One week ago I posed some fascinating questions about hypothetical (and in a few cases all-too-real) events or circumstances set in the world of Cuban baseball. These brainteasers appeared first on my MLB blog site and were intended to illustrate just how entertaining and sometimes unorthodox the Cuban League version of the sport might actually be. I proposed to provide answers in due time for the international (since it includes Canada and Europe and even some outposts in Asia) occasion of SABR Day – an annual late-January celebration of the August 1971 founding of the Society for American Baseball Research. Why does SABR Day fall in January when the organization traces its roots to the month of August? Perhaps there is also some intriguing “trivia puzzle” lurking somewhere in this calendar oddity, but if so I simply do not know what it is. I do, however, have answers to the earlier-raised diamond trivia questions, and I now deliver them here on January 29 (official SABR Day) as originally promised.
First Question: This brain buster was recently raised on a Cuban television broadcast and is merely a hypothetical scenario. But it could well happen even if it so far hasn’t. A game is tied up in the late going and a relief pitcher has been summoned to the mound to begin a new inning. The pitcher faces only three batters and he retires all three successfully. None of those three batsmen are able to reach base. The pitcher then is finished for the day, but when the contest ends he is properly credited as being the losing pitcher. How could this possibly happen?
Answer: You are far better prepared to tackle this one if you are a Cuban League booster, or at least a follower of the international tournament scene. For those readers whose fandom is narrowly restricted to professional organized baseball it remains a tough nut to crack. When I first encountered the teaser I immediately thought of only one possible scenario. Perhaps at the end of the inning in question the manager who inserted the ill-fated pitcher becomes involved in some kind of heated dispute with the umpiring crew and decides to pull his team from the field, causing a forfeit to occur and thus his team to lose by the standard 9-0 forfeit count. But in that scenario does the final reliever take the loss? Is there even a losing and winner hurler assigned in a forfeited game? I simply don’t know. And besides, the forfeit angle seems far too oddball and simple a solution.
There is indeed an answer and it comes under the revised rules in place for international tournament play ever since the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. The specific rule referred to here is what I originally dubbed (and the Cuban media has now branded) as the infamous “Schiller Rule” – named for the then-president of the International Baseball Federation which introduced the controversial procedure. This is a rule that attempts to remove any inconvenience of lengthy extra-inning contests by imposing a type of sudden-death provision on contests deadlocked after the ninth frame. In Beijing the rule took effect after 10 normal innings; it has subsequently been changed to apply after only nine innings. Once extra inning play begins, each team comes to the plate with runners placed automatically on first and second base, with a manager first choosing where in his batting order he wishes to start. (Most opt to place the numbers nine and one hitters on the base paths and then have the number two man lead off the action with a sacrifice bunt. This would then bring the heart of the order to the plate with two in scoring position and only one retired.) This strange rule (fashioned after recreational softball) has now also been adopted for regular season contests during this the Gold Anniversary National Series Cuban League season.
Under Major League procedures, if the ill-fated revealer entered the contest with none out but runners already on the base paths, he might wild pitch several times, or he might yield a stolen base or two – in either case allowing an existing base runner to scamper home. All this may occur with the first batter still at the plate – before he subsequently retires the only three batters he faces. Or perhaps he wild pitches a runner to third, and then retires the first or second batter on a sacrifice fly. But in either case he would not take the loss, since those existing base runners would be charged not to him but to the previously departed pitcher who originally put them in circulation.
But now the Schiller Rule scenario changes everything. The inning begins with two men aboard and they are indeed the responsibility of the pitcher (our newly entered reliever) who starts the inning. So if that pitcher perhaps wild pitches twice and thus gives up a lead run in the process (say in the top of the tenth), then retires the only three batters he faces, he would indeed be the loser. If his team never scores in the bottom of the frame he is tagged with the defeat.
Second Question: This second event reputedly happened in a Cuban National Series game back in the early seventies, although I have never been able to verify its actual occurrence or pin down any specific date or any specific locale. Again the game is tied in the late innings. The visiting team has mounted a threat and has the bases loaded and with none out. The subsequent batter then hits into a triple play to end the inning. But in the process the batter gets credit for driving home the game-winning run. How does this happen?
