Join Date: Oct 2000
Re: Cheating and the game
More on the subject.
April 13, 1981
Tricks Of The Trade
Loaded bats, phantom DPs and balls doctored with everything from flour to fly-line cleaner may be illegit, but they're as much a part of the grand old game as, well, the spitter
Kansas City, Sept. 30, 1980. Bill Kunkel, working the night watch out of bunco, apprehends Rick Honeycutt (male Caucasian, 26, 6'1", 190 pounds) for battery with intent to doctor a baseball. The facts: Kunkel, an American League umpire, catches Honeycutt, a Seattle pitcher, using a thumbtack taped with a Band-Aid to the forefinger of his right (non-throwing) hand to carve up baseballs he is pitching to the Royals. Let's return to the scene of the crime.
"It was the third inning." Kunkel recalls. "I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but Willie Wilson had complained about some of the pitches. I saw the Band-Aid on his finger and asked him what happened. When I grabbed his hand I got stuck. I was shocked."
The pitcher's testimony: "I thought the thumbtack trick up all by myself. Pretty smart, huh? Look, I was desperate at that point in the season [he was 6-0 on May 8, 10-17 on Sept. 30]. I figured, 'What did I have to lose?' Well, as soon as I see Kunkel coming out to the mound. I tried to get rid of the tack. But I had done too good a job of taping it on I felt like I was being pulled over for speeding.
"All I wanted to do after that was plead my case. I wanted to tell everybody that I was really sorry, that what I did was stupid and that I'd never do it again. I never wanted this to happen, and I didn't know the consequences. Besides, I'd only scratched three balls that night, and none of them did anything. But before I could say a word, Kunkel told me, 'You're gone.' "
"I'm glad we caught him," says Kunkel, himself a former American League pitcher. "But I'm sad somebody would do something like that."
The surprise in the Honeycutt case is not that "somebody would do something like that," but rather that somebody would actually get caught doing something like that.
Birds do it. A's do it. Even educated Jays do it. Mets do it. Mess ball in glove.
Baseball players also plug bats with cork, cheat on the double play, con runners, bilk umpires and steal signs. There are a thousand tricks of the trade, and they're all done in the name of gamesmanship. They run from the illegal to the immoral to the unethical to the clever. As long as the other team isn't doing them, they're just part of baseball.
The granddaddy of all the tricks is the spitball. It has come a long way from that day in 1902 when, during a pregame warmup, an outfielder in the Eastern League named George Hildebrand tried to make fun of a rookie pitcher who went to his fingertips before he threw the ball. Hildebrand loaded up a ball with a generous helping of saliva and threw it to the catcher. "The ball took such a peculiar shot that the three of us couldn't help but notice." Hildebrand once recalled. Like Newton and Goodyear before him, Hildebrand had made a remarkable discovery quite by accident. Word of it got around, and in 1908 Ed Walsh won 39 games with a spitball. The spitter was outlawed in 1920 for sanitary reasons, and Babe Ruth went from 29 homers to 54. However, pitchers already in the major leagues who registered as spitballers could still throw the pitch, so the last legal spitter was delivered in 1934, by Burleigh Grimes, whose drooler got him into the Hall of Fame.
That wasn't the end of it, however. Thanks to the research of such pioneers as Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale and Gaylord Perry, the spitball has given way to the mudball, the shineball, the shampoo ball, the pine tar ball, the sandpaper ball, the petroleum jelly ball, the belt buckle ball and the puffball.
Players are willing to reveal which pitchers throw a less-than-kosher cowhide, although they make it clear that nobody on their team would ever do such a thing. Nearly every sinkerball pitcher gets accused—one of the things that burned Honeycutt was that during his unbeaten string at the start of last season, he was constantly being suspected of loading up the ball, even though he was strictly legit. The names most frequently mentioned are those of Perry, Don Sutton, Tom Burgmeier, Pete Vuckovich, Tommy John, Dave Goltz, Jim Barr, Enrique Romo, Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Lee, Mike Torrez, Stan Bahnsen, Mike Caldwell, Paul Splittorff, Ross Grimsley, Bill Castro, Glenn Abbott, Bob Stanley and Doug Corbett, not to mention 99 and 44/100% of the Oakland staff. The A's, under the tutelage of Pitching Coach Art Fowler, are said to be fond of rubbing Ivory soap on the insides of their pant legs at the spot where their throwing hands touch their thighs. When the pants become wet with sweat, the soap just happens to come through to the other side for easy application. The only pitcher on the A's who wasn't accused last year was Dave Beard, who made all of 13 appearances. Apologies to any pitcher left off the above list.
