Deflate-gate joins greatest sports gear controversies

The New England Patriots’ so-called Deflate-gate scandal is dominating headlines this week ahead of the Feb. 1 Super Bowl, but this kind of controversy isn’t new. Here are just a few instances of athletes doctoring their gear — and even themselves — in search of an edge.

Balls, bats, sticks, swords modified in search of edge

The illegal curve on Marty McSorley's stick cost the Los Angeles Kings dearly in the 1993 Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens. (Getty Images)

With the New England Patriots’ so-called Deflate-gate scandal dominating headlines this week, sports fans have expressed shock — shock! — that a team might alter equipment to gain an advantage.

But this kind of controversy isn’t new.

Here are just a few instances of athletes doctoring their gear — and even themselves — in search of an edge:

Ahead of the curve

NHL regulations say the curve on a stick blade may not exceed three-quarters of an inch, but players sometimes bend the rule in an effort to boost their shots. Marty McSorley paid dearly for this in the 1993 Stanley Cup final.

With his L.A. Kings on the verge of taking a 2-0 stranglehold on the series as they nursed a late one-goal lead, McSorley’s stick was taken for a measurement at the request of Montreal coach Jacques Demers. The curve was deemed illegal and McSorley received a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The Canadiens’ Eric Desjardins tied the game on the ensuing power play, then won it with another goal early in overtime. Montreal took the next three games to win the Cup.

A real corker

Several baseball players have been caught after hollowing their bats and filling them with cork in order to make them lighter. Science doesn’t necessarily support this thinking, but that didn’t stop slumping slugger Sammy Sosa from giving it a shot in 2003.

Sticky situation

Long before the Patriots were (allegedly) deflating balls to make them easier to throw, catch and hold onto, NFL receivers applied Stickum — an adhesive product popular in spray form — to their hands and sometimes all over their upper bodies.

The league banned the use of Stickum and other such adhesives in 1981, but recent advances in glove technology have helped pass catchers make plays like this:

Naked punch

It’s customary for NHLers to drop their gloves before fighting, but Rob Ray took it a step further. Maybe two steps.

The longtime Sabres enforcer would often shed his jersey and shoulder pads during a scrap to prevent his opponent from grabbing hold, and some foes even claimed that Ray applied Vaseline to his body for added slipperiness.

Perhaps put off by all the toplessness, the NHL instituted the so-called Rob Ray Rule, mandating a game misconduct for any player whose sweater comes off during fisticuffs as a result of it not properly being fastened to the “fighting strap” on his pants.

Spy game

A KGB colonel got the boot from the 1976 Montreal Olympics after it was discovered he had rigged his épée to register a touch on his opponent when the Soviet fencer pushed a concealed button on the handle.

Officials foiled Boris Onischenko’s plot after he was credited with a touch while his British opponent was nowhere near Onischenko’s sword. 

The place beyond the pine tar

Baseball players often apply pine tar to the handle of their bats to improve their grip. The rules allow it, so long as the substance doesn’t reach above 18 inches from the tip of the handle.

On July 24, 1983, at Yankee Stadium, Royals star George Brett smacked a two-run homer off Goose Gossage with two out in the top of the ninth inning to put Kansas City up by one. But home-plate umpire Tim McClelland decided Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it and called him out, erasing the homer and ending the game.

An irate Brett charged out of the Royals dugout to scream at McClelland, creating one of the most memorable scenes in baseball history. After Kansas City appealed, American League president Larry MacPhail overturned the call and ordered the final three outs to be played a month later with K.C. leading by one. The Yankees went quietly and the Royals got the win.

File it away

Cheating, it seems, is as much a part of baseball as peanuts, Cracker Jack and smokeless tobacco.

During a 1987 game against the California Angels, Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro was tossed after umpires caught him with an emery board and sandpaper in his back pockets.

The knuckleballer claimed he used the objects only to file his nails (manicured hands are important for the pitch’s unusual grip), but Angels manager Gene Mauch wondered why the balls Niekro handled were “mutilated.”

Niekro certainly didn’t help himself with his ham-handed attempt to dump his tools without the umps noticing, and he later received a 10-day suspension.


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