World Series communication breakdown might pull phones off the hook
“It’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?” said Valentine, who’s managed more than 2,000 major league ballgames.
In the age of email, texting, iChat and Skype, baseball remains tied to the traditions established in the Civil War era of flannel uniforms. La Russa conveyed his decisions to the bullpen with a device born the same year as the National League: the telephone.
And when the instructions didn’t get through to bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist—twice!—baseball lore was made with the Cardinals’ 4-2 loss to the Texas Rangers on Monday night, a game that will be forever known as the “Phone Foulup.”
Now St. Louis is trailing 3-2 in the Series and must win two in a row for the title.
“It’s amazing,” said baseball historian Keith Olbermann, a commentator on Current TV. “With all this technology here, they can’t get a phone call completed from one part of the building to another part of the building? You go to an Apple store, the communications device the salesman is carrying is capable of launching a nuclear device. It’s mind-boggling.”
For all the high-tech scoreboards in each ballpark and computers in each clubhouse that track every pitch, decisions on which relievers to warm up are passed along on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of 1876. While there were 328 million wireless devices in the U.S. as of June, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, baseball sticks with land lines, of which there are 114 million.
And because of that, the World Series rings fans were talking about Tuesday had nothing to do with the shiny ones on players’ fingers, but rather the old-fashioned-sounding bells that sound off on bullpen phones.
After the game, with Rangers Ballpark nearly empty, the bullpen phone 400 or so feet away could be heard ringing when the narrow black handset with the gray pushbuttons was picked up in the visitors dugout on the third-base side. But with a crowd of 51,459 a few hours earlier, an unbelievable meltdown occurred.
With the score 2-all, right-hander Octavio Dotel replaced Chris Carpenter to start the eighth inning and Michael Young doubled. Adrian Beltre struck out and Nelson Cruz was intentionally walked.
La Russa said he had told Lilliquist to have the left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and right-hander Jason Motte warm up, but Lilliquist only heard “Rzepczynski”—La Russa now thinks Lilliquist may have hung up after hearing the first name.
Lefty David Murphy hit a comebacker that could have become an inning-ending double play, but instead deflected off the reliever’s bare hand for an infield single that loaded the bases and caused La Russa’s head to snap back in shock. Then La Russa noticed that Motte was not warming up, and he called the bullpen again to have his closer start throwing. But Lilliquist said he thought he heard “Lynn,” for right-hander Lance Lynn, who was supposed to be resting after throwing 47 pitches in Game 3.
With Motte (.162 vs. righties and .270 vs. lefties) still not warming up, La Russa left Rzepczynski in to face Mike Napoli, who sent a slider into the right-center gap for a two-run double.
Puzzled Cardinals fans Tuesday might have been thinking of the famous line from “Cool Hand Luke”—“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
“I said, man, this is stuff that I hope happens on a Wednesday game on the road someplace that nobody is there. Then of course it wouldn’t have happened that way,” La Russa recalled. “The phones are preventable. It’s my fault for not handling it better and making sure. All I had to do was look in the bullpen—repeat—to make sure.”
Managers are obsessive about their dugout phones, checking them before every game to make sure they’re operational. The problem in Rangers Ballpark is you can’t see the visiting bullpen from the third-base dugout. Cleveland and Toronto already have screens for the managers to monitor the pens.
“They need to put TV monitors in all the ballparks you can’t see,” said La Russa’s good buddy, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “I guarantee you they’ll be a proposal made at the general managers’ meetings. That’s all that’s going to come from this. You live and learn.”
In other words, don’t expect laptops in the dugouts. Major League Baseball isn’t about to replace phones with Microsoft Communicator.
“I think that’s getting a little too technical,” Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “We’ve got enough tech stuff going on.”
He has his own backup system in case the phones go down.
“You come up with signals, like one for get the big guy up, or another for the short fat guy or the guy with the long hair,” he said. “But when you’ve got a stadium like that, if you can’t see, then you don’t really know what’s going on.”
Now an ESPN analyst, Valentine was manager of the Rangers when the ballpark was being planned.
“That’s faulty design, and I helped design it, so it’s my fault,” he said.
Until now, communication between the dugout and bullpen hasn’t really been an issue. The bullpen phone has been around since everyone in the game first walked into a ballpark.
Most stadiums have a couple of dugout phones, in fact. During the NL playoffs, Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke intended to call the bullpen to get Chris Narveson loose. Instead, Roenicke mistakenly grabbed another phone at Busch Stadium and told the person who answered—in the press box—to “Get Narv up.”
Oops, wrong number.
“The answer is baseball tradition. I really think that’s it. I don’t think anyone’s looked into it in recent years,” Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. “In the years I’ve been in baseball I can’t remember it ever coming up as a topic.”
Baseball’s concern with phones focuses on advertising: Signs in both Busch Stadium bullpens for “U.S. Cellular,” and frequent “AT&T Calls to the Bullpen” are heard on broadcasts.
Now, the nature of pitching changes has changed. Alongside all his accomplishments, La Russa will be remembered for this famous failure to communicate.
“Hey, it’s my fault,” he said. “Maybe I slurred it, whatever it is. It comes down to who has the responsibility when there’s those kinds of miscommunications.”
Last updated: 6:39 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012