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Bullpen phones

So, an admission: I love bullpen phones. Love them. I absolutely love the idea that there’s an old-fashioned, land-line telephone in pretty much every major league baseball dugout across America and another one in pretty much every major league bullpen, and this is how managers and pitching coaches and bullpen coaches communicate in 2011. The only thing I have wished is that the phones were placed under glass bowls, like the Bat Phone from the old television show. But in many dugouts the phone IS protected by some sort of metal encasement — in case of terrorists, I suppose — and this is just about as pointless and wonderful.

Oh, yes, those phones can come in quite handy. Sometimes managers will use them to call up to the press box when they disagree with a scorekeeping decision. Sometimes general managers will call down to alert the manager of some bit of information, such as that he just traded tonight’s starting pitcher. I’ve interviewed players over the dugout phone, which used to thrill me to no end — realizing that I was sitting at a desk in Kansas City or Cincinnati or wherever, and they were sitting on the top of the dugout bench in Los Angeles or New York, spitting sunflower seeds and watching batting practices.

But most of all, these phones — because of some sort of advanced technology that baffles the mind — have allowed managers to actually talk to bullpen coaches FOUR HUNDRED FEET AWAY. This was game-changing technology. You know in the old days managers would have to build fires and send up smoke signals to call for relievers, which is the real reason why there were so many pitchers called “Smoky” in the old days. Then there was the period when managers telegraphed pitching changes, which confused the heck out of this guy. Finally, thankfully, Alexander Graham Bell came along, invented the telephone, and as you know the very first words he said on the telephone phone were: “Get Arthur Rhodes up.”

This land-line phone system has worked so well that baseball has never found a more practical way to tell the bullpen coach to have a reliever start warming up or to find out if said reliever is actually ready to go into the game. Not only that, but they never even changed the phones. The phone in the Kansas City dugout, for instance, is so old that the telephone operator connects your call. The phone in the Wrigley dugout is actually a party line.

But it works. Sometimes. Often. No, it didn’t work Monday in Game 5 of the World Series, but, well, you can’t expect technology to be PERFECT, can you?

Here’s what we know happened. In the eighth inning, with the score tied, Tony La Russa picked up the phone and asked for Marc Rzepczynski to begin warming up. But here’s where it gets tricky. That’s all bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist heard. But La Russa would say afterward that what he actually SAID was that to get Rzepczynski AND Jason Motte working. I tend to believe La Russa for two reasons.

One, Rzepczynski* is a long name and, as I have found in my life, once you say a long name the other person tends to stop paying attention.

Two, I don’t think Tony La Russa, in his entire life, has ever asked for only one reliever to warm up.

*I have created a Text Expander for Rzepczynski. I just type in Rzep and his name magically comes up.

*This gets weirder though. La Russa would say that he then noticed that only Rzepczynski was warming up. He then picked up the phone and called Lilliquist again to get Motte working. Fortunately, we have a recording of that conversation:

La Russa: “Hey, I told you to warm up Motte.”

Lilliquist: “You want me to buy you a yacht?”

La Russa: “Yes, that’s right, warm up Motte.”

Lilliquist: “Where am I going to come up with that kind of money?”

La Russa: “I don’t think it’s funny at all. Warm up Motte.”

Lilliquist: “You see a swam of dots?”

La Russa: “Yes.”

Lilliquist: “Guess what?”

La Russa: “Hey, man, there’s a game going on here. Just do it, all right? We’ve got a game to win.

Lilliquist (to Lance Lynn): “Hey, start warming up.”

La Russa was already having an astonishingly bad day. Before the game would end, his team would give up three outs on sacrifice bunts and two more on impossibly stupid stolen base attempts — it’s not often that a manager (or his players; it would be said that one of the busted hit-and-runs was called by Pujols) can take personal responsibility for five of the 27 outs. He also ordered an intentional walk that backfired*, and later brought in the aforementioned Lance Lynn to come in only to intentionally walk another batter. This day was the managing equivalent of the day the Principal had in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

*As all intentional walks should.

But as absurd and illogical and freaky as all that was, nothing touched the phone call nightmare. And, unlike many, I believe the phone call nightmare justification because it’s simply the most plausible of all the incredibly stupid explanations for what happened. La Russa brought in Rzepczynski to face lefty David Murphy, and he undoubtedly expected Rangers manager Ron Washington to bring in a pinch-hitter based on the fairly compelling evidence that Murphy can’t hit lefties. But Wash was one step ahead, or one step to the side, or one step to la-la land, and he left Murphy in to hit. Murphy promptly hit a one hopper back toward the mound, where it had several opportunities to turn into a double play. Instead it bounced off Rzepczynski’s hand, deflected to where Nick Punto could not quite pick it up, and the bases were loaded for Mike Napoli.

