The tone he would use, the unrelenting eye contact he would make, the instigating question he would ask, all of it by now had roamed for nearly half a day in the mind of a manager looking for a fight. For nearly three hours the night before, then-Reds skipper Bryan Price watched how the players — his players, his guys — were spoken to. No, they were barked at. And for what? Those calls, man. … All season, Joey Votto hadn’t struck out three times in a single game until those calls. The Cincinnati veterans returning to the dugout bit their tongues. Price couldn’t. Not now. Not after another loss, a sixth straight. What was it? Five games below .500? May is too early on the baseball calendar for a spiral.
The time was Price’s cue. Ten minutes before first pitch. Best to get on with it. The manager trotted from the visiting team’s dugout toward the men wearing dark sunglasses, standing in the beaming glare at home plate. A pop-rock song blared at an obnoxious level for an early afternoon game, overwhelming casual conversations on the concourse and the sound of Price’s cleats crunching with his every step. A good thing. The words he planned to say were intended for only exclusive ears.
With his left hand, he held a lineup card that he never intended to share. With his right hand, he made an unconscious movement to punctuate every sentence, tipping off his displeasure. The meeting dragged. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. Four minutes. Five minutes. Spectators waited in their seats like drivers sitting at a red light they don’t realize is stuck.
Before every baseball game, two managers and four umpires meet at home plate. They talk. But what about? What are they pointing toward? Why are they laughing? Arguing? Wait, what … did he really just get ejected? Before the game even starts? Oh, Price.
The pregame lineup exchange is nearly as old as the sport itself. A pandemic and all of its social-distancing guidelines tweaked the meeting at home plate, but the face-to-face interaction that can lead to a stunt like Price’s is here to stay. Thankfully.
This season, according to the Major League Baseball and MLB Players Association on-field health and safety protocols, clubs load their lineup into a mobile application then deliver their own paper lineup cards to the umpire room approximately 15 minutes before first pitch. If relationships didn’t matter to baseball, there would be no better time to end the pregame lineup exchange than now. But the old-fashioned, on-field meeting still occurs.
“It is a ceremonial part of the game, but I don’t think all ceremonies should be eliminated because of COVID, frankly,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said one day this spring. “I feel like we’re outside, we have masks on, we’re not together for that long. From my perspective, I like to at least do the first game of the series because I think it’s important to say hello to the umpire crew. We work with these guys. They’re professionals. They’re people. It’s important to have a working relationship with those guys.
“I also think you’re going into competition against a team so you’re kind of shaking hands before that competition. It does mark the point where your lineup is official. It also marks the time that the game is in the umpires’ hands. The umpire takes control of whether the game will be delayed and all that instead of the home team. Obviously, the exchange of the lineup card could be done without it, but it is ceremonial.”
The importance of the meeting goes far further. The wisest among the game have learned to use the ritual in different ways. They’ve lost sleep because one aspect of the custom elicits paranoia. They’ve tested rules — only to see their attempt at overtly breaking them being exposed as folly. They’ve believed a superstition is responsible for wins and losses. They’ve tried seemingly anything possible to build a relationship. One even gamed an umpire with a hug.