By scuffing, soaping, greasing, etc., a pitcher is able to grip the ball conventionally and throw it with the force of a fastball but achieve exaggerated movement. None of the pitchers has probably ever heard of Dr. Hermann Schlichting, a former southpaw for the Engineering University of Braunschweig, West Germany, but in his 1951 classic. Boundary Layer Theory, Schlichting explained the magic behind the spitball as follows: "Integrating the pressure distribution and the shearing stress over the surface of the sphere, we obtain the total drag
D = 6πµ R U∞.
This is the very well known Stokes equation for the drag of a sphere."
Got that? In other words, by messing with the baseball, the pitcher creates a kind of a drag (The Buckinghams, 1966) that changes the flow lines around the ball, making them asymmetric. Even the slightest change will give the ball a more pronounced wiggle, producing a funkier pitch than can be thrown without tampering with the ball. For instance, a sinkerball pitcher will most often throw from the side or three-quarters with topspin on the ball. A normal sinkerball drops three or four inches. By scuffing the ball, usually on the topside just behind the horseshoe of the seam, a pitcher can make it drop by as much as half a foot. A fastball pitcher who comes over the top, putting backspin on the ball, can make his pitch take an extra hop by scuffing the underside.
The spitball is often the last refuge of the marginal pitcher, who is either losing his stuff or didn't have all that much to begin with. When erstwhile Oriole Ross Grimsley, in 1975, got in a jam one day, his pitching coach, George Bamberger, went out to the mound and said, "If you can cheat, I wouldn't wait one pitch longer." This wasn't idle talk, because Bamberger is said to have taught his pitchers in Baltimore and Milwaukee "the Staten Island sinker," which is named after Bambi's home borough.
Of course, the mahatma of the debase-ball is Perry. Over the years he has progressed from Slippery Elm (pronounced ELL-um) lozenges, all the better for keeping a ready supply of saliva; to K-Y jelly, ideal for lubing a greaseball; to Pillsbury flour, which he mixes with resin to produce the puffball—a dry rather than wet pitch that the batter has to locate amid a cloud of dust. Billy Martin, then managing the Tigers, once brought a bloodhound to the ball park just to sniff out the Indians' ball bag when Perry was pitching. Ralph Houk suspected Perry of supplanting spit with a fly-line cleaner favored by fishermen because it's clear and dries quickly. Such attention no doubt pleases Perry, who believes that a batter's anxiety over the prospect of being thrown a spitball can serve as useful a purpose as the spitter itself.
Pete Rose says that if he were a pitcher, "I'd try to get every edge I could." But Honeycutt has had second, third and home thoughts about what he did: "I hadn't been in any trouble since the last time I was sent to the principal's office. But there I was, sitting in the tunnel after they threw me out. All the other guys were coming up to me, making jokes—the whole season was a joke. Then it hit me. What are they going to do to me? Is the commissioner going to ban me from baseball forever? What an ordeal.
"Crime never pays."
No, it doesn't. Honeycutt was fined $250 and suspended for 10 days, the last five of the 1980 season and the first five of this season. The last pitcher to be suspended for throwing a doctored baseball was Nels Potter of the St. Louis Browns; he was caught by Umpire Cal Hubbard and told to take a walk for 10 days in 1944, which was, perhaps coincidentally, the year Potter had his best season, with 19 wins.
With all the slicing and dicing going on, it seems strange that it took umpires 36 years to catch another pitcher in the act. Actually, Umpire Doug Harvey nabbed Sutton, then with the Dodgers, in 1978 and threw him out of a game. But Sutton threatened to sue if he was suspended, so it was made clear that he was ejected not for doctoring a baseball, but for throwing a baseball that happened to be doctored. Otherwise, Sutton has always enjoyed his outlaw reputation. Once, an umpire went out to inspect Sutton's glove and found a note inside which read, "You're getting warm, but it is not here."
