The Portsmouth High Patriots, like almost every high school baseball team, kept a trick play in their pocket.
Theirs was called the "phantom pickoff throw": The pitcher would spin as if making a pickoff attempt but keep the ball tucked in his glove. His fielders would act as if the throw had gone wild, make a lot of noise and chase after it, and the runner -- tricked -- would start to run to the next base. The pitcher would casually throw him out.
This play worked. Pitcher Brendan Solecki remembers using it twice, once when he was on the freshman team and once as a sophomore on the varsity. Both times the runner fell for it. "Against Woonsocket, the parents were not very happy," he says. "Like, 'That's not baseball, that's bush league.'"
But high school baseball, and maybe only high school baseball, is built for trick plays. At levels lower than high school, everybody is just trying to have fun, trying to learn, and it seems cruel to try too hard to humiliate your opponent. At higher levels, a play like that would never work. High school is the intersection between childhood and adulthood: The young men on the field are good enough to throw in the high-80s, strong enough to play on full-sized fields in front of major league scouts, polished enough to speak in clichés. They're also young enough to fall for a trick play straight out of "Little Big League."
In 2005, a parent approached Portsmouth coach Dave Ulmschneider about an interesting book he'd found. It turned out to be more of a pamphlet:
There were 16 plays, with a page or two of explanation for utilizing and defending each. A lot of the plays were clearly cheating, such as the runner going from second to home, skipping (or "cutting") third base when the umpires were looking the other way. Some were just plain baseball, stuff every team did, like a delayed steal. Some didn't seem likely to work, and some didn't seem realistic. Then there was a play called "skunk in the outfield."
That's how it came to be that a Portsmouth sophomore named Johnny Pedrotty stood in right field in Game 2 of the Rhode Island state championship series, that a crowd of a thousand fans erupted into profane chaos, that a star infielder almost blacked out from the stress, and that Ulmschneider found himself unsure of how to stop what he'd unleashed. It's how, for two minutes and 32 seconds, baseball broke.
LET'S DEFINE A baseball play like this: It is a sequence of actions during which events in progress cannot be stopped by a timeout. A runner is actively attempting to advance or retreat, or he is exposed and the defense is chasing after him. The ball is live. The only way for the play to end is for the runner to advance, retreat or become the next out.
A play can take only so much time. The physical space of the field is confined, and baserunning is a closed circuit that takes about 15 seconds to complete. Barring a rundown -- when a baserunner goes backward -- it takes only that long before the runner scores or is tagged out, and is no longer advancing or retreating or being chased. A baseball game has no clock, but a baseball play has its own internal countdown, as the sprawl of defenders progresses toward order, funneling all the wide-open ambition of a baseball field into an ever-smaller space.
A typical stolen base is over within four seconds; a typical single within eight; a typical triple within 12. The most elaborate and disorienting plays might get to 20 seconds. I have found a play that took 26 seconds, and one that took 29 seconds, but I have never seen a play that took longer. But I've heard one, and it sounds like this:
"Bracey checks his runners. From the stretch, he delivers and gets that outside corner again and gets ahead of Jimmy Ayars no balls, two strikes."
The East Greenwich Avengers knew the Patriots well. In 2002, Portsmouth's Little League team had won the state championship, moving past East Greenwich in the state's final four. (East Greenwich would watch Portsmouth play in the regional finals on ESPN.) Three years later, many of the players met again in the semifinals of the 2005 state high school championship; Portsmouth knocked East Greenwich out after a miraculous comeback. You had to cross two bridges to get to Portsmouth from East Greenwich, so it was far enough away to be The Other. But it's Rhode Island. You see the same faces, over and over.
On June 17, 2006, East Greenwich ace Dan Bracey was on the mound at McCoy Stadium -- the Triple-A home of the Pawtucket Red Sox, a glamorous setting for a state tourney. East Greenwich's home bleachers sat 50; there were a thousand fans, maybe more, for this game. East Greenwich students had been let out early to go to it. The team had chartered a bus. "At that point it's 100 percent the biggest moment of our lives," says second baseman Matt Streich.
The Patriots were favored. They had brought back all but one starter from the previous season and added two sophomores: Ryan Westmoreland, a budding superstar; and Pedrotty, whose home run in the Little League regionals had pushed Portsmouth to within one game of Williamsport. The Patriots had the best regular-season record in the division; they had already won the first game of the best-of-three championship series, and they led 2-0 in the sixth inning of Game 2. They were three outs away.
Bracey's 100th pitch of the night put him ahead 0-2 on Portsmouth's No. 9 hitter, Jimmy Ayars, with two outs. Pedrotty was on first and Solecki was on third. Bracey set and looked in for the sign, when, suddenly, everybody started yelling.
