Phantom Ball, With Video – And Monty (Updated)

In Spring Training of 2011 I wrote of the lost joy of pre-game “infield practice,” in which a team’s manager or coaches hit grounders and flies to their position players while barking out game situations. Then-manager Jim Riggleman  of the Nationals had reintroduced the ritual (and gotten chastised by confused groundskeepers at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, who told him he was screwing up their field).

I’m not talking about shortstops standing behind screens at first base nor pitchers shagging fly balls during batting practice. This was one or two catchers, all the starting infielders and outfielders, and many of the reserves, on the field, twenty minutes before first pitch, chasing everything from pop-ups behind third to long drives into the right field corner. It was a mini-spring training.

Teams used to do this before almost every game. Earl Weaver thought it was the most important thing his club did, next to hitting three-run homers. And when done well, it achieved nearly the qualities of ballet. It gradually faded from the scene because some managers were concerned it gave away too much real-time information on the health of fielders and particularly the game-day strength of outfielders’ arms, and the players happily used this as an excuse to go and hide in the dugout the moment BP ends.

So imagine my joy when my old friend Robin Ventura came into Yankee Stadium for the first time as a manager last night, and at about 6:20 his Chicago White Sox were doing this under the guidance of another old friend, third base coach Joe McEwing (number 47), with back-up catcher Tyler Flowers to his left, and bullpen catcher Mark Salas.Before the joy of watching his team “take infield,” I had already had a long conversation with Ventura, who was probably the champion of dry-witted baseball figures during his time as a player. He was the one who spread the story that when Rickey Henderson joined the Mets in 1999, he asked first baseman John Olerud why he wore a helmet in the field (Olerud had suffered a brain aneurysm in college and benefited from the limited plastic protection). Ventura quoted Rickey as saying “A guy I played with in Toronto did that too.” The guy, of course, was the self-same John Olerud, with whom Henderson had been teammates six years before.

Henderson was many things, but he did not have a bad memory about players. The story was entirely apocryphal, but Ventura sold it so well that for years it was treated as gospel. And everybody kept Robin’s name out of it. When somebody finally confronted him about it he simply smiled. This was exactly the insurrectionist attitude that I thought would serve Ventura so well as a manager. When I reminded him of that he deadpanned “Yeah, but every day the writers still ask me if I’m afraid I’m going to lose control of the club.”

I took this long side trip into the persona of Robin Ventura for a reason. Take another look at that picture of the White Sox. I’ll ask you what Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn asked me as I marveled that his club was actually taking infield: “Do you notice if anything’s missing?”

There’s no baseball.

They were taking infield practice, for ten minutes or more, without any baseballs. It took me at least two minutes to even notice it, and another two to convince myself either my vision or my circulation hadn’t gone bad. No baseball. They were pantomiming it.

I shot a brief video:

At one point catcher Flowers came running right at me in pursuit of an imaginary foul ball. I thanked him for making sure it didn’t hit me.

Eddie Einhorn said his club calls it “Phantom Ball.” In the Negro Leagues in the ’30s, the teams used to entertain fans pre-game with a high speed version that including leaping catches and plays at the plate, which they called “Shadow Ball.” Under whatever name, it was a joy to behold, and the Sox insist it’s terrific for honing instincts and reducing the risk of injury because there’s no ball in use.

As I left the field Ventura asked me how I liked it and insisted it was Joe McEwing’s idea. “See?,” he added, still deadpan. “There’s a reason they keep asking me if I’m going to lose control of the club. I can’t even get them to use a baseball.”

Ventura might just win that division.

Update, 9:45 PM EDT: Ben Walker of the Associated Press, who loves “Infield” as much as I do, sent me an email mentioning that he asked Ventura and McEwing about this tonight and the skipper said they did this at least once under the guidance of coach Cookie Rojas when they were with the Mets – that would date to the 2000 season. This reminded me that Ventura told me last night “Every once in awhile we go all Cookie Rojas out there.”


He sure as shootin’ will if the Sox keep doing stuff like this. Three hours after Phantom Ball ended, Dayan Viciedo tore into a David Robertson pitch and all of a sudden a nice safe 3-1 Yankees’ ninth inning lead was a White Sox 4-3 victory.

Not long after, an ESPN researcher tweeted that it had been a long time since that had happened to the Yankees: that the last time a visiting team trailing by two or more went ahead on a home run in the 9th had been in 1972, when Bob Montgomery did it to them.

And a distant bell went off in my head.

I was at that game too, and boy was I cheesed off.

The Yankees trailed the third-place Red Sox by just a game-and-a-half when they met for a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 28, 1972, on day two of a five-game series that would probably decide which one of them might still challenge for the AL East Division crown. As an aside, for those of you who think the rivalry was always like it is now, the attendance for two Yankee-Sox games that night was 20,129.

I was one of them, and I happily watched my favorite, Mel Stottlemyre, hold the Sox to three hits and two runs until the ninth. The Yanks were up 5-2 when Stott got wild and walked Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli. Manager Ralph Houk brought in relief ace Sparky Lyle, and I got worried because Lyle had recorded his 20th save the night before, but had pitched 2-1/3 innings to do so.

Sure enough, Danny Cater (whom the Yankees had astutely traded to Boston for Lyle in one of the worst one-for-one trades in baseball history) singled to drive in a run and cut it to 5-3. Shortstop John Kennedy worked the count full but then struck out. This brought up Bob Montgomery, Boston’s third string catcher who had, to that point in the 1972 season, hit exactly no home runs and driven in exactly two. In fact, in the middle of his third big league season Montgomery had hit exactly three career homers (he would go on to a long career as a Boston back-up, be the last man to regularly bat without a batting helmet, and then become a beloved color commentator on the Red Sox tv broadcasts).