At; this point, La Russa being La Russa would have escaped from Alcatraz, if necessary, to get to the mound and bring in a right-handed pitcher to face Napoli. La Russa is the sort of man who will hire a left-handed accountant to figure credits and a righty to work out debits. La Russa is the sort of man who wants a left-handed waiter to serve chicken and fish and a righty to serve beef. The Tony La Russa I know, a man of sound mind and sound body, would NEVER have allowed a lefty to face Napoli, who has hit .294/.400/.555 against left-handed pitchers in his career.

So why did Rzepczynski pitch to Napoli? There was nobody to bring in. Jason Motte wasn’t warming up. Lance Lynn, I believe, had only JUST started warming up (and even in that moment it was baffling why he would be warming up if not to come in to face Napoli). It was just plain bizarre. As crazy as it sounds, the telephone disaster explanation is probably the best way to explain it.

Napoli, of course, hit the game-winning double and the Rangers are now one game away from winning the World Series. La Russa’s postseason career has been odd. He has managed some of the most visible catastrophes in playoff and World Series history.

— His 1983 Chicago White Sox led the league in runs scores … and scored a grand total of one run in three straight losses to Baltimore in the ALCS.

— His dominant 1988 Oakland A’s famous lost in five World Series games to a Dodgers team that had Mickey Hatcher, Mike Marshall and John Shelby hitting 3-4-5.

— His dominant 1990 Oakland A’s were swept by a Cincinnati Reds team that, as was often said at the time, did not have a pitcher who won more than 15 games or a hitter who smacked more than 25 homers.

— His 1996 Cardinals held a three-games-to-one lead against the supreme Atlanta Braves and promptly lost three straight by a combined score of 32-1 (highlighted by a 15-0 destruction in Game 7).

— His 2000 and 2002 teams Cardinals were excellent, and were handled easily in the NLCS. His 2004 team won 105 games and were swept by the Boston Red Sox — they never led for even a half inning.

But there have been some amazing triumphs too. His 1989 Oakland A’s dominated from beginning to end. His 2006 Cardinals team had a magical run to the World Series. And his black magic this season has been perhaps the most astonishing of all. Remember, this Cardinals team was 10 1/2 games back in late August. They were gargantuan underdogs against Philadelphia. They remained underdogs against Milwaukee. Most people have picked them to lose to the Rangers, and they might.

But they might not. The Cardinals do go home for the last one or two games. And, from what I hear, the telephone in St. Louis works MUCH better than the one in Texas.

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38 Responses to Bullpen phones

  1. JH says:

    This made me wonder – are the dugout phone and the bullpen phone just regular land line phones with regular phone numbers? If I somehow came across the number, could I prank call the Cardinals’ dugout and ask if their refrigerator was running?

  2. Carl says:

    His 1983 team not only led the league in runs, it did so with a bunch of slow chunky guys hitting tons of home runs. Occasionally Rudy Law or Julio Cruz would steal a base, but the “Winning Ugly” White Sox tended to jog around the bases.

    So what does LaRussa do in the playoffs? All sorts of baserunning shenanigans the team hadn’t tried in the regular season, culminating in a name cursed on the South Side for decades.


    LaRussa’s not the most irritating manager a team could have (not when he’s won as much as he has, and certainly not in a world with Terry Bevington), but his tactics made me shake my head an awful lot before 1986.

  3. Gary says:

    Where is Maxwell Smart with his shoe phone when you need him?

  4. Dan The Reed says:

    To answer JH’s comment, yes. I’m sitting on one team’s bullpen number waiting for the opportune moment to use it.

  5. Mark S says:

    If you ask if their refrigerator was running then Lilliquist would tell Motte to get warmed up. You just need to know the secret words.

  6. Thile says:

    I don’t know if it is rational or not, sabrmetrically speaking, but the sacrifice bunt with a runner on 2nd is my least favorite play in baseball by far. I don’t like the intentional walk because I agree with JoePos on it being noncompetitive but it at least has some stratergy involved. I don’t see the need to be playing for 1 run in that park, in that situation, either. (meaning I would not like it but if you’re at home in the bottom of the 9th or later then maybe…)

  7. Mark Daniel says:

    Thanks, Joe, for the bullpen phone info. I didn’t know what was going on in that inning. Once Rzepsinsksski got in there, I thought he was pitching to one batter and that would be it. I thought I knew Tony LaRussa to a T. But then they left him in to face Napoli, and I was totally blown away.

    The announcers did mention that Motte wasn’t ready, that’s why Lynn came in for that one IBB, but I didn’t know he was supposed to pitch to Napoli too. So, you’re right, the phone excuse is the only one that makes perfect sense.

  8. J-Doug says:

    “I don’t know if it is rational or not, sabrmetrically speaking, but the sacrifice bunt with a runner on 2nd is my least favorite play in baseball by far.”

