Hidden Ball Trick

Softballers Remind Us Of The Glory That Is The Hidden-Ball Trick

We love the hidden-ball trick, not because it’s sound baseball or a consistent source of success, but because it’s a strategic wild hare that embodies the opposite of the staid and measured approach that typefies the sport. It’s what-the-hell-why-not baseball that, even for those who dislike trickery as a strategic option, is inevitably fun to watch.

We saw a simple version of it this spring, when Miguel Cabrera fielded a pickoff throw, faked a return to the pitcher, and tagged the unsuspecting runner. That inspired an extended post from me on the play, including tons of video and an extended excerpt from The Baseball Codes. It’s good. You should click on over.

That said, this play is more embraced at lower levels of ball than the big leagues. After all, younger players are not only more likely to be drawn to its rule-bending nature, they’re also more likely to fall for it.

Take, for example, the Trine University softball team, from Angola, Indiana, which recently used some carefully choreographed fakery to advance to the Division III College World Series. Up by two runs in the last inning against Genesco, with two outs and the tying runs on base, the Trine pitcher attempted a pickoff that not only sailed into center field, but past the center fielder. Or at least that’s what she wanted the opposition to believe.

The opposition believed it.

Love it or hate it, that’s some entertaining ball right there.

[H/T Deadspin.]

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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!

Hidden Ball Trick

Hidden-Ball Trick!

Hidden ball trick!

(Background info: The NCAA’s No. 2 seed Florida Gators on Friday against the College of Charlston. Despite being both underdog and badly fooled on this play, however, C of C won, 3-2.)

(More important than that, though: hidden ball trick!)

For additional background info on recent iterations of the play, go here, here and, most prominently, here. HBT!

Hidden Ball Trick

The High Cost of Not Paying Attention, Juan Uribe Edition

Uribe picked offThe last time we saw two hidden ball tricks in a season was … well, who really knows? Evreth Cabrera tried it against the Giants in July, but was stymied by a lack of execution from his teammates and an ill-placed timeout call.

On Saturday, Tampa Bay was far less subtle in its efforts against the Dodgers—and far more effective.

Shortstop Yunel Escobar, noting that Juan Uribe—who had just pulled up at third following a sacrifice fly—wasn’t paying attention, called for first baseman James Loney to throw him the ball. He then tossed it to third baseman Evan Longoria, who was standing behind the bag.

Longoria watched Uribe quietly, and waited, ball in hand. Despite warnings hollered from Zack Greinke in the on-deck circle, the moment Uribe pulled his foot off the base, Longoria pounced. Third-base ump Angel Hernandez was right on it, and a disbelieving Uribe was out. (Watch it here.)

Thanks to a 5-0 victory, the Dodgers were able to have fun with it, Adrian Gonzalez presenting Uribe with third base—complete with a taped-on cleat—after the game. (See image below, courtesty of @yasielpuig.)

Escobar told reporters that he’d already tried the play four or five times this season, but that this was the first time in his seven-year career it’s actually worked.

No wonder we don’t see it more frequently.

Update (8-14): Even Los Angeles-area youth are getting in on the action.

UribeFoot

Hidden Ball Trick

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: On Making Baseballs Disappear

hidden ballTim 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.

Hidden-ball trick!

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.”