Answer: This is reported to have happened in a league game and is said to have involved famed batter Wilfredo Sánchez, who in thus scenario was not the batsman but rather the defensive hero. If it didn’t ever happen, it nonetheless represents a plausible situation and also a possible result. Reportedly the batter lined into right center where Sánchez made a spectacular diving gab and then quickly returned the ball to the infield, where one base runner was trapped off second base (out number two) and a third was also gunned down before returning successfully to first (triple play). However, during the process of nabbing the final trapped runner between first and second, the runner on third base had tagged up and scampered across the plate. The home plate umpire signaled that the run had scored before the third tag (or force) was made and thus the tally (the eventual game winner) stood. According to the rule book any batter banging into a twin killing can not be credited with an official RBI. But the restriction doesn’t apply to a triple play. Hence the batter would get credit for plating the game winner, despite his colossal failure in producing a rally-killing three instant outs.
Third Question: A Cuban League batter once incredibly hit into an “official” inning-ending quadruple play. Yes, four outs were actually recorded in the official score book on this one play. Again, how in the world could that happen?
Answer: This one is about as strange as they come, especially since it reputedly occurred during the same play just described in the above incident. Or it almost happened, as I will explain. But once again, let’s consider the logical possibilities (what the rule book allows) and not just the historical accuracy here.
On the triple-play just mentioned, it appeared that the go ahead run had been scored by the runner tagging at third. But as the defensive team left the field their manager raced out to confront the umpires with his protest that the runner had in fact left the bag early, before the catch was made in right-center. After a short and heated discussion the umpiring crew chief behind the plate reportedly signaled that he was reversing the decision and calling the runner out at third for not properly tagging up. In order to prevent the run from counting, that base runner would indeed have to be marked as out in the score book. Thus no run but also four recorded outs. Unprecedented perhaps, but such a scoring is certainly conceivable and apparently the only allowable rule book solution. Nonetheless – at least as the story is reported – after further debate with both managers (and likely a good deal of on-field chaos) the umpires at last concluded that the initial call should stand – triple play, the runner legitimately scoring on a legal tag, and thus a game-winning RBI produced by a triple-killing.
Fourth Question: While this event is sometimes attached to Cuba, it in truth occurred during a winter league match in Venezuela. A team known as Cervecería Caracas had the bases loaded with two retired when the next batsman drew a base on balls and was thus awarded first base. But the inning ended with three Caracas players retired and no runs scoring in the remarkable inning. But how could this conceivably happen? This strange event is not only plausible but also quite well documented, being detailed in the volume entitled Momentos Inolvidables del Béisbol Profesional Venezolano, 1946-1984, a volume authored by Alexis Salas. There are few if any umpiring decision more unusual than this one, so who can explain it?
Answer: Believe it or not my friends this one actually did occur. In the contest (on January 4, 1948) matching Cervecería Caracas and Venezuela (a league team and not one representing the country), a mammoth homer by future Cleveland big-league slugger Luke Easter had deadlocked the score and sent the game into the eleventh frame. After two outs to start the Caracas side of the eleventh, an infield hit and a pair of walks had suddenly loaded the sacks. Pitcher Tuerto Arrieta next delivered four wide tosses to batter Benitez Redondo, who had to dive to the dirt to avoid being hit by the wild third pitch (which was saved from going to the backstop on a diving play by catcher Humberto “Pipita” Leal). With the fourth wide pitch, batter Redondo did not start immediately toward first, which caused the third base runner, Romero Petit, also to hesitate in confusion a few feet from the bag. Redondo waved at Petit to head home with the automatic lead run, and then started his own lazy trot to first. At this point catcher Leal pulled a surprising maneuver by racing after Redondo and tagging him halfway down the line. Leal also screamed “you’re out” thus provoking loud laughter from the grandstands, and a stunned response from batter Redondo. Angered by the odd challenge, Redondo next ripped the ball from the catcher’s glove and heaved it toward the backstop.
