The tide was out and there was nobody around, so Jim Bintliff stepped into the narrow gully and sank down to his ankles, in imminent danger of losing a sneaker to the muddy bottom. A couple of steps later, he was hidden from view in the nameless creek -- knee-deep in dirty, wet and absolutely top-secret baseball goo.
He took care filling his buckets, gently skimming only the tiniest bit of mud from the top of the bank with his shovel. Too deep, he said, and it would smell really bad.
“My younger brother was always in a hurry,” he said. “He’d dig down. My father had a fit.”
When he was done and had escaped with sneakers intact, he carted his buckets full of mud under a half-fallen tree, past the old fishing hole and along a narrow path that wound through the woods and back to his truck.
After six or eight weeks of aging, it’ll will be ready for the playoffs.
Mud -- gritty, silty, South Jersey mud -- is serious business in the Bintliff family.
Like his father and his father before him, Bintliff is baseball’s Mud Man, the supplier of top-notch South Jersey sludge to every major league team in the country. And their minor league affiliates. And the independent teams. And don’t forget the college and high school squads. In all, he shipped 1,500 pounds of mud last year.
Why? Because there’s nothing else like it. Anywhere.
Before every game, an umpire (or, more likely today in the majors, a team equipment manager) must rub up several dozen new baseballs with mud to get them ready for play. A new ball straight out of the package is slick and glossy, making it harder to grip. But the right mud will take off the shine without turning the ball into a heavy, soggy mess.
“It just buffs the polish off. It’s not abrasive enough to scratch the leather so it doesn’t damage the cover,” he said. “It dries right to a powder so it doesn’t get gummed in the laces. And since you only use a tiny bit the leather doesn’t get soaked in water.”
Bintliff, 47, has been harvesting mud for more than 20 years for the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud company, which traces its roots to the dark ages of 1938 -- when infield dirt, shoe polish or even tobacco juice was used to prep balls for play. After an umpire complained to Russell Aubrey “Lena” Blackburne, third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics, he went on a search for the perfect mud and found it near a place he used to go fishing as a boy.
The mud was ideal: a smooth texture not unlike instant pudding, but with the slightest grit that dries to a fine, powdery dust.
It’s simple enough to use. Put a little mud in your palms, maybe add a little tap water, and start massaging the ball -- working the mud evenly around the ball’s cover.
Phillies’ assistant equipment manager Dan O’Rourke has a specific technique for the six to eight dozen he must prepare for each game. He slaps a dollop of mud on each ball in a box of a dozen then goes back and works it in, tossing each finished ball into a large rectangular ball bag. He goes through the 30-minute process a few hours before game time. There’s nothing special about his method, though.
“Mostly, I just try to get it done as fast as possible,” he said.
But even if those who use it today don’t treat it with reverence, it took the league by storm in the late 1930s.
Soon after its introduction, the entire American League was using Blackburne’s mud. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Blackburne -- a die-hard American Leaguer -- sold his stuff to the National League. After his death, his boyhood friend John Haas -- Bintliff’s grandfather -- took over the business.
Today, Bintliff is the president and his wife, Joanne, is the business manager. Their two-person operation has gone global. Last year, they shipped mud to Arizona so a group of touring players from Korea could take it home. You can even pick some up on their Web site, www.baseballrubbingmud.com. One small container will do about a dozen balls.
Each major league team gets a three-pound tub that will last for the regular season. Teams that hit lots of home runs tend to go through more.
“When I’m watching a game and I see a foul ball or a ball hit the dirt, I just go like, ‘cha-ching,’ ” joked Bintliff, who refused to divulge how much he makes from the business, although he did say it pays for a nice vacation every year. His mud has such market saturation, though, he figures he could quit his regular job at a printing company if he wanted to jack up his prices. He just doesn’t see the need.
And he’s definitely got the mud market cornered. As far as he can tell, there aren’t any professional teams that don’t use his mud.
“We picked up a new league this year, the Golden State League in California,” he said. “We were in a booth at a convention right next to them and the guy came over and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been looking for you.’ ”
He can’t say what makes the mud -- dubbed “Baseball’s only LEGAL foreign substance” by the company -- so special, but the Army Corps of Engineers once examined a sample and concluded it contained a large amount of feldspar -- a general name for a group of crystalline minerals common in soil.
If someone is around when he arrives at the mud hole, Bintliff goes home. If someone were to somehow stumble upon him, he might tell them he is collecting water samples for the state.
Hosing himself off in his backyard after returning from the harvest, Bintliff said his secretive father, Burns, didn’t grant interviews, let alone welcome visitors.
“If my father saw me talking to you, he’d kill me,” he said, getting ready to rush a container to Boston for the Toronto Blue Jays, who were to pick it up while in town for a series against the Red Sox.
Bintliff’s mud is enshrined in Cooperstown. He’s participated in a panel discussion during the Hall of Fame induction and tries to hand deliver mud each year for the Hall of Fame game at Doubleday Field.
“I like to go to Cooperstown and say, ‘We’re here,’ ” he said. “That, more than the money, is why I do it.”