Hidden ball trick has USA in Pan Am trouble

U of Buffalo Bulls alumn Tommy Murphy and his USA teammates head into a must-win situation at the Pan Am Games against Canada Friday night.

U of Buffalo Bulls alumn Tommy Murphy and his USA teammates head into a must-win situation at the Pan Am Games against Canada Friday night.

Hidden-ball trick highlights
Dominican win over U.S.
 
 
By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network

Where is the starting point for discussion after an unforgettable Pan Am game like that, one for the ages?

It was a barnburner of a game that lasted about three hours and 25 minutes, much too long but it was thoroughly entertaining with four home runs, an old fashioned hidden-ball trick and a gutsy, if not slow, painstaking performance by former Montreal Expos pitcher Claudio Vargas.

The scene Thursday was the President’s Choice Pan Am ball park in the suburban Toronto town of Ajax where about 2,000 showed up on a day where the thermometer approached 85-ish degrees in a game that saw a spirited Dominican Republic squad beat a mentally sloppy U.S. team 6-4.

Vargas, who threw for the Expos in 2003-2004, turned in a solid effort as the starting pitcher for the Dominican Republic until he was lifted with the bases loaded with one out in the seventh inning with the U.S. threatening. With the Dominicans leading 4-2, Roberto Novoa came on to shut down the U.S. rally, a pivotal point in the game.

The hidden ball trick that took place in the fifth inning was a play that delayed the game for close to half an hour. Slick Dominican second baseman Angelo Mora hid the ball in his glove and then aptly went up and tagged Jeffery Bianchi of the U.S. out, thus ending the inning or so the Dominicans thought. Bianchi had been leading off second on the play, unaware the Dominican player had a trick up his sleeve.

Mora merrily showed the umpires his glove with the ball in it.

When I explained the trick to my wife after the game, she replied dryly, “That’s nasty.’’

Second base umpire Carlos Rey Cotto with a right-hand thrust signalling out. 

However, Rey Cotto, Canadian first-base umpire Ronald Shewchuck, Canadian third base umpire Robert Allan and home plate official Elber Ibarra of Cuba convened for about five minutes to hash it all out and the joint ruling made by Ibarra, who intially had called a balk on Vargas.

U.S. manager Jim Tracy quickly came out to argue the call, suggesting that Vargas had committed a balk. That little discussion then led to another confab between the four umpires, International Amateur Baseball Federation technical commissioners David Huctwith of Canada and George Santiago of the U.S. and Gus Rodriquez, another umpires’ official.

After that discussion, the four umpires, Huctwith, Santiago and Rodriquez were in unison that Vargas hadn’t balked. But then Huckwith and Santiago sidled over to the U.S. bench to try to smooth the situation over with Tracy. That took another few minutes. The original ruling made by the four umpires stood. Bianchi was out. The inning was over.

“The ruling was that he (Vargas) wasn’t astride or straddling the rubber,’’ said Baseball Canada technical director Jim Baba, who is also an IBAF official. “If he wasn’t astride the rubber or if he was behind the rubber, he was okay. The U.S. wanted to protest it but we had to explain to Mr. Tracy that you can’t protest a judgment. You can protest a rule but you can’t protest a judgment.’’

It was a grey area, so to speak, something that fell through the cracks. Obviously, Vargas was tipped off that Mora was up to some mischief and stayed away from contacting the rubber. The entire, multi-faceted discussion lasted about half an hour before the air was settled. The U.S. team didn’t make Tracy or Bianchi available for an interview after I emailed media officer Cameron Harris.

“Tracy is unavailable the rest of the night as they prepare for tomorrow’s game,’’ Harris explained. “I will see if I can track down Bianchi but those guys usually disappear into the athletes’ village after games.’’

Even though Tracy declined/couldn’t talk to me, he must have been disappointed about other aspects of his team’s play that also saw Bianchi come off second too quick on a double-play ball that actually netted second baseman Andrew Parrino a throwing error.

Then there was a play that nobody noticed except maybe for me and Ron Reuter, a retired Ontario Baseball Association-calibre umpire from Orillia, Ont., who was sitting in the stands behind me.

A U.S. hitter had drilled a long fly to centre and whoever was on second tagged up too early for third. I actually shouted out to the Dominican team that they should appeal the play at second but nothing happened. It was just another U.S. mistake that didn’t backfire. Tracy & Co. must have been holding their breaths, hoping that Vargas didn’t throw to Mora to appeal the play, prompting the umpires to call the runner out for leaving too early.

“I see where you weren’t the only one who saw the guy tag up too early,’’ Reuter told me, as he came up behind me to talk.

In the bottom of the ninth with the Dominicans leading 6-3, the U.S. threatened to get close at 6-4. Luis Liria came on to snuff out the rally in relief of Novoa to get the save and preserve a richly deserving win for Vargas, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2010 with the Brewers.

“Did you see how slow that guy (Vargas) was?’’ Reuter asked. “I timed him. Sometimes, he would take 15 seconds between pitches.’’

You have to think major-league scouts in attendance would have liked what they saw in Vargas, especially with that nifty breaking ball, but they wouldn’t have been thrilled with his methodical approach to taking his time. Vargas had a minor-league fling in the Blue Jays’ organization a few years ago but he’s still looking to get back to the big leagues.

Maybe Thursday’s outing will get Vargas a second wind with the scouts, even if he’s 37.

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Danny Gallagher

Danny was born in Ted Lindsay's hometown of Renfrew, Ont. but his roots are in nearby Douglas. He played 27 consecutive seasons of top-level amateur baseball in the senior ranks in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec and thrived on organizing events himself, the major one being the highly successful 1983 Canadian senior men's tournament in Sudbury. He began covering the Montreal Expos in 1988 when he joined the Montreal Daily News. Later, he was the Expos beat writer for the Ottawa Sun and Associated Press. He has written four baseball books, including Remembering the Montreal Expos, which he co-authored with Bill Young of Hudson, Que. Gallagher and Young are currently working on a book about the ill-fated 1994 Expos squad. Gallagher can be reached here: dannogallagher@rogers.com