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Ken Brett threw a spitball. Once.

It was late in his major league career, and he was desperate. So were his manager and pitching coach, the very people who had suggested that Brett throw the wet one.So he did.

The slimy ball squirted out of his left hand and began a journey rarely seen in the big leagues.

It sailed over the plate. Over the batter and catcher. Over the stunned umpire, who turned in time to see the pitch - if you can call it that - smack against the backstop on the fly.

Ball 1.

"What the hell happened?" yelled the umpire as he fired a new ball back to Brett.

Brett smiled sheepishly. "Uh, I won't let that happen again," he said.

And thus ended the cheating career of one Ken Brett, the journeyman pitcher who played for 10 teams during his 14-year stay in the major leagues and, yet, didn't have the foggiest idea how to give a ball a saliva shower.

"I put too much spit on it," said Brett, now an analyst on California Angel radio broadcasts. "Anyway, my heart wasn't really in it."

But what would have happened had that spitter shot perfectly toward the plate and then, at the last moment, darted down and away from the batter's frenzied swing? Then what?

"I would have been in a dilemma," Brett said. "I stunk and I had a bad arm. I retired at 33. I'm glad it didn't work."

Brett considers himself a baseball purist. To tinker with the ethics of pitching is to tinker with, well, all that is right and good in the game. He calls all acts to the contrary, such as doctoring the ball, "deplorable."

And yet, with two outs and nobody on base - the perfect situation for an experiment in cheating - Brett clumsily loaded up the ball and sent it on its strange, failed flight. He hated doing it, but sometimes you try anything to survive, to get to the next inning.

Dick Williams, a former major league manager, isn't quite so concerned about the propriety of it all. He doesn't share Brett's romantic view of the game.

In fact, said Williams, "Anything short of murder is OK."

Williams isn't much on politeness, either. A graduate of baseball's Old School - i.e., before hair dryers were seen in clubhouses - Williams played and managed to win, no matter the methods. If he had his way, the spitter would be allowed, Gaylord "Petroleum Jelly" Perry and his 314 victories would be in the Hall of Fame, and baseball's playing rules would be bent and broken whenever necessary.

According to Williams, cheating will forever be a fixture of the game. That is because baseball, for all its apparent charm and quaintness, is a cruel, exacting sport. It grudgingly allows success. Three hits out of 10 at-bats has become a standard of excellence. Twenty victories in, say, 36 starts can earn a pitcher a Cy Young Award in some seasons.

And has anyone mentioned the salaries of modern-day ballplayers? These days, another season in the big leagues can mean another half-million dollars or so in the savings account. Faced with the option of fracturing a few rules or selling aluminum siding, what do you think a desperate veteran will try?

"I have no problem with cheating," said Joe Torre, a former major league manager and now a member of the Angel television team. "Whatever you can get away with. I mean, we're not going and robbing stores or anything. And anyway, what about football? Holding, now that's illegal, but they get away with it."

Or how about pro basketball? You get six fouls. In other words, six free chances to cheat. Or how about pro hockey? You grind your stick into an opponent's thorax and you get, what, five minutes or so in the penalty box?

"Golf is the only game I know where you call a foul on yourself," Torre said.

Of course, none of this justifies cheating, but it does partly explain why Joe Niekro, then with the Minnesota Twins, ventured to the Anaheim Stadium pitching mound on Aug. 3, 1987, with an emery board tucked in his back pocket. It turned out, Niekro planned on giving the ball a little manicure.

Then came the fourth inning, when suspicious umpires gathered around Niekro and asked him to empty his pockets. Out fluttered the emery board. To the showers went Niekro.

This isn't exactly a news flash - cheating, that is. Ted Spencer, curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame, said the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s were especially devious. They would plant accomplices in the stands, arm them with hand mirrors and instruct them to reflect the sun's rays directly into the eyes of that day's opponents.

The Orioles also were known to hide extra balls in the high grass of their home outfield. The strategy occasionally backfired. One time after a hit, two balls came flying back toward the infield.

