(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
Jose Reyes entered last night’s action as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, so naturally, the Atlanta Braves’ game plan centered on slowing the speedster down. Apparently, however, the team took that mandate just a bit too literally as even the grounds crew wound up getting in on the act.
There was nothing unusual about Jose Reyes’ infield single that led off yesterday’s game at Turner Field. It was not only the shortstop’s major league leading 95th hit, but also the 23rd time he started the first inning with a safety. In fact, Reyes’ early trip on the base paths was so far within the realm of reasonable expectations, the Braves had a surprise for the speedster lying in wait.
After reaching first base, Reyes barely avoided being nabbed on successive pickoff attempts by starter Jair Jurrjens. On both occasions, the Mets’ speedster spun out with his first step back to the bag, making it seem as if he was stuck in the mud. As things turned out, that’s exactly what happened.
Entering yesterday’s game, the Mets were second in the National League with 60 stolen bases, while the Braves were dead last with 19. Faced with such a significant speed gap, the Braves took a page out of gamesmanship 101 and instructed their groundskeeper to spend some extra time making sure the first base area was well lubricated for that evening’s game. Unfortunately for the Braves, however, first base umpire Bill Miller was not playing along.
After Reyes slipped for the second time, Miller halted the game and ordered that a drying agent be used to soak up some of the mud conveniently located just about where a base stealer would take his lead. After play resumed, Reyes promptly stole second base, providing justification for the Braves’ pre-game preparations. By the end of the night, the Mets had swiped four bags, including a second steal by Reyes.
I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t care. If it’s wet, I’m going to try and steal anyway. They can do whatever they want to.” – Jose Reyes, quoted in the New York Post, June 15, 2011
Although perhaps guilty of overzealousness, the Atlanta Braves aren’t the first team to accentuate strengths and minimize weaknesses by altering their home field. Throughout baseball’s colorful history, tailored mounds, slanted baselines, thick infield grass, roving fences and various other tactics have been frequently used to gain an edge. In fact, one of the most famous, and infamous, examples of creative field maintenance involved the very same approach used by the Braves against the Mets. What’s more, some people contend that the tactic helped decide the 1962 pennant.
Despite having sluggers like Tommy Davis and Frank Howard, the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers were an offense built on speed, and no one exemplified that more than Maury Wills, whose then record of 104 stolen bases in only 117 attempts had pitchers, catchers, and managers in a panic every time he reached base. Stopping the Dodgers usually meant stopping Wills, and much to the dismay of the opposition, the latter didn’t seem possible once the fleet footed shortstop got on base.
On August 10, the Dodgers opened up a road series against the rival San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers entered the weekend in first by 5 1/2 games and seemingly poised to run away with the National League pennant. However, Giants’ manager Alvin Dark had other ideas, including a trick or two that might finally slow down the go-go lineup from Los Angeles.
The principal figure in Dark’s pre-series strategy wasn’t a Hall of Famer like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey or Juan Marichal, but Matty Schwab, the chief groundskeeper at CandlestickPark. Determined to prevent Wills and the Dodgers’ other speedsters from stealing bases, Dark asked Schwab if he might be able to slow things down a bit. The obedient groundskeeper answered affirmatively.
Under the cover of darkness before the series opener, Schwab and his son set about building a speed trap around the first base bag. With a mixture of sand and water covered by top soil, the Schwabs finally figured out a way to slow the Dodgers down. Unfortunately, however, the alterations didn’t go unnoticed before the game.
Prompted by complaints by the Dodgers, umpire Tom Gorman ordered Schwab to fix the quagmire, but instead of following those orders, the grounds crew actually preceded to make the conditions even worse. Much to the dismay of Walter Alston, Schwab’s charade was met with a stamp of approval and the game was allowed to begin.
Perhaps distracted by the Giants’ gamesmanship, or maybe just simply overmatched, the Dodgers wound up getting swept in San Francisco, and most notably, only managed one stolen base. Although the team didn’t outright attribute the three losses to the Giants’ chicanery, the Dodgers were clearly not amused.
