The Hidden Ball Trick


by Thomas A. Thornhill, Jr.


                  Most of you know that one of my “hobbies” is officiating sports.  In an odd sort of way, I call it “stress relief” as I focus on the game I am officiating.  I work in three sports, but the one I am most proficient (and experienced) in is baseball.  This brings to a play that I want to discuss.  It is one I have seen 3 times this season in the local city league I am officiating for. It goes something like this:

                With runners on base, the defensive coach (that’s the team that is not batting) will call a timeout.  He will ask for all the infielders to huddle by the pitchers mound.  While in conference, the baseball is secretly given to the baseman where the runner is.  After they disperse, the pitcher steps on the mound and the baseman steps behind the runner on base.  When the runner on base steps off base to get a leadoff toward the next base, the fielder with the ball produces it and tags the runner.  What do you have?  The hope is that the umpire will see it and call the runner out.  But there is a problem: THE PLAY IS ILLEGAL! It is not legal for two reasons.  1) When time is called, the ONLY way to start play again is for the umpire to signal so.  Most baseball rulebooks (Major League, Little League, high school and college) state that for the ball to be put back into play, the pitcher must be standing on the mound WITH THE BALL, the catcher in his catcher’s box, and the batter in the batter’s box.  Therefore, even though the runner who is not on base was tagged he is NOT out because the ball is still dead.  What you have is a delay of game violation, which usually is taken care of with a warning.  2) If for some reason the ball is declared live when the pitcher is on the mound the rules state he MUST have the ball.  IF he doesn’t have the ball it is a balk – which by definition is an illegal act intended to deceive a runner who is on base.  The penalty for a balk is to award ALL runners one base.   For what its worth, there IS a legal hidden ball trick which involves the ball staying live and the pitcher staying away from the mound.  That is why coaches will tell their players to stay on base until the pitcher is on the mound.

                Now one might ask: If it is not legal why would a team try it?  There are at least two reasons: 1) They are ignorant of the rules or 2) they HOPE the umpires are ignorant of the rules and thereby they will get away with it.  There is word for that too – it’s called CHEATING!

                The hidden ball trick reminds me of the way some people deal with the word of God.  There are many who claim to be serving God but do things which are simply not authorized.  What they do seems to be good and it is often done “in the spirit of true religion” but it is contrary to what God actually commands us to do.  In other words, IT IS ILLEGAL!  For many, they simply are ignorant of God’s word.  Ignorance has always been a great spiritual concern.  And today is no different.  Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.  Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”  Hosea is preparing Israel and Judah to be punished if they do not repent.  One of their faults was their ignorance.  It is noted that God’s law was available to them but they chose to not learn them.  When we willfully choose to not learn God’s laws, we are in danger of breaking the rules that He has set for us.  Paul warned the Athenians, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 20:17)  Just as ignorance is not excuse for breaking the laws of the land (or rules of a game), it is no excuse when you stand before God.

Many get their authority for doing something by observing what others are doing.  They figure if others are doing it, then it must be acceptable.  Believe it or not, that applies to many rules in many sports.  I have seen movies about baseball where the hidden ball trick was tried.  It is usually done illegally but, as is often the case in the movies, they get away with it. Then a coach somewhere gets the idea that he will try that play in a close game.  The problem is that he doesn’t consult the rules to confirm if it is legal or not.  In religion, far too many today base their faith upon what everybody else is doing.  They see something being done that is a good work and it is successful.  But they never take the time to investigate God’s word to confirm if it is authorized.  Friends, the majority can be wrong.  It was a majority in the crowd that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.  It was the majority of Israel that refused to enter Canaan after the twelve spies returned and gave their report.  It was the majority of the world that was destroyed in the flood after Noah preached to them for years that God would destroy it (II Peter 2:6).  Jesus taught that the way to destruction would be filled with the many (Matthew 7:13-14).  Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right.  Ignorance is no excuse.

                Still others KNOW what they are doing is not authorized (according to the rules), but they do it anyway hoping they will not get caught.  I think of false teachers who for selfish gains, prey on the ignorance of others. (II Peter 2:1-3).  Have you ever thought about what makes a false teacher dangerous?  It is the fact that in much of what they say, they tell the truth.  And with that truth they gain your trust and confidence which they later use to teach their false doctrine.  But they can only get away with it if you are ignorant.  When a coach tells me he knew the rules but was seeing if he could get away with it I AM NOT IMPRESSED (but it has happened with the hidden ball trick).  It is making a travesty of the game of baseball which could result in the coach being sent home (I warn the first time and then I would eject the coach).  Similarly, the false teacher who uses these tactics is making a travesty of the word of God.  I know that God is not impressed and we should not be either. 

The same could be said of anyone who willfully sins hoping he will not get caught because of the ignorance of others.  Consider the warning of Hebrews 10:26 which says, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”  While this passage is not teaching the impossibility of ever receiving forgiveness when we sin willfully, it calls for true repentance of your willful acts.  It is actually dealing with one’s present state (he is still living in sin).  If you desire to go to heaven, you have to keep ALL the rules.

