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Peter Gammons
August 17, 1987
Baseball has mounted a campaign to stop pitchers from doctoring balls and hitters from corking bats
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August 17, 1987

O.k., Drop That Emery Board

Baseball has mounted a campaign to stop pitchers from doctoring balls and hitters from corking bats

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Perhaps Peter Ueberroth should install airport-style X-ray devices in each on-deck circle. That way every pitcher on his way to the mound could be checked for emery boards, sandpaper, thumbtacks and K-Y jelly; every hitter on his way to the batter's box would have his bat scanned for implants of cork, rubber balls or steel tacks. To make it clear to everyone that major league baseball takes all of this very seriously, a sign would be placed beside each device warning players that joking is an offense punishable by suspension. Then, and only then, would baseball be free of cheating pitchers and cheating hitters, and Ueberroth could turn his attention to the base runners. The Mets' Keith Hernandez suggests the rules makers do something about all those stolen bases.

Is the above any more ridiculous than the sight of five men walking into the Executive Health Group center in New York City last Friday carrying a baseball bat to be X-rayed? Or Joe Niekro being suspended for toting manicuring tools? "We've got too many nonbaseball people running the game right now," said Mets manager Davey Johnson last week. "So we're getting all these nonbaseball sideshows."

Johnson was speaking from smack in the middle of one. On Thursday night at Shea Stadium, Mets third baseman Howard Johnson, a suspected cork abuser, cracked his 27th homer in this homer-rampant season and had his bat impounded by umpire John Kibler. So naturally Davey Johnson wanted Kibler to check the bat of the Cubs' Andre Dawson, who had also hit a home run. ("Tit for tat," said the Mets skipper). But Kibler let Dawson keep his wood—and he promptly belted another homer. The next afternoon, National League officials exonerated HoJo and his bat with a statement that sounded like the old line about Yogi Berra's head: The X-rays revealed nothing.

"Now we'll learn the effect of X-rays on wood," said HoJo with a shrug before Friday's game. The irradiated wand produced no homers, but it was good for a triple. The next day, Mets pitcher (Jolly) Roger McDowell was seen in the clubhouse wearing a carpenter's belt hung with sandpaper, cork, a saw, a file and a selection of emery boards. Said pitcher Ron Darling, "People have been trying to get an edge for as long as baseball's been played; it's part of the lore."

But Ueberroth, not surprisingly lining up with the rules makers, issued a statement saying that "the time has come to inspect the bats in addition to the balls" and decreed that managers may call for one bat check per game. "Now," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, "as soon as the one bat is checked, everyone on the bench can go get their corked bats because the umps can't check any more. I say if they challenge a bat and it is corked, then suspend the player for life. I'm waiting for some pitcher to get killed because some guy uses a corked bat."

But many users of doctored bats—it has been estimated that as many as 20% of the hitters use them—might argue that they break the rules only to keep pace with the pitchers, who have been cheating longer and pose a far greater danger to batters than batters do to pitchers. Three nights before the bat debacle at Shea Stadium, Minnesota pitcher Niekro was caught on the Anaheim Stadium mound with an emery board and sandpaper in his pockets and given a 10-day suspension. Umpires have inspected balls pitched by the Yankees' Rick Rhoden and Houston's Mike Scott this season, and Giants manager Roger Craig has vowed that he will catch Scott and/or Scott's Astro teammates Nolan Ryan and Dave Smith in the act of scuffing a baseball. Cubs players claim to have seen sandpaper fluttering near Scott and collected balls scuffed by the Phillies' Kevin Gross. Gross, in fact, acknowledges using a scuffed ball, on July 5, in a game against Scott. "In a couple of innings, the ball that Scott was throwing was still on the mound when I started my inning, so I used it," says Gross. "And I threw some of my best pitches using that ball he left."

Until last week, no one had been suspended for doctoring a ball since Gaylord Perry received a 10-day sentence for doing so in a game in 1982. Interestingly, the plate umpire then, Dave Phillips, was the crew chief in Anaheim last week when plate ump Tim Tschida became suspicious of a Niekro slider to Brian Downing that broke with unusual sharpness. "The guy was so blatant," said second base umpire Steve Palermo of Niekro, "it was like a guy walking down the street carrying a bottle of booze during Prohibition." The umpires converged on Niekro, demanding he empty his pockets. Out of one flew an emery board. No big deal there, Niekro said. Everyone knows that knuckleballers have to keep their nails filed. But Niekro was also caught with a�-by�-inch piece of sandpaper—"contoured to fit a finger," said Phillips—that he had slipped into his other pocket after removing his glove. Niekro explained away the sandpaper thusly: "Sometimes I sweat a lot, and the emery board gets wet. And I'll also use the paper for small blisters." Uh-huh.

The umpires sent several of the baseballs Niekro had allegedly scuffed to American League president Bobby Brown. Said Angels manager Gene Mauch, "Those balls weren't roughed up; they were borderline mutilated."

Pitchers have been cheating for as long as baseball has been played, although Scott, Ryan and Smith may have advanced the state of the art. Whitey Ford used his wedding ring or had his catcher, Elston Howard, rub the ball against a shin guard buckle. Preacher Roe wrote stories about his spitter. Clyde King once loaded a ball with a wad of bubble gum, and when Perry wasn't using slippery elm tablets or fishing-line wax or K-Y jelly, he was powdering balls with resin and throwing puffballs. Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller has kept a private scuffball museum for nearly a decade; he has specimens from suspected masters like Mike Marshall and Don Sutton. "But there aren't as many pitchers doing it as people think," says Miller. " Scott? He throws 96 miles an hour. I really think some pitchers do it for psychological reasons, which is why we don't complain. We don't want our hitters thinking about it."

Altered-bat controversies don't come up as often as pitching ones, but the practice of hollowing out bats and stuffing them with cork or other substances has been around for only three decades or so. The late Norm Cash admitted he had used corked bats his entire career. A hail of Superballs flew out of Graig Nettles's bat one day in 1974. After Dave Rader was traded to Boston from Philadelphia in 1980, he revealed that a carpenter had kept the Phillies supplied with finely corked bats. When California players accused some Twins hitters of corking their bats in 1984, Minnesota manager Billy Gardner countercharged that "they could use [Angel third baseman] Doug DeCinces's bats for fishing bobbers."

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