On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

Arrieta drilled

Depending on one’s perspective, Tony Watson’s decision to drill Jake Arietta last night was either supremely rational or patently ludicrous, depending on which details you want to focus.

Watson’s Pirates were losing a do-or-die wild card game, the 4-0 score mattering far less than the fact that Arietta had meticulously dismantled their offense, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The Pirates couldn’t touch him, and they knew it. This is a bad reason to throw a fastball at the opposing pitcher.

But …

Arietta had hit two batters himself—catcher Francisco Cervelli in the fifth, and Josh Harrison in the sixth. Neither was intentional, the former coming against the inning’s leadoff batter, the latter coming on an 85-mph breaking ball which put two men on with one out and Andrew McCutchen at bat.

The you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy ethos is reptilian and outdated, especially when Arrieta went out of his way to explain to Cervelli that he had been hit accidentally. Also, intentionally gifting an opponent baserunners during an elimination game is usually a bad idea, pretty much regardless of the score.

But …

Arietta had twice come up and in to batters in addition to the two men he hit. Because his control was superb throughout the game (he walked nobody), this was a clear indication that he was taking excessive liberties with inside pitches, content with a margin of error that included an occasional hit batsman. (His postgame explanation that “balls were slick” was hogwash.) Pittsburgh had every right to dissuade him of this idea—especially when it comes to future meetings.

And …

The Pirates are still sore about the semi-dirty takeout slide Chicago’s Chris Coghlan laid on Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang last month, knocking him out for the season. If that was Watson’s primary motivation, Coghlan (who did not play Wednesday) is the guy who should have been in the crosshairs. Even for the revenge-minded, that’s the kind of thing that can wait for an appropriate time.

But …

At least Watson did the dead properly, drilling Arrieta below the belt. “The butt’s perfect,” the pitcher said afterward in an ESPN report.

Also …

Ultimately, the benches would not have cleared had Arrieta simply headed to first base—which he should have done, given the circumstances. It was only when he stopped, stared down Watson and started to jaw—the point at which the chance of a physical confrontation rose to realistic levels—that his teammates streamed out to protect him. (As per usual, it was fairly uneventful … save for this.)

And …

Arrieta got his own dose of revenge, stealing second on the very next pitch. It was the first steal that Arietta had so much as attempted as a professional. “That was awesome,” he said in USA Today.

And so …

Ultimately, it’s all rubbish. Were the Pirates were hell-bent on avenging Kang, they could have waited until next season. If they wanted to show Arrieta that they did not appreciate his liberties with the inside corner, the seventh inning of an elimination game was not the time to try to affect change. Ultimately, this was little more than frustration bubbling over in a way that does not reflect well on the Pirates.

The playoffs are not a time for vendettas. Pittsburgh now has about five months with which to consider that notion.

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On Measured Responses, and Why Every Slight Doesn’t Have to Equal Retaliation

Ration won the day again.

Wednesday, Cleveland second baseman Jose Ramirez homered against the Twins, admired it for a long while, then flipped his bat in the direction of Minnesota’s dugout. This was noteworthy less for the flip itself—which by now has become somewhat commonplace among the big league ranks—than for the reaction from the Twins dugout. Manager Paul Molitor stood on the top step and told Ramirez to “get the fuck off the field.” Catcher Kurt Suzuki lurked alongside, offering similar sentiments. (The gif above, via Deadspin, shows it all. Watch the full clip here.)

They had good reason to be angry. The balance of respect did not fall into Ramirez’s favor:

  • Ramirez celebrated his 23rd birthday only two weeks ago, while the guy he showed up, Ricky Nolasco, is 32 and a 10-year vet.
  • It wasn’t like he hit a bomb; his blast failed to clear the first row in right field and bounced back onto the grass.
  • Most importantly, the Twins Cleveland led 7-1 before he swung, and 10-1 afterward.

As best anybody could figure, Ramirez was upset with the fact that Minnesota had just intentionally walked Jason Kipnis to face him—a by-the-book move—and was letting off some steam.

Afterward, Nolasco threatened that Ramirez “will get his,” and the baseball media swarmed. Talk of retaliation has been at something of a fever pitch following last week’s episode of Papelbon Madness. Molitor himself was visibly pissed, and folks couldn’t wait to see what the manager would do.

Like Buck Showalter before him, however, Molitor sided with modern baseball reason. Instead of inflaming tensions by reacting to a perceived slight with tangible retaliation, he instead chose to do nothing. The Twins are a game back in the wild-card hunt, and have better things to worry about. Last night’s game—the teams’ final meeting this season—featured no hit batters.

Perhaps this is the new way of things, an enlightenment that dictates jackoff showboaters unworthy of undue attention.

