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Five Ways to Cheat at Baseball Without Using Steroids

Home plate umpire John Flaherty checks Cleveland Indians' pitcher Gaylord Perry's cap, at the request of Milwaukee Brewers manager Del Crandall, during the first game of a doubleheader against the Brewers in Milwaukee on Sept. 3, 1973. AP

Give Michael Pineda of the New York Yankees credit for this much: He cheated the old-fashioned way.

The nervy Pineda was caught Wednesday night with an obvious smear of sticky pine tar on his neck — meant, he said, to get a better grip on the ball on a cold night in Boston. It was Pineda’s second offense in the first month of the season.

So, hey, who needs steroids? Creative ways to cheat are as old as the game itself. Here are five examples — some simply slippery, others more elaborate, and at least one that reads like something out of “Mission: Impossible.”

Master of the Spitball

Gaylord Perry was well-known for slicking up the ball to make it dive and curl. You name it, he used it: Vaseline, hair tonic, his own spit.

His reputation was so established that Perry used it to mess with hitters’ minds.

Before every pitch, even the legal ones, he went through such a series of contortions —running his fingers along the inside of his cap, behind his ears, down his sleeves — that he looked more like a sleight-of-hand magician or a mime than a pitcher.

Gene Mauch, the legendary manager, once said of Perry that if he was ever elected to the Hall of Fame, he should be enshrined “with a tube of K-Y jelly attached to his plaque.”

Perry got the last laugh. He won 314 games — and did indeed go to Cooperstown.

The Corked Bat Caper

The irascible Cleveland Indians slugger Albert Belle had his bat confiscated on July 15, 1994, when the manager of the Chicago White Sox raised the possibility that it was corked.

Corking a bat — hollowing out the business end and replacing the wood with material like cork or even ground-up superballs — makes the bat lighter and thus the hitter’s swing quicker.

The accepted wisdom that it helps the ball travel farther has been questioned by physics experts. But no matter: What happened next in that 1994 game is what elevates the Belle story from time-honored cheating to slapstick hilarity.

PHILLIPS BRINKMAN
First base umpire Joe Brinkman, left, and home plate umpire Dave Phillips inspect a bat confiscated from Cleveland Indians' Albert Belle so it could be checked for cork during a game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago in 1994. MARK MORENCY / AP file

The bat in question went to the umpires’ room. Then one of Belle’s teammates, pitcher Jason Grimsley, wriggled through an air duct, dropped down from the ceiling, took the Belle bat and replaced it with a legal one.

This was not exactly James Bond-level spycraft. The replacement bat had another player’s name on it. Belle served a seven-game suspension.

The Even More Famous Pine Tar Episode

Say the words “pine tar” or the name “George Brett” to baseball fans, and they think of the greatest thermonuclear meltdown in the history of the game.

On July 24, 1983, with his Kansas City Royals down 4-3 to the New York Yankees with two men out in the ninth inning, Brett hit a home run against Goose Gossage, putting the Royals ahead 5-4.

Billy Martin, the Yankees manager, who elevated paranoia to an art form, called for an inspection of the bat. Using home plate as a ruler, the home plate umpire, Tim McClelland, found that Brett had pine tar too far up the handle.

Pine tar helps hitters grip the bat, and Rule 1.10(c) specifies that it can’t go farther up the bat than 18 inches. Brett was called out. Final score: Yankees 4, Royals 3.

The memorable part came next: Brett charged out of the dugout in a vein-popping, expletive-peppered, arm-flailing fit of rage.

But Brett had been busted on a technicality. The reason for the 18-inch rule wasn’t an unfair advantage for the hitter — it was that pine tar was getting on too many batted balls and ruining them.

The Royals filed a protest, and the American League president found that Brett had violated the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. He reinstated the home run and ordered Brett ejected for the outburst.

The game was resumed 25 days later. The Yankees offered free admission to anyone who was there the first game. They went quietly in the bottom of the ninth. Final score: Royals 5, Yankees 4.

Where Did That Come From?

On Aug. 3, 1987, Joe Niekro was on the mound for the Minnesota Twins and threw a slider that knifed through the air so fiercely that it looked suspicious to the home plate umpire, Tim Tschida.

He went out to the mound and ordered Niekro to empty his pockets. Niekro turned them inside out. As he raised his arms — nothing to see here — a small object fluttered out and fell to the ground.

It was an emery board, perfect for scuffing a ball and changing its aerodynamics. Niekro had a plausible explanation: He threw a knuckleball, and knuckleballers need to keep their nails precisely manicured to throw the pitch with precision.

Nobody bought it. In any event, Niekro was found to have sandpaper, too. He wasn’t running a nail salon. The league president suspended him for 10 games. Niekro got a gig on Letterman out of it.

“The guy was so blatant,” second base umpire Steve Palermo told Sports Illustrated at the time, “it was like a guy walking down the street carrying a bottle of booze during Prohibition.”

Grand Theft

The 1951 New York Giants have a special place in baseball history: They won the deciding game of a playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers on a walkoff home run by Bobby Thomson.

It is known as the Shot Heard ’Round the World and is arguably the greatest home run in history. But there was more to the story.

Fifty years later, Joshua Prager, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, uncovered an elaborate scheme:

The Giants had set up a telescope in the clubhouse beyond center field and stationed a coach there to intercept the signs flashed by the opposing catcher to signal what the next pitch would be.

An electrician set up a buzzer, enabling the Giants to relay the signs to the bullpen — one buzz for a fastball, say — and from there they could be relayed to the hitter. The relay code was as simple as crossed or uncrossed legs.

Prager detailed the scheme in a 2006 book, “The Echoing Green.”

Thomson Durocher Stoneham
Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants is hugged by Giants owner Horace Stoneham, left, and manager Leo Durocher in the dressing room after their championship playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in New York. Thomson's ninth-inning homer gave the Giants a 5-4 victory and a trip to the World Series. AP

It is impossible to know how much the trick helped the Giants erase a 13-game deficit that summer and pull even with the Dodgers, setting up the playoffs. As for Thomson and his home run: Did he know what pitch was coming?

“I’d have to say more no than yes,” Thomson mysteriously told The Journal in 2001. “I don’t like to think of something taking away from it.”