When Alex Rodriguez ran across the pitcher’s mound at the Oakland Coliseum last month, the majority opinion from the viewing public included the sentiment, “I didn’t realize that was considered problematic.”
This also holds true for the issue brought to light by Casey Blake yesterday, when he accused Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly of cheating by standing in front of the rubber, closer to home plate, when he pitched.
“I know he doesn’t have an overpowering fastball,” Blake said in the Los Angeles Times. “I know he’s trying to get as much of an edge as he can. But he moved in.”
The notion is simple: A 59-foot fastball has more zip upon reaching the plate than a 60-foot fastball. Lilly, however, pointed out after the game that pitchers who did this would be at a disadvantage, because they wouldn’t be able to drive off the rubber with their plant foot.
That’s not the opinion of some of the game’s greatest pitchers.
In his book Throwing Heat, Nolan Ryan addressed the subject:
On occasion I’ve pitched from about six inches in front of the rubber when I’ve needed the big strikeout. And I know I’m not the only one who’s done that.
You just rock up, step in the hole, and you’re half a dozen inches closer to the plate. Normally there’s enough dirt and stuff on the mound late in the game to cover things up, but you have to work the area to dig a hole to get your foot in.
Ryan wasn’t alone. Fellow Hall of Famer Whitey Ford talked about the subject in his own book, Slick.
I found that I could get away with . . . pitching in front of the rubber. I did that a lot and nobody ever caught on. If you covered the rubber up with dirt, it was easy to do. It’s just something nobody’s ever looking for. When I coached first base for the Yankees, I never remember checking to see if the pitcher had his foot in contact with the rubber when he delivered the pitch. Sometimes you could stand with both feet on the rubber, get your sign, and then when you pitched, your first step could be about three feet in front of the rubber. Talk about adding a yard to your fastball.
Heck, forget legendary pitchers. Orioles pitcher Brad Bergesen was cited by umpires for this very thing just yesterday.
Blake informed first-base umpire John Hirschbeck of Lilly’s proclivities, but was essentially brushed off; Hirschbeck told him that he couldn’t see anything out of line from his position behind the bag.
Umpires have a long history of leniency when it comes to matters of cheating, being traditionally reluctant to check baseballs for scuff marks or pitchers for foreign substances. It’s one of the reasons so few pitchers are caught.
When Hirschbeck didn’t move closer for a better view, and declined to ask his fellow umps for help, Blake grew visibly agitated, to the point that he had to be restrained by first-base coach Mariano Duncan.
(Hirschbeck, explaining his actions in the Times, said that sacrificing optimal position for making basic calls was not worth moving up to get a better view of Lilly. “I can’t stand on top of the bag,” he said. He also said that every umpire already has the authority to charge a pitcher with cheating, so there was no need to call them in for assistance.)
Blake, however, wasn’t the only one to notice.
As Rob Neyer pointed out at ESPN.com, the Twitter-sphere lit up with all things Lilly. Ex-pitcher C.J. Nitkowski started it off with this: “Watching some daytime MLB. Camera just zoomed in & didn’t realize it caught a pitcher cheating. Don’t ask me who/what. Tricks of the trade.”
He then followed up with, “Uh-oh Casey Blake is on to it. TV guys completely in the dark. I should start my analyst career.”
That left little doubt about who and what he was talking about. As Neyer described, the WGN crew of Len Kasper and Bob Brenly didn’t touch on the reason for the disruption—which could have been because they didn’t want to shovel dirt on their hometown pitcher.
On the Dodgers broadcast, however, Steve Lyons—himself an ex-player—said, “(Blake is) trying to say whether or not, maybe Ted Lilly isn’t even on the rubber. We’ve talked a lot about the fact that he stays way on one side of the rubber or the other, and Casey’s saying he’s about four inches off the rubber in front of it. Which can give you a significant advantage.”
“What we’d missed the first time around,” wrote Neyer, “and what the Cubs broadcast somehow never managed (or bothered) to show—was Blake turning to Hirschbeck and holding his hands four to six inches apart. And again, if anybody would have known, he would.”
From the standpoint of baseball’s Code, Lilly did nothing wrong. Most forms of cheating, after all, are acceptable—provided you knock it off once you’re caught.
(The pitcher’s post-game excuse—”I might have done it a couple times, just trying to gain my footing,” he said in the Times—doesn’t hold much water. Then again, it doesn’t have to. This is baseball.)
Blake, however, violated an unwritten rule by bringing Lilly’s shenanigans to light. That he addressed it after the game was certainly due to reporters’ questions about the disturbance he caused on the field. But making a show of it in the first place leaves something to be desired in the realm of baseball decorum. A subtle notification of the umpire—loud enough for Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee to overhear—would have gotten the job done, even without action from Hirschbeck.
Still, Lilly can expect that people will now be paying attention. If he has anything going in his favor, it’s that as flagrant as he might have been, he’s not anywhere close to Frederic “Germany” Schmidt, a pitcher in the 1800s who would actually sneak into ballparks at night before he pitched, dig up the rubber and move it closer to the plate.
How would Casey Blake would deal with that?