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Pickle juice, superglue and pee: The gripping tale of how far pitchers go to get the upper hand | ESPN the Magazine

By Anna Katherine Clemmons and Eddie Matz.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 1 Gaming Issue. 

Aaron Sanchez is staring at his cuticles, pondering a seemingly simple question. The Blue Jays pitcher has just been asked to describe his relationship with his fingernails. At first, he considers using words to tell the story. But words won't suffice to describe the medical ordeal that transformed him from Cy Young contender to replacement-level player. No, only images can do that. Graphic ones. So Sanchez pulls out his phone to share the grisly photos.

"It started like this," says Sanchez, sitting shirtless at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards before a late-August game. He taps open a close-up of his right middle finger, a burgeoning blood blister beneath the nail and what appear to be small burgundy skid marks on the flesh bordering the top of it -- the cost of doing repeated business with a baseball. He then scrolls through the dozens of pictures that tell the story of his lost 2017 campaign, each gnarlier than the last:

There's the one taken just two weeks into the season, after a surgeon sliced off the entire left third of his nail in an effort to destroy the blisters that had started bubbling up the year before.

There's the one of him pitching against Tampa Bay a few weeks later, when the remaining nail split in half horizontally during the first inning -- his only inning -- and his finger began, as he says, "leaking," blood oozing everywhere, nary a Band-Aid in sight.

Then there's the one he took in the bathroom at Camden Yards three weeks later, after he'd applied a seventh layer of superglue onto that same nail, one for each of the six innings he'd just worked against the Orioles, plus another just to be safe.

A day after that May start in Baltimore, Sanchez landed on the disabled list for the third time in five weeks, then returned in early July, only to last three starts before hitting the DL again. The cause of that final stint -- the one that ended his season -- was listed as a blister, but the injury, in truth, was a torn finger ligament, the result of Sanchez altering his mechanics to compensate for the loss of his nail.

"My mind was thinking, 'I need my fingernail,'" says Sanchez, a sinkerballer whose normal grip requires the left edge of his middle nail to maintain contact with the ball until release. But after part of that nail was surgically removed, he fell into the habit of rotating his middle finger so that what little nail remained was touching the ball. Sanchez says that led to the torn ligament, which ended his season -- one that had begun with such promise.

After a breakout 2016 performance in which he won 15 games, worked almost 200 innings and finished seventh in AL Cy Young voting, Sanchez had just one win and worked 36 innings in 2017. Needless to say, he didn't receive any Cy Young votes. He did, however, get plenty of flak from folks who couldn't comprehend how a silly little blister on the end of a finger had totally rocked his world.

"The image in their mind is not what's in those pictures," Sanchez says. "Once they see it, they're like, 'Oh, f---! No wonder you didn't pitch.'"

TOMMY JOHN SURGERY is old news. Torn labrums had a moment. Thoracic outlet syndrome? So 2016. In truth, when it comes to orthopedic ailments that can harm hurlers and kibosh careers, it's fragile fingertips -- from bubbling blisters to nagging nails -- that are suddenly all the plague.

Over the past two months, ESPN The Magazine has spoken with more than a dozen MLB pitchers who've battled blister and fingernail problems, several of whom would talk only off the record, some for fear that it would affect their value in contract negotiations. One thing they all shared: Most of them don't officially report the full extent of their finger injuries so they can avoid DL stays. "It's one of those weird little baseball injuries," says an AL playoff-bound pitcher. "For position guys, calf strains are hard to come back from, and they generally recur. For pitchers, blisters [and nails] are in that same category. They can derail a career."

Still, there are ways to uncover the growing damage caused by finger injuries. Corey Dawkins, an athletic trainer and founder of Baseball Injury Consultants, tracks the injuries that land big league pitchers on the DL. According to Dawkins, 10 hurlers hit the DL for blisters in 2015; the next year the total more than doubled (22). In 2017, the tally climbed to 27. This year, through Sept. 10, 22 hurlers had hit the shelf with blisters, which projects to at least 24 this season. And that total doesn't even include fingernails, which, as Sanchez can attest, go hand in hand with blisters.

So what in the name of Edward Scissorhands is to blame for all the digit demolition? Why are so many of today's pitchers hanging on by a nail? While it's hard to put a finger on a lone cause, several pitchers posit that modern metrics have played a role. "With the increased use of Statcast data," Dawkins says, "focusing on increased spin rate is causing them to grip the ball harder and creating more friction."

Others point to the baseballs -- which pitchers claim (and studies confirm) began arriving in 2015 from Rawlings' Costa Rican factory with an increased variance from ball to ball and with lowered seams (meaning less air friction) that caused home run numbers to soar.