It’s a dangerous practice and we want to see it stopped. I certainly don’t want to see our players or any other players subjected to that sort of thing. We would have lost anyway – the way we played – but that’s beside the point”. – Dodgers’ GM Buzzie Bavasi, quoted by UPI, August 15, 1962
Although the teams weren’t scheduled to play again at Candlestick Park, Dodgers’ general manager Buzzie Bavasi fired off an angry complaint to National League President Warren Giles. In his public comments, Bavasi also accused the Giants of “vileness of purpose” and, in more fan friendly terms, “playing dirty pool”.
The Giants were eventually admonished by Giles for violating the spirit of fair play. More importantly, Giles also warned the team about trying a similar tactic again, particularly against the Dodgers when they returned to San Francisco in 1963. As fate would have it, the authority of Giles’ order would be put to the test much sooner than that.
With only seven games to go, the Dodgers held a four game advantage over the Giants. The lead didn’t last, however, as Los Angeles dropped six of seven, which allowed San Francisco to pull even. As a result, a best-of-three series was scheduled to decide the pennant, and the first game was to be held at Candlestick Park.
As soon as word of the Dodgers’ tie-causing defeat was received yesterday, Matty Schwab and his Giant grounds crew went to work spreading a thick layer of sand over the skinned part of the infield.” – The New York Times, October 1, 1962
Perhaps anticipating further chicanery, umpire Jocko Conlan arrived early to the field to prevent the Candlestick grounds crew from bringing a shovel anywhere near first base. Unfortunately, they had already beaten him to the punch by spreading a sandy mixture all over the infield. As Conlan inspected the base paths, his anger grew with each step. “Why don’t you play like men,” the umpire shouted at a group of Giants’ players that had assembled on the field.
Conlan’s outburst sparked a nose-to-nose argument with Dark, who was now being referred to around the league as the “The Swamp Fox”. After the confrontation, which some observers thought might come to blows, ended, Conlan ordered that the entire infield be reworked. Ever dutiful, Schwab ordered his son to bring out the hose. After several minutes of watering down the infield, Conlan intervened again. More sand was the umpire’s request. Unfortunately for the Dodgers that only meant more mud.
It was just as bad as the last time we were here, only in a different way.” – Maury Wills, quoted by The New York Times, October 1, 1962
After a long give and take between the umpires and the grounds crew, the field was eventually cleared for play, but the result made the pre-game drama seem like much to do about nothing. Not only did the Giants knock Sandy Koufax out of the game after one inning, but the Dodgers only mustered three hits off Billy Pierce. In other words, it wouldn’t have mattered if the game was played on a sprinter’s track.
Following San Francisco’s 8-0 victory, the series shifted to Dodger Stadium, where after losing the second game, the Giants rallied for four runs in the top of the ninth to win the rubber game 5-4. The winning run scored on an error by second baseman Larry Burright, who only a couple innings earlier had come into the game to play defense. There was no word as to whether poor infield conditions contributed to the misplay.
To those who believed Dark was guilty of poor sportsmanship, the Giants got their comeuppance in the World Series. Trailing 3-2, but with the series returning to San Francisco, the playing conditions at Candlestick Park once again became a pivotal issue. This time, however, the team’s grounds crew wasn’t in the middle of the storm. Mother Nature was.
The sixth game of the series was postponed two days because of persistent rain, and then a third because the outfield was in such poor condition. Apparently, Schwab’s ground crew had more experience soaking the infield dirt than drying wet outfield grass.
The extended delay allowed the Yankees to line up their two best pitchers, an advantage that became evident when Ralph Terry, who otherwise would have been on 2-days rest, tossed a 1-0 shutout in the seventh game. Had the Yankees been without that luxury, it’s very possible that the Giants could have come out on top. So, amusingly, it seemed as if the same poor field conditions that helped the Giants win the pennant might have also cost them a chance at winning the World Series.
Who says there’s no karma in baseball?