Between the lines

Lineup cards represent everything that makes October great

Updated: April 5, 2013, 12:23 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

tbdSteve CohenFrom genius to dumb luck, the lineup card is the epitome of October.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 6, 2008, issue. Subscribe today!

JIM FREGOSI was so disgusted that his Phillies had lost 15-14 to the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series that he ripped his lineup card off the wall, crumpled it up and threw it to the floor of the home dugout. To make a long story short, I am in possession of that lineup card. A photographer I knew handed me the wad of masking tape and cardboard, and I unwadded it and had it framed to commemorate what was the longest (4:14) and highest-scoring (29 runs) nine-inning Series game ever. It featured Todd Stottlemyre's chin-scraping dive into third in the second inning, two home runs by Lenny Dykstra, five lead changes and a meltdown by Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams that led not only to a six-run eighth for the Jays but also to two death threats against him, phoned in to Veterans Stadium.

The still-wrinkled card hangs in my office, and occasionally I look at the cast of characters: Dykstra ... Kruk ... Daulton ... Eisenreich ... Andersen on the Phillies' side; Henderson ... Alomar ... Carter ... Olerud and a misspelled "Stottlemeyer" on the Jays' side. Sometimes I gaze at the card and wonder: What if the No. 3 hitter, John Kruk, hadn't gone 0-for-5? Why didn't Fregosi walk Tony Fernandez with first base open in the eighth and let Larry Andersen pitch to Pat Borders, instead of bringing in Williams? How come Mike Timlin is still pitching?

Those are the kinds of questions we ask this time of year. For most of the long baseball season, we take lineup cards for granted. We trust the managers who make them out, and they usually entrust their coaches to deliver them to the umpires. But as the games become more crucial, the scrutiny increases, the managers venture out to home plate, and the lineup cards take on lives of their own.

Indeed, if you stare really hard at a lineup card, you'll see more than the participants for that one contest. There, between the lines on that piece of paper, sit history, art, science, dumb luck, protocol, inspiration, desperation and passion. Come to think of it, the lineup card actually is a long story made short.

HISTORY
Henry Chadwick, writing in 1867, advised, "Let your first striker always be the coolest hand of the nine." Baseball's first real chronicler may have hit upon the ideal of the leadoff man right away, but the modern batting order didn't take shape for a while. Heck, it wasn't until 1908 that the fourth-place hitter in the lineup was called "the cleaner-up."

In the early days of the game, batting orders were in the hands of captains, not managers, and captains were not averse to such chicanery as changing the order in the middle of the game. To combat that, and to increase scorecard sales, the National League adopted a new rule in 1881 that required "the captain of each nine to furnish the entire batting order by nine o'clock on the morning of each game." Thus the lineup card was born, at least as an official document.

Given the longevity of lineup cards, you'd think that the Hall of Fame would be littered with them. But they were never really thought of as keepsakes or collectibles until recently, and most of the ones on display in Cooperstown are of newer vintage, including the lineup cards from the first and record-breaking 2,131st games of Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak.

There are more in the museum's archives, and with the permission and assistance of the research librarians-and some white gloves-I am holding the one I really wanted to see. This Rangers card has a certain historical significance: On April 19, 1996, Texas beat the Orioles 26-7 to set a team record for most runs. But that's not what takes your breath away. The lineups are written as if a Franciscan monk did the calligraphy-Devereaux is particularly exquisite. The starters are in blue, and their subs are in red. Not only that, but the extras don't have vowels: Vll (Valle), Zn (Zaun), Ck (Cook), Orsc (Orosco). Weird and wonderful. Johnny Oates was the manager at the time, but this is not his handiwork. It is signed by one of his coaches.

ART
Jerry Narron is that coach. When the subject of lineup cards comes up in baseball circles, his name is spoken in the same hushed tones that artists reserve for Pablo Picasso. Narron had two undistinguished stints as a manager, in Texas and Cincinnati, but his penmanship may live forever. "You really have to see one of his cards," says Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, Narron's bench coach in Texas. "He put the rest of us to shame."

Narron is now a consultant for the Rangers. "I guess you could say I was crazy," he recalls. "It really started when I was a coach with the Orioles. I was replacing Johnny Oates, who had been doing the lineup cards under Frank Robinson, and I just wanted to do them better than Johnny, who was a bit of a perfectionist. So I started doing them in calligraphy. Then I went over to Texas to work under Johnny there. I had a few other little idiosyncrasies. I left the vowels out for the extra men unless I felt they had their tickets punched for the Hall of Fame. So Wade Boggs would get his full last name even if he wasn't in the lineup. And if an Asian player was in the lineup, like Ichiro or Kaz Matsui, I'd work with their translators to make sure I had their names right in their language. I thought it was important to make them feel at home."

Narron spends many of his days at home in Goldsboro, N.C., watching his son play high school baseball. "Maybe if I hadn't spent as much time on the lineup cards, I might still be managing," he says. "But I'm enjoying life. Besides, most clubs are printing their lineup cards off computers."


