Five years later, Wellman's tirade endures
Phillip Wellman is in his 29th season of professional baseball. That's four years as a player, 10 years as a coach and 15 years as a manager.
He has worn the uniform of 16 minor league teams, won 862 games as a manager, captured the Southern League championship in 2008 (when he was named Manager of the Year), been involved in nearly 3,300 minor league games and coached and managed scores of players on their way to The Show.
Yet Wellman's public legacy is a short video clip, a couple minutes of YouTube fame as the manager of the Mississippi Braves.
Five years ago Friday, Wellman charged onto the field at AT&T Field in Chattanooga, Tenn., with all the sound and fury a manager can muster while adding a dash of creativity that turned his rant into the stuff of legend, one against which all baseball tirades are measured.
It was a cap-throwing, plate-covering, jaw-to-jaw screamfest that featured the uprooting of two bases, an improv act that transformed a rosin bag into a hand grenade and a dashing farewell.
At the time, some thought it was so over the top that it would kill his career. The next morning -- when he saw his antics on national television -- Wellman, too, thought he might be fired.
But it didn't happen.
A year later, he had his best season. Five years later he says, "I'm still here."
"It's obviously not my proudest moment," says Wellman, 50, of his June 1, 2007, meltdown, "but it was the moment caught on tape. I've never run from it. It is what it is, and I can't lie about it because it's right there on video for all to see.
"We all make mistakes in our lives. … You've got to put it behind you and learn from your mistakes and go on. I didn't even know what YouTube was when that happened. I know what YouTube is now."
Before that night, Wellman was known as a colorful manager with a flair for theatrics.
According to a story on the Chattanoogan website in 2007, Wellman, who managed the Chattanooga Lookouts for four seasons, once put a ball in a glove on the third-base bag and dived headfirst onto it to demonstrate how his third baseman had tagged an opposing baserunner. When Wellman managed his final game in Chattanooga in 2003, the team played a video tribute of his most notable antics. Lookouts general manager Frank Burke once told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger that Chattanooga fans "used to live for Phil to get upset."
But nothing he'd done before that rainy, zany night in Tennessee had put Wellman on the national stage. Here's what happened:
After rain delayed the start of the game between the Braves and Lookouts, Wellman had a couple run-ins with third-base umpire Rusty Barrett. As Wellman recalls, he first went onto the field to talk to Barrett about the way the ump was talking to the Braves' third baseman. Wellman went out again to defend his center fielder in a dispute with the same umpire.
"See, that's the thing," says Wellman. "There was a buildup to that [later tirade] that wasn't on the video."
When the Mississippi pitcher’s first pitch of the third inning was called a ball, Wellman says he screamed from the dugout, "Where the hell's that pitch?"
That’s when Wellman charged out of the dugout toward home-plate umpire Brent Rice. Wellman fired his hat to the ground, got in Rice's face and marched over to the plate to cover it with dirt before drawing a much larger outline of the plate in the ground with his finger.
"When I came out and spiked my hat, that's when the home-plate umpire threw me out," says Wellman. "I said, 'I'm already done. You don't need to throw me out. I've already been thrown out.'"
Wellman walked to third base, told off Barrett, pulled out the bag, walked to second base and flung the third-base bag into center field. After starting to walk toward first base, Wellman dropped to the grass and did a military-style commando crawl toward the pitcher's mound. When he reached the rosin bag, he picked it up and -- pretending it was a grenade -- mimed pulling the pin with his teeth before launching it at Rice who was standing calmly near home plate. The bag landed with a puff of chalk dust at Rice's feet.
Wellman yelled at Rice again, pointed to the third-base umpire, Barrett, and made the motion to throw him out of the game. Wellman then yanked up second base, picked up the third-base bag and marched into the outfield, where he eventually turned and blew a giant kiss to the crowd before pumping his fist and disappearing through a gate in the outfield wall.
Wellman, who showered and watched the rest of the game from an unoccupied party deck above the clubhouse, had no idea the whole rant had been captured on video. Within hours, it was on several networks.
When Wellman got on the bus with his team, his brother called him from San Antonio.
"He said, 'What the hell did you do tonight?'" recalls Wellman. "And I said, 'What are you talking about?' He says, 'Phillip, it's on the news here.' And I said, 'Holy sheesh, that was four hours ago.' That’s when it hit me. 'Oh, s---.'
"And Franklin Stubbs was my hitting coach at the time, he says, 'Phillip, this will be on ESPN in the morning.' I said, 'No chance.' Well, next morning my phone started blowing up and I said, 'Uh oh.' And there it was. I saw it on CNN, ESPN."
Wellman had just gotten a lesson in 21st-century technology and the fact nobody can do anything in public without a camera capturing it. The video went viral.
"It never crossed my mind," says Wellman of the prospect his rant would be seen across the nation. "That's part of the lesson I've learned, that things have changed nowadays. You can be in the smallest of rookie-ball towns, and if the local news crew is there, there's no telling what’s coming out."
These days, Rice is still umpiring in the Southern League, and he also works as an instructor at the Wendelstedt Umpire School.
He recalls 2007 as his first year in the league and says he never had any issues with Wellman before that series or after it. He knows the incident occurred because of a clash between Wellman and Barrett.
"I knew things were building up, and he had had an ongoing thing with the third-base umpire already," says Rice. "They didn't really care for each other anyway, as I understood."
Rice recalls being surprised when Wellman charged out of the dugout to argue the ball call because there hadn't been any questions over the strike zone and the pitch "was about a foot off the plate."
The umpire doesn't recall exactly what Wellman was saying as he drew a larger strike zone in the dirt, and he wasn't going to do anything to stop Wellman's tirade as he pulled up bases. The best action was no action.
