Oh my, oh dear.
Baseball retaliation is generally considered to be a you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy proposition, designed either to curtail unwanted activity from the other team or to make some sort of macho statement. Many decry it as unnecessary, and say that the game would be better if it didn’t exist.
Sunday we saw a story of what it takes for a pitcher—an old-school pitcher with retaliation on his mind—to not only acknowledge that point of view, but to agree with it. The story comes from FanGraphs’ David Laurila, who got it from Astros bench coach and former Orioles manager Dave Trembley.
It dates back to September 2007, and a game in which Baltimore pitcher Daniel Cabrera found himself distracted by Coco Crisp, dancing back and forth while taking his lead from third base. Distracted, Cabrera ended up balking the run home, then grew angry. The right-hander’s next pitch, to Dustin Pedroia, came in head high. This infuriated the Red Sox, and served to clear the dugouts.
When no retaliation occurred the next day under the watch of Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka (or the string of relievers who followed after he was knocked out in the third), Josh Beckett—Boston’s starter for the series finale—decided to take matters into his own hands.
“[Beckett] is old-school, and Cabrera popped Pedroia for no reason, so I knew one of our guys was going to get it,” said Trembley in Laurila’s account. “[Nick] Markakis, [Brian] Roberts … somebody was going to get it.”
Instead, Trembley approached Red Sox manager Terry Francona with a proposition. From FanGraphs:
“I called Tito,” he said. “I said, ‘If I tell you that I’m going to suspend Cabrera, will you tell me none of my guys are going to get thrown at?’ He said he’d get back to me. When he called back, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to suspend Cabrera?’ I said that I was. I’d talked to [general manager] Andy MacPhail and Cabrera was going to miss a start—we were going to take his money.
“Beckett pitched the next day and didn’t hit anybody. If I hadn’t called Tito, one of our guys would have gotten drilled, and deservedly so. Cabrera had a reputation and a problem with Boston and New York. Whenever they hit home runs against him, he’d hit somebody. To this day he’ll tell you he wasn’t throwing at Pedroia, but everybody on the team knew he did. An incident like that can get ugly.”
For somebody to work within the system as Trembley did is both remarkable and honorable, not to mention pragmatic. It leads one to wonder why more managers don’t take that tack.
Then again, maybe some of them do, but we just don’t hear about it. Trembley’s story is not so dissimilar from another incident involving Francona and the Red Sox, which was featured in The Baseball Codes. Pick up the action in a 2006 game between Boston and the Twins, which Minnesota led 8-1 in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs and nobody on base, the batter was Torii Hunter, who worked the count against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez to 3-0:
The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0, as it did with Hunter, it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.
The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibiting hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swinging at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s inﬂuence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t ﬂy by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.
“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embarrass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”
It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competitive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can sufﬁce.
After the game, Gardenhire took the outﬁelder to the visitors’ clubhouse to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.
“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player understands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”
Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the ﬁnal frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the members of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no beanballs were thrown the following day.
“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “You say, hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a veteran, but he had to do it.”
[Thanks to reader Shawn Y. for the heads-up.]
Kyle Kendrick was frustrated on Saturday. He was pitching well right into the sixth, had helped his team to a 5-1 lead. Then, after a Buster Posey leadoff single, Pablo Sandoval popped up for what should have been the inning’s first out. But the ball fell between Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, at which point Utley tried to flip the ball to second for the force … which would have worked, had his throw not pulled Jimmy Rollins off the bag.
The next batter, Michael Morse, doubled home a run, and Ryne Sandberg came out to the mound for a chat. Kendrick, with little interest in conversation, did not wait for his manager, storming off to the dugout while Sandberg was en route, handing him the ball as they passed.
If the basis of the Code is respect, waiting for one’s manager to reach the mound is a baseball bedrock, even if the pitcher doesn’t agree with the decision to make a change. Especially if a pitcher doesn’t agree with his decision to make a change. Put differently: a red-assed pitcher irked by a hitter digging into the batter’s box is following a narrow band of his precedent-setting forebears, but a manager angry at being abandoned by his pitcher in front of a stadium full of people is directly in line with every guy who’s ever managed in the big leagues.
Seems like a decent segue into the A’s. As some of you know, I’m under contract to write a book about Oakland’s teams of the early 1970s (somewhat breaking news: the story is so large, with so many pieces, that the publication has been moved back to 2016 so I have the space to tell the story in the way it deserves to be told), and this story falls right in line with an incident from 40 years ago.
