The photo is fuzzy, snapped in a surreptitious hurry, but its lack of focus does little to obscure what appears to be obvious: T.J. Friedl is straight up not having a good time. The outfielder stands in the middle distance, arms crossed and hips slightly forward, eye black on and his cap pulled low over his forehead. Zoom in and one can make out the traces of a pixelated grimace.
He’d just been benched midway through a September 2021 game with Triple-A Louisville, and nobody would tell him why. For several more innings, he coached first base and stewed. Inside his head, a battle of competing explanations raged. The game was close, so it couldn’t have been for rest. Was it because he didn’t run hard to first after popping up in his last at-bat? Surely, it wasn’t that. “I did run,” Friedl told himself. But what else could it be?
After the game, he got his answer. Louisville manager Pat Kelly, who has spent decades in the minors, beckoned the outfielder into his office with a bellicose command. Kelly began what felt like a tongue-lashing — YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU WERE TAKEN OUT?! — when suddenly his words didn’t match his tone. “The reason I took you out,” the manager growled, “is because you’re going to the big leagues!” Coaches and teammates, positioned on the other side of the door in anticipation, poured into the room to celebrate.
Friedl had become the latest victim of one of the oldest tricks in the managerial book, and the photo of him mid-pout is potent evidence of Kelly’s facility for misdirection. (“You can tell steam is coming out of his ears,” Kelly laughs. “It’s just a classic picture.”) Yet unlike the hidden ball trick or some of the game’s other relatively rare displays of chicanery, Kelly and minor-league managers use the same gag with regularity. Multiple times a year, those managers get to tell a player that he’ll soon be making his major-league debut. And every single time — sometimes with precious little notice, often in front of a room of players who keep one eye on any big-league openings — those managers do everything they can to make that moment surprising.
“Each one has to be different,” says Scott Hennessy, manager of Double-A Tulsa, a Dodgers affiliate. “Each one has to be something special.”
And, increasingly, each one becomes much more of a production. Set-ups become more elaborate, leaving soon-to-be raptured prospects dangling unknowingly on the hook for longer and longer. Fans are invited into the moment, with hidden cameras poised to capture footage that will debut on the team’s social media channels. Teammates wait in the wings, preparing for a bear hug and a beer shower. The bar keeps being raised.
Yet minor-league managers keep clearing it. “I’ve seen these things on social media and I’m just amazed at how good they are,” says A’s assistant hitting coach Chris Cron, who spent most of his coaching career managing in the minors. Yet intricate or not, the basics of the trick are always the same. Spring the trap by leading the player off the scent. Drop the whammy on them. Wait, as Orioles Triple-A skipper Buck Britton terms it, for that “raw first smile.”
Welcome to the art of sharing good news.