clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Piece Out Moment No. 2: The night Big Piece went to pieces

A lot of people don’t realize this, but Ryan Howard’s nickname, the “Big Piece,” comes from the “big piece” of umpire Scott Barry he once wanted to break off and devour.

Early in Scott Barry's career, he got the call every little boy dreams of: He was going to the major leagues. But not to play baseball; to regulate it, study it, and determine its outcome. Yes, he would be donning the chest protector and fun little hat of one of the most secretive cults in sports: MLB's umpires.

Technically, Barry would be going back to the majors, having made his first appearance the year before in 2006. This year, the promotion was made necessary by a bizarre altercation between the PadresMilton Bradley and umpire Mike Winters. Bradley, called out on strikes early in a game, flipped his bat in anger, as he commonly did when something occurred. Home plate umpire Brian Runge asked him in his next at-bat if he had flipped the bat in Runge's direction on purpose.

"He said 'no,'" Runge said. "He said, 'Did he [Winters] tell you that I threw at you?' He started to point at Mike. I said 'no, no.' I even threw my hands up and told him to calm down."

Anybody who has met, seen, or watched Milton Bradley on a TV from across a loud, crowded room knows that when his blood gets up, you need more than a set of waving hands to bring him down. Bradley got to first base and started in on Winters immediately; it turned into a shouting match that, for whatever reason, ended in Winters cursing Bradley out with a string of profanity--using one word in particular--that left first base coach Bobby Meacham stunned.

"In 26 years of baseball, I couldn't believe my ears the way that he spoke to Milton. [It] was so disrespectful, so angry, so vindictive. The boiling point is when he called Milton a name. Milton did not saying anything to him to get him to do that."

Winters was suspended by the league for his part in the debacle, but at least he got off with no bodily harm; Bradley fell over while being restrained and tore his ACL.

Now an ump short, the league decided to bring up a 35-year-old Battle Creek, Michigan kid who to that point couldn’t get a permanent gig above Triple A. Scott Barry raced to the majors, his impression from the example set by the man he was replacing being that umpires should follow one rule: Always be the most arrogant, shit-stirring guy on the field.

Flash ahead three years, and Barry was still not good enough for full-time work in the majors. On the night of August 24, 2010, he was filling in at third base at an Astros-Phillies game for a slightly different reason than his promotion years before.

Barry, whose normal venue is triple A, was substituting on Gerry Davis' crew because Davis was enjoying some of the four weeks of in-season vacations that umpires, who earn between $84,000 and $300,000 annually, have won in collective bargaining in recent decades.

At first, the appointment of Barry to his third base post did not seem to factor much into the game. The Phillies had won six of their last ten, which was exactly the sort of lukewarm baseball that had kept them two or three games out of first place in the NL East since earlier in the month. Ryan Howard was having a particularly tough time being helpful, skidding into the August 24 contest with only two hits in his last 25 AB. Deep into what Charlie Manuel called "hittin' season," the part of the summer when the air is hotter and thinner and allows easier travel for a soaring baseball, or something, the Phillies were ready for their slugger to turn it on any night now.

This would not be that night... despite Howard getting almost an entire lineup's worth of ABs.

Ryan Howard came up in the first inning, thanks to a Placido Polanco single that stretched the frame a bit longer than it had to be. He stretched it a little longer working a full count, then watched Bud Norris’ sixth offering whiz by for strike three.

Ryan Howard came up in the sixth inning, with an out recorded moments before on a Chase Utley fly ball. He tried to outlast Norris again, but his patience failed him on a 2-2 count and a grateful baseball--just happy to be alive--slapped harmlessly against the catcher’s mitt.

Ryan Howard came up in the eighth inning, and now come on, this was getting ridiculous. The Astros’ lead had been severed to 2-1, meaning the slugger was only ever one pitch away from fixing everything, and it was late enough in the contest that he may not get another chance. Howard worked his second full count of the evening, then very much did not homer.

Ryan Howard came up in the tenth inning, and thank god; Jimmy Rollins had filled the hero's role with a game-tying solo shot with two outs in the ninth. The hard part was over; all Howard had to do now was park one and the game would be over. His third six-pitch at-bat of the night ended with a tremendous cut that sent a baseball-sized gust of air over the outfield wall. Unfortunately, the ball remained securely behind him, once more at home in the catcher's mitt.

Ryan Howard came up in the fourteenth inning, having finally made solid contact with a pitch in the twelfth, only to watch it whiz right past the shift and into foul territory where Brett Wallace was waiting for it. This time, he had a beat on the pitcher. This time, he just had to straighten his swing. This time wasn’t going to be like the other times.

A pair of beady, Battle Creek eyes stared down at Howard from third base, burning with meaningless envy. Why should the players get all the attention? Scott Barry thought, hating everyone. No one knows what Howard did to earn Barry’s sad, misguided ire, but after Howard disagreed that he had offered at strike two of his seventh at-bat by putting his hands on his hips, Barry saw his chance to bumble into the spotlight.



Confused by Barry's "tough guy" routine, Howard started talking to home plate umpire Greg Gibson and pointing down at Barry's antics. Gibson pretended not to speak English and the at-bat continued. For one more pitch.

