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.”
DAYAN VICIEDO AND MONTY MONTGOMERY
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.
Congratulations to Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf and all others with the Chicago White Sox who managed to pull not just a complete surprise, but what is likely to be a long-term brilliant maneuver, in hiring Robin Ventura as the team’s new manager.
If anybody in baseball history has ever been better prepared psychologically for the roller-coaster of managing, I can’t think of his name. Ventura was probably the most unflappable, even-keeled player I’ve ever met – completely immune to the impact of wins and losses, interviews and ignorance, the media and the fans. He focused on exactly one thing: playing the game, and helping his teammates play it nearly as well as he did.
And he did this with an exceptional sense of humor that he used surreptitiously and almost conspiratorially. You have doubtless heard the story of Rickey Henderson coming to the New York Mets in 1999 and being reintroduced to John Olerud, briefly his teammate with the 1993 Blue Jays. Rickey – famously unfocused in the most benign and only self-injuring way possible – is supposed to have caught one glimpse at the batting helmet worn in the field that was both Olerud’s protection against after-effects of a brain aneurysm and the first baseman’s trademark – and said “I played with a guy in Toronto who did that, too.”
The story was entirely false, but so authentic-sounding, that it is still told as if it were biblical truth. And it was completely the concoction of Robin Ventura, perhaps the only such practical joke clean enough to be documented here. What’s more, if it took 100 words to tell that apocryphal story, those were probably 100 of the 200 words Ventura said to anybody not on his team that month. The French will tell you that there is the man good at the “bon mot” – the clever remark, that might have been the only clever remark out of a thousand he made that day. Then they will tell you, with a great deal more reverence, about the expert at the “mot juste” – the guy who is quiet all night, all day, all week, until he finally speaks, and says something so precisely correct and appropriate, that the quote stays vibrant and with you, forever. That’s Robin Ventura.
That’s not just about his humor. His baseball intuition was just like that, too. Jerry Manuel just said on MLB Tonight that Ventura used to “take care” of their infield when both were with the White Sox. The same was true with the Mets. Even as his skills slowed with the Yankees, his ability to position himself defensively based on pitch and hitter more than made up for the slowing reflexes. As a manager, one would expect that he would be as he was as a teammate: he will say damn little, and when he does speak, his players will say “Jeez! Why didn’t I think of that? He just extended my career five years.” This is, simply, one damn smart baseball man, who can’t be upset.
The latter truth probably comes from one infamous day that only becoming an all-time great manager might enable Ventura to live down. On August 4, 1993, after Nolan Ryan hit Ventura with a pitch at Arlington, Ventura charged the mound. He was 26, Ryan was 46 – it should’ve been no contest. It was exactly that. Ryan, alone among all pitchers who have ever faced that scenario, had the presence of mind to stay on top of the mound. From there, he was Andre The Giant. Ventura could do little more than run into Ryan’s headlock, and the rest was a video highlight that will still be being played on the day humankind disappears from the earth.
Since then, Ventura has made no brash move. Only stealth stuff. He has marched to his own drummer’s beat and done very well at it. And this is all said with the kind of caveat the White Sox must have anticipated. If he has misjudged his own interest in dealing with today’s players, Ventura will shrug his shoulders and go home. Maybe that will happen in 2032, maybe in 2022, maybe next May.
I’m not saying it’s likely, I’m just saying he doesn’t need this managing crap, and that’s one of the reasons he figures to be great at it.