Dave Duncan, the pitching coach of the Cleveland Indians, estimates that close to 50% of the pitchers in baseball do something to the ball. Former Twins Manager Gene Mauch, now in the Angels' front office, says, "More pitchers are doing it than at any time in the 40 years I've been associated with baseball." Honeycutt says, "Every day I heard a new rumor about another pitcher doing it. I figured it was O.K. for me to try, too."
Dick Butler, the supervisor of umpires for the American League, doesn't see any more slippery dealings than normal among pitchers, even though both leagues sent out bulletins last year warning umpires to be on the alert for spitters and scuffers. "There's just more attention paid to it," he says. "Maybe nobody complained before. The umpires don't want to see the rules broken, but it's a lot easier to sit in the stands and say someone is doctoring the ball than to find evidence of it down on the field. If the balls have marks on them, all in the same spot, beyond the normal wear and tear a baseball gets, then the umpire can do something." That something is this: if an umpire discovers a scuffed ball, he can hold the pitcher responsible—because the pitcher was the person who threw it—and issue a warning. If the umpire detects another similarly scuffed ball, the pitcher can be ejected and suspended for 10 days.
Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach, has a unique collection of abused baseballs, selections from which he occasionally sends to the American League office. His most prized relics are a series of scuffed balls handcrafted by Mike Marshall. Not only was Marshall a doctor of physiological psychology, but a doctor of baseballs as well.
"It's getting ridiculous," says Miller, who maintains that the Orioles only throw them on the sidelines. "I suggested last year that the umpires make it an automatic balk on the pitcher every time they find a scuffed ball. That way, if a relief pitcher comes in with the bases loaded, needing a ground ball, he won't be so quick to scuff the ball."
Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson has a different idea. "Myself, I'd like to see it legalized."
"Great," says Miller. "I can now conceive of the day when a pitcher will come out to the mound wearing a utility belt, complete with files, chisels, hammer, nails and hacksaw."
"I don't begrudge the pitchers," says Yankee Third Baseman Graig Nettles. "But until the umpires have the guts to stop them from marking the ball, I see nothing wrong with using a corked bat."
Of course, Nettles wouldn't use one. Not since Sept. 7, 1974 he wouldn't. That date will live forever in baseball infamy because in the fifth inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Detroit, Nettles hit a bloop single to left and the end of his bat fell off. His single was disallowed, but not his second-inning home run with the same bat. That homer, by the way, produced the game's only run.
The original accounts said that the bat was filled merely with cork. Well, such a legend has grown up around the incident that members of at least three other teams claim Nettles hit the home run against them, and that it wasn't cork inside the bat, but from four to six Super Balls, incredibly lively little devils. Who can ever forget the sight of Tiger Catcher Bill Freehan chasing after the bat for evidence? The Tigers certainly knew a corked bat when they saw one, because their first baseman, Norm Cash, was particularly proud of his. Nettles claimed he didn't know where the bat came from—some fan had given it to him in Chicago "for good luck." The bat was stained a dark brown, so how could Nettles tell?
"Why that lying sonofagun," says Cash. "I ought to know. I used a hollow bat my whole career." But, Norm, surely not in 1961, the year you hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs. "I'm afraid so," Cash says. "In fact, I owe my success to expansion pitching, a short rightfield fence and my hollow bats."
How do you cork a bat? Well, Cash's method was to bore a hole about eight inches deep and half an inch wide into the meat end of the bat. He left most of the hole empty, plugging only the top two inches of it with cork, sawdust and glue. Cash, who now works outside Detroit for NORPADIC, a manufacturer's representative, says it took him about half an hour to doctor a bat.
According to Earl Weaver, the Orioles' manager, the best way to cork a bat is to drill a hole 12 to 14 inches down into the barrel without splitting the wood and then pack the hole tight with ground-up cork, leaving a two-inch void at the top. The hole is then closed with a carefully shaped plug of plastic wood. Finally, sand over the top of the bat. "You can't spot a good job with a magnifying glass," says Weaver.
What does hollowing the wood from a bat do? According to Cash, it makes the bat lighter, so that a batter is getting the mass of a 36-ounce bat with the whip of a 34-ounce bat. And, of course, it stands lo reason that a bat with a cork center will be livelier than a bat with a wood center. Players say they can get an extra 20 to 50 feet with corked bats.
