor of baseball, MLB has taken several steps, including cracking down on balls treated with Gorilla Glue-like substances that allow the pitcher to increase spin speed and achieve near-Wiffle motion.

However, the dirty business of dirt remains.

According to Caplin, an MLB spokesman, complaints began coming to the game’s headquarters that some of the game balls lacked the desired grip and were “calcareous to the touch,” possibly from staying at the bottom of the bags for too long. with balls. MLB launched an investigation in which each of the 30 teams asked for videos of their club’s employees “contaminating” balls for use on game day.

“What you found was 30 different ways to apply mud,” Caplin said. “Some guys just used a towel, while other guys really rubbed it in, digging into their skin.”

In response, MLB executives last month sent out a memorandum to all teams with updated Baseball Storage and Handling rules. The instructions on how to stain a baseball are taken from the Talmud.

“All baseballs intended for use in a particular game must be soiled within 3 hours of all other baseballs being used in that game, and must be soiled the same day they are used… Baseballs balls must not be out of play. humidor for more than two hours at any time prior to the first pitch… Each baseball should be rubbed with rubbing mud for at least 30 seconds, ensuring that the mud is thoroughly and consistently rubbed into the entire leather surface of the ball…”

The memorandum instructed the team staff to refer to the “Mud Application Standards” poster displayed at each club to ensure that the color of the dirty ball was neither too dark nor too light, but just right.

Three major league teams—the Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals—refused to allow a reporter to watch a club employee engage in the seemingly innocuous but apparently delicate task of rubbing mud into a baseball. Luckily, MLB also sent out a 50-second instructional video to all teams, demonstrating the almost awe-inspiring care that can be expected when pearls are properly slathered.

Water is poured into Lena Blackburn’s mud jar. The hands of the unknown club lightly dip the tips of three fingers into the dirt, then select a virgin ball from a dozen boxes. For the next 36 seconds, the hands are rubbed, rolled and kneaded, rubbing dirt into the grain and along the seams, before tossing the now off-white ball back into the box.

The simple action is surprisingly solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime depended on the intercourse between a ball made in Costa Rica and mud raked out of the Jersey River.

But Jim Bintliff, the dirt collector, knows better than anyone that the tides are constantly changing. All he can do for now is continue to honor the ritual started by the almost forgotten dead ball era infielder who lives with every ball thrown.

The other day, Bintliff tossed a flat-blade shovel into his pickup truck and headed back to the secret location. He’s back with 20 buckets of beautiful, messy traditions.