"He's going to eventually run out of bases," says Rice.
What set Wellman's tirade apart from others was his rosin bag/grenade toss.
Rice didn't understand at first what Wellman was doing when he dropped to the ground and started crawling.
"When he picked up the rosin bag, then I knew he was going to throw it," says Rice, who just stood his ground as the bag came his way. "It was a rosin bag. I'm not worried about being hurt by a rosin bag. So when he threw it, I wasn't going to move."
The bag hit the ground and bounced off Rice's left foot.
Wellman says the idea to throw it was pure improv, just as the whole rant was.
“"People have asked me if it was planned out," says Wellman. "I said, 'Do you think I really got enough time in my life that I would sit and plan that whole thing out?'
"We all make mistakes in our lives. ... You've got to put it behind you and learn from your mistakes and go on. I didn't even know what YouTube was when that happened. I know what YouTube is now."” -- Phillip Wellman
"No, I just went from one thing to the next. I was actually done before I did the army crawl. I was going to walk off. I had a base in my hand and I was thinking about throwing the base toward the home plate umpire, but it's heavy. … And I said, 'Shoot, what the hell,' and I just dropped the base and got down there and threw that grenade. And I'll tell you what, when I let it go, when it was about halfway in flight, I was like, 'Please don't hit him.' It dropped right in front of him. I couldn't have accidentally made a better toss. Once I did that I said, 'It's time to get out of here.'"
The next spring, Wellman says he apologized to Rice for the incident, saying he'd essentially used Rice "as a prop" for his frustration and that his problem wasn't with Rice. Wellman says Rice is a good umpire.
"When he apologized, he said, 'I'm not really that kind of person,'" recalls Rice. "I said, 'Well, that's all I have to go on. You're going to have to show me basically that you're not that type of person.' And since then, to be honest with you, I've worked with him another couple of seasons he was here managing with Mississippi and I never had any problems with him whatsoever."
Rice says he recalls that night as one of the craziest of his career.
"If it had just been that, that ejection and all that went with it, it probably would have been a fairly calm night," says Rice. "But in addition to that we had a rain delay, we went extra innings, I ejected a pitcher for having a foreign substance on his person, I had that same pitcher take a baseball and throw it over the center-field wall from the mound, we had a balk for throwing to an unoccupied base -- which doesn’t happen very often -- we had an argument with the other manager over whether a pitcher was attempting to bunt on the third strike that he fouled off.
"It was a disaster of a night. So if it was just the Phillip Wellman situation, it would have been cake. But the rest of the night was a disaster. And, of course, it was a getaway day on top of that. So on top of going 12 or 14 innings, we ended up having to drive that night, too. It was just a mess."
The next morning, Wellman was worried.
"I'm not going to lie, I thought [the Braves organization] might fire me," he says. "Once I saw it on TV and I saw how often the front of my jersey was exposed, with Braves written across the front of it. … The last thing I wanted to do was embarrass that organization.
"But the next morning [then-Atlanta manager] Bobby Cox called me, and I told him, 'Bobby, I'm a little concerned that I might lose my job,' and he said, 'You’re fine.'"
Cox offered to pay his Southern League fine, Wellman says, as did several Atlanta players who had played for Wellman in the minors.
Wellman says he's grateful for Cox and Atlanta GM John Schuerholz for supporting him, though the Braves suspended him three games and asked that he not talk about the incident, though interview requests were pouring in. The next year, in fact, Wellman was brought up to Atlanta at the end of the season for a couple of weeks after leading Mississippi to the Southern League title.
Wellman, now the hitting coach for the Springfield Cardinals in the Double-A Texas League, says he learned his lesson. He’ll never do anything like that again. Cameras are everywhere, and he can embarrass himself and his organization if he goes overboard.
“Though he knows people watched his rant and thought, "Look at that lunatic going crazy," he's grateful people in baseball knew he was more than a video clip and that it didn't define who he was or what he would do in the future.
"I just dropped the base and got down there and threw that grenade. ... When it was about halfway in flight, I was like, 'Please don't hit him.' It dropped right in front of him. I couldn't have accidentally made a better toss."” -- Phillip Wellman
Still, the video is there forever.
"It has a life of its own," says Wellman.
Recently, when the Toronto Blue Jays' Brett Lawrie reacted to an umpire's call by slamming his helmet, which bounced up and hit the umpire, networks and websites began listing the top baseball rants of all time. Wellman's is always mentioned, sometimes at No. 1.
At the time of Lawrie's tantrum, Wellman and Springfield were in Little Rock, Ark., playing the Arkansas Travelers. That night, as Wellman trotted out to the first-base coaching box, one of the Travelers shouted to him, "You're still No. 1!"
Wellman says his ranting days are over. Though many fans enjoyed what he did -- Mississippi fans gave him a standing ovation in his first home game after his suspension, and fans on the road flocked to M-Braves games for a while -- he's toned down his act.
He remembers a game shortly after the incident in 2007 when he realized it would be with him forever.
"We were in Carolina playing the Mudcats, and there was an elderly woman sitting right above our dugout in a wheelchair," he says. "I came in after the fourth or fifth inning. I ran from third back to the first-base dugout, and this woman stood up out of her wheelchair and looked at me and said, 'Wellman!' And I looked up, and if it had been somebody else I wouldn't have acknowledged her, but she was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, and I said, 'Yes ma'am?' And she said 'Do something!' And I thought to myself, 'This poor woman probably paid $5 to come out here to see if I was going to make an ass of myself.'
"The rest of the year was like that. Anytime there was a close call anywhere we were on the road, it was, 'Go get him, Wellman. Go get him!' I probably disappointed a lot of people from that point on."