Many at home with cheating

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many at home with cheating The din produced by Indianapolis Colts fans on Nov. 28 grew so loud that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger couldn't bark signals to the center crouching just before him.

It was so loud that, according to some commentators, it couldn't have been human. After the Colts won, 26-7, several media figures accused the team of pumping artificial noise into the RCA Dome during Steelers possessions.

The practice would be against league rules (the Washington Redskins drew a $20,000 fine in 2000 for blasting cheerleader noise), but the Colts denied the charge, and the NFL has declined to investigate.

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, however, picked up on the complaints last week, telling his team's Web site, Jaguars.com, "They've done it for a long time."

Whether Del Rio knew it or not, he was joining a long line of sports conspiracy theorists who've trafficked in suspicions of home-field advantage only to have the accused dismiss their allegations with knowing winks.

Individual cheating -- steroids, corked bats and the spitball -- has gotten all the attention in recent years. But more subtle manipulation of playing environments has long had its place (and in many instances, remained in the realm of rumor well past the time anyone could have been punished).

The rule-bending isn't limited to players and coaches. Fans take it upon themselves to make conditions as difficult as possible for opponents, edging over boundaries of good taste even when they are not breaking any formal rules.

"I guess I see it as all part of the same phenomenon, that 'win at all costs' mentality," said David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. "There's this gray zone in sports where there's probably a lot of fan acceptance that it's part of the strategy to bend the rules."

With the rewards growing larger for winners and the fallout becoming more severe for losers, Callahan doesn't expect rule breaking to wane.

Baseball has the richest lore of home-field chicanery.

"I don't think that it's something that's ever moved front and center, but it's always been there," said baseball historian Bill James. "It's a fact of life that people look for advantages and that there are rules that can't be easily enforced."

James has little doubt that such gamesmanship has turned big games. "Pennant races frequently come down to one game, so anything can be decisive," he said.

Allegations of sign stealing have proliferated for more than a century.

In the late 1890s, the Cincinnati Reds' Tommy Corcoran tripped rounding third and uncovered a telegraph wire being used by Philadelphia Phillies players to receive signs stolen by a player peering through binoculars from the stands.

Dodging the truth

A few years ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Harris Prager unearthed evidence that the New York Giants were stealing signs from the Brooklyn Dodgers during the famed 1951 playoff, ended by Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run.

Third base coach Herman Franks used a telescope to spy on signals from the Giants' clubhouse. Electrician Abraham Chadwick rigged the phones between the clubhouse and bullpen so he could buzz once for a fastball and twice for a breaking ball.

Thomson hedged a bit but told Prager he didn't take a stolen sign before striking the fateful home run off Ralph Branca. "It would take a little away from me in my mind," he said, "if I felt I got help on that pitch."

Even if he had, baseball had no rule banning such practices until 1961.

But that hardly halted sign-stealing tactics.

In the 1980s, Chicago White Sox batters looked to a flashing bulb on the scoreboard in Comiskey Park that supposedly decoded opposing pitches.

In the early 1990s, Orioles manager Frank Robinson said the White Sox were surveying the opposing dugout with hidden cameras.

Field manipulation also has remained a constant.

The great Orioles teams of the 1890s were among the early masters, as groundskeeper Tom Murphy tailored the field to a daring collection of bunters, slap hitters and base-stealers led by John McGraw and "Wee" Willie Keeler.

"In Baltimore, [Murphy] made the field to his liking," wrote Burt Solomon in Where They Ain't, a history of the early-era Orioles. "He built up the ground just outside the third base line so that bunts might stay fair. He packed the path to first base ever so slightly downhill to help the Orioles' speedsters. He mingled soap flakes with the soil around the pitcher's rubber to cause the unwary perspiring twirlers to lose their grip. ... The infield dirt was mixed with clay to formulate a soil almost as hard as concrete. All summer long, the infield remained unwatered, as boon to the base runners and the Baltimore Chop."

