Hidden Ball Trick by Rich Marazzi
The Hidden Ball Trick in baseball has been around as long as peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack. Many runners have been caught napping over the years by clever thinking infielders who have used a variety of tactics to execute the ancient ruse. Former shortstop Gene “Stick” Michael was one of the great hidden ball tricksters when he played. He pulled it off five times as a Yankee shortstop. Infielders have pulled off the play a number of different ways as you will see below. Fielders have politely asked unsuspecting runners to step off the base while they clean it, only to walk into a tag. Fame throws back to the pitcher are a common tactic.
Goins Pulls off Hidden Ball Trick
Blue Jays’ shortstop Ryan Goins successfully pulled off the hidden ball trick on the Yankees’ Todd Frazier with two outs in the top of the third inning on Sept. 22, 2017. Frazier was on second base when Jose Bautista made a terrific catch off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury. Bautista threw to Goins who faked a throw to pitcher Marco Estrada. Goins alertly tagged the surprised Yankee runner when he lifted his foot and lost contact with the base.
Hidden Ball Trick Ends Game
The Phillies hosted the Mets on April 8. 1988. With the Mets trailing 5-1, in the top of the ninth, Gary Carter hit a one-out double and was standing on second base. Lance Johnson then lined out to the right fielder who threw the ball back in to Phillies shortstop, Steve Jeltz. Carter, who celebrated his 34th birthday with a home run earlier in the game, would not be celebrating now. For, as he momentarily stepped off the bag — “I was switching my feet,” Carter said after the game — Jeltz applied the tag. “I started to throw the ball to (Bruce Ruffin, the pitcher), but he wasn’t ready” Jeltz said. “Then I noticed Carter off the bag, so I tagged him.”
Danger of a Balk
It’s important for the pitcher and the fielder executing the HBT, to be on the same page. If the ball is alive and in play when the fielder attempts to tag the runner, the pitcher cannot be on or astride the rubber. If the pitcher is on or astride the rubber without the ball, this is interpreted as an intent to deceive the runner. To be “astride the rubber” means the pitcher is straddling the rubber with one foot in front and one foot in back of the rubber. If the pitcher violates the rule, he should be charged with a balk. Any runner on base will be awarded one base.
The pitcher, without the ball, can be anywhere on the 18-foot diameter dirt circle of the mound or on the grass without penalty. Based on my experience, there appears to be confusion about this. There is incorrect thinking out there that says a pitcher should be charged with a balk if he is anywhere on the dirt circle.
Following are six different Hidden Ball Trick video clips. You will see plotting infielders Todd Helton, Evan Longoria, Ian Kinsler, Mike Lowell, Greg Brock, and Dave Bergman pull off the old, but effective baseball stunt. Note that Ozzie Guillen was called out twice on the Hidden Ball Trick. And also notice how the broadcaster in the Lowell play, incorrectly says, “You can’t be standing on the mound in that hidden ball trick.”
I have a large data base of balks that have been called over the years. Only once have I ever seen a pitcher get called for a balk on a potential hidden ball trick play. It occurred on August 12, 1961, and the victim was San Francisco Giants pitcher Jack Sanford during a game against the Cincinnati Reds. Giants’ shortstop Jose Pagan concealed the ball in his glove and was ready to tag Johnny Edwards if he stepped off second base. Sanford placed his foot on the rubber without the ball in his possession and was called for a balk by umpire Ken Burkhart, a former major league pitcher who was certainly on top of the rule.
Altuve: The Hidden Ball in Pant Trick
On April 10, 2016, the Astros’ Jose Altuve attempted the hidden ball trick in an unorthodox manner in hopes of catching the Brewers’ Chris Carter napping. The Astros were down, 2-1, in the third inning when Carter doubled with one out. When Altuve received the ball from the outfield, he slipped the ball into his back pocket hoping to catch an unaware Carter stepping off second base. But Carter had his eye on the ball and knew what Altuve was up to. He just stood there and laughed.
Was it legal for Altuve to hide the ball in his pant pocket? There was nothing in the rules that prohibited it at the time, but it has since been declared illegal. The following rule was added to the Official Baseball Rules in 2019. It reads,
“If a ball is intentionally placed inside a player’s uniform (e.g., a pants pocket) for the purpose of deceiving a base runner, the umpire shall call “Time.” The umpire will place all runners at least one base (or more if warranted, in the umpire’s judgment, in order to nullify the action of the ball being put out of play), from the base they originally occupied.”
Note that the violation is not a balk but a minimum one base award, with the possibility of further base awards subject to umpire judgement. Also, the umpire can immediately invoke the rule regardless of the position of the pitcher on the mound. Actually, the penalty is more severe than a balk because it empowers the umpires to award more than one base. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where more than one base would be awarded, but it’ possible.
Although I don’t think it was Altuve’s intent, another reason why hiding a ball in a uniform should be prohibited is that a fielder could conceal a foreign substance that would assist in doctoring the ball for the pitcher which is normally punishable with a 10-game suspension.
One for the Books
The 2018 American Legion World Series went down to the wire with Delaware winning the title over Nevada, 1-0. Delaware had runners on first and second with one out in the sixth inning when Nevada pitcher Josh Sharman made a legal spinning pickoff move to second base. Sharman didn’t throw the ball, but he acted like he had chucked the ball into center field, pretending to be furious about the would-be error.
The baserunner was fooled and took off to third base.
That was when Sharman simply tossed the ball to third and got the runner out.
For that, Nevada got an epic play, but Delaware got the win.
Rules consultant: Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, D’backs, Dodgers, Orioles, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Reds, Red Sox, Royals, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, the FOX Regional Sports Networks, ESPN, YES, and White Sox TV