Breaking the rules: MLB
It takes a magician's touch to bend baseball's rules
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:05PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 2:07PM
While television has nearly driven out the type of serious cheating that can be spotted on camera and reviewed by the league, we continue to see innovation in the historically fertile areas such as groundskeeping, while the same technology that deters cheaters is often turned to the purpose of sign stealing.
The most common form of cheating occurs when pitchers use foreign substances to get a better grip on the ball, particularly in bad conditions. We saw Kenny Rogers with pine tar on his hand in a World Series game. Francisco Rodriguez keeps a stash of resin under the brim of his cap for easy access. Joe Nathan's cap sometimes looks like it was dipped entirely in pine tar before he put it on, and he'll reach up to adjust, rub, and grab at it when he needs to get some on his hand. All totally illegal but unenforced; the rules state a player can't have foreign substances on his uniform, but baseball almost never takes any action against pitchers, even when the hurler is caught on video clearly getting into something. The enhanced grip on the ball afforded by a foreign substance allows pitchers to put more spin on a pitch as it leaves their hands, and that, in turn, gives the pitch more movement and makes it harder to hit. And as long as baseball wants to let it go, why not go for it?
The rules define the dimensions of the field, the mound and the distance between the bases, but they leave a vast area of groundskeeping open to interpretation. And everyone interprets it differently; it's only a matter of how far they'll go.
Watch when a player lays down a bunt. Tilting the foul lines and making the field play fast or slow for bunts is one of the oldest groundskeeper traditions. When you see, say, Derek Jeter put down a bunt toward third at Yankee Stadium, and it stays perfectly parallel to the line as it dies, that's no accident. And when he's on the road and that same bunt takes off on him, that's no accident either. If a team has good speed, they may build up the lines so it's harder for a bunted ball to roll foul while the batter beats out an infield single to first. But if the visiting team features a particularly skilled bunter, a club will go the opposite direction, and do all it can to ensure slow rollers to first veer for the dugout as they go.
Teams also make subtle tweaks to the mound that can change the outcome of a game. For instance, they can tamper with the visiting pitcher's landing point, which is where his lead foot comes down when they take that big stride forward. If that spot is far enough from where the home team's pitcher lands, it can be open season on the visitor. That one small patch of dirt can become wet and slippery underfoot, or it can be dried out (Casey Stengel once had a grounds crew go out with a blowtorch) so that the stride is jarring. Either way, the result can throw a pitcher's mechanics off, affecting his control and even his velocity. When you see the starting pitcher kicking at the mound after he misses his spots, trying to fix something while cursing under his breath, you may well be witnessing some fine mound tampering.