                How can you prevent illegal actions lest you be disqualified? 1) Know the rules! II Timothy 2:5 says, “And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.   Paul’s message was one of endurance.  He was saying that you have to follow God’s rules if you are to win His race.  (See also I Corinthians 9:24-27).  There is only one way to learn “the rules”.  Study!  As a high school umpire, I am expected to attend a series of meetings totaling about 20 hours of instruction each year where we discuss new rules, situations and areas that can potentially pose problems (like the hidden ball trick).  The same is true spiritually.  Brethren, we HAVE TO study!  We need to devote considerable time to learning God’s word lest we through ignorance violate “the rules” of service to God.  2) Consult the mature in the faith for guidance (elders, wise elderly men and women, teachers, etc.).  They are supposed to know the word of God that they are teaching.  There is a reason why James 3:1 says teachers will receive a stricter judgment.  They are accountable not only for what they do, but what they teach others.  There are plenty of examples in the Bible of turning to the seasoned for help.  They are a valuable resource to one just learning.  But be fore warned: For them to be of any good use to you they have to know the rules themselves.  A godly teacher will encourage you to look for yourself.

                As Christians, let us not try to get away with anything when it comes to serving God.  Simply follow all the rules and you will be fine.  When it comes to a baseball game, mistakes may be made.  Coaches may cheat (but not usually) or do something in ignorance.  Umpires my miss a call or in ignorance let something stand that is not according to the rules.  The worst case scenario would be that such a play resulted in the loss of a game or maybe one’s place in the standings.  But in the end it’s just a game.  But when it comes to ignorance with God’s word – it could cost you your soul for all of eternity.  And by the way, don’t think that you can actually hide the ball from God in the first place (Hebrews 4:13).  Think about it! 

Surfed across your web site and since I have an affinity for the Omaha area, thought I would drop you a line on the hidden ball trick. I was a Boys and Girls Clubs of America director at various locations, where I recruited and trained sports officials. Now for your hidden ball situation.

Hidden ball trick is permitted under Major League Baseball (MLB) rules, but not repeat not following a suspension of play (dead ball). Reference MLB Rules 5.10 and 5.11. Also see MLB Rule 2 DEAD BALL and JEOPARDY. But, be careful as other leagues may have different rulings. When resuming play under MLB 5.11 the pitcher must have the ball in his possession. If the pitcher does not the ball remains dead. And, it can’t be a BALK as no play is permitted during a dead ball.

I have to be honest; I only had the hidden ball problem once in 1957 at Newark, New Jersey where I took a baseball umpire’s examination.

Question – The pitcher of Team A walks. Upon reaching first base, he requests time out to put on his warm-up jacket. Then the pitcher of Team B gets up on the mound (without the ball), the ump says let 'er go and then Team A pitcher (now a runner) steps off first base and was promptly tagged out.

Answer: I selected the BALK answer but, my selection was incorrect. You would think, that out of 50 questions on a test and half a century later, I remember that one error.

Sounds like a sermon subject.

Thanks for writing. I got a kick out of the response. What was said is absolutely correct. AND if you read my article, in the second paragraph of the article I explain when it is illegal (which was explained by the one responding). I also stated at the end of that paragraph, "For what its worth, there IS a legal hidden ball trick which involves the ball staying live and the pitcher staying away from the mound. That is why coaches will tell their players to stay on base until the pitcher is on the mound." He is right that because the ball is dead, you have nothing. But if the pitcher steps on the mound while the ball is alive and without the ball (and runners on) it is a balk. I have had it tried illegally at least twice (once in Little League and the other time in a city league). I suspect the coaches were simply ignorant. In both cases I said, "You have nothing" and sent the runners back. One of them, I reversed the call of my partner (who was a high school kid) for calling the runner out.

But here is something interesting. My first varsity game this year involved a LEGAL hidden ball trick. The batter ripped a ball down the third base line (fair) and got a double. It was retrieve by the third baseman who slowly walked in to talk to the second baseman. Time was NEVER called. In the meantime, the pitcher was "tying his shoe" OFF the mound while the third baseman secretly passed the ball to the second baseman. The second baseman wandered behind the runner on base. As soon as the runner stepped off, the fielder tagged him and I called him out. The COACH of the batting team didn't even see it. But as an umpire I am taught to follow the ball in those circumstances and (at least that time) I did. You would think with me staring at the second baseman would have been a clue to the runner to stay put, but he stepped off and was declared out. Anyway, just letting you know I am familiar with what the writer said and he IS RIGHT. I believe I covered it in the article. And he is right, maybe there is some sermon material there. I might have to revisit the hidden ball trick with another article. If I do, I will send you a copy. Thanks and have a good day.

Thomas Thornhill