Nine men up -- one through nine -- a ceremonial tradition in place today. Filling out a lineup card is a daily art form, and as part of Major League Baseball's celebration of 9/9/09 and all things nine, MLB.com went to three of the five winningest managers in history to ask them how they go about it.
Ranking behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw, in order, are active managers Tony La Russa of the Cardinals, Bobby Cox of the Braves and Joe Torre of the Dodgers. Each one took time out of his team's current pennant chase to answer the same questions pertaining to the art of filling out the lineup card. Here are their responses, along with some sage advice offered by Henry Chadwick in the 1867 edition of "Haney's Base Ball Book of Reference":
MLB.com: If there is an art to filling out a lineup card, what is an important lesson you can pass along to others?
La Russa: I think the thing you do more than anything else is you have to look at your personnel. Fit your lineup to your personnel, not to some formula.
Cox: I think what you have on your roster dictates the lineup. Back when I started managing, you didn't put much thought about the other club's relievers when you were making your lineup. Now the game has become much more specialized and when you put the lineup together you're thinking about more than just the other team's starting pitcher.
Torre: With certain people, it's easy. You know where the leadoff guy goes. I used to have trouble and Don Zimmer gave me a great hint -- start from the bottom. He was right. All of a sudden I realized when you put the names down that way, it makes the rest of it easier. With our current lineup, you know where (Matt) Kemp, (Andre) Ethier, Manny (Ramirez) and (Rafael) Furcal will be. Those guys will be in the top four or five spots. It becomes pretty simple, and occasionally it's a matter of how to attack a certain pitcher with right-handed hitters or left-handed hitters. But when you have players who play every day regardless, it's not that tough a call.
Chadwick: In arranging your order of striking, see that strong hitters follow the poor batsmen, and that good baserunners precede them.
MLB.com: What is the toughest decision you've had to make on a lineup card?
La Russa: It was a tough one (on Sept. 2), not playing (Ryan) Ludwick. There are two different things. If you don't have a good club, making out a lineup is tough because you're mixing and matching and trying to (make it work). If you have a good club, you have someone on the bench that you have a desire to play. Perfect example is Ludwick. He had all kinds of reason to be there and he wasn't in there.
Cox: That has to be whenever you have to move one of the toughest hitters down in your lineup. You're dealing with a lot of hurt feelings there. These guys have a lot of pride and that kind of stuff affects them. I've had to do it with Andruw (Jones) and Frenchy (Jeff Francoeur). It's never easy to sit down and explain it to them.
Torre: The toughest decision for me was in the World Series moving Paul O'Neill down to sixth or seventh. He was our No. 3 hitter for the longest time. And knowing what he did for the team, I was hoping it would help him bounce back, but I thought it was sort of a betrayal even to ask or to tell him what I was going to do. He didn't make it hard on me at all.
Chadwick: Suppose that your best outfielder, or your pitcher or catcher, is not as skilful (sic) at-bat as the others, in placing him on the books as a striker put a good baserunner's name down before him; by this means the chances for the first base being vacated by the time he is ready to make it, will be increased, as likewise those for two runs being obtained after he has made his base.
MLB.com: What do you like best about filling out a lineup card?
La Russa: You evaluate your players, how they are at the particular time, who you're playing against, the bullpen, there's a certain amount of strategy that you use. And that's fun for anybody.
Cox: We sit down every day and look over all the stats and see who is healthy and all of that. I guess it's just fun to try to put the best one you can together on a consistent basis.
Torre: I think the satisfaction you get, you can't tell until the game plays itself out and one of your decisions pays off, when you put a player in a certain spot because you think the game might come to him in that spot and it does and he knocks in a winning run. Even if it has nothing to do with skill, when it works, there definitely is satisfaction. Of course, sometimes the game finds a player and you'd rather it didn't. I remember dropping Todd Zeile down to sixth or seventh to take the pressure off, and we load the bases in the first inning and here he comes with the bases loaded. Sometimes, it's just the luck of the draw.
Chadwick: Never put three poor hitters together, but support each, if possible, as above recommended.
It is serious business, filling out a lineup card. The manager thinks about it perpetually, at and away from the ballpark at times. It usually requires many conversations with coaches, trainers, players and sometimes others, such as the occasional Boss if you were Billy Martin. Even at lower levels of baseball, it is generally taken seriously. The only difference in youth ball is that an occasional parent may be consulted by a skipper.
You see them posted in the dugouts, a fact of life. They are posted for all to see a few hours or more before a game, at first in the clubhouse outside the manager's office door, then in the game programs at the park and over the Internet, and on a dugout wall where they will be marked up profusely as situations come and go. They are inscribed on cards that are exchanged with the home-plate umpire before the game itself -- the official gospel.
Everything that happens revolves around those nine important decisions, which last names to write into the spaces, and no one can bat out of order.
Cox was asked if he had one favorite lineup card story.
"No I really don't," he said, evidence of years and years of filling them out. "You used to hear stories about how guys would determine the lineup by picking names out of the hat and I've always thought that would be fun.
"But I've never been able to bring myself to do it, because you always think the other team or other players are playing for something and the makeup of the lineup is important to the game."