ST. LOUIS — Staring at each other across the way while standing in front of their team's respective dugout, Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals and Scott Van Slyke of the Los Angeles Dodgers came to an understanding. In the moments before the first pitch of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night, they would have a national anthem standoff.
The goal: To be the last man standing in front of the dugout after the "Star Spangled Banner" finished playing. So persistent were Kelly and Van Slyke, they even managed to delay the first pitch for a few moments, to the chagrin of umpire Greg Gibson. At one point, Dee Gordon ran out and put a batting helmet atop Van Slyke's head — just in case the umpires let the game start with Van Slyke and Kelly still on the field.
As fun, as intense and as quirky as the staredown was, it happened entirely organically. Kelly and Van Slyke did not conspire beforehand to have the contest. They didn't talk through channels. In fact, they don't know each other at all. They've never even met.
"I don't think I've ever talked to Joe," Van Slyke said.
The standoff happened not because of psychic powers, but because they happened to make eye contact.
"He kind of gave me a smile, like, 'I'm going to be out here longer than you are,' " Van Slyke said. "From there, I didn't want him to be out there longer than I was. I was just going to wait for the home plate umpire to start yelling at me."
Which, eventually, Gibson did. What did Van Slyke hear him say?
Being the last man standing after the anthem has become a thing for Kelly, who says he's been doing it for the past few games, but wasn't sure if anyone on the Dodgers had noticed. Van Slyke was just the first guy to challenge him.
"He probably saw me and was, like, ‘All right, I’m going to beat him today.’ " Kelly said. "I just stood there the whole time."
Both of the players viewed the competition as an appetizer before the main course. Van Slyke said the Cardinals 9-0 victory was a downer in the end, but at the time of the staredown, his teammates got a charge out of it. Kelly's too. Even though he came in having a dominant playoffs, Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha said he felt a little too nervous for Game 6. And then came the staredown.
"Honestly, I think it calmed me down a little bit," said Wacha, who allowed two hits over seven innings. "It gave me a little chuckle on the mound. I think I might have been a little too nervous going out there, but I saw the standoff going on and it kind of loosened me up a little bit, calmed me down. I got a little laugh out of it. It was pretty funny."
Wacha had a better spot than most — the pitcher's mound — to hear Gibson urging Kelly and Van Slyke to vamoose. Wacha said Gibson said: " 'Y’all just go back at the same time. Just go back!'
"I don’t even know if that worked," Wacha said, "I just started warming up. I was trying to get focused again. I’m not sure who won. I think their guy actually won."
Van Slyke was pretty sure he had won, too, but video replay shows that Kelly actually faked him out. Van Slyke turned and went into the dugout first.
"He would say that he won, but I definitely went for a decoy," Kelly said. "I went for the fake step and he started to walk off into the dugout and I still stood there on the grass.
"There’s no balking in the anthem standoff. It’s a legal move to deke."
Although the Dodgers had been cited for showing their funny bones more than the Cardinals during the series, Kelly's brilliant game-within-the-game showed the NL pennant winners have a sense of humor, too.
"It’s a kids game, it’s baseball," Kelly said. "You’re supposed to have fun. You take it serious, you start to get gray hairs. There’s a time to turn it on and off and I thought it was pretty funny."
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