Reflection of Veeck

Indefatigable executive Bill Veeck was among the grandest practitioners of home-field manipulation. He devoted a whole chapter to it in his autobiography, Veeck -- As In Wreck.

In 1935, while Veeck was with the Cubs, the club handed out promotional mirrors to fans in the bleachers, who then reflected sunlight at opposing batters.

In Milwaukee, Veeck installed a sliding outfield wall addition that could be rolled out when opponents came to the plate.

Of his 1948 Cleveland Indians, he said, "We went on to win the pennant by resorting to gamesmanship -- the art of winning without really cheating -- as never before in the long and sometimes devious history of baseball."

The club's groundskeepers manipulated the height of the mound (fireballer Bob Feller liked it tall) the thickness of infield grass at various positions (shortstop Lou Boudreau liked it dense to slow the ball down) and the slope of the baselines (toward the field to help the team's bunters).

Crowed Veeck, "We had in Cleveland the Michelangelo of the groundskeepers, Emil Bossard." Bossard's son, Marshall, was the team's spy in the scoreboard.

Veeck's heirs persisted in finding new methods to the craft.

In the late 1980s, opponents suspected Minnesota of manipulating vents in the Metrodome to produce tailwinds when the Twins were batting and headwinds when opponents reached the plate. The 1987 team, coincidentally or not, maintained one of the great home-field advantages in history, winning the World Series despite having a losing record on the road and being outscored for the season.

Dick Ericson, the former Metrodome superintendent, confirmed the vent manipulation to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2003.

Basketball and football have endured their share of shenanigans as well.

In 1982, a driving New England blizzard rendered the Miami Dolphins' and Patriots' offenses useless ... until Mark Henderson, a convict on work release, used a John Deere tractor to clear a patch for the Patriots' John Smith to kick the winning field goal.

"I figured, 'What's the most they could do? Put me in jail?'" Henderson quipped to reporters.

In more recent years, opposing players have accused the New York Giants of opening and closing stadium doors to create unfavorable wind currents for opposing field-goal kickers.

Can't stand the cheat?

In the NBA, Red Auerbach holds dual reputations as history's greatest coach and its greatest creator of home-court legs up. On hot days, Auerbach's equipment manager cranked temperatures in the visitors' dressing area to hellish extremes. On cold days, he left windows propped open, turned the heat down and distributed already-wet towels to the visitors.

Celtics players learned the dead spots on Boston Garden's parquet floor (the result of cracks in the cement beneath created by passing trains) so they could steer opponents into game-changing turnovers.

Boston was hardly alone in the NBA of the 1950s, when fans in cities such as St. Louis, Syracuse and Philadelphia created truly hostile environments for opponents, pelting players and coaches with coins, eggs and harsh words.

Crowds have grown less belligerent, but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made headlines last season when he urged fans to distract opposing free-throw shooters by waving their white ThunderStix in unison rather than chaotically. Cuban made the suggestion on advice from Daniel Engber, a fan with a master's degree in neuroscience who claimed the unified action would make opponents feel that the whole arena was moving.

In the college game, Duke's crowds at cramped Cameron Indoor Stadium carry the torch for creative hostility.

When Maryland's Herman Veal was accused of sexual abuse in the 1980s, the Cameron Crazies showered the court with panties and held up signs reading "Hey Herm, Did You Send Her Flowers?" When North Carolina guard Steve Hale returned after a punctured lung, he was greeted by chants of "In-Hale, Ex-Hale."

Of course, home-field advantage isn't limited to the major sports.

Earlier this year, water-skier Jim Michaels, hosting a tournament at his home lake, rigged a system of underwater cables that changed the positions of buoys as he made his slalom runs. "My competitive zeal got the better of me and clouded my judgment," said Michaels, a Wisconsin dentist, upon admitting his crime.

His reward for such ingenuity? A six-year suspension and the striking of all his records. Perhaps he'd have fared better in baseball.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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