"Look at John Pedrotty, running out toward right field. And Bracey is walking toward second base and John Pedrotty is standing in shallow right field, out of the baseline. No call has been made yet. East Greenwich doesn't know exactly what to do."
PEDROTTY WAS THE skunk.
In the rulebook, the baseline is not -- contrary to what most people think -- the line between two bases. Rather, it's a straight line between wherever the runner is and the base he's going for when a tag is attempted. As the MLB rulebook puts it:
A runner is out when: (1) He runs more than three feet away from his base path to avoid being tagged ... A runner's base path is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely.
If no defender is attempting to tag the runner, there is no baseline, and the runner can go anywhere he wants. He can walk into right field if he wants.
"What I decided to do was to run him out on the grass to try to get somebody to chase him," Ulmschneider would explain after the game. "One, they've got, out deeper there, a longer throw. They're running towards him -- they have to stop, throw off a turn, throw off balance, and I like our chances in that scenario. Or we're looking for them to throw to somebody. If they make a throw, we just try and score from third."
First-and-third situations are breeding grounds for gimmick plays in high school. Often, the runner on first will attempt to steal second, hoping to draw a throw that will allow the runner to score from third. But defenses will rarely make that throw, so offenses have designed ways to tempt the defense into going after the trail runner while letting the lead runner sneak home. Sometimes, when the pitch is delivered, the base stealer will stop halfway and try to get in a rundown. Sometimes he'll start walking to second base while the pitcher still has the ball. There's a balk/steal play, where the runner takes off sprinting once the pitcher gets set, the goal being to startle the pitcher so that he'll make an illegal move off the mound in reaction.
These plays -- and "skunk in the outfield" -- all have the same paradoxical premise: It's more valuable to the team that's at bat for the runner to be on first base. If he wanted to go to second, he could just steal. But as long as he's on first -- or, at least, not yet on second -- he might be able to ignite something weird. When Ulmschneider had his team run the play in practice for the first time just before the championship series, his pitcher on the mound -- Solecki, coincidentally -- immediately balked and then started yelling that the runner can't do that.
"Bobby Downey [of East Greenwich] is one of the best coaches I've ever coached against," Ulmschneider says now. "If we do a walk-off steal there, if we steal a base and slide short, get in the rundown -- they'll defend it." Indeed, East Greenwich practiced their reactions to these plays all the time. "I go, 'If Solecki's reaction is what it was, what's to say Bracey's won't be?' So I gave the sign."
Westmoreland was in the on-deck circle, and he saw the sign from Ulmschneider, who served as the third-base coach. "I was speechless. I couldn't believe it, to do it in Game 2 of the state final. I remember thinking to myself in the on-deck circle, 'I wouldn't be surprised if we lost this game.'"
"They will walk over toward third base and keep Brendan Solecki near the bag, and the ball will go back to the mound and they will ignore Pedrotty, out there in shallow right field, trying to draw some attention. Bracey has the ball in his hand behind the mound and he's waiting to see what happens."
STEP 1 HAD been to make Bracey panic. He didn't. He stepped off the rubber and walked down to the flat grass area behind the mound, so if he had to make a throw it wouldn't be on a slope. East Greenwich fans tried to get the umpire to call Pedrotty out of the baseline, but by the rulebook he wasn't. Bracey tried to call a timeout -- as he'd be allowed to do when any other baserunner was taking a lead -- but at some undefined point Pedrotty had taken more than a lead.
"There wasn't a Step 2," says Portsmouth's catcher, Nick Grande.
"I don't think we really practiced what you did once you're out in right field," Solecki says. "The initial part of it was, like, 90 percent of it. Get the other team to do something stupid or balk."
"To be honest, I didn't know what to do," Pedrotty says. "I didn't know the rules. I didn't know, if I deviated from my path, would I get called out? If I went to second base, I didn't know if I'd get called out. It was awkward: You're standing there, just you and the pitcher, looking back and forth, like, what am I supposed to be doing here?"
So Pedrotty just stood there, hands on his knees, staring into the eyes of an increasingly agitated Bracey. The pitcher could have simply gone back to the mound and delivered a pitch, let Pedrotty have second, but this situation was so wrong that it felt like they had to do something to put things back in place. Bracey was making pump throws, faking like he was going to run the ball at Pedrotty -- but the ball never left the area behind the mound. Coach Downey was yelling, "Ice, Dan, ice!" That was their designated instruction for delayed steals, and it meant: Throw the ball to the second baseman. But everybody was yelling. Even Bracey was yelling.
Meanwhile, East Greenwich first baseman Steve Salvator was trying to counter with his own trick play. Recalls Streich, the second baseman: "Salvator, it was like he's crawling through the Vietnam jungle, getting low to the ground and taking a parabolic angle behind this kid. Like nobody sees what he's doing, like we're going to do a quick throw. He's showing me his hand, like, 'Throw me the ball,' and our coach is yelling, 'Don't throw him the ball!'"