In the early days of baseball, there was only one umpire for each game and he stood behind the pitcher's mound, rather than behind home plate. It wasn't uncommon for the Orioles to turn a single into a triple, simply by cutting across the infield when the ump was busy looking the other way.

And heaven help the opposing runner who tried negotiating the basepaths. Oriole infielders would spike, bump, block and push anyone who got in their way. There is even a story about the Oriole who grabbed a runner's belt so he couldn't score from third base. Unfazed, the runner simply unfastened his buckle and darted safely home.

Today's players are slightly more subtle in their ways but not always successful.

Pitcher Kevin Gross, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, once got the boot for attaching sandpaper to his glove. In 1980, Rick Honeycutt, a Seattle Mariner at the time, used a thumbtack and sandpaper to aid his pitches. He was caught and tossed. Los Angeles Dodger reliever Jay Howell was banished from a 1988 National League playoff game against the New York Mets - and suspended for two more games - for using his glove as a storage area for some carefully placed pine tar, a no-no.

And recently, in a game against the Orioles, Angel pitcher Mark Langston had the bill of his cap checked for foreign substances. He should have been so lucky. The squeaky clean Langston - the home plate umpire found nothing illegal - allowed eight walks and eventually was charged with his third loss of the season.

Let's face it, the 104-page "Official Baseball Rules" book covers everything except forgiveness. If you're caught, you're outta there. But if you're not caught, then strange, sometimes wonderfully successful things can happen.

Don Drysdale, the legendary Dodger pitcher, said it takes a certain nerve to cheat, a certain arrogance. Drysdale, a Hall of Fame member, would know: He said he occasionally threw a spitter.

"Oh, I doctored it every now and then," he said. "Sure I did. A lot of times, I'd do that to get guys thinking."

It must have been some fun to face Drysdale back then. As a hitter, you had three options: (1) Hope to hit Drysdale's blazing fastball, (2) hope not to get hit by one of Drysdale's blazing "purpose pitches," - the Big D wasn't against throwing at a batter's neck - or (3) fret over the coming of the next spitter. No wonder the guy pitched 58 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968.

"I did anything I could to win," Drysdale said. "Mine was a little personal war with the hitter and the other club. I didn't give a ... about you, and I didn't expect you to give a ... about me on that particular day. We got paid on winning. We didn't get paid on losing. I knew what hitters did to bats, but I never worried about that."

Now, Drysdale said, the game is as sanitary as an operating room. Players don't face the same pressures. The minor league systems aren't as well stocked as they were 25 years ago, so there is less competition for jobs. Starters pitch fewer innings. Players don't play for a weekly paycheck, they play for a multimillion-dollar guaranteed contract.

"We didn't get paid for what we might do," Drysdale said. "It was survival, you're damn right."

Williams added another theory. The way he sees it, the influx of Christian ballplayers has reduced the roll call of those willing to, uh, compromise the rules.

"Of course, we've got a lot of born-agains involved now," he said. "I know we have a lot of them in Seattle (Williams used to manage the Mariners). We'll see what that gets them."

There are lots of ways for a pitcher to cheat. He can do what Honeycutt and Gross tried, which is to attach a piece of sandpaper to his glove and scrape away. The tactic brings new meaning to a catcher's signs: One means very coarse sandpaper, two means medium coarseness ...

Don Sutton, another 300-game winner, allegedly scuffed the ball with sandpaper.

"I was one for 20 against Sutton," said Champ Summers, now a coach with the New York Yankees. "I couldn't hit him with a garage door. I knew he scuffed it, but that's part of the game."

Mike Scott of the Houston Astros often has been accused - mostly by the Dodgers - of applying a nick or two to the ball, the better to make it swerve or dip.

Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford threw a mudball and won 236 games with the Yankees. He also is reported to have worn a razor-sharp belt buckle, the better to cut the ball.