In 1974, Alvin Dark took over as manager of the two-time defending champions, and in the early going, his methodology was not well received by his players. In particular, Dark had a problem with pitcher management, frequently giving his starters early hooks that ended up backfiring when the bullpen blew some sizeable leads. The most egregious of these instances came in the season’s third game, when Dark was still trying to figure out his roster. He yanked Vida Blue two batters into the fifth inning, with Oakland leading Texas, 5-1. Rollie Fingers allowed both runners to score, and Blue became ineligible for the victory since he had not gone the requisite five frames. From that moment on, Blue held some pretty serious antipathy against Dark.
Fast forward to mid-July. Blue was pitching well enough, entering the fifth inning in New York with a 3-1 lead. But even as the pitcher began to struggle, Dark wanted to let him finish the inning, to become the pitcher of record. But Vida imploded, with four hits and two walks turning Oakland’s lead into a 6-4 deficit. Dark had to pull him with two outs in the frame to stem further damage. When he approached the mound, however, Blue walked straight past him and tossed the ball backward. Dark let it drop onto the ground. It was as insolent a move as could be imagined from a player who had just coughed up a lead. Not only that, but it was the second time in recent history that an A’s pitcher had done it; after the first time, by Ken Holtzman, the manger threatened a $250 fine for any subsequent miscreants.
When the team arrived at Shea Stadium for a doubleheader the following day (New York was a one-ballpark town while Yankee Stadium was undergoing renovations), the manager called them together. It had been precisely 100 days since the season opener, and Dark finally had had enough. They sat in a semicircle in the locker room, while the manager stood in the middle. He usually liked to pace when he addressed a group like this, but this time he stayed in one spot. He did not shout and he did not curse. More impactfully, for the first time that anyone could remember, the uber-religious Dark did not quote the bible even once.
“I’ve never been more disappointed in a group of young men in my life,” he said, according to his book, When in Doubt, Fire the Manager. “I’ve never been more disappointed in a team of world champions. If being a world champion makes you act the way some of you are acting, no thank you. I don’t care to be one.”
“Vida, you and I are even now,” he said. “I screwed you out of a game your first start of the season, and I was never more sorry in my life. But we’re even now. I left you out there yesterday, trying to get you a win, and I’m the one who suffers. You degraded the position of manager. Not me, the position, by acting like a bush kid.” Dark confirmed the $250 fine, and said that it would cost $500 if it happened again. He didn’t want to play catch with his pitchers when he removed them from games, he said.
The Phillies don’t have quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s did—nobody has quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s—but the lesson holds. Afterward, Sandberg labeled Kendricks’ action as no big deal (although he did see fit to talk to the pitcher about it on Sunday), and Kendrick confessed to letting the pressure get to him. “I didn’t handle it right,” he said in a CSN Philadelphia report.
Kendrick is barely hanging on with a 5-11 record and 4.90 ERA, and has plenty of reason to be frustrated. All in all, however, this seems like a decent learning experience for the eight-year vet and the rookie manager, both in the nature of comportment, and how to handle oneself should things break down.
For another example of the concept, this one featuring Frank Robinson and discussed in The Baseball Codes, click here.
[H/T Hardball Talk.]
One pitch. The next pitch. There is something to the idea of keeping hitters uncomfortable, but as Yoenis Cespedes shows, a batter’s comfort level is entirely internal.
Bryce Harper drew some attention Saturday when he intentionally (and repeatedly) scuffed the Braves logo that had been imprinted in the dirt behind the plate at Turner Field in Atlanta. On one hand, it was just a bit of gamesmanship, intended to get Atlanta’s goat. On the other he was clearly disrespecting the home team. Ultimately, the gesture was so minor that it should serve as fuel for Braves fans, but not the Braves themselves.
It did bring to mind, however, an interesting piece of Code which might be the single most arcane and widely followed, both at the same time. While other antiquated unwritten rules, like “Don’t swing at the first pitch after back-to-back homers” have fallen nearly entirely off the map, this one, while just as quaint, continues to be ubiquitous. Harper himself was following it, even as he set about being bratty to the Braves.
It’s a simple one: Don’t walk between the pitcher and the catcher when you’re going up to hit—walk around. This almost never causes a commotion, because it’s almost never done. It’s as close to instinctive on the baseball landscape as the unwritten rules can get.
“It’s just bad etiquette to walk in front of the catcher,” said former A’s infielder and current A’s analyst Shooty Babbit. “It’s like breaking the rhythm of the game. You want to creep into the batter’s box; you don’t want to create any attention. You don’t want to give them any more incentive to get you out.”
Dusty Baker learned about it from Hank Aaron when he was coming up with the Braves. “He taught us to walk behind the umpire all the time,” he said. “Not so much for the rhythm of the game, but that it’s their territory, not yours.” Baker talked about the action showing respect for both catcher and umpire.
