Boys Will Be Boys

Roger Clemens gets off the hook on a perjury rap because either the House Committee for the Sending of Swell Messages to Kids, the actual prosecution, or the original Mitchell Report bungled its way across the sticky wickets of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. It induces something of a giant sucking yawn, with only an occasional bleat against putting the Rocket into the Hall of Fame.

Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay setup man, gets tossed before throwing a single pitch against the Washington Nationals, his former team, when a little pine tar is found in his glove, at the instigation of his former manager Davey Johnson. And it’s hail, old school chicanery, complete with exhuming a lot of classic observations (Claude Osteen, one-time Los Angeles Dodgers rotation mainstay, once observed so many 1950s pitchers were doing things to their balls that it should have been called the decade of the spitter) and derring-do. (It’s said that Ford Frick, one of baseball’s arguable worst commissioners, actually supported re-legalising the spitter in the Decade of the Spitter.)

Peralta, pine tarred and feathered . . .

Ah, the memories. The late Preacher Roe, Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander, and as elegant a competitor as ever took the mound, put paid to his career by giving a major magazine a story confessing that the outlaw pitch was his money pitch. His teammate, Carl Furillo, right fielder, swore to Roger Kahn (while writing The Boys of Summer) that the rest of the team knew when Roe was going to throw a loaded pitch: “When Preach touched the bill of his cap with two fingers, that was the signal. That’s when we knew it was coming. When he did it with one finger, we knew he was faking.”

Roe may have had a crosstown rival for chicanery, Eddie Lopat, the Yankee lefthander whose trademark lack of power pitching once earned him the nickname Slow, Slower, Slowest. Sure enough, Roe and Lopat tangled in a couple of World Series games. “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they?” Casey Stengel, who had a ringside seat managing the Yankees, observed after watching and admiring the two of them going at it. “It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

You think every so often there’s a small swell of insistence that Gaylord Perry got into the Hall of Fame by subterfuge? Well, now. Whitey Ford may have gotten there in something of the same way. Well, at least, the stories go that he began picking up Lopat’s mantle in the twilight of his own career, looking for any way to endure the elbow troubles that began to dog him in the 1960s. The Ford mud ball is almost as deep a legend as the Ford Mustang. Except that it wasn’t always Ford who profited from the pitch, which involved either Ford or catcher Elston Howard getting a little patch of field mud on the ball after the grounds crew wet down the dirt.  Bo Belinsky, the rakish Los Angeles Angels lefty, once said that if Ford ended an inning with a strikeout and Howard would roll the ball back toward the mound as the sides changed, “I had two outs waiting for me right there.” If not, Belinsky said, “I was dead.”

Did the Vulture literally sweat for his supper . . . ?

Phil Regan came almost out of nowhere in 1966 to emerge as the game’s craftiest and deadliest relief pitcher that season. (Sandy Koufax, noticing Regan’s eagerness for the ball when games got a little dicey, nicknamed Regan the Vulture.) For several years nobody could figure out what Regan was or wasn’t doing with the ball until, a few years later, toiling for the Cubs, someone noticed his propensity to sweat heavily. Turned out that Regan, who never wore anything under his uniform jersey but a short-sleeved T-shirt would let the sweat run down his arm and onto the ball.

They went nuts when Kenny Rogers had the postseason of his life in 2006, allowing no runs in three virtuoso starts, and a Fox Sports camera caught that brown smudge on the heel of his thumb. Rogers dutifully if puckishly washed his hand, but nobody else did much with him, which you couldn’t say about the rest of the Detroit staff in that World Series. On the other hand, once upon a time, the late Lew Burdette beat the Yankees in all three of his World Series starts to put the only rings on the fingers of a Milwaukee team to date. Burdette, a notorious mound fidget, was thought to be building himself a toxic waste puddle from his chewing tobacco and, when bending over to adjust his cleats yet again, scooping up a little of the sludge.

A camera just dropped in to see what condition his condition (or his thumb heel) was in . . .

Don Sutton’s another Hall of Famer who’s thought to have gotten there the old-fashioned way—with anything he could get away with, even if he didn’t have half of Gaylord Perry’s inverse charisma. Sutton was merely wittier. He’s said to have had notes tucked in his gloves if the umpires thought about frisking him. “You’re getting warmer,” said once such note. “But it isn’t here.”

Sutton, said one-time longtime Oriole pitching coach Ray Miller, “has set such a fine example of defiance, that someday I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound . . . [and] throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

You can imagine the fun those who were there had the day Sutton, with the California Angels, squared off against Tommy John, then with the Yankees, and carrying likewise a reputation for using wile, guile, and anything else he could think of. Yankee manager Lou Piniella had to talk owner George Steinbrenner out of his demand to have Sutton frisked, arraigned, and if necessary prosecuted: “Whatever they’re doing out there,” Piniella said, knowing full well his own man was liable to be read his rights in such a situation, “TJ’s doing it better. So let’s leave it alone.” When the Yankees won the game, a scout in the press box is said to have purred, “Tommy John versus Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Gaylord Perry in a familiar position—frisked, if not arraigned . . .

On the other hand, even the umpires developed a perverse sense of humour about Perry’s subterfuge. One ump who had Perry all but strip-searched on the mound bumped into the righthander on the street the next day. They exchanged some pleasantries (Perry had a reputation for being very friendly with umpires off the field) and the conversation turned to the ump’s son, a pitcher, whose Little League team was getting clobbered routinely. “Gaylord,” the ump’s said to have asked, “can you teach him to throw that thing?”

