MLB·In Depth

Ozzie, the spud & The Ol' Hidden Ball Trick

Baseball contributor Malcolm Kelly unspools some of the great yarns surrounding baseball's delighful (or infuriating, depending who you ask) Hidden Ball Trick.

Great stories surround baseball's ancient deception play

Before his time as a controversial manager, Ozzie Guillen was victimized on several occassions by the Hidden Ball Trick during his playing days. (Jason Arnold/Getty Images)

Pity poor Ozzie Guillen, for he is the punch line in this story.

Though like all good punch lines, he’ll be spared until the end of the tale while the gag is set up.

If you go in search of the ol’ Hidden Ball Trick, a deception play by baseball infielders so rare for most fans to see it deserves capital letters, you discover many modern players disdainful of such an activity.

"In the majors, you are a little more in tune with things [so] it’s kind of a silly play," says Mike Napoli, first baseman for the Boston Red Sox. "If you get caught doing that, it’s pretty bad."

And here’s Adam Lind, Napoli’s counterpart over with the Blue Jays of Toronto.

He’s seen the Hidden Ball Trick twice — in college, where coaches "have nothing to do but scheme up these ridiculous plans." He believes "in pro ball, you have other things going on. Players are better and you’re worried about other things."

Is it any surprise then that a play game historians say has been pulled just under 300 times in 150 years of big-time baseball (two a season), hasn’t been done since 2007 when Julio Lugo of the Red Sox caught Alberto Callaspo of Arizona napping and tagged him out?

Part of it may be professional courtesy. Or no one wants to be the first to try it again and look foolish if they mess it up. Or someone might punch you.

This spud's for you

One of the greatest hidden ball tricks of all time was, alas, also totally illegal.

Catcher Dave Bresnahan, a minor leaguer coming to the end of his four-year career (.210, 9 HR, 74 RBI) at Williamsport in 1987, cooked up an idea with his teammates about a week before he pulled it as a perfect end to his career.

Wandering into a local supermarket, he found a potato about the size and weight of a ball, took it home and cleaned it before painting "seams" on the thing. Then he waited for a chance.

In come the Reading Phillies for a late-August double-header, and later in the proceedings Rick Lundblade arrives at third. Bresnahan calls time, tells the umpire his glove is broken, runs to the dugout where he’s hidden the potato in the backup mitt. Potato goes in the back pocket of his pants.

Next pitch (and yes, the hurler and the third baseman are in on it), he fires a "pick-off attempt" down the line way over the runner’s head, who proceeds to trot in happily only to find Bresnahan standing there with the real ball.

Everyone’s yelling. Third base ump finds the potato and brings it back, laughing. Home plate ump is mad because the league’s umpire coordinator is in the stands.

Lundblade is given the run. Bresnahan stays in the game but is pulled at the end of the inning, and the next day is cut. For about a week there the now-former catcher is a celebrity, appearing on TV and in papers around the land.

What a way to go out.

"I think people, deep down, enjoy a good laugh," Bresnahan said last year in a TV interview with John Green. "Baseball is a game, and I’m a real serious baseball historian and I respect the game as much as anybody and I didn’t want to disrespect the game."

Fortunately, he says 25 years later, most everyone understood that and loved the prank for what it was — a chance to put a smile on people’s faces.

Pat Tabler, now a baseball broadcaster but then a long-time Cleveland Indian and Blue Jay, once saw Joe Carter, when both played for the Tribe, try the Hidden Ball Trick on Boston’s Bill Buckner, and it almost caused a fight. Buckner was apparently not amused.

Tabler, standing around the cage in batting practice last week, had to go back in his memory banks but is sure he’s seen it done successfully.

Someone else suggests looking up Dave Bergman.

That would be David Bergman to you, a man of beautiful suits, silk ties and a successful investment business of which he’s the senior portfolio manager just outside of Detroit.

A refined person such as this would pull something as nefarious as the Hidden Ball Trick?

You bet your butt he did. Twice, as a matter of fact, during his 17 years up to 1991, the majority of that with the Tigers. Silly play? Please.

"Here’s one of the things that you learned, as a player from Little League on, you don’t leave the base until the pitcher is up on the dirt, and if you do you’re subject to anything that goes on," he says over the phone from the Motor City.

"I’m going to try to win baseball games any way I possibly can, as long as it’s within the rules, and I still feel that I’m within the rules of baseball by doing things like that."

