A few players admit—though always off the record—that they have used bugs as an alibi for bad play, and others have found insects useful for drawing attention away from some misdeed. The best story about the latter involves pitching great Gaylord Perry, who won 314 big league games with a suspiciously slippery breaking pitch. A few years ago in Arlington Stadium in Texas, a batter fouled off a Perry pitch. The ball struck a press box window, leaving a greasy smear on the glass. Told about this later, Perry grinned slyly and said, "It must have hit a bug on the way up."
Occasionally bugs have been the cause of games being won or lost. Braves assistant director of player development Bobby Dews remembers such a contest in Savannah, Ga., in the Southern League. With two outs in the ninth, the bases loaded and the game tied, a lefthanded pitcher named Al Pratt saw a mosquito land on the tip of his nose just as he stopped in his stretch. Jerking his hand to brush the mosquito away, Pratt was called for a balk, which let in the game-winning run.
Obviously bugs can be a hellaciously pervasive factor in ball games—more so, sometimes, than wind, sun, temperature or rain. Thus ballparks often have a variety of equipment and devices around designed to keep the bugs at bay: electric bug-zappers in the bullpens, insecticide sprayers in the groundskeepers' shed, No-Pest Strips dangling above hot dogs in the concession stands, bottles and cans of insect repellent in the dugouts. An enduring insect-repelling image is that of pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm on the mound in Chicago's Comiskey Park some years ago, pausing between pitches to fight off swarms of gnats and mosquitoes with a can of bug spray.
Over the years a number of ingenious solutions to the bugs-in-baseball problem have been devised. One afternoon last September, a Minneapolis inventor came to the Metrodome locker room to see Twins trainer Dick Martin. The inventor was carrying a mysterious box. He opened it and unwrapped two pairs of what he called "bug glasses."
"They were like cheap drugstore sunglasses," says Martin. "But in place of glass lenses they had wire mesh. Like a screen door." The inventor put on a pair and grinned. Martin lost his composure and began laughing so hard he almost fell to the floor. The inventor turned out to be sincere, so Martin apologized and agreed to take the glasses on a trial basis.
As fate would have it, several nights later the Twins were playing in Toronto when huge clouds of gnats suddenly descended on the field. Twins players began clamoring for the bug glasses. Martin recalls, "Two pairs weren't enough. I needed nine."
Unfortunately, the screening proved too dark and the Twins were afraid to wear them in the field. "I think if the material was a lot finer, they might work," Martin says. But the window of opportunity had closed; the inventor didn't come back, and the bug glasses are still on the shelf.
In the annals of ballpark bug stories, the events of Aug. 6, 1972, loom large. On that night in Midland, Texas, a game between the Midland Cubs and the Amarillo Giants of the Texas League was called on account of grasshoppers. Ted Battles, sports editor of the Midland Reporter-Telegram, was in the press box when it happened. "You'd have to have been there to believe it," he said. "The sun had just set. Suddenly the grasshoppers came in ahead of a cold front. When they hit the stadium, it sounded like an amusement park funhouse. Women and children were screaming. Men were swatting with their arms. The players were swinging bats at the grasshoppers."
The Aug. 7, 1972, Reporter-Telegram carried a front page headline: GRASSHOPPERS: MILLIONS FLY IN AHEAD OF BLUSTERY FRONT. The sports page had a screamer too: SWARMING GRASSHOPPERS ROUT CUBS, GIANTS, FANS.
The game story revealed that Pete LaCock had been at bat when the game was called. A former first baseman for the Royals and Cubs, LaCock remembers it all vividly. "You could hear the ball hitting grasshoppers as the pitch came in," he says. "There were marks from dead grasshoppers all over the ball. If you hit a pop foul, grasshoppers would fall out of the sky." Nothing like it has ever been recorded before or since.