Tim Lincecum no-hit the Padres on Saturday, but a day earlier the same teams showed us something that might be even more rare.
After Pablo Sandoval doubled with two outs in the top of the fifth, Padres shortstop Evreth Cabrera ended up with the ball, and while nobody was watching, tucked it away in his glove. Sandoval, preparing for the ensuing pitch, took his lead off second—and Cabrera pounced.
Cabrera did everything right, catching Sandoval completely unawares. Problem was, second-base ump Laz Diaz had allowed a timeout request, so the ball was not actually in play. Also, because pitcher Sean O’Sullivan was standing on the mound at the time, the play would have been rendered illegal even had time not been called. Sandoval was allowed to remain at second.
Still, one can hardly fault Cabrera for his effort. “I’m trying to do something to get out of the inning, something different,” he said in an MLB.com report.
Said longtime big leaguer Rex Hudler: “The hidden ball trick is not against the unwritten rules. You’re trying to get an out. I never did pull it off in the big leagues, although I wanted to a few times.”
Cabrera’s effort called to mind a similar effort by Philadelphia shortstop Steve Jeltz in 1986. He had the ball, showed it to the nearest infield umpire, and picked the runner, Curt Ford of the St. Louis Cardinals, cleanly off second base. The only problem was that Phillies catcher John Russell, unaware of what was going on across the diamond, requested time out, which plate ump John McSherry granted just as the infielder was racing to apply the tag. Because the ball was no longer in play by the time Jeltz reached Ford, the runner, like Sandoval, was allowed to return to second.
In 1968, umpire Emmitt Ashford inserted himself even more firmly into a would-be play, obliviously calling time—of his own accord, not because anybody requested it—just as Baltimore first baseman Boog Powell was about to catch Yankee Joe Pepitone off the bag. When questioned by the upset Orioles about his motivation, he said, “Boog’s got the ball and he forgot to call time. I’m just trying to be helpful.”
More on the topic from The Baseball Codes:
“A lot of people thought the hidden ball trick was kind of a chickenshit play,” said longtime big leaguer Steve Lyons, “but my feeling always was, Pay attention.” Lyons’s favorite situation in which to utilize the strategy was on tight double plays, when all eyes were on the first-base umpire to see whether he’d call the runner safe or out. Because many first basemen naturally hop off the bag toward the pitcher, said Lyons, “all you have to do is take three more steps, give [the pitcher] a little nod, hang on to the ball, turn around, and come back to first base. Guys get off the base too early all the time.”
Third baseman Matt Williams was one of his era’s foremost practitioners of the trick, going so far as to induce runners off the base. With the Giants in 1994, Williams pretended to give the ball to pitcher Dave Burba, then returned to his position and asked the runner, Dodgers rookie Rafael Bournigal, if he “could clean the bag off.” The runner graciously stepped aside, which Williams immediately made him regret. “The intent was not to embarrass anybody or to pick on anybody,” he said after pulling the trick against Royals rookie Jed Hansen three years later. “But you want to win, and we needed to win that game.”
At least he got that much out of it. Lyons said that in the minor leagues he once pulled off the play at first base on consecutive days, against the same baserunner, Carlos Martinez. “He was probably pissed off, but the embarrassment when you actually get caught overrules everything,” he said. “You get caught, you’re embarrassed, you start walking back to the dugout. He was big enough to pinch my head off if he wanted to.”
Lyons once hid the ball so well that baserunner Scott Fletcher wasn’t the only one completely snookered—so was the umpire, who called the runner safe on the play. “I got in a pretty good argument over that one,” said Lyons. “I said, ‘Do you think I’m stupid enough to pull the hidden-ball trick, have everybody in the entire ballpark not know that I have the ball, fool every player on both my team and their team, fool the guy who’s on first base, and then tag him before he’s off the bag? Do you think I’m that dumb?’ And what I didn’t realize until that point was that I didn’t really give the umpire a shot to know I had the ball. In fact, I fooled everybody. It’s a little unfair to have him make the right call on that play if he doesn’t know I have the ball, so after that I tried to make sure that they did. It’s pretty hard to try to hide the ball from everybody in the world and still show it to the umpire and say, hey, I’ve got it here, keep your eyes open—but that’s what I tried to do.”