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It started accidentally in 1971. Famous Amos Otis was the victim. Amos and I had been friends since his International League days. For some reason, during his first years with the Kansas City Royals I couldn't do anything but call him out. I mean, every play. If he tried to steal second my hand would be in the air before the catcher released the throw. I don't know why it happened, but I had a mental block and always thought he was out. Safe or out, he was out. No way he was going to get a close call from me.
So before the 1972 season I consciously told myself I was going to change. I thought over and over, Amos Otis is safe, Amos Otis is safe. It worked better than I intended. For half a season I couldn't call him out. He'd hit a grounder to shortstop and be walking back to the dugout and I'd call him safe. Everybody on the Royals knew about the situation and kidded both of us about it. Even Amos was embarrassed. "I know you like me, Ron," he said, "but I can get on base without your help."
I had to try to reverse myself again. We went into Kansas City for a three-game series and I was determined not to help him or hinder him. I was simply going to get it right. His first time at bat he hit a routine one-hopper back to the pitcher. He was running full speed because he knew I was going to call him safe and he wanted to make it look good. I was thinking, I can't possibly call him safe on this one, I know I'm going to get it right. The pitcher tossed the ball to the first baseman and Otis was out by 15 feet.
I was so pleased that I was finally going to get him that I pointed my index finger at him, cocked my thumb and started screaming, "I gotcha, gotcha, gotcha...." Meanwhile the rest of the Royals are standing on the dugout steps screaming, "Shoot him, shoot him!" I had no idea what they were talking about until I realized I had my trigger finger pointing at him. And it was loaded. So I shot him with it. Three times. And when I finished, I casually blew the smoke away from the barrel and put it back in its holster.
Then I shot the next guy. Got him by five feet. He was racing down the baseline and I was yelling, "Bang, you're out!" I was actually yelling that at the runner. Suddenly the mundane out call at first base became a lot of fun for me and the fans. It was different, it didn't hurt anyone and made a routine moment entertaining. My personal record is 16 shots. Bill Haller counted them.
The only player who ever complained about it was the short shortstop, Freddie Patek, when he was with the Royals. He approached me before a game in which I was scheduled to work first base. "Look," he said, "I haven't had a hit in about 20 at bats, and I'm gonna be embarrassed if you shoot me out. So please give me a break this time." I agreed not to do it.
He struck out his first at bat and flied to the outfield his second, so I didn't get a chance at him. But his third time up he hit an easy ground ball to short. John Mayberry and Frank White were yelling at me from the Royal dugout, "Shoot him, shoot him!" But I had given him my word, and I intended to honor it. So I pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and threw it at him.
Only umpires and some pitchers really understand baseballs. To most players, including catchers, every baseball is the same. How easily they're fooled by surface appearances. Every baseball is different. Pitchers know that. The laces might be higher than normal, or tighter; the cover may be too slick, it might even have a nick in it. Some years baseballs are different sizes than other years, no matter what the league office claims.
When a pitcher asks the umpire for a new baseball, the man in blue usually inspects the old one and either tosses it out of play or slips it into his pocket and gives the pitcher a new one. Depending on who the pitcher was, I often pretended to put the ball in my pocket, but in fact kept the same one in play. Among others, Dennis Eckersley accepted and pitched with the same ball he'd rejected.
Jim Palmer was the only pitcher who consistently rejected the same baseballs. I tested him on a number of occasions, and he passed every test. He'd reject a ball, and I'd put it in my pocket and give it to him again a few balls later and he'd reject it again. That is a man who knows his business. Unfortunately, he is also a man who thought he knew my business and was never shy about telling me.