BALTIMORE - It was 12:34 p.m. at Camden Yards. Uncertainty and tension filled the ballpark. Reporters crowded into the small tunnel under the stands leading to the home plate entrance to the field. The Oriole Bird came down the tunnel. "Here comes a replacement umpire," someone joked.
It was a symbolic moment, depicting the bizarre surroundings before Game 1 yesterday in the Division Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians, as the major league umpires threatened to boycott the playoffs unless Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, who spat in umpire John Hirschbeck's face on Friday, was forced to sit down.
The matter was temporarily resolved - at least until tomorrow, when an American League hearing on the matter will take place - with the major league umpires taking the field, and the Orioles left no room for close calls with four home runs in a 10-4 blowout of the Indians.
But until 22 minutes before the scheduled start of the game, nobody knew who was going to umpire the game. Now I've been to games before where no one knew if the umpires were going to show up. It happens all the time at my son's Little League games.
It doesn't happen, though, with more than 47,000 fans and hundreds of reporters and assorted media waiting for a major league baseball playoff game to begin. This is life, though, after the Saliva Felt Around the World.
Loogie Mania gripped the baseball world yesterday, leading to the strange circumstances before yesterday's game. General manager Pat Gillick was running around the field around 11 a.m., looking grim. "I don't know what's happening," he said.
No one did. There were two umpiring crews waiting to work yesterday's game, the replacements and the major league umps. Marty Springstead, supervisor of umpires for the American League, didn't know which would be taking the field.
The regular umps were furious that American League President Gene Budig had only handed out a five-game suspension to Alomar for the spitting incident, and that a hearing on the issue would not take place until next season. So late Monday night they voted to boycott the playoff games unless Alomar's suspension began immediately.
Baseball went to court yesterday morning to get a court injunction to force the umpires to work, because any such job action would likely violate the terms of their union's contract with baseball, which has a no-strike provision.
That meant a judge and some lawyers in a Philadelphia courtroom were going to decide if playoff baseball would be played with real umpires or the ones who had to ask their bosses for the day off yesterday so they could call balls and strikes at Camden Yards. A decision on the injunction won't be made until tomorrow's league hearing.
How appropriate. Take me out to the courthouse, take me out to the bench. Get me a judge and a legal brief, or else the fans will get more grief.
As the time grew closer to the 1:07 p.m. scheduled starting time, the situation grew more ridiculous. At 12:22 p.m., Springstead came out of the umpires room. Were the umpires there? "No," he said. Anything resolved yet? "No," he said.
At 12:24 p.m., a priest went into the umpire's room - not a good sign.
At 12:26 p.m., the replacement umpires went into the auxiliary clubhouse. The major league umps? They were sitting in their hotel nearby, watching ESPN. "We were waiting for a call from our attorney," crew chief Drew Coble said later.
At 12:29 p.m., Orioles workers carried the red carpet through the tunnel out onto the field. The carpet was for the players to walk on from the dugout to the baseline during pregame introductions - as if ballplayers didn't get enough red carpet treatment. That's one of the reasons all the mess happened, after all. They've been walking on red carpets all their lives.
At 12:37 p.m., several Baltimore police officers approached reporters standing in the tunnel. "Stay against the wall, if you will, gentleman," one officer said. This could turn ugly. I vowed to myself that they would kick me out of there when they pried my cold, dead fingers off my Baseball Writer's Association of America membership card.
At 12:45 p.m., Springstead emerged from the umpire's room with a relieved look on his face. "They [the major league umps] will work today and tomorrow," he said.
At 12:50 p.m. the umpires arrived, just like rock stars, with cameras running and reporters jostling to get a glimpse. The starting time of the game was pushed back, and at 1:24 p.m., David Wells threw the first pitch to Kenny Lofton, with Drew Coble behind the plate. The game had survived Loogie Mania for one more day.