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To ink or not to ink: Rockies interesting connection to MLB pitcher tattoo rule

Colorado Rockies news and links for Friday, November 17, 2023

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Kyle Freeland’s right arm is a treasure trove of tattoos.

It’s covered with Colorado tributes like a columbine, numbers 303 and 5,280, mountains, evergreens, snow, letters and symbols for his family, Machine Gun Kelly lyrics, a clock that says 8:14, memorializing the moment the Rockies drafted him in 2014, and more. You can see them for yourself in this video:

Another Rockies lefty, Lucas Gilbreath, who also happens to be a Colorado native, also has a right-arm sleeve complete with a collage of Colorado scenery, the words “Stronger when opposed,” a compass on his elbow, and more. Check out a good picture on Gilbreath’s X (formerly known as Twitter) header photo.

Palm trees, flowers, and more cover right-handed reliever Connor Seabold’s left arm.

Freeland’s left arm, the one that has struck out 735 batters, totaled 55 wins, and has a career 4.39 ERA in seven years in Major League Baseball, doesn’t have nearly as much ink — just a small 60-6 on his wrist, marking the distance from home plate to the pitching rubber. Gilbreath’s right arm doesn’t have any easily visible tattoos on it when he’s on the mound and the same goes for Seabold’s left arm.

Denver Post Rockies beat reporter Patrick Saunders wrote an article about Freeland’s tattoos in the summer of 2022 and asked Freeland about the lack of ink on his throwing arm. Freeland said,

“‘I’m a little cautious about that. You hear stories about an artist striking a nerve when they are doing shading or tattooing. I doubt it would ever happen. But I didn’t want to risk the possibility of striking a nerve. At least not right now.’”

Even if the chances are slim, Freeland is smart to protect the arm that landed him a five-year, $64.5 million deal in April of 2022.

Just last season, one tattoo led to a stint on the IL when Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman was placed on the 15-day IL with a “scary” infection from a tattoo on his leg. Chapman, who has many tattoos, told Sports Illustrated that he’d never had that happen before, but the infection was so bad that he even had a fever.

With those hypothetical and real dangers in mind, it’s no wonder that the more you start to notice tattoos on MLB pitchers — like Mike Clevinger, Michael Kopech, and Gregory Soto to name a few — the more you start to notice that the markings go up and down their non-throwing arm. Ignoring position players and just looking at pitchers, more often than not, throwing arms are ink-less.

However, bare-skinned pitching arms might be more of a result of a tattoo-covered player the Colorado Rockies selected in the fifth round of the MLB draft in 1997 named Justin Miller. Miller grew up in Torrance, Calif., and got his first tattoo on his 15th birthday when his dad took him to a tattoo shop to make sure his son’s first ink would “be done professionally, done right.”

Over the years, Miller covered the majority of his body, including most of both of his arms, with too many tattoos to count. While his tattoos were multiplying, Miller worked his way up through the Minor Leagues. Miller pitched two and half seasons in the Rockies farm system, but never advanced out of Single-A, largely due to injuries. After the 1999 season, Miller was sent to Oakland as part of a three-team, six-player trade that brought Jeff Cirillo to Colorado and shipped Henry Blanco and Jamey Wright to Milwaukee.

Two years later, Miller was traded to Toronto, where he made his MLB debut in 2002. He went on to play for seven more organizations, pitching 375 2/3 innings in 216 games over seven seasons, finishing his career with a 24-14 record, 300 strikeouts, 4.82 ERA, and 1.50 WHIP. The numbers mark a decent career, but Miller’s legacy in MLB is more because of his tattoos and an unofficial rule that carries his name.

I had never heard of the “Justin Miller Rule” before reading an interesting article by Adam Sanford of SB Nation’s DRaysBay from October that paid tribute to the former Ray. During a Spring Training game in 2004, when Miller was with the Blue Jays, Miller was approached by an umpire delivering an official MLB directive: he had to wear long sleeves moving forward because his tattoos were distracting opposing hitters.

Later in 2004, the New York Times detailed MLB’s rationale and Miller’s thoughts:

“Rich Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said: ‘They’re concerned, as they are with jewelry, that it would be distracting to the hitter. It’s just because he’s a pitcher. Players said they were having a hard time picking up the ball.’”

Miller complied with the order, but also admitted to not seeing how his ink distracted hitters:

“’For me, my left arm shouldn’t even be counted as a distraction,’ said Miller, who also has the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ etched on the knuckles of his pitching hand. ‘It’s not part of my uniform, it’s part of me. Right now, I just go along with what they tell me. The situation will take care of itself […] It was something that always was in the back of my head. So when it came, it wasn’t really that big of a shock, but at the same time I couldn’t understand why.’”

Miller wore long sleeves for the rest of his career whenever he was on the mound. While the “Justin Miller Rule” may not officially appear in the 192-page 2023 Official Baseball Rules PDF, it can be applied at an umpire’s discretion or by request of the opposing team. It doesn’t happen very often, especially as tattoos become more and more common on the mound. That also might be because ink still isn’t seen on throwing arms like it covered Miller’s.

Tragically, Miller passed away in 2013 at age 35. His body art made its mark on Major League Baseball, an arena he first stepped into with the Colorado Rockies.

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