What then happened is truly “one for the record books” as they say. Veteran umpire Henry Tatler threw a gallon of metaphorical gasoline on the fire by immediately calling Redondo out for his brazen act of “base runner interference” in seizing the ball from crafty catcher Leal. Adding charm to the play was the fact that slow-moving Romero Petit was still several feet short of home plate when Tatler made his remarkable interference call on Redondo. There was then much heated on-field debate with Caracas manager Daniel Canónico – the one-time pitching legend who once become a national hero by besting Cuban ace Conrado Marrero in the championship game of the 1941 Havana Amateur World Series. But the protests were to no avail and Tatler’s ruling stood. The base runner was out by interference and the automatic run coming for third was erased from the scorebook. (To complete the story, the home club – Venezuela – won the match with a bases loaded single in the bottom of the same fateful eleventh inning.)
Final Question: I have saved the best for last. This one did indeed occur and I actually witnessed it in person during a 2009 stint in Cuba. It thus remains the strangest moment in my own half-century of baseball watching. In a tense Cuban League playoff semifinal match staged in Pinar del Río, Habana Province mounted an early threat with one out and runners on first and third. Habana was already in the lead by a 4-1 count in this pivotal Game 3 of the series. The next Habana Province batter then drove a blast that appeared to clear the fence in left field for a three-run homer. The extra umpire along the left field foul line raced into position and immediately waved his arm in the traditional home run signal. The runners circled the bases, but in the process the ball suddenly reappeared at the base of the wall in left center. A heated dispute obviously erupted between the Pinar manager and the umpiring crew, with the issue being whether the ball caromed back onto the field after striking something behind the wall (thus a home run), or perhaps whether the ball actually struck the top of the wall before re-entering play (a possible ground rule double?). At any rate, the three runners were already in the Habana dugout and three more runs were on the scoreboard. (By the way, an interesting footnote here is the fact that the pitcher victimized with this strange phantom home run was none other than current Washington Nationals hurler Yunieski Maya.)
Then the truly bizarre once more occurred – much like it had with the unprecedented ruling by Venezuelan umpire Henry Tatler sixty years earlier. The umpiring crew chief decided to overrule the call earlier made by the left field umpire, thus nullifying the three-run homer. Only one run was credited, and one out was recorded on the play. What was the umpire’s ruling, why was it made, what basis does it have in the rule book, and who was ruled out? That ought to keep you busy, if not dizzy! (I did provide a hint here by reminding readers that I had actually written about this very incident on this same website several years back.)
Answer: The immediate issue confronting the arbiters in this case was whether or not the blast (an apparent homer) struck by Habana Province catcher Danger Guerrero had actually left the ballpark or not. Did the ball strike the top of the wall and rebound onto the field, or did it clear the fence and then rebound back after coming in contact with something or someone beyond the wall? Cuban television coverage – limited to a trio of cameras – does not offer the possibilities of decisive “instant replay” review now available for North American games. The Cuban sport remains much more human (including a large does of human error) in its execution and thus much more open to exotic possibility.
In this instance, replays shown to the Cuban television audience revealed precisely what had occurred and what had been missed by the umpiring crew on the field. This strange instance of post-season dramatics was elaborated for readers of www.BaseballdeCuba.com in my May 25, 2009 article (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/NewsContainer.asp?id=1496) entitled “The Home Run That Wasn’t” and can still be found in the website’s Archives. For any who missed it, I will reprise here what I originally wrote about the remarkable Danger Guerrero phantom home run.
Here is the play as it actually transpired, during the early innings of one of the oddest post-season games on record and also one of the most vital contests of that year’s (2009) rapidly closing National Series. In the top of the second frame, with runners on first and second and only one retired, Pinar ace Yunieski Maya faced Habana’s number-eight hitter, the ironically named Danger Guerrero. The pesky Habana catcher featuring the all-too-perfect given name smacked a towering drive that just eluded the glove of leaping left fielder Jorge Padrón. The long fly caromed high off the top rail of the concrete wall before landing harmlessly on the warning track, several feet behind Padrón. The closest umpire (the one assigned to the left-field line in the normal six man post-season crew) gave an immediate and apparently premature signal that the blast was indeed a home run. Guerrero thus circled the bases unmolested, with arms held high in celebration, while a stunned Padrón stood holding the ball he had quickly retrieved from the outfield grass. It was obvious to everyone but the badly positioned umpire that the fly ball had never left the stadium. It was also obvious (even to left fielder Padrón, who thus made no attempt to throw to his infielders) that the ball was no longer in play, since a clear home run signal had already been given to create a “dead ball” scenario. The situation was quickly put beyond any easy solution. There was no homer, even though one was called. How many runs had actually scored? Should Guerrero be allowed to remain in the dugout, or must he be returned to the base paths? How was the play to be entered on the scoreboard or in the press box official score book?