Less than a week before, Barry had been placed in partial charge of a Braves-Nationals game. Ryan Zimmerman had been called out on strikes, tossing his helmet and bat and frustration. Barry had been feeling invisible that day, too, and the level-headed Zimmerman was ejected for what Barry believed had been attempted assault. Then he ejected manager Jim Riggleman for having some kind of problem with this. The night before that, Barry had taken his throbbing personal pain out on Ivan Rodriguez, who--get this--had disagreed with Barry about a check-swing call.

Baseball was undoubtedly grateful that Barry was here, reeducating all of the players on what a check swing was. But Howard hadn’t gotten the memo.

If you’ve been following along, Howard was 0-for-6 on the night in question with four bad K’s at this point; he was now one strike away from getting his golden sombrero shined, and his fate to avoid doing so was in the hands of a small, vindictive man standing 90 feet away. The last thing Howard probably wanted to do here was check his swing, and invite Barry to take part in the crucial call.

But, well, you know Howard. He just couldn’t help himself.

Howard got a pitch that seemed headed for his danger zone, only for it to dive toward his back foot, and he twitched just far enough for Gibson to appeal to third base. There was not a chance in hell that Barry was going to call anything but a third strike, and he did. And he enjoyed doing it.

And down came the thunder.

After an 0-for-7 night culminating in a quintet of whoop-se-daisies at the plate, not to mention a couple years’ worth of this city’s crap in his head, Howard probably had a few "f*** you’s" stored up. He used them all here, in only his second career ejection.

Barry started swinging wild, still feeling the thrill of throwing out Ryan Howard while running away from him, and ejected Ross Gload, too, who was on the disabled list. Charlie Manuel would explain this move later to reporters:

"Phillies manager Charlie Manuel explained a player on the DL is not allowed to yell at anybody on the field."

This may or may not be a rule; if Manuel got this explanation from the umpiring crew, it may have just been a complete lie, like the one Barry got his crew chief to tell the next night.

Sadly, Scott Barry is still umpiring today.

But the Phillies still had the rest of a game to play. The score was still tied at 2-2, remember, and with Howard in the clubhouse, bear-hugging the support beams and ripping them out of the floors while Ross Gload chain smoked in a folding chair and nodded, the Phillies had no position players left.

Charlie Manuel backed his player, but handled the incident with aplomb and stayed in the game because, well, somebody had to (He’d also been tossed the previous night on a different horse-shit call; this umpiring crew was on fire that week). A gaggle of giggling starting pitchers eagerly awaited the results of an emergency coaches’ huddle, and it was determined that Roy Oswalt would take over in left field while Raul Ibanez assumed Howard’s spot at first. It was apparent that they had not drawn up a blueprint for this one in Clearwater.

Ah, c’mon; you were watching. A fly ball came Oswalt’s way and the fans gave him a raucous "Wilson Valdez"* from the left field stands. Moments later, Michael Bourn tried to get Ibanez to do too much by bunting down the first base line; the old man snagged the bouncing grounder and hurled his body back to the bag to beat the speed specialist at his own game. The contest seemed to be entering serendipitous territory, much like the 19-inning affair that had made Valdez a thing. When Oswalt came to the plate with the Phillies down 4-2 and a chance to walk it off, the magical comeback win seemed in the bag.

But this isn’t Oswalt’s story. He grounded out, the game ended.

The fans didn’t stop screaming at Scott Barry when they left the stadium that night; they went home and, at like two in the morning, got out the construction paper, the scissors, the glue - no, the good glue - and the poster board their kids were going to use for their science fair projects, put the finishing touches on some anti-Scott Barry propaganda - maybe some glitter? - and marched back into Citizens Bank Park the following evening exhausted, pissed, and covered in glitter.

The next night, Howard took a seat on the bench while Mike Sweeney got the start at first and Larry Bowa darted around the dugout whispering "I know how to make it look like an accident." Larry Andersen chewed through a series of pencils in the radio booth and the fans gave Barry hell from the first pitch to the ninth frame, when Howard entered the game as a pinch hitter and singled off a ground ball to left. Hilariously, after summoning all of the patience and skill he could muster in that moment to shake off an 0-for-7 night with five strikeouts, Howard had come through with two outs--while every other Phillies batter in the inning struck out (Chase Utley and Jayson Werth before him, Domonic Brown while Howard was standing on first) and the Phillies lost, 3-2.

As recently as this year, Howard was still taking shit from people. He's been doing it for his entire career, as if he owed this city an MVP award ten years in a row. He's running on an Achilles threaded together my medical marvels, he's suffered through front page family turmoil, and until very recently he looked completely lost on a major league baseball diamond. After watching him play with the power and swagger of a baseball god for a few seasons, it was easy to forget that he was human. One contemptible little man with his hands on his hips allowed Howard the furious, therapeutic release of frustration he rarely showed, and in that way, Scott Barry is a hero.

But in another, more accurate way, Scott Barry is a bad umpire and, from what can be gleaned by this incident and several others, just a bad guy.

*An out-of-position player executing a routine play late in a game that has gone completely off the rails.