Julius Erving, a gracious gentleman; the perils of 'doctored' baseball; BASEBALL; Foul play brings suspension

It seemed like such a little thing really -- ordering a minor alteration to the batter's box -- a two-game suspension and undisclosed fine for his indiscretion. Though Wills was "shocked and dumbfounded" by the penalty, the American League cannot be faulted in taking strong action.

Baseball officials in general are no doubt particularly sensitive to foul play at this time. Sports Illustrated recently carried a story on the game's more popular tricks, including "doctored" baseballs and bats, phantom double plays, and other questionable, if not illegal, practices. Though insiders have long been aware of such chicanery, baseball would rather not be cast as overly permissive. For if fans ever conclude winning depends on cheating, baseball could be in trouble. Integrity, then, is really what the league sought to uphold in the Wills case.

While the Seattle groundskeeper admitted Wills ordered him to lengthen the batter's box by a foot, Maury said the actual addition could be measured in inches. The degree of wrongdoing is relatively unimportant to the basic issue, which is that a rule was intentionally broken. "There are a lot of other tricks of the trade, such as tilting the baselines, but this one is in the rulebooks," Wills acknowledged.

No one may ever know the real motivation in changing the batter's box from six to seven feet. Wills says he ordered the change in response to Oakland complaints about Tom Paciorek stepping out of the box. A's Manager Billy Martin felt the longer box allowed Seattle batters to "move up" o n Rick Langford's pitches, thereby allowing them to hit his curveball before it broke.

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