BOSTON -- When a big-league manager wants to call to the bullpen, he’ll soon be doing so on a cell phone. But when he comes to the mound to signal for a pitching change, he’ll still have to do it the old-fashioned way, designating with his arm whether he wants a right-hander or a left-hander.
As we were reminded Thursday night by Robby Thompson, the acting manager of the Seattle Mariners, that can be more complicated than it sounds. One manager’s “magical” [John Farrell] is another manager’s misery, as Thompson learned the hard way in the ninth inning Thursday night, which was either an otherworldly comeback by the Red Sox, 8-7 winners, or a mind-bending meltdown by the Mariners, depending on your point of view.
Pointing, in fact, is what got Thompson in a world of hurt Thursday. The former second baseman and longtime coach, filling in as Mariners manager while Eric Wedge recovers from a mild stroke, emerged from the third-base dugout in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded, one run in, and nobody out for the Red Sox, who had begun the inning trailing, 7-2. Seattle closer Tom Wilhelmsen had already given Thompson heartburn by walking Daniel Nava, the first batter of the inning, on four pitches. Now he had no choice but to make a change.
Thompson extended his left arm toward the bullpen, then tapped his right arm with his left hand. He wanted right-hander Yoervis Medina to pitch to the switch-hitting Shane Victorino, with another right-handed hitter, Dustin Pedroia, on deck.
But, what’s this? As Medina trotted in from the bullpen, umpiring crew chief Gary Darling waved him back. The plate umpire, Dustin Rackley, informed Thompson that in the universal language of baseball, by pointing with his left arm, he had signaled his intention to bring in the left-hander, Perez. The second gesture? Too late. What’s done was done.
And soon, the Mariners were done, too. Perez gave up a two-run single to Victorino, then another run-scoring single to Pedroia. The score was 7-6. Perez then struck out David Ortiz, who probably would have been the only batter he faced had Thompson been able to bring in Medina earlier.
Now Medina entered. Maybe he hadn’t recovered from the earlier confusion, or maybe he just couldn’t get anyone out, but next thing you know, Jonny Gomes had singled to tie the score, Stephen Drew had drawn a walk to tie the bases, and Nava, who had begun this incredible uprising, ended it with a flyball over the head of center fielder Michael Saunders.
Cue the music and the celebration for the Red Sox.
Bang the drum slowly for Thompson.
“If there’s anything there for me,’’ Thompson told reporters afterward, “it’s a lesson learned that if you make any motion with either hand, that’s it. I didn’t realize that.’’
If it makes Thompson feel any better, former White Sox manager Terry Bevington once signaled to the bullpen, only to discover he had no one warming up. The umpires made him bring someone in, anyway.
Or maybe he will learn to be more explicit in his instructions, like another former White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen, who would tap his right arm, then spread his arms wide, his way of saying, “Give me the big guy,” in this case, Bobby Jenks.
And finally, there was Casey Stengel, who once came to the mound to make a pitching change carrying a railroad lantern. One lantern, the conductor, two lanterns, the engineer? Nah. It was Ole Case’s way of letting the umpires know that it was too dark to keep playing.