"No ball feels the same," says Red Sox left-hander David Price, who has flirted with fingertip failure this season. During an early August start against the Yankees, clinging to a 1-0 lead in the top of the seventh, Price says he felt a blood blister forming on his left middle finger. So he canned the cutter -- the pitch that causes his grip the most grief -- and leaned on his changeup instead. It didn't work. Price allowed the first (and only) two batters he faced in the seventh to reach base, and both came around to score, giving New York a 2-1 lead.

Even though the Red Sox rallied for a 5-4 victory, Price's abrupt change in approach (his 34 changeups that day were tied for the most he has thrown in an outing this season) was ominous. If his blister issues ooze into October, the Sox might find themselves wobbly when it matters most. Fortunately for Price, cooler temps typically bode well for blisters.

Still, one pointed problem remains.

ON A BLUSTERY April afternoon in 2011, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey started the Mets' home opener against Washington. With the thermostat reading 42 degrees and 15 mph winds blowing through Citi Field, Dickey was worried: Cold, dry air meant cracked, brittle nails.

Three batters in, the nail of his right index finger split. It was bad. Really bad. "As a knuckleball pitcher, I'm putting intense pressure into my fingernails 90 times in a game," Dickey says. "If those break or crack, I am in legitimate trouble."

He filed it feverishly and applied Trind, a nail hardener, between innings but "had no clue where the ball was going" during a 6-2 loss. Two days later, the nail had healed. Then Dickey reached into his backpack after a pregame bullpen and caught it on the zipper, ripping down to the nail bed. Dickey -- still dressed in his Mets uni -- ran out of the stadium and into a Queens nail salon. He asked the technician for an acrylic to cover his ripped nail, then returned to the stadium in time for the game. He made his start as scheduled four days later, throwing 109 pitches over 6 innings, allowing five runs. And for the rest of the season, whether at home or on the road, Dickey was a salon regular, offering precise instructions to technicians on the acrylic's length, shape and nail bed tapering. During the offseason, he abandoned the acrylic and allowed his nail to grow back. The next year, Dickey went 20 -- 6 and won the NL Cy Young Award before being traded to the Blue Jays, who signed him to a two-year, $25 million extension, a hefty raise from the $4.25 million he made with the Mets. Says Dickey: "My nail was literally the difference in millions of dollars."

Still, Dickey is not alone in putting the "man" in manicure. Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley first ventured into the Desert Nail Spa in Scottsdale this past spring because his fingernail was splitting down the center, affecting his ability to throw his spike curveball (a distant cousin of the knuckleball). Desert Nail Spa owner Kevin Pham says his baseball-savvy staff quickly earned the reliever's trust.

Pham's technicians initially glued Bradley's original nail back together. But when that short-term solution proved unsuccessful, they applied an acrylic. The 10-minute treatment -- buff the nail, apply the acrylic, then buff it out to make it look real -- worked so well that Bradley became a regular, often spotted at the spa's nail bars, chatting with fellow patrons. He hasn't visited the salon since July, though, which could be good news for the Diamondbacks, who are in the hunt for a postseason berth.

Says Pham: "That means it's starting to heal."

BECAUSE THEIR FORTUNES turn on their fingertips, pitchers will go to unpleasant lengths to preserve them. How unpleasant? The Dodgers' Walker Buehler, for one, admits to using nature's salve: urine. "Yeah, I've peed on my hands before," says Buehler, who lost a fingernail last year while pitching for Double-A Tulsa in humidity-heavy Corpus Christi, Texas. "I think that's pretty commonplace. But I couldn't tell you if it really helps." For his part, Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole prefers pickle juice -- popularized by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan -- which Cole says "really just sucks your skin dry and makes it hard."

Still, pickle juice and piss notwithstanding, if there's a hands-down favorite treatment for fingers gone wrong, that cure is clear: superglue.

Consider Dickey and one memorable outing in San Francisco, when he applied so many layers of superglue to a cracked nail that the skin of his fingertip literally burned off from the chemicals. "But it got me through the game," Dickey says.

Also consider Yankees reliever Zach Britton, who has dealt with cracked nails and uses the sticky stuff almost as frequently as he uses his patented sinker. "It's almost like nail hardener," says Britton, who reapplies superglue to his left index finger every five to seven days. (Shortly after New York acquired the former Orioles closer at the trade deadline, he found himself in the training room, showing his new team's medical staffers his MO. That's when teammate Aaron Hicks, whose Yankees hadn't scored on Britton since 2014, walked in. "So that's how you throw the sinker!" Hicks joked.)

Then there's Tampa Bay assistant athletic trainer Mark Vinson. His remedy for his pitchers? He slathers on superglue as part of what he calls a "nail cast," taking a Band-Aid, dabbing the glue over the adhesive (the flexible brown part) and placing it all on top of the nail before trimming it and applying several layers of superglue. Says Vinson: "It basically provides a backing so the nail doesn't continue to split."

"Left third digit inflammation" was Dodgers starter Rich Hill's official DL designation in April. "I should've had them put down 'blister,' but I was tired of talking about blisters, so I said, 'Call it a broken nail,'" Hill says. "'I don't want to talk about blisters again.'"