Solecki, on third base, kept bluffing toward home, but the ball was closer to the plate than he was.
Bracey finally looks toward Downey, arms outstretched, furious: What do you want me to do? Downey tells him to give the ball to Streich, the second baseman, who had the best arm in the infield. Bracey didn't want to -- in this moment, he's the only person he trusts to make a throw home.
"I don't blame the kid," Streich says. "I didn't want me to have it, either. What am I going to do, just stand there? I was praying to God that the kid did not run home, because I would have thrown the ball five rows into the stands, my hands were so sweaty. No chance I could have made that throw."
Streich doesn't even remember taking the ball -- "I think I blacked out for a good minute or two" -- but eventually Bracey handed it gently to him. "I told him, 'Don't screw this up,'" Bracey says. "Like if your dad gives you $20 to go out, and he gives you that look, like, 'I'm trusting you, don't let me down.'"
The longer the play got, the darker it all started to feel. At first it was funny, but as time ticked by nobody seemed to be having fun. The players in the Portsmouth dugout were starting to feel embarrassed, some guys complaining in real time that it was a stupid play. After about one minute, says Streich, "It was like a snap of the finger, and the whole mood [in the stadium] totally changed -- pure chaos!" East Greenwich fans were screaming across the stands at Portsmouth fans.
"It was an interesting evolution from that puzzlement to the anger," says Bracey's father, Jim, whose downturned camera caught some of the audio. "I had a good friend of mine there who had no real direct interest in the game, but he was a great athlete, his kids were great athletes, and oh my God, was he fired up. He was pissed, he was yelling. What ended up happening was Coach Ulmschneider became the target of it."
"This is a show! I can't believe this is going on! Dave Ulmschneider has to be loving this!"
EVERYBODY IN RHODE Island baseball called him Umpy, a nickname he'd inherited from his dad when the younger Ulmschneider started coaching in 1993. He was a volunteer assistant coach at first, earning his first paying job in 1998 and his first head-coaching job in 2000. In 2002, a bunch of incoming Portsmouth freshmen came to him and told him they were going to win Ulmschneider a state championship. Those freshmen were seniors in 2006.
"There were very few situations where he put us in a situation to fail," Pedrotty says. "I have the utmost respect for him."
He was a player's coach. He didn't try to mess with guys' swings or pitching mechanics. He let leaders emerge among the players so they could learn from each other.
"He was a really good coach," says Bobb Angel, a Rhode Island Radio Hall of Famer and the play-by-play broadcaster for the 2006 championship series. "Totally understanding of the ins and outs and all the angles. My guess is he just put one and one together."
The trick plays book had ways to defend the skunk play. The most ingenious defense is a huddle play, where the pitcher, second baseman and shortstop all huddle near the mound. One of them takes the ball, but the offense can't see which one. Then the shortstop goes toward the runner on third, and the second baseman goes toward the runner in right field. Both runners have to retreat, not knowing whether they're in danger of being tagged out.
But Ulmschneider knew East Greenwich had never seen this play and wouldn't know those defenses. He might even have foreseen that in a worst-case scenario, where Bracey doesn't panic and East Greenwich doesn't make a mistake, he'd end up in a stalemate like this. What he hadn't foreseen was how it would feel.
It felt terrible. Totally unexpectedly, he felt embarrassed, for himself and for Pedrotty and for his opponents and for his team. But until you do something, until you see the way it changes the atmosphere, the way reactions pick up momentum, it's hard to know. He could have been the hero.
"It's a fine line," he says. "I remember saying after the fact -- you know, we've all seen where somebody has done something, and they're legendary coaches and they can do it. But believe me, I was no legend. I was just a D-II high school coach in Rhode Island."
"The ball is in the hands of the second baseman, Matt Streich. Pedrotty now is gonna go back to first base, because nobody's going to throw over there. And now we are back the way we were. That was wild! East Greenwich fans don't like it. The Portsmouth fans are loving it. And John Pedrotty's back on first base."
THE LONGEST PLAY ever, and it's not even a line in the play log. Nothing happened. "I just remember being, like, I'm over this," Pedrotty says.
"It was like an Andy Kaufman routine, but not quite long enough," Bracey says. "Long enough to get everybody mad, not long enough for them to get the joke."
Nine years later, Dave Ulmschneider was inducted into the Rhode Island Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Bob Downey, the East Greenwich coach, gave the introductory speech. Downey called Umpy beforehand and mentioned he was going to bring up the Pedrotty play.
"I said, 'Please don't, Bobby.' He was going to, and I said, 'Bobby, please,'" Ulmschneider says.
Bobby didn't. And given what happened after the play, it might have seemed like gloating if he had.