There are other things a hitter can do to coddle his bat. Oldtimers used to put nails in them. Some even honed one side of the bat to make it flat and thus increase the hitting surface. Other bats are grooved and the grooves filled with wax. Nettles remembers a player in the minors who used to fill his bat with mercury, on the assumption that the force of the mercury traveling to the barrel head increased the power of the bat. Unfortunately, the player couldn't hit, mercury or not.
Weaver says he used a corked bat when he played for New Orleans in 1955 and tied his career-high in homers with six. "I cried when they found us out." he says. But would his Orioles pull something like this? You bet, says Bamberger. In 1979 he publicly accused Ken Singleton and Rick Dempsey of using corked bats against the Brewers. Weaver, on the other hand, thinks that Cecil Cooper of the Brewers wields a doctored bat. Weaver became convinced after Cooper, who stands 6'2" and weighs 190 pounds, hit a ball out of the park one-handed. "No way a guy his size can do that with a legal bat," said Weaver. "It's a standing joke between us," says Cooper. "Earl always comes over and looks in our bat rack before the game."
The Phillies and Royals are also suspect—perhaps because they were the most successful teams in baseball last year. Then again, maybe they were the most successful teams in baseball because they used corked bats. A couple of years ago one Phillie player—an All-Star—was overheard at the batting cage telling a bat company representative, "I'll take one of the super-cork models." He was probably just kidding.
John Mayberry, now with the Blue Jays, recalls that a corked bat was available when he played for Kansas City. Reportedly, an undercover craftsman used to service the bats in the Kansas City clubhouse, charging only $1 apiece to cover the cost of cork. Hal McRae, the Royals' designated hitter, is sometimes accused of using a bat that floats, but the one time he was checked—the bat was cut in six pieces—he was clean. Some of the other names bandied about are Mike Schmidt. Davey Lopes, George Foster, Tony Armas, Bobby Grich, Darrell Porter, Buck Martinez, Jose Cardenal and Vic Correll. "I'm sure it goes on." says Rose, who also says he has used one in practice but never in a game. "I always thought that if I got caught, every one of those damn hits I got, people would think I cheated."
The one current player who has admitted to swinging a bogus bat is Andre Thornton, a first baseman/designated hitter for Cleveland and a very religious man. After the 1978 season, Thornton made his confession: "I was approached to use a corked bat. I used it two weeks. It gave me a tremendous emotional problem. I hit one home run with it. But I couldn't find peace with that, even though a lot of players use them. I just couldn't use something illegal and live with myself. It was a dark bat, and no one would ever have known.
"I felt so much joy when I discarded that bat, you can't imagine. My flesh told me to go ahead and use it. All men face such decisions, in any walk of life. Do you cheat? Or do you rise above it?"
So guess what most baseball players would answer.
Thornton is so honest that he's probably the only first baseman not mentioned by players when they discuss who cheats while tagging the bag, i.e., pulls his foot off before the fielder's throw arrives. This is intended to make the umpire believe that the throw got to first before it really did. The list is long, but the best at the cha-cha are Cooper, Jim Spencer, Willie Montanez Rod Carew, Eddie Murray, Keith Hernandez and the old guard of Rose, Willie Stargell, Tony Perez, Carl Yastrzemski and Lee May. Rose has been playing the position for only two years, but he picked up the knack about two minutes after he became a first baseman. He says Willie McCovey was the best he has ever seen. "He was so good at it," says Rose, "that I was hesitant to try and bunt for base hits on him, because you could be safe by a step and a half and he'd still make you look out." Old-timers say that nobody could compare to Gil Hodges of the Dodgers and Joe Ad-cock of the Braves for cheating on the bag. Darrell Johnson, the former Seattle and Boston manager and now a coach with the Rangers, says all first basemen do it. "But like Orson Welles says, they only do it when it's time."