The umpires had almost immediately realized the huge error involving the early home run signal, and thus confusion already reigned on the diamond and in the dugouts even before Guerrero had finished rounding the bases with his right fist still raised in apparent triumph. The scoreboard now read 7-1 in favor of Habana, but the play could obviously not stand as called without a full game protest by Pinar skipper Luis Casanova and perhaps a full-fledged riot by the packed house of Pinar fanatics. In the middle of it all was crew chief César Valdés, a veteran umpire most famous for his internationally televised body slam of a political protester who had intruded onto the Camden Yards diamond during a historic May 1999 Cuba-Orioles showdown.
During the lengthy and heated debate involving the umpiring sextet and both managers, stunned Pinar players milled on the field of play, while both benches collected in front of their respective dugouts. There seemed to be only one obvious solution to the bizarre home run ruling, at least to all seasoned baseball watchers. Guerrero would have to return to second base, while a second runner (the one originally on first) should be returned to third. Under this ruling of a ground-rule double, only one run would score and one out would remain on the scoreboard. It was not a comfortable solution, since there was no obvious reason for a ground-rule two-bagger. No fan had touched the ball, and also the ball had bounced into the stadium and not out of it. But what was the alternative? Once the home run call was erroneously made by one umpire, a “dead ball” situation obviously existed, ruling out any further attempts by the defense to tag out any of the three runners.
But that would not be the ruling as it was finally handed down. In what seemed to be an obvious attempt by embarrassed umpires and ill-prepared league technical commissioners to salvage a least damaging result for both clubs, a decision was made that completely threw the official rule book right out the window. Two base runners ahead of Guerrero were both allowed to score, the logic being that both would have easily reached home with the ball remaining in play. But since Pinar would have been the clear victim of this ruling, it was decided to rule Guerrero out after his untouched line drive blast off the top of the fence. But under what rule book conditions, since the batter did not step out of the batters box, nor did he pass by any runners on his trip around the bases, nor did he deviate from the base paths. How could the play (the out) be entered into the scorebook? Apparently the scoring could only be UU–out by umpire’s error unassisted–an entirely unique ruling in all of baseball’s seemingly endless history.
Of course a most dangerous precedent had now been set. Allowing umpires to seize the power to make decisions outside of the written rules destroys the entire fabric of the game. Yes the proper (if uncomfortable) ground-rule-double call would have done most damage to Pinar, but then it was the Pinar hurler who had allowed the towering blast in the first place. The game must be played strictly by the rule book and not by compromises to save face for erring umpires. In the end, this most bizarre of plays did not determine the outcome of a crucial championship match. Habana sealed the victory with a ninth-inning uprising that gave them a final wide 10-6 margin of victory and knotted the series. But the arbiters had somehow escaped determining the outcome only because Pinar’s pitching was even worse than the shoddy umpiring. While Maya was saved from an early exit by an unorthodox umpiring decision, he could not stand prosperity and was knocked from the box by the middle innings, after his own disastrous throwing error opened the door in the fifth to several more Habana tallies.
And there you have it – some of the strangest moments of baseball history, all certain to provide hours of entertaining barroom controversy. Hopefully my fellow SABR members have all savored their wintery North American Hot Stove gatherings this afternoon in such snow-encased baseball hotbeds as Indianapolis, Providence, Colchester and Cooperstown – and even in Toronto, Ontario. I didn’t attend myself since for me live baseball once again got in the way. Rather than debate Blackball or pro-ball events from eons long past – in some festive restaurant or union hall auditorium – I myself remained glued to my office computer following every live pitch (via Radio Rebelde) of today’s Granma vs. Metropolitanos encounter in Havana’s Changa Mederos ballpark. My own “hot stove league” doesn’t roll around until North American summertime months – once the beauties of a National Series pennant chase have been packed away for yet another dry and dull spring and summer baseball off-season. Good night Andy Wirkmaa, wherever you are.