Baseball, Tradition, and Ludditism

October 29th, 2011

I am half-way through reading Moneyball, and am fascinated with how tradition-driven baseball is. Beyond the obvious debates about instant replays and the human element (see here and here), it is amazing how–until Billy Bean’s radical rethinking of recruiting–baseball teams put together teams with a total ignorance of how games were won, based largely on how things had been done forever.

I suppose one vestige of this ludditism is the bullpen telephone. On October 22, I saw this story in the Times about how the dugout phone is the last bastion of the landline. It focuses on St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa who pines for the simple landline telephone.

While landlines in homes collect dust and serve increasingly decorative functions, the attitude among baseball clubs is a familiar one in a sport tied tightly to old-fashioned ways: why change what works?

“The same old phones, the same old process,” said Derek Lilliquist, the bullpen coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. “I guess they’ve been that way forever.”

“You have technical foul-ups,” La Russa said. “That’s why I limit my technical exploits to paper and pencil.” . . .

La Russa was asked whether he had any complaints about the phones and if he thought the technology could be improved in any way. “Do you work for AT&T?” La Russa said to the reporter, drawing laughter in the room. “No, I never thought about how to make it better.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right?

I was going to blog it, but I didn’t have time. Now, I have a good reason to return to it.

Now, La Russa’s reliance on that old-fashioned technology didn’t pan out so well for him in Game 5 of the World Series. Apparently the crowd was so loud in Texas that the bullpen coach was unable to hear La Russa.

Tony La Russa thought he was making a simple request of the bullpen: get closer Jason Motte ready. . .

Turns out it was anything but simple.

What happened after the call was a comedy of errors that played out like something from the “Can you hear me now?” cell phone commercials.

Cardinals bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist thought La Russa only asked for Marc Rzepczynski to start throwing, when the manager really wanted both left-hander Rzepczynski and right-hander Motte to get loose.

La Russa realized the problem once he put in Rzepczynski and saw no one else warming up, so he called back and asked for Motte again. This time, Lilliquist told Lance Lynn to start throwing, even though he was only supposed to be used in an emergency.

The series of miscommunications left Rzepczynski on the mound against Mike Napoli with the bases loaded, a lefty-righty matchup that clearly favored Texas. The Rangers’ catcher delivered with a two-run double that sent Texas to a 4-2 victory Monday night.

Is La Russa still so nostalgic over the old technology?

“That phone in a loud ballpark, it’s not an unusual problem,” La Russa said. “I mean, it doesn’t make it right, but … ”

As the pitchers came and went, La Russa’s deployment seemed curious. But he’s the winningest active manager and he’s known for his unconventional use of the bullpen, which is probably why nobody questioned whether there might be something wrong.

Rzepczynski and Motte didn’t even know there was a mixup until after the game.

La Russa said the noise problem is not unusual with bullpens “that are right amidst the fans and excitement.” The visitors’ bullpen at Rangers Ballpark is in left-center field, with fans on either side.

“Maybe we need to come up with some ear mikes or something,” La Russa said.

Considering all the technology available these days, there’s got to be a better way to do this — right?

“Yeah, smoke signals from the dugout,” La Russa said. “There are times, like what happened in Philadelphia (during the first round of the playoffs). The phone went out, and so we used cell phones. And then the Phillies brought down walkie talkies, and they fixed the phone.”

La Russa took the blame.

“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.”

A simple text message would’ve solved this.

“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.”

The TImes ran a follow-up story about baseball’s game of telephone on October 25, but fascinatingly didn’t even mention the earlier article praising the nostalgia. Amazingly laptops and cell phones are banned in the dugout! What sense does that even make?

So far, baseball has resisted anything more technologically advanced than a telephone. In addition to cellphones, laptop computers are also banned for dugout-bullpen communication, according to the baseball spokesman Pat Courtney. A pre-approved form of walkie-talkie can be used if a landline fails, Courtney said, provided the affected team alerts the umpiring crew. . . .

And while managers might not like the idea of text-messaging, Golvin said that such conversations would be easy enough to type out.

“It’s not like the dialogue between Tony La Russa and his bullpen coach is the equivalent of letters exchanged in the 17th century,” he said. “It’s more like, ‘Get Motte up.’ It’s three words.”