"We don't cheat as much as second basemen do on the double play," says former Second Baseman Rose. Bump Wills. Willie Randolph, Jim Morrison, Frank White, Davey Lopes, Mike Tyson, Joe Morgan and Rich Dauer are considered the best—or worst, depending on one's point of view—second basemen at studiously avoiding the bag on the pivot. The phantom double play is sometimes a matter of survival, which is why the umpires rarely acknowledge it, but there are other times when it's just plain cheating. The second baseman hopes to cover up for all manner of faux pas—bad throws from the shortstop, bad timing on his own pivot and the like.
When asked last season what percentage of the time he cheats on the DP, Phil-lie Infielder Ramon Aviles said, "All the time. Last Sunday I participated in four double plays. I cheated on three of them. What happens is that when I play second base, I'll put my left foot on top of the bag as I'm waiting for the throw. When the ump sees my foot on top of the bag, he figures I'm there the whole time. But by the time I catch the ball, I'm not there."
Bobby Grich, the Angels' second baseman, is sometimes cited for cheating on the double play, but he says it ain't so. "I'm a former football player, so I like contact. Besides, I'm bigger than most second basemen. The guy, though, who gets away with it more than anyone is Randolph. He was even doing it during infield practice at the All-Star Game. He straddles the bag. I don't know why he does it that way, but he does it often."
The shortstops most frequently accused of ignoring the bag are Fred Patek, Tim Foli, Larry Bowa, Dave Concepcion and Rick Burleson. "Guys like Phil Garner say I cheat," says Concepcion. "I no cheat. I'm just quick." Retired Umpire Hank Soar says. "Burleson is a master at cheating on the bag. So you have to call it on him to make him stop. I did one time in something like a 15-2 game, and he told me, 'I'll get your job for this.' "
Grich is a wizard at many infield tricks. Three or four times a year on flyballs he will fake fielding a grounder to the detriment of the runner going from first to second on a steal or hit-and-run. "If the runner's not watching the ball." says Grich, "he'll get confused. I learned that trick when I was a 9-year-old bat boy on my father's softball team. I love stuff like that. It breaks up the monotony of the game and. after 14 years in pro ball, sometimes I need it." Grich is also adept at positioning his feet to block a runner from getting back to the bag. "It's just as much mine as his," he says. Grich is very good at sneaking up behind runners on pickoff plays, and he has faked more than a few runners into sliding into second when they should have been wheeling on to third.
The pièce de résistance of all infield tricks is the hidden ball. "I've never pulled it off, although I try a couple of times every year," says Grich. "The third base coach or somebody will usually yell and spoil it. I don't know how Gene Michael did it with the Yankees, but he worked it successfully four or five times a year. He's not about to tell me how. now that he's manager of the team. But that's the one remaining goal of my career—to pull off a hidden-ball trick."
Some first basemen arc good at it, Spencer and Mayberry among them. With Ron LeFlore, then of the Tigers, on first, Spencer, a Yankee, once instructed his pitcher to throw over eight times in a row. LeFlore didn't even notice that the eighth time Spencer kept the ball, and when LeFlore stepped off, Spencer had him. Mayberry uses a different approach. "Big John is so nice and easygoing," says Grich, "you don't suspect anything when he asks you to take your foot off the bag to kick the dust away—until he tags you."
Grich was exaggerating, but he wasn't far from the truth. Mayberry once nailed a Minnesota rookie by asking him to step off the base for a minute so Mayberry could use the bag as a prop while tying his shoe. Mayberry took his glove off—with the ball in it—hee, hee!—and while lacing up, he tagged the rook.
But you don't have to be an experienced hand to pull it off. Kansas City's young shortstop, Tim Ireland, did it to Cincinnati 10-year veteran Larry Biittner in a spring training game this year, killing a Reds rally in the 11th. After receiving a relay throw from the outfield, Ireland kept the ball in his glove instead of returning it to the pitcher. A few moments later he simply sneaked up behind Biittner, who was leading off second, and tagged him out to end the inning. "It's just a logical thought process," said Ireland. "You play all your life and see guys off base. No big deal."