    You’re right. I can’t think of a situation where it’s sabermetrically correct. The sac bunt with the leadoff hitter on 2nd is possibly the *worst* common bunt situation in all of baseball/

  9. Why don’t these guys TEXT each other?

  10. Justin says:

    There was actually a New York Times article on this very bit of technology last week:

  11. prophet says:

    Lynn couldn’t stay in because he’d pitched 2.33 innings the night before, so really the whole comedy of errors stems from the failure to get a righty warmed up. Not that “Scrabble” is that bad; it’s just atypical for LaRussa to forego any micromanagement opportunity.

  12. Zach says:

    I’ve got to admit, I’m maliciously delighted that La Russa invented the intentional walk specialist in a World Series game. It’s a perfect satire of La Russa’s style of managing.

  13. Joe, I came for therapy. I got it. Thanks.

  14. davidinnyc says:

    Joe, you left out that Lynn wasn’t even supposed to be warming up, much less pitching at all, because he had thrown 47 pitches in his last outing.

    “Sometimes managers will use them to call up to the press box when they disagree with a scorekeeping decision.”

    Sometimes it’s not the manager, it’s Bobby Bonilla. And in the middle of the game, no less.

  15. Sandy says:

    The bullpen coach knows baseball, right? Why didn’t he question why Lynn would be warming up after his last outing? Is it insubordination to question a manager’s instructions? Is there no time for an actual conversation during a WS game? It’s baseball. How busy can these guys be?

  16. Aren’t there stories about relievers using the bullpen phone to call for take-out food? In fact, didn’t someone try to get a food delivery from China once?

  17. KHAZAD says:

    TLR has ALWAYS led the league in goofy moves. Whatever your team’s manager does to make you crazy, you must at least double that to begin to understand watching a TLR managed game.

    I don’t care whether the phone story was true or whether it was made up to cover up an even bigger gaffe. I am only happy that the result of it was that I got to see TLR bring in a pitcher for the sole purpose of intentionally walking someone with two outs, and then immediately change pitchers again. Priceless!

  18. feitcanwrite says:

    I heard the Cardinals were planning to communicate to the bullpen via iPad, but have been waiting on Poz’s iPad Review before making the upgrade.

  19. nightflyblog says:

    The Bat-Phone probably would have made things worse, considering what hash Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara, and the GPD made of things in the old TV show. Still, the idea of Adam West and Burt Ward coming in to pitch relief for the Cards in the World Series is gold. (Considering LaRussa, it might not even be that outlandish.)

    na-na, na-na, na-na, na-na, PU-JOLS!
    (na-na, na-na, na-na, na-na)

  20. adam says:

    @Gregorian Rants,

    You took the words right out of my keyboard. You know what I do when I need to get a message to someone in a bar or loud restaurant and I know they won’t hear me over the phone? I TEXT THEM.

  21. Mark Daniel says:

    It’s clear they need skype or some type of videoconferencing software in the bullpen. That way LaRussa can look at the screen and think, “WHY IS MOTTE NOT WARMING UP????”

  22. s says:

    JH I hear in Boston that Lackey, Wakefield, Lester and Beckett use theirs to call for KFC, popeyes and liquor to go.

  23. doc says:

    Hey, at least Newell Obidiah didn’t strike out very often…

  24. I remember McCarver speculating on whether Beltre would bunt Young over after the leadoff double. Adran Beltre’s last sacrifice bunt was in 2006. His prior sacrifice bunt was in 2003. I looked that up but honestly it was about what any fan would have expected.

  25. Tampa Mike says:

    @feitcanwrite – He already posted the iPad review

  26. Tampa Mike says:

    I don’t buy that the phone malfunctioned. The bullpen coach may have misunderstood or wasn’t paying attention to the second name, but if the phone wasn’t working the bullpen coach would have told the umpire crew.

  27. NMark W says:

    So many things to think about and discuss….You young BRs don’t realize how the hi-tech world can be so intimidating to us older guys. Take Cards pitching coach, Dave Duncan. No really, take him. I think Dave must freak out unless it’s an old rotary dial phone in the dugout. The one in Arlington must be a touch tone because I never saw Duncan ever get near that phone. So, the lawyer among the crowd, LaRussa, took it upon himself to make and field calls. I guess the paralegal was busy or had gone home early.

    What was weird to me was seeing on TV LaRussa in the media room describing what had happened. HE DIDN’T SEEM A BIT ANGRY!!?? He even was a bit jocular about the whole cluster-phone incident. I haven’t ever gotten a true take on TLR. Here’s a guy who’s club just lost WS Game#5 and he’s easily describing what happened. I thought Bobby Knight liked TLR? – Knight would have been eating glass during that post-game media event.

