|Thursday, May 16
Perry greased batters with his stuff
By Derek Zumsteg
Special to ESPN.com
Let's say you're an average major-league pitcher, one of the thousand best baseball players on the planet. You're doing a job that requires you to do something unnatural a hundred times in under three hours, where career-ending surgery is an eventual certainty. You might scrape together a decent career, sign a two- or three-year deal to munch innings at the back-end of a rotation. You face Alex Rodriguez, maybe the best baseball player on the planet, two men on already, and there's nothing you can throw for a strike that he can't turn into a souvenir for some lucky fan.
This is why pitchers cheat. Any edge they can add to their talent will get them to the next game, and enough edges will get them another year, another contract. Methods to scuff the ball include emery boards concealed on the hand, glove or cap; putting something slick on the ball to make it dance; having the catcher scuff the ball on a shin guard before tossing it back; having infielder hand you wet balls.
On May 1, 1999, Detroit Tigers pitcher Brian Moehler became one of my favorite players. On his way to a good season following a fine sophomore campaign in 1998, Moehler got the start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He went 6 1/3 innings (7 H, 1 BB, 5 K) before home-plate umpire Larry Barnett walked to the mound to see how Moehler was managing to get such strange movement on his pitches. Barnett inspected Moehler's glove and then looked at the pitcher's left hand.
"He was like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. He knew he was caught," Barnett said afterwards.
Moehler took off his glove and revealed a dime-sized piece of sandpaper glued to his left thumb. Moehler was ejected. AL President Gene Budig suspended Moehler for 10 days. Moehler went 7-13 with a 5.24 ERA the rest of the season, a big drop from 1998's 3.90 ERA.
"I'm not saying that Mo does or does not. I'm just saying that in the major leagues, as long as I can remember, that's sort of been part of baseball," Larry Parrish, Detroit manager at the time, said after the game.
Parrish was right; pitchers cheating has been a part of baseball as long as the game has been played. Some of the greatest pitchers in baseball were cheaters, caught and admitted. Joe Niekro, Whitey Ford -- who once said, "It was as though I had my own tool bench out there with me," -- and even Don Sutton, who when accused of using foreign substances, is said to have replied, "Not true at all. Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States."
Without any doubt, though, the greatest cheater of all was Gaylord Perry.
Perry spent two years bouncing between the minors and the Giants before he started cheating. He then carved out a 22-year career that put him in Cooperstown. Perry wasn't only a great cheater, though, he was a great pitcher with enormous talent: he won two Cy Young Awards, becoming the first pitcher to receive the honor in both leagues, finished in the top 10 in ERA 11 times and strikeouts 12 times, and went to the All-Star Game five times. He was a better-than average pitcher as late as 1980, when he was 40 and had been pitching for 18 seasons.
Though he's known as a spitball artist, Gaylord Perry didn't throw a spitter when he cheated, for the most part. He threw greaseballs. Vaseline was his mainstay, but as a great cheating mind, Perry was open to experimentation. "Man, I tried everything," Perry once said. "When my wife was having babies the doctor would send over all kinds of stuff and I'd try that, too. Once I even used fishing line oil."
Perry cheated as much for the psychological effect as for the movement on the ball. Opposing hitters knew he threw greaseballs, and Perry loved it. Perry's success drove rule changes in 1973 about what pitchers could do while on the mound. Section 8.02 is made much more clear if you imagine exactly what Gaylord Perry would have done had those specific instances not been spelled out: 8.02 (a) 3: "expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove ... "
Even with baseball making rules changes to catch up to him, the next year Perry published an autobiography titled "Me and the Spitter." In his book he talked about his career doctoring balls, and wrote that from that point afterwards he would be a clean and law-abiding citizen of the game ... and then went on to throw the greaseball for another nine seasons.
He loved playing with the minds of batters -- he would fidget on the mound, touching his cap, his glove, his uniform, his face. Umpires frequently went over his person and his uniform with a thoroughness that presaged modern forensic investigation.
"The day before I'd pitch, I'd put grease on my hands and go shake their hands just to get them thinking," he said. "Sometimes I'd roll a ball covered with grease into their dugout."
Perry was so adept at his craft that he wasn't ejected for throwing a doctored ball until August of 1982, some 20 years into his craft. His Dukes of Hazzard ability to elude the law for so long owed much to his foresight, planning, and what must have been a rabbinical understanding of the rules.
He concealed Brylcreem in his hair, Vaseline on a locket he'd wear around his neck, his hat, anywhere he could manage: "I hid it mainly on my face. The umpires never noticed because I sweat a lot."
In 1983, Perry must have known his career was coming to an end. The Seattle Mariners had kept him around to pick up his 300th career win. He was 44, getting knocked around with greater and greater regularity, having to toil with Seattle -- Seattle! -- to eke out a career milestone, only to be tossed by a team that would finish 60-102. He ended up with the Kansas City Royals.
Perry stood on the mound in his Royals uniform and there, lying peacefully at the back of the mound, was the rosin bag. Nothing in the rule book. So Perry invented a new pitch, the "puff ball," coating the ball with rosin. On his delivery the ball would come out of his hand in a cloud of white dust, and who knows what having rosin all over the ball did to its movement.
Rule 8.02 now reads: "Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag."
I would have voted for Gaylord Perry to make the Hall of Fame on that basis alone: after 310 career wins, at age 44, Perry was still on the mound, looking for ways he could get an edge, any kind of edge, and in so doing he created a new way to cheat, forced one last rules change before he went into retirement, and earned his place as the greatest cheater to ever play baseball.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Derek Zumsteg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.