The Rule : Justin Miller
THE RULE: “No pitcher shall have markings on his body that are potentially distracting to the umpire or batter. Markings that are potentially distracting include tattoo(s) or other marking(s) which, in the opinion of the umpire, could interfere with the umpires’ ability to make calls, endanger the health or safety of a batter, or otherwise interfere with the play of the game. In addition, no Player may have any visible corporate markings or logos tattooed on his body.”
Major League Baseball banned Florida Marlins pitcher Justin Miller from showing his tattoos on the mound, but they can’t stop him from talking about it.
Justin Miller’s hard-throwing right arm earned him a spot in the Major Leagues, but it’s the full-sleeve tattoo on his left arm that earned him his notoriety. It started with Rule G-2, a statute regarding adornments and markings under Major League Baseball’s official uniform regulations. The rule has been around for some time, although very few players have given Major League Baseball any real opportunity to enforce it. That is until the ink on the Florida Marlin’s pitcher gave the rule new life and a new name: the “Justin Miller Rule.”
While it’s hard to say which fascination came first, Miller’s lifelong love of tattoos and baseball always managed to coexist. On his 15th birthday, Miller’s hippie dad took him to a shop near their home in Torrance, CA, to get little Justin his first tattoo. “My dad ended up taking me to a place in Carson. It’s gone now. He wanted to make sure I got it done right and there was some supervision,” remembers Miller. “It was definitely my idea, but he wanted to make sure I got it done clean, professionally, and got something that I wouldn’t regret later.”
To honor his one-quarter-Native American heritage, the young ballplayer had a Cherokee Indian tattooed on his shoulder. Later, he began getting inked by Tattoo Mike, an artist running a makeshift tattoo parlor out of a shack in a nearby trailer park. “He had a good business going through there,” Miller remembers. The sessions at Tattoo Mike’s trailer park shop eventually led Miller to another Tattoo Mike, who ran a tattoo operation out of his home before moving on to work at True Tattoo in Hollywood. Between the two Tattoo Mikes, the high school pitcher compiled an impressive collection of ink. He also racked up amazing pitching stats and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1995, when he was only 17. Miller never signed with the Giants, choosing instead to attend Los Angeles Harbor College and reenter the draft in 1997.
By the time the Colorado Rockies took Miller in the fifth round, the raw pitcher had already gained a reputation for trouble, which stretched back to when he was kicked out of high school for what he simply describes as “teenage stuff.” The Rockies traded the young pitcher to Toronto, where a new wife and child helped to mellow him out during his first Major League season. But the tattoos (particularly the giant initials “L.A.” taking up his entire back) didn’t help when it came to Miller’s unfair reputation as a thuggish troublemaker. That reputation aside, Miller’s 2002 rookie year in Toronto was productive. He won nine games and threw more than 100 innings as the Blue Jays’ fifth starter. All the while, the intrigue around the family man’s tats never exceeded simple “Wow, check that out” levels. But things changed when shoulder surgery prematurely ended Miller’s 2003 season.
With nothing to do for all of 2003 but raise his family and rehab his injury, Miller found himself spending plenty of time getting new ink. By then, the Millers had moved to Dunedin, FL, where Justin established a rapport with a nearby tattoo shop so tight that he bought the business a couple of new chairs. The lifelong ink-lover had finally gone off the deep end. “I had nothing to do but my rehab, my workouts, get tattooed, and hang out with my family,” he remembers of that long ’03 season. “That year of not playing baseball is when I started covering my forearm and wrists.”Rehabbed and ready to report for spring training in 2004, Miller’s repaired shoulder wasn’t the only thing on his body that had changed. Before that season, Miller’s visible tattoos (like the words “love” and “hate” in Spanish on his knuckles) were mostly spread out in small patches over his arms and hands. But when Blue Jays spring training started that year, both of the pitcher’s arms were almost entirely covered with images of clowns and angels. Reenergized and determined to regain his spot on Toronto’s roster, Miller came to camp on a mission. But more than his performance, some people had begun noticing his new body art.
It was that left arm, the stationary non-pitching one covered in angels and clowns, that attracted the most attention. Enough attention for at least one opposing hitter to complain to the league’s umpires that Miller’s colorful arm posed a distraction. The day after the grievance was filed, an official representing Major League Baseball’s umpires pulled the pitcher aside during team stretches and told him that he would be required to cover up the ink on his forearms with a long-sleeve shirt. “I was waiting for it, really. It was a matter of time,” says Miller. “I said, ‘That’s fine, but if it’s going to happen it needs to be in writing. I’m not going to do it just because someone says.’”
