Hellllooooooooo? Anyone there? A look back at bullpen phone controversy, Astros-style.

I don’t have official documentation to confirm, but I think we can safely say that never before has a bullpen phone played such a prominent role in a World Series than it did during Game 5 Monday night.

I admit that I did initially believe Tony La Russa’s explanation of the Cardinals’ complete communication breakdown, but after reading through this compact writeup documenting most national writers calling…well, “bull feathers” on the Cardinals manager, I’m not exactly sure what to think.

I was still mulling this over while driving into work this morning, when my mind shifted to two incidents from the past when your Astros were involved with news-making incidents involving phones. One was somewhat controversial and one was just purely entertaining. Both centered around former manager Phil Garner, which basically means I’ve had plenty of chuckles looking back at the memories.

Anyone remember Bobby Cox formally protesting Game 2 of the Division Series between the Astros and Braves in 2004? In the seventh inning, with Roy Oswalt on the mount, Garner walked out of the dugout to tell home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi that the phone connecting the dugout to the bullpen was not working.

Brandon Backe raced down to the bullpen to inform bullpen coach Mark Bailey which reliever Garner wanted to come in to pitch. Cox, unhappy with the delay of the game, informed the umpire he was officially protesting, contending Garner fabricated the story about the bullpen phone not working in order to give Brad Lidge more time to warm up.

The issue became irrelevant when the Braves later rallied and won the game. Still, what I best remember about the incident is that it lingered for a couple of days, mainly because Garner kept bringing it up and stoking the proverbial fires. Garner was a fierce competitor and wasn’t afraid to display a little emotion during important games. He also loved to argue, which is why he never met a good, juicy controversy he didn’t like to tackle head-on. This one was perfect for him.


The other phone incident wasn’t remotely controversial and barely made it into my game coverage as more than a mere footnote. But it’s a great memory because, again, Garner made it a lot more interesting than it really was.

That was one of Garner’s most endearing qualities. His thought processes stretched in dozens of different directions, yet he could compartmentalize better than anyone. When the Astros were 15-30 to start the 2005 season, during our pregame media sessions, Garner mostly just grumbled about the oil and gas industry. He’d jumble names when talking about his own players, which paved the way for new, fresh pitchers such as Queeler (Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler) and Nueve (Fernando Nieve). He’d give his mind a break from baseball by watching the Lifetime Movie Network in the hours leading up to game time (“Watch,” he said to us as we filed into his office before a game in Cincinnati. “They’re going to take her baby away.”)

Anyhoo, in 2006 at Wrigley Field, the Cubs replaced their old, traditional bullpen phones with Motorola wireless handsets. It was the first wireless communications system to be used in a Major League game. The new bullpen phones vibrated and produced a constant ring until it was answered or the caller ended the call. To speak, the manager or coach pressed the Push to Talk button.

Representatives from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame were in attendance to witness the first wireless call to the bullpen (yes, really. I  can’t make this stuff up). It was just a matter of which manager — Garner or Cubs skipper Dusty Baker — would make that first call. Garner, never one to deflect the attention from himself, made sure he was the one going to Cooperstown, so to speak.

Just after the first pitch of the game was tossed, Garner grabbed the wireless handset and rung down to pitching coach Jim Hickey. The first words spoken during this momentous occasion?

“One small step for technology,” Hickey said. “One giant leap for Major League Baseball.”

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Last night made me think of that Garner/Cox incident as well. I’m also reminded of when the Cardinals’ Tavarez lost a battle with the MMP bullpen phone after giving up a HR to Beltran in 04.

I miss Garner. Regarding the La Russa phone story from last night – I’m calling bull**** on it. Absolutely no way a major league manager, in a World Series game, calls in the wrong reliever. Peddle that story somewhere else Tony.

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