Protocol is important. Appearances must be maintained.
Which explains why, as manager Joe Maddon tried out an impressive list of obscenities on the mound Thursday afternoon, one of his players couldn't look anyone in the eye. Another struggled to keep his shoulders from shaking as he held back his laughter. And pitcher Matt Garza, the supposed target of Maddon's ire, slowly raised his glove in front of his face, lest the world see him grinning.
Maddon was looking at Garza, but he was venting at second-base umpire Gary Cederstrom after a Rays starting pitcher was called for a rare balk in a critical situation in consecutive games. You've heard of a no-look pass? This was no-look passive-aggressive. Because managers are not allowed to argue balk calls, Maddon couldn't take his case directly to the umpire.
Somehow, the ruse was not lost on Cederstrom.
"The umpire said, 'Are you talking to me, or are you talking to your pitcher?' Joe said, 'I'm talking to my pitcher,' " second baseman Reid Brignac said. "Then Joe started again. 'That's the second d- - - day in a row, yada, yada, yada.' It was definitely amusing."
"That was awesome," leftfielder Sean Rodriguez said. "I told Joe, 'I could not have handled that with a straight face.' "
"Classic," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "But a good tactic."
The strategy got Maddon tossed, tying him for the major-league lead with three ejections this season, but that was incidental to the reasons behind the argument. Maddon had some specific goals in mind when he went to the mound in the seventh inning with the Rays hanging on to a 4-3 lead.
No. 1, he wanted to put some distance between the call and the next pitch so Garza would have time to collect himself.
"Bad things seem to happen after balks," Maddon said. "Just like (Wednesday) night when (James) Shields gets called for a balk and they end up getting a (go-ahead) run out of it."
That part of the plan seemed to work well. Garza got Jerry Hairston to hit into a rare, no-forceout, 6-5-4 double play. Garza went on to throw eight innings for his longest outing in more than a month, and Tampa Bay snapped a three-game losing streak.
No. 2, Maddon wanted to get a point across to umpires.
From Maddon's point of view, the Rays have come out on the short end of a number of unusual calls in the past month. Not necessarily bad calls, just unusual calls:
A home-plate umpire not granting Peña a timeout during a crucial at-bat in Toronto. Rodriguez being called out for not tagging third base on a play that was too close for instant replay to even verify. And balks in back-to-back games on calls that were far from obvious.
In this case, it's possible Maddon's postgame complaints Wednesday might have played a part in the second balk being called Thursday. Maddon said Wednesday's balk was a "fabrication" and a "really unusual call" at a critical point in the game.
"I'm fine with that," Maddon said when asked if umpires might have taken offense to his original comments. "But I thought I was very tactful with what I said. And I stand by that. I really believe at times they are looking for things, and they shouldn't be looking for things. They should just call the game."
Shields had faced more than 3,600 batters in his career and been called for only one balk before Wednesday. Garza's last balk was more than 1,300 batters ago. Does that mean the calls were wrong? No. But it suggests this umpiring crew has a more, shall we say, discerning eye than most.
Thursday, Garza was told he did not make a complete step off the rubber before throwing to first base on a pickoff attempt.
"We've had some weird calls," Peña said. "Not oh-that-was-close calls. We've had some pull-out-the-rulebook calls."
There comes a point, Maddon said, when a manager cannot sit silently. It's important for his players to know he is in their corner and for umpires to realize the importance of their calls.
"I don't go out there a lot. I don't p- - - and moan at bang-bang calls. I don't go out there on superfluous BS," Maddon said. "I go out there when a guy isn't given timeout. When they say a guy missed third base. When they're calling fabricated balks. That's when I get mad. The other stuff, the close calls, I don't even get involved with."
There is no way to quantify if Maddon's argument will have an impact on future calls — or, for that matter, if it will be a seminal moment for a team in need of some good vibes. As far as Maddon is concerned, it was the right time to raise his voice.
Even if he was pointed in the wrong direction.
"I do dig the umpires. I think they're great. And we're always going to have disagreements. That's why I don't want to go anywhere near instant replay," Maddon said. "Because, to me, this is an enjoyable part of the game. Gary is a good umpire. He's a very good umpire. And we had a moment today. It was a good moment for me. I hope it was a good moment for him."