    My wife who rarely watches any team sports on TV with me came in last night and playfully sat down next to me on the couch and tried to act interested. It lasted maybe 3 minutes…Someone started to intentionally walk someone else and she stood up, said “that’s chickenshit – why is that allowed?!” and walked out of the room. Oh well….

    I once worked for a number of years in the AAA Albuquerque Dukes front office and I recall a couple different years either the day of or day before Opening Day my great GM boss would tell me to go check the phone in the home dugout to make sure the phone company had come to do whatever was needed to get it back in service. He’d say “Call me on my private line, call David in the Press Box and then make a long distance call to your parents in Ohio to make sure the phone is working properly.” It was always great fun to speak to my elderly parents on the dugout phone with the anxiousness of Opening Day in my voice.

    Some BR above mentioned Terry Bevington. We in Albuquerque always sort of enjoyed Terry when he was the Vancouver skipper. He was usually good for a pre-game laugh and he seemed professional but he could display quite a temper on occasion.

  28. NRJyzr says:

    @ Robert Rittner:

    You’re thinking of Moe Drabowski, the “call Hong Kong for takeout” story was mentioned in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

  29. Ryan Mock says:

    This doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but it’s a fun little anecdote: the team I used to work for did not have bullpen phones one season, so we left walkee-talkees (is that how that’s spelled?) in the dugout and bullpen. Over the next offseason I got to help install phones. It was, for no particular reason, kinda cool.

    Also, I was usually – as NMark W described above – the guy who tested the phones out. Though, since ours were all in-house only, we’d have to have two guys to do it, one in the dugout and one out in the bullpen.

    And to answer an above question, many are one-way phones, or at least in-house, and cannot dial out except through a switchboard.

  30. David says:

    Are the Red Sox pitchers allowed to use the bullpen/dugout phone to order Popeye’s?

  31. Jacob S. says:

    First, the Arthur Rhodes line was classic. I loved it.

    Second, as someone with a preposterously long and complicated last name, I can assure you that no one I know ever attempts to say the entire thing. They always shorten it. I know you were joking, but I doubt La Russa asked for “Rzepczynski.”

  32. NMark W says:

    Another thought of mine is maybe some supernatural phenomena of a negative kind was occurring to those wearing StL Cardinals uniforms during the 8th inning in Arlington the other night. Why? Did you see Octavio Dotel attempting to complete the 4-pitch intentionally walk earlier in that inning? My God, it was as if he was suddenly a soccer player who felt completely uncomfortable with a ball in his hand. What was that????

  33. yoyodyne says:

    5-2 is far from a gargantuan underdog in the NLDS. The books are telling you that STL would win at least 2 of 7 5-game series. [Likely more because of the overwhelming prevalence of PHL bettors.]

  34. Michael says:

    When Tony LaRussa was outmanaged in the 1988 World Series by, of all people, Tommy Lasorda, whose knowledge of strategy wouldn’t fill his favorite pasta tube, I knew LaRussa wasn’t all that good.

    Bullpen phone stories. One, in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, when the Athletics played there, the bullpen phones somehow were connected. So, Baltimore was there, and Moe Drabowsky called the A’s bullpen, imitated manager Alvin Dark, and told the coach to get Lew Krause up to throw. The coach did, prompting Dark to call to find out what was going on. The next night, Drabowsky called, imitated Charlie Finley, and demanded to know why Krause had been throwing the night before.

    Before they were in Kansas City, they were the Philadelphia A’s, and Connie Mack had a coach do charades. For Dick Fowler, a coach came out onto the track in front of the dugout and made believe he was picking flowers, because that’s what Mack called him, and so on.

  35. Chip Ramsey says:

    I’ve always thought TLR was over rated. Look no further than leaving Britt Burns on the mound for ten innings in game four of the 1983 ALCS for your evidence.

  36. Dear Joe,
    You make me uncertain about whether I want to be a novelist or a freelance sports/humor/literary nonfiction writer. It is very good and also very frustrating that you are doing this to me. I want to kick you.

    Matt Schlichting

  37. NMark W says:

    Am I correct? The only other WS final score of 10-9 was Game 7 of 1960 WS when Maz’ HR ended it…Perhaps I heard/read that wrong but I can imagine that this might be so?

  38. Alejo says:

    Hot on the news:

    Levante F.C.

    The poorest team in Spain’s top football (soccer) league is leader after 9 matches. Global giants Real Madrid and Barcelona are second and third on the standings.

    Levante field a team of 30-somethings, all rejects and former failures signed at bargain prices, or for nothing at all. Their manager is a salesman who taught himself to train footballers. He managed preschool and women’s teams before reaching the top level.

    Two years ago the team filed for bankruptcy, this week they are on top of the world. They have been killing giants for the last two months, proving everybody wrong.

    It’s a wonderful sports story. If you love a victorious underdog, take a look at Spanish football this weekend.

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