The late Mike Flanagan once drew Thomas Boswell, baseball’s Montaigne, off to one side during spring training. Flanagan produced a fresh, untouched baseball, and a broken-open coat hanger. Then, the Oriole pitcher cut three perfect gashes into the meat of the hide, and held it up. “Any time I need four new pitches, I got ’em,” he said evenly, while going on to say he wasn’t going to use them in a game—yet. (“Every pitcher needs an insurance policy.”) In the same article that sprang from that encounter, Boswell recorded suspicions, from Flanagan and others, that the legendary Oakland Athletics rotation of 1980-83—the ill-fated Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough, and Rick Langford—“had one kind of spitball or another as soon as Billy Martin could have it taught to them.” Usually, this came by way of Martin’s preferred pitching coach, Art Fowler, whose own money pitch in his days as a useful reliever wasn’t exactly clean and dry.

Staten Island stinker?

And before you get your moral outrage on, be advised that George Bamberger—once a formidable major league pitching coach, after a minor league pitching career in which his own money pitch was what he called his Staten Island sinkerball—observed, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A guy who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

George Frazier, he who once set a sad record by losing three games in a single Series, had a reply to anyone accusing him of using foreign substances: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.” Bill (Spaceman) Lee once admitted he threw loaded balls and would continue throwing them. Mike Scott went from nothing special to never better after learning the split-fingered fastball, but half the National League, especially the 1986 Mets, swore he was doing something other than gripping his pitches. The Mets retrieved several balls from Scott during a National League Championship Series game, all of which had a mark on the same spot, but the league decided not to prosecute.

And, come to think of it, there were those who first thought the split-finger fastball wasn’t exactly a kosher pitch. “It’s nothing but a legal spitball,” Ray Miller once said. “I was looking at my hand, thinking of the ten years I [pitched] in the minors, never getting to the majors and, honest to God, the thought floated up. ‘What if, fifteen years ago, I’d had my middle finger amputated? I’d bet I’d have had one hell of a split-finger fastball.”

“Any man who would consider cutting off a finger to make the major leagues,” Boswell wrote in retort, “will certainly cheat to stay there. Always has, always will.”

When Peralta got bagged, the pitcher rather understandably denied all. He must never have read from the gospel of Miller, who once had a run-in with Kansas City’s Dennis Leonard over a quote taken out of context in which Miller seemed to say Leonard had a good spitter. “Dennis,” Miller told the pitcher, “you should thank me. Nobody can do a pitcher a bigger favour than saying they’ve got a hell of a spitter.” Translation: Spitter on the brain—the one they only think you’re going to throw—is going to clip their batting averages even more than the one you might really serve.

It’s a point Peralta’s manager, Joe Maddon, might have missed. Maddon steamed because Johnson called for a check on Peralta’s glove, knowing damn well that Johnson had managed his man recently and was trading, essentially, in inside information. “That’s a pu$$y move,” Maddon fumed, a comment that isn’t half as likely to go as viral—and as far as the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, for that matter—as Bryce Harper’s “That’s a clown question, bro.” All Madden had to do was keep his mouth shut, let his man take his comeuppance like a man, and he’d have guaranteed the next time Peralta took the mound the enemy hitters would have a fair chance of surrendering a little more readily even if Peralta took the mound clean as the proverbial hound’s tooth.

Gaylord Perry exploited that for years. You remember Perry’s famous between-pitch routine? He’d stroke the bill of his cap both ways, with both hands, then brush his sideburns, then brush the breast of his jersey, then tap his belt twice. That’s the routine he’d go to when he wanted hitters to think he was greasing. And he made no bones about it. “I just leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around,” he once crowed. On the other hand, when Perry spent a spell with the Cleveland Indians, it was thought—courtesy of Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox, who told the story to umpire-turned-raconteur Ron Luciano—that Ray Fosse’s catcher’s mitt had such a ring of Vaseline around the pocket nobody knew whether it was a byproduct of Perry’s infamous servings or whether Fosse put it there himself to keep Perry from getting cuffed and stuffed.

Preacher Roe

In fact, it won’t always be the pitcher loading one up for delivery. Perry is far from the only one who may have had partners in crime. Preacher Roe once admitted he got occasional help from Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese and infield partner Billy Cox, once a formidable defencive third baseman. “Once in awhile,” Roe told a reporter, “after the ball had been tossed around the infield, Pee Wee or my buddy Billy would come up to the mound and drop the ball easy in my glove and say, ‘Okay, give us a good pitch now’.”

The mud ball wasn’t Whitey Ford’s only technique. He threw a ring ball concurrently; he had a rasp in his wedding ring that gave him what amounted to “my own tool bench out there.” At least, it did until an ump ordered him to remove the ring. Then, Elston Howard devised a new tack, no pun in tended: he’d scrape the ball on the buckles of his shin guard before throwing it back to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Jim Bouton once said, “sang four choruses of Aida.”

Partners in crime . . . ?

So while it’s rather pleasant to emerge from the sense and nonsense of the Clemens trial into an old-fashioned chat about cheating the old-fashioned way, let it never be said that the innocent don’t suffer. Once upon a time, according to Boswell, Ford also used an extremely sticky compound for, he said, a better grip on his curve ball. He kept the goo in a hollowed-out roll-on deodorant tube. Knowing that Yogi Berra mooched personal products almost by habit, Mickey Mantle—who never met a practical joke opportunity he couldn’t exploit—left Ford’s stickum on a shelf in Ford’s locker, making it look like a real deodorant tube. And Yogi fell for it, hook, line, and Staten Island sinker.

Two minutes later, the next sound in the Yankee clubhouse was Berra screaming blue murder as he ran into the trainer’s room. He had to be shaved free when his arms got stuck to his sides.

Maybe we’ve hit on the real difference between actual or alleged PEDs and the Houdinis of the hill. There wasn’t a lot of room for punking the juicers. There’s plenty of room for punking the scuffers, who prove themselves that boys will be boys. Always have been. Always will.

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