SCIENCE
Joe Maddon is sitting in the visitors' dugout of Yankee Stadium before a day-night doubleheader on Sept. 13. Behind him is the Rays' printed-out lineup against 17-game winner Mike Mussina: Bartlett SS, Zobrist 2B, Peha 1B, Baldelli DH, Longoria 3B, Gomes RF, Perez CF, Hernandez C, Ruggiano LF, Shields P. It's the middle of the pennant race, but this looks kind of like a spring-training split-squad lineup.

"There's method to my madness, I hope," Maddon says. "We've got a long day ahead, and I want to keep everybody fresh. Mussina is an opposite righthander, meaning lefthanded hitters seem to have more trouble with him than righthanders. I usually plan out the lineups days in advance, using all the available data, statistical splits, etc.... So this wasn't something I dreamed up during the rainout last night. Lineups are a much more serious business than they used to be. Back in the minors, we'd pull lineups out of a hat, or write the names backward or upside down to break a slump. Now it's more of a science." (The Rays go out and beat the Yankees 7-1. Justin Ruggiano, batting .186 entering the game, goes 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs.)

The funny thing about lineups is that they seem to matter-and they seem not to matter. In The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, written in 1997, the author simulated 16,200 games comparing the classic 1930 Cubs lineup, with 191-RBI man Hack Wilson batting cleanup, to a totally illogical lineup that had the pitchers batting first and Wilson last. The difference in scoring was only 5 percent, or 50 runs per season. In conclusion, James wrote, "On the one hand, you have the barroom experts, the traditional sportswriters, the couch potatoes and the call-in show regulars, all of whom believe that batting orders are important. On the other hand, a few of us have been forced to draw the conclusion that it doesn't make much difference what order you put the hitters in."

Another funny thing: James now works for the Red Sox, who post detailed stats alongside their lineup card. When Francona goes to the wall, not only can he see who's available for pinch-hitting or relief but he can also see how they've done against the opponent in a variety of situations. "I'm not sure we need it all," Francona says, "but it's a nice thing to have around."

Earl Weaver would agree. One of the first managers to rely on stats and splits, he would use index cards prepared by the Orioles statistician, Charles Steinberg. But in the 1979 playoffs against the Angels, recently acquired John Montague was warming up in the bullpen and Weaver didn't have a card for him. So he called Steinberg in the press box and asked him to look up Montague's stats. Weaver sent his daughter, a stadium attendant, to retrieve the data. She came running downstairs, through the Orioles' clubhouse and past a naked Jim Palmer (she shielded her eyes), and handed the card to her father. Upon seeing that John Lowenstein owned Montague, Weaver said, "Lowenstein, grab a bat." He homered to win the game.


DUMB LUCK
Joe Morgan (not the Hall of Famer) once filled out his Red Sox lineup card after confusing White Sox starting pitcher Shawn Hillegas, a righty, with Paul Kilgus, a lefty. As Joe Castiglione, the longtime Boston announcer, recalls, "We're scratching our heads upstairs, wondering why Rick Cerone, the righty-hitting catcher, is in the lineup instead of Rich Gedman, the lefty-hitting catcher. Lo and behold, Cerone hits a home run to win the game. So much for managerial genius."

In the 1930s, manager Casey Stengel used to poll Brooklyn Dodgers fans to come up with a lineup. In an effort to shake his 1972 Tigers out of a malaise, Billy Martin put the names of his starters in a hat and pulled them out one by one to determine his batting order for the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians. His random lineup won 3-2. The conventional lineup he used in the second game lost 9-2.

By now you've gotten the point. There's a lot of luck involved in baseball, and no amount of tinkering will change that. You can use 140 different lineups in the first 155 games, as Bob Brenly did with the Dbacks in 2003, and still finish 16 1/2 games back. It all depends on who your players are.

A few years ago, the folks at Baseball Prospectus came up with something called BLOOP (Baseball Lineup Order Optimization Program), and though the explanation is a little too arcane to go into here, they did reach some basic conclusions:

1) A prototypical lineup results in only 10 runs a season fewer than the suggested ideal model, but that can translate to one win a year.

2) A team's best hitters should bat sequentially. Don't break them up with average hitters for the sake of going lefty, righty, lefty.

3) On-base percentage is more important than slugging percentage or batting average. The batting order that scores the most runs is the one ranked in order of descending OBP.

Baseballmusings.com has a lineup simulator thaT follows similar principles. If you enter the stats for the 1927 Yankees, who won 110 regular-season games and the World Series, you'll discover that Miller Huggins had it all wrong: Catcher Pat Collins should have been batting first instead of eighth and Babe Ruth second instead of third.


PROTOCOL
Doug Rader, when he was managing the Rangers in the 1980s, once gave the umpires a card on which the other team's lineup included the names of the umpires. His point, of course, was that they were favoring the other side anyway.

Perhaps this should have been explained by now, but there are three basic lineup cards: the one a team keeps for itself, the one a team gives the other side and the one a team gives the umpires at the start of a game. Nowadays, teams use the lineup presentation for luck. "We tend to go with the coaches who have the hot hand," Maddon says. Or for psychological warfare: White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen has been known to give the other team a lineup card with a caricature of himself biting the head off a frog.

