Two weeks ago, when New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole didn’t deny using Spider Tack to increase his spin on pitches, it was a big day in baseball.
Clips of him sputtering through an interminable silence — and stammering through an explanation about “customs” and “generations” and the “conversations” they could be having if Major League Baseball decided it wanted to “legislate some more stuff” — flew around the internet, turning baseball’s dirty little secret into a front-page scandal.
Sticky stuff has been the lead story in the sport ever since, as a crackdown on the illegal use of long-ignored foreign substances is set to go into effect on Monday.
It was an even bigger day for James Deffinbaugh, one of the co-inventors and co-owners of Spider Tack: Cole’s viral tacit admission to having used the product sent sales through the roof.
A strong substance for strongmen
Deffinbaugh is a professional middleweight strongman. Middleweight means he weighs 250 pounds. He’s been pro since 2014, but lifting big heavy rocks for a lot longer. Tack, to help grip massive concrete globes called Atlas Stones, is legal — and very necessary — in strongman competitions.
A little over a decade ago, he and fellow Hulk-like human Mike Caruso realized there was an opportunity to innovate their tack.
“We kinda went through a lot of it,” Deffinbaugh says. “We just felt like we could do better.”
Caruso was pursuing a Ph.D in cell and molecular biology at the time, which helped, and after “tons of trials,” Spider Tack was born. They sold it to fellow strongman competitors, and then wheelchair sports found them — wheelchair racing and wheelchair rugby. Participants of the Scottish Highland Games bought some, too.
“But again, these are super niche sports,” Deffinbaugh says.
Spider Tack was more of a hobby than a business for both Deffinbaugh, who owns a gym in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Caruso, who owns a pharmaceutical lab outside Denver.
“It’s mostly paid for my travel and competitions, a little extra money,” Deffinbaugh says and then he laughs. “Until two weeks ago.”
There were signs it had spread to baseball earlier, some time last year.
“I started seeing a lot of orders to major league stadiums,” he said. “Just, you know, things that are clearly baseball-related. I Googled a couple names and they were starting professional pitchers.”
Deffinbaugh double-checked that sticky stuff was still illegal in baseball. It was. He told a couple friends about his discovery — big-league pitchers using his product, it was exciting — but mostly kept the information close.
He started to think maybe this could be a new market for Spider Tack. He knew he should tap into it more intentionally but he was too focused on his own athletic career and his gym.
“Obviously, I should have, because it would be very lucrative.”
Baseball emerges as a market
Six months ago, even without his intention or effort, baseball’s interest in Spider Tack started growing. Deffinbaugh said he was getting orders from minor league teams and colleges.
Then the Cole news conference happened.
For the past year, Deffinbaugh has manufactured and shipped every single canister of Spider Tack himself, out of his garage.
The company responsible for the highly sophisticated tack that broke the camel’s back on a century’s old tradition is just two people: Deffinbaugh and Caruso.
“My girlfriend helps with some labeling and some manufacturing,” Deffinbaugh adds, “but that’s it.”
Lately, he’s been very busy.
Now that the name has gotten out there, Deffinbaugh is fielding questions from athletes in other sports who want to know if Spider Tack can help them with their golf game, or as a soccer goalie, or for disc golf.
He knows the spike in interest could be fleeting, driven by the current buzz (and members of the media who want to feel what all the fuss is about).
“People are just curious,” he says. “I mean, it’s just something they see on TV and they want to try it. I don’t know if that means we’re gonna see a lot of Spider Tack in bar league baseball.”
But he wants to try to capitalize on this moment, maybe make different formulas for different sports. He figures, all those pitchers and all that money in baseball and still they’re using his product. He must be doing something right.
He’s started an Instagram account for Spider Tack that’s mostly poking fun at the brand’s newfound notoriety. Despite the sentiment of some of the memes, Deffinbaugh has no interest in ratting out his customers.
Amazon, through which Spider Tack is sold, only shows him the first name of buyers. But even if he could see exactly who was ordering Spider Tack to stadiums, he wouldn’t tell MLB.
Which isn’t to say he’s opposed to a more legitimate partnership with baseball. An all-out ban on sticky stuff could prove to be just as problematic as the unchecked arms race of adhesive.
Pitchers are concerned about injuries in the absence of anything to aid their grip. Even as they start to play through a period of enhanced enforcement of the current rules, there’s been talk around the game of developing a universal substance that would be legal and less performance-enhancing.
“It would be great if Major League Baseball came and said, ‘Hey, can we do something that’s not quite as sticky? For all the pitchers?’ That’d be awesome,” Deffinbaugh says. “That’d be a dream.”