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.