"Do I have any lineup card stories?" Fieldin Culbreth ponders the question as he sits in the umpires' locker room at Yankee Stadium. "Here's one. Two years ago, I'm the home plate umpire in an interleague game between the Mets and Red Sox at Fenway. Brad Mills, the Red Sox coach, comes out to give me the lineup card, and I've never seen him so friendly. 'How you doin'? How's the family?' Well, I figure something's up, so when I look down at the lineup cards, I see it. The Mets had put down two third basemen and no designated hitter. At that point, it's my responsibility to catch it, and if I don't catch it I catch hell, and the Mets have to play without a DH."

Just then, the door to the room opens, and in walks Bruce Froemming, an umpire supervisor now after 37 years in the majors. "Bruce, got any lineup card stories?" Culbreth asks.

"Yeah," Froemming says. "Pacific Coast League. Portland. One night, Joe Adcock got really mad at us, and the next day, he brought out the lineup on a roll of toilet paper. Had to throw him out right there."


INSPIRATION
Tony La Russa will often donate his lineup cards to charities such as the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). In the past year or so, they've acquired a special bite. The Cardinals manager started regularly batting his pitcher eighth, and one of his middle infielders ninth. La Russa believes that by putting Adam Kennedy or Cesar Izturis or Aaron Miles in the last spot, he's creating more RBI chances for the top of his order. The hitters may not like it, but at least one observer does.

"This is arguably the biggest thing to happen to lineup selection since about 1925," Bill James wrote in a recent e-mail. "That's when catchers stopped hitting eighth, which was the tradition established in the 1890s-catchers eighth, pitchers ninth. La Russa's decision makes perfect sense. When you think about it, what kind of research did those 1890s managers really do before they decided they would score more runs with pitchers hitting ninth rather than eighth? It's an obvious example of people just going through the motions without challenging the assumptions."

While it's hard to prove, statistically, that La Russa's strategy is working, the Cardinals did increase their production from 4.48 runs a game in 2007 to 4.81 in 2008, a 7 percent boost.

Ned Yost did something similar, batting catcher Jason Kendall ninth for the Brewers earlier this season. But that's not what cost Yost his job. Arranging the batting order by position-2B, SS, LF, IB, RF, 3B, CF, C, P-without regard to who was playing each position might have done him in.


DESPERATION
Joe Torre famously batted Alex Rodriguez eighth in Game 4 of the 2006 division series against the Tigers. "This is a lineup with a lot of good players in it," Torre said in defense of the dis. Whether he was trying to motivate A-Rod, or trying to spread out his offense, it didn't work: Rodriguez went 0-for-3, and the Yankees were eliminated 8-3.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but the lineup card shouldn't be one of them. With two games to go in the 2008 season, Jerry Manuel changed up his Mets lineup, stacking Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright one-through-four for the first time all season. The two runs the Mets scored on Sept. 27 were enough because Johan Santana shut out the Marlins. The two runs they scored on Sept. 28 weren't, because the Marlins scored four.

Weaver tried a different tack after losing Games 5 and 6 of the 1979 World Series to the Pirates. He dialed things down by inviting the four Orioles beat writers into his office, just like he had done in the regular season. Dan Shaughnessy, now of The Boston Globe, recalls, "He asked all of us what we thought of the lineup, and we all sounded upbeat. Then he shook his head and said, 'Me? I don't feel so good about this one.' " The O's went out and lost to the Pirates 4-1.


PASSION Earl Weaver once ripped up his lineup card in the face of umpire Joe Brinkman. When he was a coach with the Cubs, Charlie Grimm once buried the card in the third base box while his team was losing 8-0. And ESPN analyst and former pitcher Rick Sutcliffe tells this story: "When I was a rookie with the Dodgers, I somehow hit a home run off Tom Seaver. The next time I pitched, Bill Russell, our shortstop, and Monty Basgall, the coach in charge of the lineup card, got together to play a joke on Steve Yeager, our catcher. They made out the lineup card with me batting eighth and Yeager batting ninth. Well, now we're all in Sunday chapel service with Tommy Lasorda when Yeager busts in and starts yelling at Tommy. 'What the f- is this? Why the hell am I batting ninth?' To Tommy's credit, he got Yeager calmed down, and pretty soon we were all laughing about it."

If you don't think a piece of cardboard can arouse passion, just wait until your manager fiddles around with it in the postseason, or sends up the wrong pinch-hitter, or brings in the wrong reliever. He won't need to hear it from you; he'll torture himself. "Some of my worst nightmares have to do with screwing up a lineup card," Francona says.

Which brings us back to the top of the order. Fregosi, ironically enough, became the manager of the Blue Jays in 1999. While interviewing him for a story, I mentioned, with some hesitancy, that I had his lineup card from Game 4 of the '93 Series, and I'd be happy to send it to him if he wanted it back.

"Keep it," Fregosi said. "I never want to see that f--ing thing again."

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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