Storming The Press Box

Milton Bradley’s recent escapades, in which he attempted to gain entry to the press box to “introduce” himself to a broadcaster who had painted him in a mildly unflattering light during a game against Kansas City, inspired me to write up this classic tale of anger in the press box.

This post originally appeared at One More Dying Quail.  I’m reprinting it here because, well, it belongs here. 

As a 24-year-old pitcher in 1996, Matt Wagner appeared in fifteen games (fourteen of them starts) for a Seattle Mariners team that finished second in the American League West Division and missed the playoffs by 2.5 games. Pitching from June 5 to August 25, with one outlying relief appearance in late September, Wagner won three games and lost five, posted a 6.86 ERA, and struck out 41 batters in 80 innings. He never appeared in a major league game again.

To most people, Wagner is a historical footnote, the fifth starter on a team more noted for its talented offensive names: Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner. To me, however, Matt Wagner is more than just a footnote: he’s the only guy I ever saw enter a press box to complain about a call in the middle of a game.

It was June 1, 2003, my first day as a public relations intern for the Nashua Pride. It was a Sunday, and the team was preparing to begin a three game series against the Newark Bears. This was a big deal because the Bears were in possession of the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, Rickey Henderson, who was following the lead of Jose Canseco and stopping over in the Atlantic League on his way back to the majors. Rickey had played in Boston the year before – in fact, I was present for his last game there – but this was his first professional trip to New Hampshire. I was the new guy on the staff, but it was easy to see that the people in charge were hoping Rickey would bring a big day at the gate.

I got to work around nine, checked in with my new boss, Eric, and was eventually instructed to tag along with another intern while he went to greet Henderson. “Oh man,” I thought to myself. “First morning on the job and I’m meeting Rickey Henderson. Does it GET any better than this?”

Most of the pregame routine from that day is a blur. I’m sure it was rushed, only because the game was at two and early starts always bumped the tempo up a notch in our department; throw in the fact that it was my first day and you can be sure we were scrambling something fierce.

Shortly before game time, Eric sent me to the press box, where I would take notes on the game, prepare the recap, and assist members of the media with whatever they needed. Basically, I had the easiest job in the world – watch baseball and write a page about it. Eric didn’t like to stay in one place and had an interest in all facets of game presentation, so he welcomed the opportunity to roam around the ballpark.

The press box at Holman Stadium has a door and two rooms at either end. The radio booths are located on the first base side; on the third base side are the areas for the scoreboard operator and the public address announcer. In the middle is a long countertop where beat writers from the local papers could set up shop. On that day, there were two writers in attendance: Tom King from the Nashua Telegraph and some kid from The Union Leader, not its regular writer. Tom liked to sit more to the third base side. Also located in that area were the official scorer, Roger Pepin (in the middle), and me, a 23-year-old recent college graduate determined not to screw up too badly (as far to the end of the first base side as I could possibly get. Because, um, that’s where the computer was).

On the mound for the Newark Bears: Matt Wagner.

Wagner came into the game with good numbers: he was something like 3-0 with a sub-1.00 ERA. Rumor had it the Pirates were taking a long, hard look at his work, which is all anyone in the Atlantic League ever wants: please, just give me a chance – I’m worth it. If he could get out, get into an organization, then maybe he could make it all the way back to the majors.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but it clearly wasn’t Wagner’s day. The weather was bad, rainy and windy, and his defense had a terrible time, misplaying at least three easy pop flies into hits, which eventually resulted in a lot of runs. Those popups were difficult for Roger to score. On the one hand, the plays clearly should have been made; on the other, no fielder touched any of them, making it difficult to rule any of them errors. Matt Wagner and his ERA, it appeared, were going to be victimized by nothing less than good old bad luck.

I came to learn that the Pride had a rule for protesting scoring decisions: if a player didn’t like a call that Roger made, that player would bring the issue to manager Butch Hobson, who would then speak with Roger. This worked for two reasons: one, it kept players from getting too emotional in their dealings with the official scorer and possibly saying or doing something they would regret, and two, it put the situation in the hand’s of Butch, whose Southern charm and overall baseball “street cred” made him an authority figure in such matters; I don’t know if he actually got many calls changed, but he definitely could make sure Roger would see things differently if a similar situation came up in the future.

The Newark Bears and manager Bill Madlock did not have such a policy. This became evident around the eighth inning, when the door on the third base side of the press box opened and a very tall individual (Wagner is listed as 6’5″) in a Bears uniform came striding in.

He asked for the official scorer, somebody pointed him in Roger’s direction, and it quickly became clear that this was not a social visit. Furious that the pop flies had not been ruled errors (and therefore inflated his ERA), he laid into Roger for several minutes, trying to get the call changed. This was his livelihood, his life, his career. He was clearly a man on the edge. Roger, to his credit, sat there and took it (what else could he do? If a guy that big starts yelling at me, my main goal is to keep my pants dry), occasionally trying to explain that yes, the plays were easy, yes, they should have been made, but nobody touched the ball, so they were hits. Cheap, dirty, evil hits, but hits nonetheless.

I don’t remember what Tom and UL Kid were doing during this whole debacle – Tom was right there in front of the action, so I think his primary concern might have been staying alive had it come to physical blows, and UL Kid might have been gone by then – but I know exactly what I was thinking as I sat frozen in front of the computer, a good fifteen feet away: “Um, okay. Is this fucking NORMAL?”

The part of “Knight in shining armor” in this story was played by Andy Crossley, the assistant general manager. Andy handled the music during the games and was stationed in the same room as the PA announcer. He eventually realized what was going on, figured out that the new kid was not going to be able to handle this, and came out of the booth to break things up.

“Hey,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be in here. You have to leave. These guys have a job to do.” It wasn’t necessarily that easy to make him hit the road, but eventually he did and we were left to chuckle about the whole crazy scenario. Eric came up and apologized profusely, swearing that it would never happen again while he was with the team, and things started to settle down a bit.

You’d think that was the end of the story. Not quite. Wagner actually made a SECOND pilgrimmage to the press box, this time after the game, desperately making his case. I’m remembering a couple of our bigger front office guys being on hand during this visit, but that may not be totally accurate – they might’ve escorted him out the first time – but I do think he was a little bit calmer this time around. Still…two rounds in the press box is pretty impressive.

Wagner was eventually suspended and fined by the Atlantic League for his actions. He was traded to Atlantic City later in the year and appears to have left baseball after. Five years later, I can totally understand the frustration that led to that meltdown in the pressbox. He was pitching well, he knew it, and he knew the scouts knew it. Then one bad game, where it wasn’t really even his fault that seven earned runs scored while he was on the mound, threatened to take away that golden ticket back to The Show. For a young man with a young family and a fading career, that must have been difficult to accept.

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