Besides, he points out, if you think of the number of one-run games a team wins or loses in a season, if you can remove a base runner here or there because the other guy isn’t paying attention, then go for it.

And now, the punch line. One player in modern Major League Baseball has been caught twice in the same year on the Hidden Ball Trick.

Yes, it was poor Ozzie, who holds a share of the all-time record by being caught three times in total.

The future World Series winner as a manager was plying his successful trade as a Chicago White Sox shortstop in 1989 when the Brewers’ Greg Brock got him at first base.

Some weeks later, at home in the Windy City, with Ramon Pena on the mound for the Tigers, Bergman stepped up to deepen the humiliation.

How did Ozzie get caught twice? For that, we turn to CBC Sports’ Guide to Pulling the Hidden Ball Trick.

1. The Dave Bergman Prestidigitation Process (Warning: Must be left-handed)

This works when you notice a player who dives back to first base on a pick-off attempt from the pitcher is "timing you" — meaning he takes his hand off as you’re throwing the ball back.

So, you fake the throw back, hide the ball in your glove, and wait for that hand to come off. Tag. You’re out.

"I observed and figured out as time went on that if the runner tried to time you, being left-handed, their vision was kind of blocked a bit by the glove if you just kind of opened it up and put the ball right in the glove," says Bergman.

When he tagged Ozzie with that big trapper, he got Senor Guillen just a little too hard on the helmet.

"He was dazed for a moment," says Bergman, laughing at the memory. "And by the time he came to he wanted to fight, but he realized the guys had left the field and his team was coming onto the field, so there was nothing he could do except go to shortstop."

2. The Marty Barrett "Ball? What ball?" Play

Worked to perfection by the 10-year infielder (nine with Boston), this one is possible if you tend to hold your glove with the classic "one finger out" style at the back.

Barrett pulled an amazing three Hidden Ball Tricks, two of them within three weeks in 1985 when he caught Bobby Grich and then Doug DeCinces, both playing for the same team — the Angels (you’d think they’d have known). At the time, players were trying to work out how he hid the ball.

Bergman reveals all.

"Marty would get the ball from the outfield as a second baseman," he says. "He would put the ball between the index finger and the [back of the] glove … and show the glove [to the runner] and there’s nothing there."

Until the runner wandered off the bag. Tag. Out.

3. The Matt Williams Housecleaning Ruse

Tabler loves this play. One of his all-time favourites.

According to author Derek Zumsteg, San Francisco’s Williams would conceal the ball and then ask the runner to step off the bag for a moment so the fielder could clean it with his spikes.

C’mon. Nobody would fall for that. Rafael Bournigal, of the L.A. Dodgers, did in 1994.

"You have no friends in this business," said the victim afterwards.

Three years later Williams pulled it on Jed Hansen, and then almost had a third one when he got Neifi Perez to oblige only to lose it when the pitcher was called for a balk.

That’s a key here. The pitcher cannot touch the mound at all, something that was changed decades ago when standing up top, but not touching the rubber, was acceptable. Too hard to call, so they changed it.

4. Ye Olde Armpit Play

A classic from baseball’s early years, it’s been done in the minors more recently.

This one is run by the second or third baseman, usually when they’ve covered a bag on a bang-bang play that has people looking in multiple directions.

After making the out, the fielder fakes the throw back to the pitcher, tucks the ball up under his sweaty pit, walks back to his spot and waits for the runner to begin the leadoff.

Tag. Out. Toss that one out of play as it’s now officially a spit ball.

5. The Mike Lowell Academy Award For Best Actor Trick

Third baseman Lowell pulled this twice, best of them on Luis Terrero of the Diamondbacks back in 2005 when the former was with the Marlins.

Keep the ball and hide it on a toss back to the infield when there’s a runner on third. Stand close to the bag. Act like nothing is happening. Paw the dirt. Look away. Scratch here and there while the pitcher plays with the resin bag behind the mound.

After about 10 seconds, the runner steps off the bag.

Tag. Out. For all of these, it’s best you let the umpire know beforehand so he isn’t looking elsewhere.

"I would just kind of jiggle my hands so the umpire could see it and know something was on," says Bergman.

And if the runner’s attention was off, well, that’s unfortunate for him.

"That’s why I had the utmost respect for Marty Barrett," says Bergman. "If he picks you off, too bad. It’s not unethical, or dirty."