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Andy Wittry | | May 18, 2022

NCAA Video Vault: The hidden-ball trick you have to see twice

NCAA vault: Miami pulls off 'Grand Illusion' hidden ball trick in 1982 CWS

Ninety-five-point-six percent. That was Wichita State first baseman Phil Stephenson's stolen-base percentage when he took five steps off the bag at first base during the 1982 College World Series. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, with the last two being more slides than steps. He had swiped 86 bases on 90 tries, a success rate that might as well have told Miami, "Good luck. You probably know I'm stealing second and it probably won't matter."

Stephenson was one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, the 1982 national player of the year and a two-time All-American who holds NCAA records for career stolen bases (206), walks (300), hits (418), runs (420) and total bases (730). His 47-game hitting streak in 1981 was once the NCAA record, until Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura bested it by 11 games six years later. Stephenson was incredible at getting on base, by hit or by walk, and he was incredibly hard to get out once he was there.

The announcers, upon not seeing a sign from the third-base coach, mused that a Wichita State's coach's mustache was the sign for Stephenson to steal second.

Ultimately, it was the team on defense, not offense, that the broadcast and production should've been paying closer attention to on this given play because the Hurricanes were moments away from completing one of the most deceptive plays in sports — the hidden-ball trick — on the biggest stage in college baseball. There can be variations to the play with the most common one being a scenario where the pitcher attempts to pick off a baserunner, likely at first base, and the first baseman keeps the ball and instead fakes a throw to the pitcher. If everyone involved sells the ruse, then the goal is to convince the baserunner that it's safe to step off the bag and take his lead towards second base, when boom, the first baseman lands the tag and the runner is out.

That's not what Miami tried (and successfully completed), however. The pitcher never let go of the ball, at least not until the last possible moment. And the play involved more actors than just the pitcher and first baseman.

Here's what happened.

Stephenson, the baserunner who was approaching 90 steals on the season and darn near a 100-percent success rate, took his lead. The Miami pitcher, Mike Kasprzak, a right-hander, pitched out of the stretch, with his back to first base. He gave a knowing glance over his left shoulder, keeping an eye on Stephenson as he came set. Kasprzak stepped off the rubber with his right foot, a move that allowed him to throw over to first, and as soon as that foot moved, you can hear someone from Wichita State's dugout yell, "Back!" to Stephenson.

In a quick move, Kasprzak turned and fired a throw to first. Or, at least that's what those in Miami's lineup and in Miami's dugout wanted everyone else in the stadium to think. First baseman Steve Lusby lurched down and to the right, giving the impression that the throw was wide left. In foul territory, a Miami reserve catcher and a pitcher who was warming up near right field can be seen moving frantically, as if the errant ball had been thrown near them.

"Ball is thrown away," one member of the announcing team said on the broadcast, before his eyes and his brain caught up with Miami's grand plan. "Oh now they've cut it off and Stephenson is gonna be out."

The camera operator was clearly, and understandably, fooled. In real time, viewers at home saw Stephenson dive back to first base, then take his first two steps towards second, before the broadcast switched to another shot of foul territory near right field, where the ball was apparently thrown. Then the broadcast switched back to the base paths, where viewers at home caught a glimpse of Stephenson taking his final few steps into second base, with an umpire in the foreground making the "out" signal with his right arm.

"How 'bout that!" a Miami player shouts somewhere off camera.

The play-by-play broadcaster stole the line. "How 'bout that for a decoy play," he said, "fooled everybody in the ball park, including us."

Sideline reporter Irv Brown then said that Miami had reportedly practiced the play the day before. One of the keys: two players who were at the edge of the Miami dugout turned and pointed to sell the idea that there had been an errant throw. In reality, while Stephenson was looking over his right shoulder, the ball was feet away to his left, where pitcher Kasprzak lofted a throw to shortstop Bill Wrona at second base for an easy tag.

After being tagged out, Stephenson stood on second base for a few beats, his hands at his hips and eyes pointed in the direction of the Miami co-conspirators who had just duped him.

Miami went on to win the first of its four national championships and one of the greatest hidden-ball tricks of all time played at least a minor role in it. Maybe there's a reason the team's head coach, Ron Fraser, a 2006 College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, was nicknamed "the Wizard of College Baseball."

After all, the play went down in history as "The Grand Illusion."

"I've never seen anything like that," one of the broadcasters said. "Welcome to college baseball."

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