But he would have to, and sooner than he would have liked. A month later, the 14-year MLB veteran hit the 10-day DL yet again, this time with a "blister on his left middle finger." Since then, the southpaw has rebooted his pitching arsenal to keep blisters at bay, abandoning his emphasis on breaking balls for a slow-but-movement-heavy fastball. But he also has tried myriad remedies: pouring a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into his morning shake to increase his body's production of collagen peptides (read: nail strengtheners); ingesting vitamin D to promote nail growth; employing a Hidrex light therapy machine, which fires lasers onto his hands to increase blood flow.

Britton thinks the magic recipe for fingertip fitness might lie in what today's high-priced hurlers do -- or don't do -- during the offseason. "You never heard about Jim Palmer getting blisters," says Britton about the Orioles Hall of Famer who pitched during an era when big leaguers spent their winters working odd jobs to supplement their baseball income. "Maybe guys don't build up the skin toughness that they had back in the day."

That's why Aaron Sanchez took a tip from the old school and joined his father, Mike Shipley, to do roofing work this past offseason. Sanchez spent three days atop the one-story brick house in Barstow, California, where he was raised, ripping off shingle after shingle. He refused to wear work gloves and went out of his way to grab each shingle with his fingertips, hardening the skin on his fingers with every pull.

Although Sanchez has missed time this season -- in a cruel twist of fate, he lost two months after his index finger was injured by a falling suitcase -- his blisters have remained dormant, and his nails have stayed intact. And he's willing to bet all the superglue in the world that roofing had something to do with it. "It sounds kind of stupid," he says, "but I think it helped."

EACH OF THOSE treatments likely does help -- at least to some degree. And therein lies a problem! Rule 6.02 (c)(7) is a one-line piece of legislation in MLB's 169-page rulebook, and it expressly forbids pitchers from attaching anything to their hands or fingers. That includes acrylic nails. And Band-Aids. And tape. And superglue. Never mind that all of these are about as common on an MLB mound as, well, dirt.

"No," says Britton, when asked if he's fully aware of Rule 6.02. He's not alone: Of the pitchers interviewed for this story, almost all of them said they didn't know the full letter of the law as it pertains to acrylics and the like. It is, of course, entirely possible that they are all telling the truth and that they really have no clue about rule six-point-whatever. Then again, maybe they simply want to have plausible deniability in case they ever get, um, nailed.

For what it's worth, the consensus seems to be that no hurler would, or should, ever get fingered for such a violation -- because unlike the old days of pitchers putting sandpaper on their digits or taking emery boards out to the mound, today's finger finagling is less about doctoring the ball and more about playing doctor. "I can scuff a baseball in two seconds with my real nail," Price says. "And I don't even have hard nails. So I wouldn't worry about a fake nail from anybody." Adds Braves starter Kevin Gausman: "Guys wear fake nails so that it doesn't break and it doesn't hurt while they're pitching. If they've got to do that to be healthy and be out there, then that's what they've got to do."

Also: It's hard to police something so pervasive. "If you have a cracked nail, what are you going to do?" Britton says. "You just can't play? I guess 95 percent of the pitchers in baseball wouldn't be able to pitch."

Still, the mere threat of disciplinary action, not to mention the stigma that might ensue, is enough to make some pitchers crack -- or at least make them want everyone to just shut up about it all.

"I hate when guys keep talking about this stuff," says one AL hurler who admits to using a nail cast. "If I didn't have that, my nail would be broken all the time and I wouldn't be able to pitch. Nobody really cares that it's on there. But if there's all these articles written about it, then it brings attention to it and MLB might say something. It's one of those things -- don't ask, don't tell."

BACK IN THE visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards, the Sanchez horror show -- uh, slideshow -- is finally wrapping up, more than half an hour after it started.

The hurler knows 2018 hasn't been his best season. His ERA is north of 5 and he had a grand total of three wins entering September. But none of that discredits what Sanchez might consider the biggest win of all: He has endured the entire season without blister or nail problems.

If his hellish 2017 season taught him anything, it was how to crack the cracked-nail code. "I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do to make the process go faster if I were to fall into that situation again," Sanchez says.

He knows that prevention is the best medicine and that without the blister, there likely would have been no cracked nail. Which is why, this past offseason, he found himself up on a roof in Barstow getting calluses for Christmas.

Thanks to his pops, after years of pickle juice, peeing on himself and plunging his hand into bowls of rice, Sanchez is sold on the benefits of old-school manual labor. There's just one problem: His dad's roof doesn't need fixing anymore. Not that Sanchez is going to let a little detail like that get in his way.

"I'm definitely going to find something to keep that process going," he says, rising from his chair and glancing down at his cuticles one last time. "Maybe lugging bricks from one side of the house to the other. I don't know -- I'll make up something."

Anna Katherine Clay