SAN FRANCISCO - Like any good manager, Bruce Bochy was looking for an edge. He found it, of all places, on the scoreboard.
Bochy was managing the Padres against the Dodgers, whose pitcher Bochy knew was a little radar-gun happy. The pitcher would check his velocity on the scoreboard after every pitch.
"So (Bochy) said in the first inning, 'I want (the radar gun) turned down,' " recalls pitcher Alan Embree, who was with the Padres at the time. "It was down a few miles an hour. After the first inning, (Bochy) comes in and said 'I want you to turn it down.' So they dropped it even more."
Suddenly, fastballs that were supposed to be 93 were showing up on the scoreboard as 86 or 87.
"You could just see the pitcher getting more and more frustrated," Embree said. "He was pumping fastballs, looking up, pumping fastballs, looking up. He was out in five innings instead of seven or eight."
Embree called it "psychological warfare. If you can get a guy sucked into it, it may work to your advantage."
Bochy, now the Giants' manager, sheepishly admitted to that bit of gamesmanship, although he insisted it was a one-time occurrence.
It is an example of how ballpark radar guns -- now standard equipment in the majors and even many minor-league parks -- can have an impact on the game between the lines.
Technically the pitch-speed readings are just a part of the ballpark entertainment, like dot racing or a big furry mascot. In reality, they are so much more.
"The gun is a major factor" in the way the game is played, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "It has a big-time impact."
Pitch-speed readings began popping up in ballparks in the mid '90s, and since then they have become a favorite of fans and the bane of pitching coaches and other pitching purists.
"I think it emphasizes a statistic that is completely overblown and has nothing to do with pitching," said Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, a former big-league pitcher. "A guy may throw a 99 mph fastball and everyone is impressed with it, but a 99 mph fastball isn't necessarily going to get someone out. Look at Barry Zito and Jamie Moyer and Tom Glavine. They laugh at those things.
"It's sensationalistic. I like it, but I don't think it has a lot to do with what is going on down there."
The most common complaint about the presence of the pitch-speed readings is that pitchers can become obsessed with their velocity and forget about pitching.
"Some are more casual about looking than others," Giants pitcher Matt Morris said. "Some are finishing their pitch and looking at the radar gun. Definitely, players get caught up in it."
When former Giants closer Armando Benitez was a young, hard-throwing pitcher with the Orioles, he used to pump his fists when he'd hit 100 mph, Embree said.
"A pitcher's focus should be on making a quality pitch and putting the ball where he wants, not on how hard he's throwing," Bochy said. "Unfortunately, some pitchers do get caught up in the radar gun. It's right there where they can see it. Some use it in the right way. They say 'I don't have the same velocity' and they pitch more. Another guy may just try to throw harder."
Games people play
The other issue is that the combination of a gun-happy pitcher and a devious opponent creates great opportunities for tricks like Bochy's.
"I don't suspect it goes on, I'm very much aware of it," Astros pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "It goes on . . . There is always gamesmanship going on."
Krukow said it "absolutely" happens, and he cited the example of former Giants pitcher Jerry Spradlin. Spradlin was enamored with his velocity, and when the Giants went back to Philadelphia -- where Spradlin had played and not been well-liked -- the gun was mysteriously showing 91 mph instead of 96 mph.
"He tried to throw harder and harder and got all screwed up," Krukow said.
Added Righetti: "Teams know what pitchers are gun-happy. They might drag it up there on somebody or drag it down, especially the teams that play each other a lot. We don't do it. At least, I'm not involved in it."
The Giants have been accused at least once, though.
In April 2004, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne was waging what would become an epic battle against Barry Bonds. The AT&T Park scoreboard radar gun was showing Gagne's pitches at 100, then 102 and even 103 mph. Bonds battled him, yanking one foul into McCovey Cove. Then he finally hit a home run on a fastball that registered as 102 mph on the scoreboard.
Gagne said the gun readings were fiction, an attempt to goad him into throwing fastballs instead of his devastating curve or change-up.
"I don't throw that hard," Gagne said the next day. "I throw 96, 97, maybe 98 on a good day. But 102? No way. I think they were pumping them up a bit. They wanted me to throw a fastball probably."