‘Skunk in the outfield’: How the most epic trick play in history broke baseball

Skunk in the outfield – Theirs was called the “phantom pickoff throw”: The pitcher would spin as if making a pickoff attempt but keep the ball tucked in his glove. His fielders would act as if the throw had gone wild, make a lot of noise and chase after it, and the runner — tricked — would start to run to the next base. The pitcher would casually throw him out.

This play worked. Pitcher Brendan Solecki remembers using it twice, once when he was on the freshman team and once as a sophomore on the varsity. Both times the runner fell for it. “Against Woonsocket, the parents were not very happy,” he says. “Like, ‘That’s not baseball, that’s bush league.'”

But high school baseball, and maybe only high school baseball, is built for trick plays. At levels lower than high school, everybody is just trying to have fun, trying to learn, and it seems cruel to try too hard to humiliate your opponent. At higher levels, a play like that would never work. High school is the intersection between childhood and adulthood: The young men on the field are good enough to throw in the high-80s, strong enough to play on full-sized fields in front of major league scouts, polished enough to speak in clichés. They’re also young enough to fall for a trick play straight out of “

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Meanwhile, East Greenwich first baseman Steve Salvator was trying to counter with his own trick play. Recalls Streich, the second baseman: “Salvator, it was like he’s crawling through the Vietnam jungle, getting low to the ground and taking a parabolic angle behind this kid. Like nobody sees what he’s doing, like we’re going to do a quick throw. He’s showing me his hand, like, ‘Throw me the ball,’ and our coach is yelling, ‘Don’t throw him the ball!'”

Solecki, on third base, kept bluffing toward home, but the ball was closer to the plate than he was.

Bracey finally looks toward Downey, arms outstretched, furious: What do you want me to do? Downey tells him to give the ball to Streich, the second baseman, who had the best arm in the infield. Bracey didn’t want to — in this moment, he’s the only person he trusts to make a throw home.

“I don’t blame the kid,” Streich says. “I didn’t want me to have it, either. What am I going to do, just stand there? I was praying to God that the kid did not run home, because I would have thrown the ball five rows into the stands, my hands were so sweaty. No chance I could have made that throw.”

Streich doesn’t even remember taking the ball — “I think I blacked out for a good minute or two” — but eventually Bracey handed it gently to him. “I told him, ‘Don’t screw this up,'” Bracey says. “Like if your dad gives you $20 to go out, and he gives you that look, like, ‘I’m trusting you, don’t let me down.'”

The longer the play got, the darker it all started to feel. At first it was funny, but as time ticked by nobody seemed to be having fun. The players in the Portsmouth dugout were starting to feel embarrassed, some guys complaining in real time that it was a stupid play. After about one minute, says Streich, “It was like a snap of the finger, and the whole mood [in the stadium] totally changed — pure chaos!” East Greenwich fans were screaming across the stands at Portsmouth fans.

“It was an interesting evolution from that puzzlement to the anger,” says Bracey’s father, Jim, whose downturned camera caught some of the audio. “I had a good friend of mine there who had no real direct interest in the game, but he was a great athlete, his kids were great athletes, and oh my God, was he fired up. He was pissed, he was yelling. What ended up happening was Coach Ulmschneider became the target of it.”

“This is a show! I can’t believe this is going on! Dave Ulmschneider has to be loving this!”

EVERYBODY IN RHODE Island baseball called him Umpy, a nickname he’d inherited from his dad when the younger Ulmschneider started coaching in 1993. He was a volunteer assistant coach at first, earning his first paying job in 1998 and his first head-coaching job in 2000. In 2002, a bunch of incoming Portsmouth freshmen came to him and told him they were going to win Ulmschneider a state championship. Those freshmen were seniors in 2006.

“There were very few situations where he put us in a situation to fail,” Pedrotty says. “I have the utmost respect for him.”

He was a player’s coach. He didn’t try to mess with guys’ swings or pitching mechanics. He let leaders emerge among the players so they could learn from each other.

“He was a really good coach,” says Bobb Angel, a Rhode Island Radio Hall of Famer and the play-by-play broadcaster for the 2006 championship series. “Totally understanding of the ins and outs and all the angles. My guess is he just put one and one together.”

The trick plays book had ways to defend the skunk play. The most ingenious defense is a huddle play, where the pitcher, second baseman and shortstop all huddle near the mound. One of them takes the ball, but the offense can’t see which one. Then the shortstop goes toward the runner on third, and the second baseman goes toward the runner in right field. Both runners have to retreat, not knowing whether they’re in danger of being tagged out.

But Ulmschneider knew East Greenwich had never seen this play and wouldn’t know those defenses. He might even have foreseen that in a worst-case scenario, where Bracey doesn’t panic and East Greenwich doesn’t make a mistake, he’d end up in a stalemate like this. What he hadn’t foreseen was how it would feel.

It felt terrible. Totally unexpectedly, he felt embarrassed, for himself and for Pedrotty and for his opponents and for his team. But until you do something, until you see the way it changes the atmosphere, the way reactions pick up momentum, it’s hard to know. He could have been the hero.

“It’s a fine line,” he says. “I remember saying after the fact — you know, we’ve all seen where somebody has done something, and they’re legendary coaches and they can do it. But believe me, I was no legend. I was just a D-II high school coach in Rhode Island.”

“The ball is in the hands of the second baseman, Matt Streich. Pedrotty now is gonna go back to first base, because nobody’s going to throw over there. And now we are back the way we were. That was wild! East Greenwich fans don’t like it. The Portsmouth fans are loving it. And John Pedrotty’s back on first base.”

THE LONGEST PLAY ever, and it’s not even a line in the play log. Nothing happened. “I just remember being, like, I’m over this,” Pedrotty says.

