It should surprise no one that the Tampa Bay Rays would pull off the hidden-ball trick. When you have trouble attracting fans to a dreary stadium with a tilted dome — Tropicana Field looks like a Campbell’s soup can without the label — you have to be smarter and more resourceful than the rest. The Rays have been that for years with small payrolls, big front-office brains and the quirky guile of manager Joe Maddon, who would be played in any movie by John Slattery.
Recently, they packed the place by giving away statuettes of Maddon as a gnome. What’s next, Wil Myers in a grass skirt?
What’s next, it turns out, was the oldest trick in the baseball prank book. In what otherwise was a lost weekend against the amazing Dodgers, the Rays at least brought farts and giggles to their first-ever trip to Hollywood. Juan Uribe, not always the most focused of Dodgers, had reached third base on a sacrifice fly. As disciples of the ever-inventive Maddon, the infielders knew exactly what to do as Uribe dusted himself off and lowered his head with one out in the fourth inning. Amid a discreet series of nods, glances and glove motions, first baseman James Loney fed the ball to shortstop Yunel Escobar, who quickly tossed it to third baseman Evan Longoria with a magician’s nonchalance.
When Uribe took his foot off the bag for about a nanosecond, Longoria cooly tagged him. Umpire Angel Hernandez, who has endured repeated criticism for high-profile missed calls, was sharp enough this time to see it all happening and called Uribe out. All we can ask, after watching the replay several times, is a simple question:
How in the world does this happen? The Dodgers’ third-base coach, Tim Wallach, has one job: keep runners alert and informed. In the home dugout a few feet away were manager Don Mattingly, other coaches and the players. In the stands at Dodger Stadium were 52,000 fans, a few of whom had to notice the ball flipping around the infield. Yes, baseball has a tendency to make people fall asleep on a sunny, 80-degree weekend afternoon.
Still. What … the … hell?
Escobar, who plotted it all, explained to reporters through a translator: “It’s a play that I always have in the back of my mind through the course of a game. Guys were going everywhere, so it happened to be a good situation where I thought we might be able to tag Uribe out. The umpire was standing there and knew what was going on right away, and the only one that didn’t know what was going on was Uribe. I’ve tried it four or five other times this year and never got anybody out in the big leagues. But in the minor leagues, I got four or five guys out.”
Said Longoria, per the Associated Press: “I know that Yuni is always looking to do it. Usually when a play like happens, the pitcher is right around the mound and you don’t have a whole lot of time before the umpires call time. I had just walked around behind Uribe, and Hernandez was still walking back from behind the plate to the mound. I was just kind of waving my hand to see if Loney would see me, and he did. But he threw the ball to Yuni — which was the best part of the play, because it was indirect. Once I got the ball, I just kind of waited there. He barely took his foot off the base and I tagged him.”
The Dodgers, as the hottest and best-compensated team in baseball, could laugh after another victory. They pulled their own prank on Uribe afterward, presenting him with a shoe taped to a base. Right after it happened, rookie phenom Yasiel Puig, known to bust teammates’ balls, couldn’t stop laughing in the dugout.
“I made a mistake,” Uribe said. “I didn’t see that the guy had the ball until it was too late. Every day, you see something different. I’ve never seen that before. Guys try. Now I know.”
It would be fascinating to watch the Dodgers and Rays in a culture-clash World Series — $232–million payroll vs. $62–million payroll. If nothing else, for a day, Tampa Bay can say it was more creative than Hollywood. I see another giveaway in the works.