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The Emotions of Sports: Tricks of the trade

Gimmick plays may stretch the rules, but they’re also effective in gaining an advantage

Posted: August 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Valencia High School head football coach Larry Muir diagrams a fly left pitch pass, one of the trick plays in his team’s arsenal. Trick plays, which have been around for decades, are a good way for not only football teams but teams in all sports to catch opponents off guard and swing momentum.

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As long as sports have been around, there have been ways to tweak things just enough to gain a slight edge on opponents.

It’s not cheating. That would be a harsh way to describe it.

If anything, it’s part of drawing up a game plan. It’s one more way to get a leg up on opponents — to catch them by surprise.

Gimmick plays like baseball’s “hidden ball trick” or football’s “flea flicker” probably weren’t what the sports’ founders had in mind when they invented the games.

But for people like Casey Burrill, head baseball coach at West Ranch High School, those types of loopholes are a big part of the game.

“I think everyone tries to see if they can come up with some type of competitive advantage, and I think every sport out there has some sort of variance and unwritten rules,” Burrill says. “Sometimes it can be deemed as a competitive advantage and some of them could be seen as disrespecting the game.”

Disrespectful or not, it all comes down to the same principle that always holds true in sports: Do whatever you can, within the rules, to keep your opponent off balance.

“(Trick plays) are exciting,” says Hart head football coach Mike Herrington. “We’ve had many trick plays done against us and you get frustrated when they’re done against you. But then you kind of look at it and say, ‘Wow, that was a pretty good play.’”

Herrington has been on both sides.

In the 2005 CIF-Southern Section Division II semifinals against Mission Viejo, Hart scored on a play where quarterback Tyler Lyon handed the ball to tailback Delano Howell, who then faked the run, turned around and threw it back to Lyon. Lyon found a wide-open Taylor Embree downfield for a 40-yard touchdown.

Hart went on to win 24-12 to advance to the championship game.

Situations like that can change the momentum in a game.

“If you use it properly and you have some success with it, you get a defense thinking, ‘Oh shoot, maybe they can do that again,’” says Valencia football head coach Larry Muir.

Certain teams take different approaches when preparing to run trick plays.

Muir, for instance, says he’ll spend a short time at the end of practices early in the week working on plays like halfback passes.

Former Saugus baseball head coach Doug Worley put a little more emphasis on the unusual aspects of the game.

He’d spend about 45 minutes per day working on creative pickoff plays.
“The best thing is, when you run plays like that, when you play teams, they’re not talking about what they do,” Worley says. “They’re worried about what you might do. It just gives them an extra thing to think about.”

Worley was Saugus’ head coach from 1975 to 2000, and in that time he employed all kinds of strategies to try to catch teams off guard.

The most famous was dubbed the “Centurion Defense” where the pitcher would pretend to throw the ball to first base attempting to pick off a baserunner. The first baseman would act as if the ball was overthrown and chase the imaginary ball into foul territory, causing the runner to take off for second base.

Meanwhile, the ball is actually tucked under the pitcher’s armpit, waiting to be thrown to second base for the easy out.
“You could just see that guy’s shoulders drop,” Worley said of the baserunner.

That was just one of many methods Worley used to manufacture outs.

That’s baseball. But the same kind of trickery doesn’t play as big of a role in all sports.

With constantly increasing awareness from coaches, plays like Herrington’s double pass and Worley’s sly pickoff play are rarely seen anymore.

“I think one reason they don’t run them as much is a lot of the teams are doing a better job of covering the basics,” Worley says.

Even in today’s climate, those types of plays still fit into the games — though perhaps for different reasons than they used to.

“I think it makes it way more entertaining,” Burrill says. “If anything, it shows some enthusiasm for the game and it’s a way to have a little bit of fun.”

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