While Miller’s recollection is that the rule was officially written by Major League Baseball after his run-in with the league official, an MLB representative contacted by INKED says the rule already existed before the Miller affair. Regardless of the sequence of events, the anonymous complaint (the league won’t disclose who made the gripe) made waves. With a new spot in the Toronto bullpen and an old rule suddenly synonymous with his left arm, Justin Miller had become a household name.
Whether Major League Baseball was hoping to avoid mid-game complaints and distractions or just wanted to protect the old ball game’s cleancut image, Miller figures almost a dozen pitchers have since told him he’s the reason they need to cover up their tattoos on the mound. And, says Miller, at least that many hitters have told him the Justin Miller Rule doesn’t make sense. “I personally think baseball likes to keep the good image that it has,” he says. “Tons of hitters have come up to me and said that [tattoos] would never be a distraction. That’s not what you’re looking for as a hitter.”
While the complaint about Miller’s ink was one of the more colorful regarding a Major League pitcher, it sure wasn’t the first. Johnny Allen, who pitched in the Major Leagues from 1932 – 44, was a frequent target of complaints because of the stray threads that would hang from his uniform when he cut his sleeves short. And in 2001, Cleveland Indians players protested the bright diamond earrings worn by Seattle Mariners’ pitcher Arthur Rhodes. The dispute cleared both benches and almost started a brawl.
But the Miller incident was different because it had made the pitcher something of a cult figure— especially after it was revealed that Miller had “I (heart) Billy Koch” tattooed on his ass after losing a bet with teammate and friend Billy Koch. In exchange, Koch gave Miller $2,000 for his trouble and paid for the tattoo. As word of the bet spread, Koch felt so bad that he gave Miller’s wife $500 as compensation for her pain and humiliation.
“It was a silly bet. Honestly, at the time I was getting a lot of tattoos. [Koch and I] got traded for each other a couple of years before. I have fun telling that story, and we’re boys to this day. He’ll definitely never let me forget about it,” Miller says. “I think [my teammates] wait until the shower just so they can peek instead of asking to see my ass.”
When Miller signed with the Florida Marlins in 2007, his new teammates were curious, and by his second season with Florida this past spring, one of them even wanted to get in on the action. Marlins pitcher Scott Olsen, who had been pulled over by Florida police the previous summer and charged with DUI before allegedly being shocked with a taser, approached Miller with a proposition of his own. “He wants me to get his mug shot tattooed on my ass. I don’t think that’s going to work,” says Miller. “I don’t think my wife wants to see Olsen’s picture there. So we’re not going to go with that.”
Another teammate who had an interest in Miller’s ink is Ryan Tucker, a prized Marlins’ recruit who recently completed 24 hours of work (mostly skulls) done on his non-throwing arm this past offseason. “I weighed the options and I went for it. It’s not going to bother me on my left arm,” says the right-handed Tucker, who talked to Miller about his ordeal before getting his ink done. “I learned from him. He’s the guy to ask about that.”
But now that Miller has become an everyday arm in the Major Leagues, he’s looking to establish a baseball legacy that doesn’t involve his tattoos. When the media and other players approach him about the Justin Miller Rule or the Billy Koch tattoo, he’d rather talk pitch counts and fastballs. “Obviously baseball is my number one priority. The tattoos, when it comes to media, I’ll give it a day or two to talk about and after that I don’t like to talk about it,” he says. “Baseball is what I want to do. I don’t want to do anything else.”
But just because Miller wants the attention on his tattoos to go away, doesn’t mean it will. During the 2006 season, when he played professionally in Japan, he was banned from the Disneyland amusement park in Tokyo because of his tattoos. He ignored that rule, walking right through the park entrance turnstiles without missing a beat.
Miller also doesn’t plan to stop getting tattooed, even with Major League Baseball forcing him to cover up. He recently tattooed a Patrón bottle on his body to go along with the tributes to his hometown and his kids, not to mention the number 5150 (police code for a mentally disturbed person) on his inner lip. He’s running out of real estate and estimates that the only blank spots left are his right armpit and the space above his outer knees. He’d like to get his neck and head done too, but the fiercest opposition to that idea isn’t coming from Major League Baseball. “My wife won’t let me get my neck tattooed. I’ve wanted to get one on my head, and my wife sort of put her foot down on that,” he says. “People give me crap. [They say,] ‘Hey, you’d be out [on the pitching mound] in a turtleneck and a beanie.’ That’s something I think I’ll end up doing after baseball.”