“It was like an Andy Kaufman routine, but not quite long enough,” Bracey says. “Long enough to get everybody mad, not long enough for them to get the joke.”

Nine years later, Dave Ulmschneider was inducted into the Rhode Island Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Bob Downey, the East Greenwich coach, gave the introductory speech. Downey called Umpy beforehand and mentioned he was going to bring up the Pedrotty play.

“I said, ‘Please don’t, Bobby.’ He was going to, and I said, ‘Bobby, please,'” Ulmschneider says.

Bobby didn’t. And given what happened after the play, it might have seemed like gloating if he had.

The 2006 Patriots. Brendan Solecki, John Pedrotty and Jimmy Ayars are adjacent in the front row, starting fourth from left. Coach Dave Ulmschneider is in the back, far left. Click here for larger imageCourtesy of Dave Ulmschneider

BRACEY GOT BACK on the mound to throw his 101st pitch of the night. “I was fine if all the ligaments in my arm broke on that pitch,” he says. “I really wanted to strike him out.” Just before the pitch gets to the plate, a fan screams “See ya!” Ayars hits a routine grounder to Streich, and the same fan again yells, “See ya!”

Bracey stomps off the mound, pumping his fist. He steps over the foul line just as Ulmschneider is jogging toward him on the way to the first-base dugout. Bracey, out of character, gives him a dirty look, might have even said something. East Greenwich’s reserves empty out of the dugout to give Bracey fives and fist bumps, but Bracey keeps his arms down and he shoulders through his teammates. He’s furious.

So is the rest of the team. They’d been battling against a team that, in their hearts, they secretly knew was better than them. As one Avenger puts it, “We were well-rounded. They were well-rounded and they had superstars.”

East Greenwich kids had been losing to Portsmouth kids since Little League. But for two and a half minutes, Portsmouth had treated them like clowns, and that was over the line.

“I think they thought they were totally in control of this situation,” Streich says, but by running that play the emotions of the game got out of control. “In that situation, you let a sleeping dog lie. Once Dan got that guy out and gave the biggest roar and fist pump I’ve ever seen, I’m pacing in the dugout and I said to our backup catcher, ‘I’m going to hit a home run in this inning, I don’t care.’ I don’t swing for the fences, but if somebody gets on in front of me, we’re winning because I’m going to hit a home run. I was irate. That was the most emotional I’ve ever been on a playing field. We didn’t like them to begin with, and they’re trying to make us look bad, trying to make us s— ourselves, and we didn’t do it. That’s what sparked the rally.”

Solecki, who had been the runner on third for the Pedrotty play, went back to the mound. He’d thrown only 76 pitches and allowed only four hits. But Nick Rossetti hit a pinch-hit single and Salvator followed with a single to right; Pedrotty bobbled the ball for an error, allowing Rossetti to score. Brandon Palmer singled to tie the game, and Streich came up. On the second pitch, he homered into the bullpen. In just four minutes, East Greenwich had turned the series around. The Avengers would add another run and win 5-2.

“Somebody said they think that fired ’em up,” Ulmschneider said in a radio interview after the game. “You know what? In a state championship, you’re down 2-0 in the seventh, you’re down to the last three outs — they’re gonna come out guns blazing and leave it all on the field.”

He might be the only person at the field that day who believes that. “It definitely rattled us,” Westmoreland says.

Says Pedrotty: “I just felt like we did something that was probably the only thing we could have done to swing momentum in that situation.”

The Patriots woke up the next morning and saw Downey quoted in the local paper, crediting the play with helping inspire East Greenwich’s comeback.

“For East Greenwich,” the writer wrote, “successfully defending the play was about more than preventing a run. It was about finally beating the Patriots.”

THE NEXT DAY, Portsmouth won Game 3 and the championship. They were the better team. Westmoreland threw a three-hitter, struck out nine, and in a lot of ways it was his coming-out party. He was already great, but the next two years he was the state’s best player, carrying Portsmouth until the Red Sox drafted him and gave him a $2 million signing bonus.

An East Greenwich fan at Game 3 had a big sign that read “UMBRAGE.” It was a response to Ulmschneider’s postgame interview, when he explained the play, disputed there was anything controversial about it, but added, “I guess some fans took umbrage.”

After the Pedrotty play, Ulmschneider spent a lot of time thinking about umbrage, and it started to change his coaching style. “There’s a school of thought among a lot of people that you get to the run rule” — a mercy rule — “so you can save pitching whenever you can. But I think I’m more cautious now about being the guy on the other end. We’re not going to rub anybody’s face in the game. We’re not going to run when we’re up by five. All anybody wants, whether you win, lose or draw, is to be respected by people for being a good guy and being knowledgeable. I kind of felt after this that I had put winning a game in front of that. I try to be more considerate of what it’s like on the other end.”

This is good. It’s also, though, a little bit of a loss. There was nothing wrong with the Pedrotty play. It was within the rules, and it was easy enough to defend. “Bush league” is usually a slur teams throw around to try to convince another team to act against its own interest.

“You know, really — it was not bush,” says Jim Bracey now. “We just defined it that way. He was intelligently exploiting the rules. He ultimately blinked.” And Ulmschneider blinked because the crowd yelled “Bush” at him.

A few weeks after the game, Dan Bracey started dating one of the girls who’d been in the stands that day. (They’re now married.) He pitched even better as a senior, topping 90 mph, which is plenty to dominate in high school. He committed to pitch for Columbia University. In the final high school game of his career, his team lost — on a walk-off phantom pickoff throw.

Coach Downey told the seniors what a sham it was for a team to pull such a bush-league play and end their high school careers that way. “In the heat of the moment,” Bracey says, “I was pissed.

“But looking back, it was brilliant.”

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