Sam McDowell of the Cleveland Indians threw a spitter to everyone except Mickey Mantle. He hero-worshipped Mantle and refused to throw him anything but fastballs.

"He wanted to challenge him," said Phil Roof, who played for the Indians in 1965.

But if Tom Tresh stepped up to the plate and fell behind, 0 and 2, "Sam would wet it up," Roof said.

Some pitchers glue pieces of emerycloth to the palms of their hands. Some attach fake fingernails to their own, making it easier to scuff the ball. Some spread a thin coat of pine tar on their gloves and use the sticky stuff to get a better grip on a pitch.

Some pitchers apply Vaseline to the back of their hair. Some, especially in brisk weather, pretend they're blowing warm air on their hands. They're not; they're spitting. Some pitchers pretend they're wiping moisture off their hands. Fat chance.

Then there are the helpful catchers, who do their part in the cheating chain. Rick Dempsey, now with the Dodgers, used to scrape the ball hard against the ground just before throwing it back to the pitcher.

"But that was a long time ago," he said. "I used to try everything."

Phil Roof, when he was with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, once asked a pitcher, "If I scuff the ball, can you handle it?" The pitcher couldn't say yes fast enough.

At game time, Roof slipped on a golf glove he wore on his catching hand. Sewn to the glove by his wife was a small piece of sandpaper. Roof used it all night. The pitcher, he said, ended up with double-digit strikeouts.

OK, so it may not be the right thing to do, but look at it from the pitcher's point of view. Many of today's ballparks have artificial turf, which means some normal groundouts become hits. The strike zone has shrunk. The designated hitter lives in the American League. The degree of slope on the pitching mound has been lowered. The threat of the juiced-up ball looms large.

"Name something in the last 15 years done for the pitcher," said Tony Kubek, a former Yankee who now does color commentary on the team's cable telecasts.

Well, let's see ... Ah, yes, tongue depressors. Umpires allow pitchers to scrape mud from their cleats with tongue depressors.

Perhaps as a way to even things up, hitters have fewer cheating options. They can try to sneak a peek at the catcher and see where he positions his glove, which is a great way to get a ball thrown at your ear flap, or they can pretend they're in woodworking shop and customize their bats.

Tracy Ringolsby, a longtime member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who used to cover the Angels for the Long Beach Press Telegram, remembers when several players ordered their bats with no finish on them. Then they would cork the bats and apply a coat of finish to help mask the marks.

Bill Williams, vice president of advertising and public relations for Hillerich & Bradsby, which makes Louisville Sluggers, said his company wouldn't think of making a bat that violated major league specifications.

"When they leave here, they're the way they're supposed to be," he said.

That doesn't mean they stay that way. Williams is aware of players who have driven nails into the barrel of a bat. He also knows of players who have drilled holes in the bat and replaced the wood with lighter substances. "They're trying to generate faster bat speed," he said.

One hitter even inserted several high-bouncing "super balls" into the barrel, hoping to add more punch to his swing.

And then there is the grounds crew, the home team's best friend.

Williams said it wasn't unusual for a manager to ask the grounds crew to tailor a field for a team's strengths and weaknesses.

Have an accomplished bunter? No problem. Simply build up the infield foul lines so they funnel everything into fair territory. Artificial turf surfaces are easy, too. Just pull up a seam and put a couple of pads in the proper places.

Brett said he knows a grounds crew - he won't say which team's - that shortened the distance from home plate to first and from first to second by a foot each segment. Instead of being 90 feet long, the basepaths were 89 feet.

A manager can instruct a grounds crew to water down the basepaths, making base stealing harder. The Candlestick Park crew was famous for turning the basepaths into swampland whenever Maury Wills and the Dodgers arrived in town.

As long as there is baseball, there will be a give-and-take, take, take of its rules. As the game evolves, so do the players' and managers' needs to beat it, whatever the means. Reality replaces morality.

Which brings us to Chili Davis, noted baseball philosopher and Angel outfielder.

Said Davis once: "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'."

He meant it.