A poll of current major leaguers would probably draw more blank stares than anything, but one would be hard-pressed to find a guy who makes a practice of doing anything else.
Since taking over the Diamondbacks in 2010, general manager Kevin Towers has aimed to turn his franchise into the rootinist, tootinist, unwritten rules followingest team in the land. He installed noted red-ass Kirk Gibson in the manager’s seat. He went on the radio and claimed that “it’s going to be an eye for an eye, and we’re going to protect one another,” adding that “ if you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”
Well, Randall Delgado belongs in a Diamondbacks uniform. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Delgado has barely earned his keep when it comes to good pitching (5.61 ERA over 34 games in relief), but he has to be in Towers’ good graces after Saturday night’s performance. The gap between pleasing one’s superiors and appropriate behavior is where the crux of this story lies.
It started on Friday, when Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri inadvertently hit Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt on the hand. It was unquestionably a mistake—a fastball that sailed inside and barely clipped the batter, who flinched backward a hair too slowly. If D’Backs brass hadn’t decided to retaliate yet at that point, they probably gained clarity when the diagnosis came in: Goldschmidt’s hand was fractured and he’d miss significant time.
The Pirate to bear the retaliatory target was Andrew McCutchen—you hit our best player, we’ll hit yours—and Delgado drilled him in the ninth, after missing with his first offering (which came up and in, but not up and in enough), then sending a decoy breaking ball away. His third pitch, at 95 mph, hit McCutchen sqare in the spine. The outfielder gave no notice to the macho piece of Code saying that drilled batters should act like it didn’t hurt, instead going down as if he’d been shot. (A heater into the backbone will do that to a guy in ways that being drilled in the thigh will not.) On his way to first, he spiked his bat in anger. (Watch it here, including video of the leadup.)
For those who need further proof of intent, when Towers went on his radio diatribe last year, he specifically called out his team’s lack of response when Goldschmidt was hit: “Goldy gets dinged, and no retaliation. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ If Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye. Somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.” So there.
(Worth noting: Goldschmidt was hit three times in 2013, all without response, all with Wade Miley on the mound for Arizona. Was Miley talked to? To judge by his egregious use of force this spring, yes.)
After the game, McCutchen took issue less with the drilling itself than with its details. “Retaliation is going to happen in this game, but there is a right way to do it,” he said in an MLB.com report. “They had plenty of chances. First inning, do it. Perfect time: one out, guy on second base. Get it over with. But they wanted to wait it out, wait until the ninth, second and third.”
Indeed, Arizon had first base open with one out and McCutchen at bat in the first inning. It is a tailor-made circumstance for those with pain on their minds. Trouble is, Gibson had a similar situation in June—first base open against the Brewers—and when he used it to drill Ryan Braun, it ended up costing his team the game.
So he waited. Even if Arizona’s need to retaliate is highly questionable, the method of execution Gibson chose is not. The game was tied in every one of McCutchen’s preceding at-bats, when allowing a baserunner in the name of vendetta would not just be wrong, it would have been even stupider than what the D’Backs ended up doing.
Gibson’s act might have played well when he was starring for the Tigers in the 1980s, but the game has changed. That kind of response to a clearly benign situation is no longer acceptable. McCutchen gets huge credit for not charging the mound, but that’s a possibility—if now a downright likelihood, and not just with the Pirates—if Arizona pitchers continue their reckless ways.
Interesting stuff up today over at Hardball Talk about the idea of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale becoming a crutch for people trying to express how players of bygone eras wouldn’t put up with the shenanigans of today, even though they hit far fewer batters than their modern reputations would suggest. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of this myself; each guy is an easy stand-in to illustrate points about player toughness and the kinds of things modern players get away with.
Still, how representative were they, really? Despite all the talk about Gibson’s intolerance, there’s little question that he and Drysdale were outliers, simply the meanest characters fronting the scariest trigger fingers of their era. Virtually nobody could match those two—less in terms of sheer body count than in putting the fear of God into batters via a steady stream of knockdown pitches. It’s why they’re still the faces of that particular franchise.
But then there’s this: During the 1968 World Series, in which Gibson played a significant part, Pee Wee Reese apparently bemoaned the lack of modern-day attention to the preponderance of showboating. It’s easy to forget that for all the “kids today are soft” conversations we may have, the previous generation had those same conversations about us, and their elders had the same conversations about them.
Change is inevitable, and, apart from seismic shifts in societal mores, rare is the person who thinks that things are better today than they used to be. Always has been, always will be.