Hidden Ball Trick

Miguel Cabrera Is Back, And He’s Tricking The Hell Out Of The Twins

Hidden ball trick

Miguel Cabrera pulled off the hidden-ball trick at first base against Minnesota’s Ehire Adrianza yesterday, faking a return throw to the pitcher after a pickoff attempt and giving the Twitterverse a good chuckle.

It’s spring training, so okay, but it’s not like this kind of thing doesn’t happen during the regular season. There are too many instances over the recent past to comprehensively list here, but a particularly banner year for the play was 2013. That August, Evan Longoria, with a big hand from the rest of the Rays infield, pulled it off at third base against Juan Uribe of the Dodgers, leading to some terrific ribbing from Uribe’s teammates. (It also led the Dodgers to bring in a magician to teach Uribe an actual hidden-ball trick.)

Ten days later, Max Stassi—after his first major league hit, no less—was caught, perhaps inadvertently, when Ian Kinsler ended up with a deflected ball that Stassi had been unable to track.

That September, just a few weeks later, gave us this:

There was even a play earlier that summer in which the Padres caught Pablo Sandoval napping off of second, which isn’t listed higher because it didn’t count. Mainly, it serves to show how difficult it is to pull off the play successfully: Umpires ruled that not only had time already been called on the other side of the field, but pitcher Sean O’Sullivan was standing atop the mound, which would have negated things anyway.

(One other play worth noting came in 2005, when Arizona’s Luis Terrero was caught by Florida third baseman Mike Lowell after a base hit to left—which is newsworthy here mainly because the ball was initially fielded by a baby Miguel Cabrera, who can be seen above tagging Ehire Adrianza.) Watch it as part of this compilation:

The Sandoval account excerpts part of the hidden-ball trick passage from The Baseball Codes, but because I love this stuff so much, I’m running it again below, with more detail:

A deke is essentially baseball pantomime, a player catching a ball that isn’t really there, then tagging a befuddled opponent. Its inverse is the hidden-ball trick, in which a fielder applies a tag with a ball the runner thinks is somewhere else. The play usually involves the first or third baseman receiving the ball from an outfielder after a hit, then acting like he’s given it to the pitcher, often through a fake handoff near the mound. When the baserunner takes his lead, the fielder has simply to tag him; as long as the pitcher isn’t atop the mound when this happens, it’s perfectly legal.

“A lot of people thought it was kind of a chickenshit play,” said 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.”

Philadelphia infielder Steve Jeltz presented an even harder-luck case 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 shortstop was racing to apply the tag. Because the ball was no longer in play by the time Jeltz reached Ford, the runner was allowed to return to second.

Finally, let’s close with Harold Reynolds, recounting with Darryl Hamilton the time he caught Hamilton with just such a play—after Hamilton’s first hit upon being called up to major league spring training camp, no less. (Turns out that Reynolds used the Matt Williams classic let-me-clean-off-the-bag line.)

Hidden ball trick!

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