BRACEY GOT BACK on the mound to throw his 101st pitch of the night. "I was fine if all the ligaments in my arm broke on that pitch," he says. "I really wanted to strike him out." Just before the pitch gets to the plate, a fan screams "See ya!" Ayars hits a routine grounder to Streich, and the same fan again yells, "See ya!"
Bracey stomps off the mound, pumping his fist. He steps over the foul line just as Ulmschneider is jogging toward him on the way to the first-base dugout. Bracey, out of character, gives him a dirty look, might have even said something. East Greenwich's reserves empty out of the dugout to give Bracey fives and fist bumps, but Bracey keeps his arms down and he shoulders through his teammates. He's furious.
So is the rest of the team. They'd been battling against a team that, in their hearts, they secretly knew was better than them. As one Avenger puts it, "We were well-rounded. They were well-rounded and they had superstars."
East Greenwich kids had been losing to Portsmouth kids since Little League. But for two and a half minutes, Portsmouth had treated them like clowns, and that was over the line.
"I think they thought they were totally in control of this situation," Streich says, but by running that play the emotions of the game got out of control. "In that situation, you let a sleeping dog lie. Once Dan got that guy out and gave the biggest roar and fist pump I've ever seen, I'm pacing in the dugout and I said to our backup catcher, 'I'm going to hit a home run in this inning, I don't care.' I don't swing for the fences, but if somebody gets on in front of me, we're winning because I'm going to hit a home run. I was irate. That was the most emotional I've ever been on a playing field. We didn't like them to begin with, and they're trying to make us look bad, trying to make us s--- ourselves, and we didn't do it. That's what sparked the rally."
Solecki, who had been the runner on third for the Pedrotty play, went back to the mound. He'd thrown only 76 pitches and allowed only four hits. But Nick Rossetti hit a pinch-hit single and Salvator followed with a single to right; Pedrotty bobbled the ball for an error, allowing Rossetti to score. Brandon Palmer singled to tie the game, and Streich came up. On the second pitch, he homered into the bullpen. In just four minutes, East Greenwich had turned the series around. The Avengers would add another run and win 5-2.
"Somebody said they think that fired 'em up," Ulmschneider said in a radio interview after the game. "You know what? In a state championship, you're down 2-0 in the seventh, you're down to the last three outs -- they're gonna come out guns blazing and leave it all on the field."
He might be the only person at the field that day who believes that. "It definitely rattled us," Westmoreland says.
Says Pedrotty: "I just felt like we did something that was probably the only thing we could have done to swing momentum in that situation."
The Patriots woke up the next morning and saw Downey quoted in the local paper, crediting the play with helping inspire East Greenwich's comeback.
"For East Greenwich," the writer wrote, "successfully defending the play was about more than preventing a run. It was about finally beating the Patriots."
THE NEXT DAY, Portsmouth won Game 3 and the championship. They were the better team. Westmoreland threw a three-hitter, struck out nine, and in a lot of ways it was his coming-out party. He was already great, but the next two years he was the state's best player, carrying Portsmouth until the Red Sox drafted him and gave him a $2 million signing bonus.
An East Greenwich fan at Game 3 had a big sign that read "UMBRAGE." It was a response to Ulmschneider's postgame interview, when he explained the play, disputed there was anything controversial about it, but added, "I guess some fans took umbrage."
After the Pedrotty play, Ulmschneider spent a lot of time thinking about umbrage, and it started to change his coaching style. "There's a school of thought among a lot of people that you get to the run rule" -- a mercy rule -- "so you can save pitching whenever you can. But I think I'm more cautious now about being the guy on the other end. We're not going to rub anybody's face in the game. We're not going to run when we're up by five. All anybody wants, whether you win, lose or draw, is to be respected by people for being a good guy and being knowledgeable. I kind of felt after this that I had put winning a game in front of that. I try to be more considerate of what it's like on the other end."
This is good. It's also, though, a little bit of a loss. There was nothing wrong with the Pedrotty play. It was within the rules, and it was easy enough to defend. "Bush league" is usually a slur teams throw around to try to convince another team to act against its own interest.
"You know, really -- it was not bush," says Jim Bracey now. "We just defined it that way. He was intelligently exploiting the rules. He ultimately blinked." And Ulmschneider blinked because the crowd yelled "Bush" at him.
A few weeks after the game, Dan Bracey started dating one of the girls who'd been in the stands that day. (They're now married.) He pitched even better as a senior, topping 90 mph, which is plenty to dominate in high school. He committed to pitch for Columbia University. In the final high school game of his career, his team lost -- on a walk-off phantom pickoff throw.
Coach Downey told the seniors what a sham it was for a team to pull such a bush-league play and end their high school careers that way. "In the heat of the moment," Bracey says, "I was pissed.
"But looking back, it was brilliant."