Then there is the Goodrich Blimp School of Trickery. Last year in a game between the White Sox and the Yankees, Chicago rookie Outfielder Rusty Kuntz was on first when Alan Bannister hit a ground ball just inside the first-base line. Yankee First Baseman Bob Watson scooped up the ball and touched first. In the meantime, Shortstop Fred Stanley signaled to Kuntz, who had left with the pitch, to hold up because the ball was foul. As Kuntz casually walked back to first he was tagged out to complete the double play. "I couldn't even be mad at Stanley." said Kuntz. "It was brilliant." Kuntz was soon sent down to the minors for more seasoning. Chris Speier of the Expos tried the same thing on the Cubs' Mick Kelleher a few years ago, and Kelleher didn't think it was brilliant. "I thought it was bush," he said.
Catchers have their own bag of tricks. They'll try to coax strikes from the umpire by ever-so-smoothly pulling their gloves into the strike zone as they catch a pitch that's a bit off the plate. Gary Carter is highly, or lowly, regarded for his deftness at this, as are Jim Sundberg, John Stearns, Bob Boone, Steve Yeager, Joe Ferguson, Barry Foote, Johnny Bench and Rick Dempsey. Art Kusnyer, a former catcher and the bullpen coach of the White Sox, reveals how it's done. "Jerking the glove sideways or pulling it down won't work. The ump won't fall for it. But if I caught a pitch on the corner with the palm facing out, I'd flick my wrist and turn the glove in, so it would be perpendicular to the pitcher. It was just an illusion, but it helped sometimes."
Catchers also have no qualms about doctoring the ball for their pitchers. Birdie Tebbetts used to wear thumbtacks in his shin guards for those very special occasions, and the late Elston Howard would help Ford, when the heat was on, by putting mud in the ball's seams or scratching it on his shin guards. Kusnyer claims that he could scuff a ball simply by scooping up a low pitch and slamming it off the ground quickly so that the umpire wouldn't notice. "I've also loaded up for pitchers," says Kusnyer. "A little K-Y jelly on the forearm just above the wrist."
Catchers also chatter to throw a batter's concentration off. Thurman Munson was very good at this, as was Ray Fosse. "Thurman would talk a little rough at times," says Fosse. "My psych was praise. Brooks Robinson, I remember, came, to bat once, and I said, 'Here's my idol, the greatest third baseman in the history of baseball. I love your style. You're poetry in motion.' He turned around and threatened me."
"When you're talking to the catcher or the first baseman, it's hard to concentrate on the third-base coach," says Al Oliver of the Rangers. "But then, you don't want to seem antisocial."
Outfielders don't get as many opportunities for trickery as infielders and catchers do, but they do the best with what comes their way. Sometimes an outfielder will try to freeze a base runner by pretending he's about to catch a fly ball even though he knows he can't reach it. One of the cagiest outfielders is Milwaukee's Gorman Thomas, who says, "I've worked that maybe 10 times. I was taught by the master, Ken Berry. The reason I learned my lesson so well is that he put a decoy on me when he was with the Angels. I was on first base and a bloop was hit to center. I froze, and he caught me by 85 feet." Berry is also legendary for carrying an extra ball in his back pocket. When Berry was with the White Sox, the story goes, he once leaped for a home run that made it into the first row of outfield seats. Berry didn't catch the ball, but he did pull the second ball out of his pocket and hold it up. The umpire ruled it a catch. Cub outfielders have been instructed to pretend they've lost the ball in the Wrigley Field vines. That way, sure triples become ground-rule doubles.
Most outfielders say that short-hopping a ball so that it looks as if it was caught is more an accident than an art form, but Coach Joe Nossek of the Indians actually tells his charges to hold up the ball after shoestringing it on the off chance that the umpire might be fooled. "Sometimes it's justice," says Nossek. "You get enough of those to make up for the catches that they mistakenly rule as traps."
Nossek is also the acknowledged master of that most arcane of baseball skills, sign-stealing. "Nossek probably knows our signs better than we do," said Bill Mazeroski, a Mariners coach last summer. "Sign-stealing is really a misnomer," says Nossek. "It's nothing more than educated guessing. You watch the opposing third-base coach, and then check out the manager, and things start falling into place. For instance, if you've been watching a team the first two games of a series and it hasn't tried anything in the way of stealing or the hit-and-run, and then you suddenly pick up a whole new series of signs, well, you just assume the runner's going, and you call a pitchout. If I'm right on 50 percent of my pitchouts, I-figure I'm doing pretty good. I'd trade a ball for an out anytime.