Montgomery promptly put Lyle’s pitch into the right field seats and, just like last night, a two-run Yankee lead had become a one-run visitor’s victory.

I was not happy. And this is not memory speaking. It took me five minutes to find my scorecard. The blasphemies directed at Manager Houk (“Lyle? 2 Days in a row…You are a fool!”) will not be illustrated here. The scorecard will:40 years is a long time between any two similar events.

Just how long is underscored by what’s on the page behind that scorecard. It lists the names and numbers of the pitchers of the American League teams. For the future 1972 World Champion Oakland A’s, there are only nine pitchers listed.


For those interested in the other stuff I’ll be appearing as a guest Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.


  1. Pingback: Keith will be on ABC’s “This Week” again this Sunday « Countdown with Keith Olbermann – Unofficial Fanblog
  2. Stephen S. Power

    “relief ace Sparky Lyle…had recorded his 20th save the night before, but had pitched 2-1/3 innings to do so.”

    It’s like a transmission from the prehistoric, that line. How often does a closer go two and a third? When was the last time a closer averaged just shy of two innings a
    game across a season? When was the last time a closer didn’t get his 20th save until that late in the season?

  3. Sam

    Not since 1972? That’s unbelievable. I had to look up Kubel’s grand slam off Mariano but that was in the 8th with the Twins trailing either 3-1 or 3-2 (I think Mo walked in a run just before that– unbelievable too). I’d watch Keith on Sunday but there might be some Republicans on there– the Mouse Ears Network would require that. Anyway, I hope the Yankees beat Obama’s team!

  4. sanford943

    Speaking of comebacks. On this day in 1952, the Cubs played the Reds at Crosley Field. The Cubs were down by 6 runs, 2 out and no on. The Cubs came back to win 9-8 in the ninth. Do you know of any other games like this?

  5. Mary_Caruso

    Oh how I loved hearing your voice on the video. You’re getting quite talented with the new tech toy. I enjoyed reading about the ‘phantom baseball’ warm up. It takes imagination and I imagine it’s a whole lot of fun. The score card got me confused. I used to know what all that means scoring for my softball league. You have so many moments to remember and archives to prove it! Looking forward to seeing you on This_Week_ABC this Sunday. LyK

  6. Truly S. (@hotincleveland)

    I was wondering whether your account of the ’72 game was all from memory. I thought “If so, he’s more than a baseball fan, he’s the freakin’ Rain Man.” Whew. But it took you only FIVE MINUTES to search through your collection of memorabilia (at least the stuff not locked up in storage somewhere) and find that scorecard? My hat is off to you for your organization. And even at 13, you kept a NEAT scorecard.

    The “phantom baseball” clip is very cool. Looking forward to seeing you on TV Sunday!

  7. patricia ellyn powell

    Great piece, Keith! I love the addition of the video! Wow! And I am thrilled Youklis is now with the White Sox, even though he was my favorite Red Sox player! (I said he just changed his Sox.) He seems a better fit there. And Truly, he is a dang genius! I am always amazed at his ability to make connections, which defines gifted and talented. Also, I am thrilled about watching THIS WEEK tomorrow morning! What a treat! All the fans will be up early! Thanks, Mr. O! You are the best!

  8. larfromhays

    Keith, they still practice real infield at Larks Park in Hays, Kansas. The Larks are a summer collegiate wooden bat team that has featured stars like Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Jack Wilson. When they go out for infield, it reminds me of the old Terry Cashman song, “Baseball in Ballet.” Come out my way, Keith. I’ll buy you a $2.50 Larksburger and a cold beer in a can and you can watch some great kids readying to be major leaguers.

  9. Stephen Seplow

    You are right about infield. When I was kid growing up about a mile from Ebbets Field, it cost 60 cents to sit the bleachers. And the seats were prized. You’d get in line about 10 a.m and the gates would open about 11 or 11:30 for a 1:35 game. You got a chance to watch both teams take batting practice and infield. And then, for the same 60 cents, you got to watch the game. It’s never gotten any better that.

  10. vp19

    Speaking of comebacks. On this day in 1952, the Cubs played the Reds at Crosley Field. The Cubs were down by 6 runs, 2 out and no on. The Cubs came back to win 9-8 in the ninth. Do you know of any other games like this?

    On June 18, 1961, the first-year expansion Washington Senators had a 12-5 lead with two out in the ninth in the first game of a doubleheader at Boston…and lost 13-12. Red Sox catcher Jim Pagliaroni tied the game at 12 with a grand slam, and the Bosox followed with two more hits. To add insult to injury, Boston won the nightcap 6-5 as Pagliaroni homered in the 13th. It capped a four-game Bosox sweep, and the Senators — who entered the series 30-30, tied for fourth place and who had a 6-0 lead in the third inning of the series opener on Friday — never recovered, ending at 61-100, tied for ninth with the Kansas City A’s.

    Is it any wonder Washington fans are pinching themselves over this year’s Nationals? It’s like entering another realm, an alternate universe. Baseball success simply doesn’t happen in D.C.

  11. Pingback: Inside the White Sox
  12. Arah

    Its so nice to hear your voice in this clip for the first time.
    I wish I get to see them playing soon, see you there!
    It will be really awesome!

    To visit my blog, kindly cliquez ici .

  13. Harry James

    Well Keith glad to see your not unemployed. Figured with your outrageous liberal stances you would go unemployment and blame Bush for your misfortune. Just hope you never again thing your political commentary is worth while.

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