Friday, June 22, 2007


Tricks of the Trade

“Swing! Batter, batter, batter. Swing!”

The catcher is nestled behind the batter, in front of the umpire. The catcher is eleven years old, the batter twelve. It could be one hundred years ago, or last week. Time has not altered the concept.

Players on the bench attempt to rattle the opposing pitcher. “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm. You throw like my sister. Your mother wears army boots.” (That one does date the writer, somewhat!)

Goofy little taunts. All part of the game. Anything to get the advantage, without going over the line, without cheating.

No steroids, no spitters, no hindering the flight of the ball. (Reggie Jackson once threw a hip to save his bacon.)

Two men out. Towering popup in the third base area. Infielders didn’t have to budge to catch the fly. Yankee runners on first and second.

When Alex Rodriguez rounded second base, he pretty well conceded he was a dead duck. The pop fly was on its way down into the Blue Jays’ glove. On he thundered toward third base. Just as he flew by the third baseman, he screamed: “Mine!” The intention was to distract the fielder, to decoy him into thinking that the shortstop would take the fly and end the inning.

The game was close. The Yankees desperately needed a win. Rodriguez had been personally maligned in the media the past couple of days, perhaps for an indiscretion. The Jays had won the two previous games. A Rod must have thought, “What the heck. Maybe it will work. Worth a try.”

Poor Howie Clark has been playing ball for along time, decades. Primarily in the minor leagues. But at a very high level---triple A, double A, and he has had a few cups of coffee in the bigs. On this occasion, he took the bait from A Rod, he stepped back to let Mcdonald field the ball and, “Thump”. It hit the ground.

All runners safe. Runner from second scored. The Yankees went on to win.

Manager John Gibbons stormed out of the Jays dugout to protest. There was an injustice, no doubt. Mcdonald was steamed, as was Matt Stairs, the burly Canadian who has recently found his stroke with the Jays. To no avail.

A Rod was smirking on third base. He was the cat that ate the canary. He had baited the hook, and it was taken.

It has been some time since we have seen the old hidden ball trick. Usually, there is a conference on the mound to discuss strategy. There is a runner, or perhaps runners on base. The conference ends, players return to their positions, the umpire gives the “Play Ball” indication. Runners move off their bases, gradually at first. Then “Zap!”

The infielder slaps a tag on the runner with the ball in his glove, hidden during the strategic conference. Runner is out. He’s the Charlie Brown. The Goat. The dummy who fell for one of the oldest pranks in baseball.

There were three seconds remaining on the clock in a college basketball game. The ball had gone out of bounds under the offensive basket. One last ditch effort, one last hope. Players jockeyed for position near the basket, for the trow-in, perhaps to get off a decent shot. Just after the referee handed the ball to the player to throw it in, one of the player’s teammates got down on the floor on all fours and began barking hysterically like a wounded dog. The opposing players gawked at the sight, the ball was thrown in, and was deposited in the hoop for an easy bucket. Game over. Victory by deception. Ethical, morally correct? YOU decide.

A hockey player flies over the opponent’s blue line in a one on two---attempting to get by two enormous defencemen. Suddenly he hears a tapping of a stick on the ice right behind him. He hears a teammate holler “Drop it! Drop it!”. He shuffles the puck back, and barges through the defence to create a screen for the goalie. At that point he discovers the deception. The player hollering for the puck was an opponent, flying back up the ice in transition.

Roger Neilson was a great coach and astute student of the game of hockey. Always looking for an edge, a way to win within the rules. In his days as the Peterborough Petes coach, he was faced with a challenge in the dying seconds of a game. He needed a goal to tie the game, so he pulled his goalie. He did not want the opposition to score an empty net goal on a long shot. He had his goalie place his goal stick across the crease in front of the net to keep the puck from sliding in. The changed the rule after that game.

On another occasion, one of his players got hit with a high stick near the end of a critical game. He skated over to the bench. Neilson helped the wound with a nick to encourage the sight of blood. Five minute major. The Petes scored twice on the power play to win the game. Referees now check for blood while a player is on the way to the bench.

The list is almost endless. The fine line is always there, and open to interpretation. Ethics, morals, value judgements. Right from wrong.

You make the call.
James Hurst June 14, 2007

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