"I learned an awful lot from Gene Mauch when I coached under him at Minnesota. Plus, I picked up a lot of tips from other players. I'd trade tidbits of information. In general, a team's signs will follow the same pattern throughout the season. Eventually, you build up a pretty good book." Nossek is also good at anagrams and crossword puzzles.
There are more nefarious ways of stealing signs. When Martin was managing the Rangers, he was suspected of relying on electronics. He's said to have had a closed-circuit camera installed just beyond the centerfield fence in Arlington Stadium. The camera was hooked up to a television set in Martin's office, and a player, usually Jim Fregosi, would decipher the catcher's signs. When Fregosi had the code broken, he'd relay his findings to Martin via walkie-talkie. Martin would then be able to tell the batter what was coming by whistling or yelling a prearranged phrase.
But some batters don't want to know what's coming. Norm Sherry, a coach with the Expos, remembers a game against the Cubs in 1978. "Larry Cox was catching, and he was putting his signs down so low that I could see every one from the third-base box," Sherry says. "I told the guys, 'I've got all his signs.' Nobody wanted them."
Some clubs have trick plays. The White Sox will sometimes switch cutoff men on balls hit to the outfield to confuse base runners. First Baseman Mike Squires will move toward the mound as if he's going to cut off the throw, then circle behind the runner and take the throw at the bag. Sometimes they catch the runner in a rundown between first and second. Conversely, the Expos use a base-running ploy called the Sleeper Rabbit, thought up years ago by George Moriarty, third baseman on the Ty Cobb Tigers. With runners on second and third, the man on second takes his time walking back to second after the first pitch. By doing it a second time, he hopes to induce the catcher to throw to second. But just as the catcher releases the ball, the runners break for home and third. The Orioles have a special base-running ploy of their own known as "the famed play." The purpose is to score a run from third by having a runner at first draw a throw from the pitcher. The play, which is practiced during spring training in secret, has been used successfully in recent years against Cleveland, Chicago and Boston.
For some tricks, there is an equal and opposite re-trick. Carew, among others, doesn't like to be fenced in by the batter's box. He erases the back line of the box, so he can plant his rear foot pretty much wherever he wants. But then, some pitchers don't even bother to touch the rubber. One member of the Cub staff says he digs a deep hole in front of it and pushes off from there while in the stretch. "It gives an extra foot to my fastball." he says.
Occasionally, a pitcher will try to cheat on his pickoff move, but that's one trick umpires are always on the lookout for. "The important thing is to be consistent." says Pitcher Dave Roberts of the New York Mets. "or else the umpire will call you for a balk." Roberts suggests that a pitcher with a particularly good pickoff move confer with the umpires before the game or even in spring training, just to let them know what to expect. Pirate Reliever Enrique Romo has a very good pickoff move to first, but he's always being called for balks because he doesn't communicate with the umpires. When called for a balk, he gets angry, and the umpires only get angrier.
Chicanery isn't confined to players, coaches and managers. Sometimes, the home-team groundkeeper gets in on the dirty dealing. In Kansas City, George Toma makes the batter's box extra large because the Royals like to stand well back. In the early '70s, when the Tigers were very slow afoot, the Detroit ground crew would water down the base paths, particularly the takeoff area next to first, to neutralize the speed of opposing teams. By the same token, fast teams keep hard, fast tracks. Clubs that still play on living fields and have a lot of sinkerball pitchers keep the grass high to slow down ground balls. Good bunting teams keep the foul lines tilted inward. Artificial turf has taken much of the fun out of groundkeeping.
Baseball has come some way from the days when the turn-of-the-century Baltimore Orioles would grab hold of runners' belts to delay their departure from a base or take a shortcut between first and third when the umpire—and there was only one on the base paths at that time—had his back turned. But the rule of thumb still is: if you can get away with it, do it. The fiercest competitor of all, Ty Cobb, once coached in a high school all-star game in Chicago opposite Babe Ruth. Cobb, who had the West team, delivered an impassioned speech to his players about fair play and sportsmanship. Then the players took the field for a workout. Cobb stood behind the catcher and watched his throws. "Very good," said Cobb. "But here's a little trick for you. Just before the pitcher throws, grab a handful of dirt, and after he throws, flip-the dirt up into the batter's eyes."