Yesterday, Jeremy Affeldt announced his retirement with a bylined piece at SI.com in which he discussed the “recent trend of ‘look at me’ machismo,” writing, “Yes, let’s celebrate the game of baseball, and, if warranted, celebrate our on-field accomplishments with genuine shows of emotion. When you smack a double into the gap to take the lead in the eighth inning, by all means, pump your fist and praise your maker in the sky. But when you flash self-congratulatory signs after a meaningless first-inning single—or, even worse, a walk—you’re clowning yourself and not representing your club or your teammates very well.”

The notion is perfect—humble while acknowledging reality, accepting of changing times while refuting the kind of hubris that’s gained recent popularity. It’s noteworthy, however, for the fact that it followed something else Affeldt wrote: “I played the game the right way—not necessarily in compliance with some antiquated and silly ‘code.’ ”

Affeldt is right—the antiquated part of the Code is silly. But the stuff that governs the majority of big league ballplayers has evolved along with the rest of the game. It continues to mandate, as Molitor indicated from the top step of the visitors’ dugout in Cleveland, that respect be given an opponent. It also says now, in ways that would have been viewed as foreign a generation ago, that hard-line responses are not always necessary.

There’s always the chance that Molitor was simply abiding by game flow on Wednesday. The Twins didn’t lead by more than a run until the ninth inning, and could not afford to cede baserunners to their opponents. They always have the option of picking up the string against Ramirez again next season.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case.


Filed under Bat flips, Retaliation, Showboating

Thou Shalt Play Thy Best in September, Even If Thou Doest Stink to Yon Heavens

Lineup card

At least one of baseball’s unwritten rules is time sensitive, broken out only in the final days or weeks of a season, primarily by managers of mediocre teams. It’s an issue of sportsmanship-based lineup construction, hinging on the fact that simply because your team has little to play for, the opposition isn’t necessarily in the same boat.

Which leads to differing points of view. Does a manager field his best players when facing teams still in the playoff hunt, as a courtesy to those they’re battling for postseason berths, or can he keep trotting out prospects, the better to gauge what he’ll have to work with next season?

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is firmly in the former camp, playing his regular starters in this week’s series against the playoff-hungry Astros at Safeco Field. (Little matter; Houston took two of three.)

Elsewhere in the American League West, however, things played out differently. Last week the A’s called up Barry Zito for a nostalgia-heavy, swan-song start against Tim Hudson and the Giants. The lefty getting shelled for six hits and four runs over two innings made little difference to the big picture, what with both teams effectively out of the playoff chase.

When Zito’s turn came around yesterday, however, there he was again, making what was likely his final major league start. This time, however, his opponent was the Angels, battling Houston for a wild card spot. The Astros had just come off of three games against Seattle’s best (discounting the fingernail issue that sidelined James Paxton and Taijuan Walker’s innings limit, which would likely have sidelined both even had Seattle had something to play for), and now their primary opponent for a playoff berth got to tee off against Zito?

Houston manager A.J. Hinch took things in stride. “Anybody at this level deserves to be here in my eye,” he said in the Houston Chronicle. “You manage your own team and handle your own business.” (Zito gave up four hits and four walks over four innings, but the Angels only scored twice against him and the A’s ended up winning, 8-7.)

Teams aren’t always as forgiving as Hinch. From a post I wrote in 2011:

In 2004, going into the season’s final series, the Giants and Houston were tied for the wild card lead with 89-70 records. The Astros closed with three home games against Colorado, while the Giants visited Los Angeles.

Suffice it to say that members of the San Francisco clubhouse took note when Rockies manager Clint Hurdle trotted out a series-opening lineup featuring six rookies—Aaron Miles, Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, Jorge Piedra, Brad Hawpe and JD Closser.

The Giants managed to take two of three from the Dodgers, but it wasn’t enough; the Astros swept punchless Colorado.

“All we needed was for Houston to lose one game,” said then-Giants reliever Matt Herges. “We were watching that, yelling, ‘This is a joke.’ We couldn’t stand Clint Hurdle after that.”

Hurdle wasn’t alone in his thinking. (“Goddammit, if I’m that far out of the pennant race, the players I was playing weren’t worth a shit, anyway,” Jim Leyland told me when he was managing the Tigers. “You might as well take a chance and look at some new players for next year.”) Still, the majority opinion holds that such situations are best avoided. Hurdle got an extra look at a bunch of prospects, at a very real cost to the pennant race. McClendon could have spent the games against Houston evaluating prospects for next year, but recognized that he still has three more games against Oakland with which to do that.

And no, Barry Zito will not start any of them.


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Every Story Needs a Bad Guy; This One Has Him – But Not For the Reason You Might Think

Pap vs. Harp II

Turns out that Jonathan Papelbon’s old-school-vs.-new-school emotional crisis last week was only the beginning. At least then he was hitting members of the opposition.

In the aftermath of his physical assault on Bryce Harper Sunday, caught on TV for all to see, we’re left to digest the complex implications of not only what happened, but why.

After Harper failed to run out trotted slowly to first on an eighth-inning popup to left field (but still plenty fast enough to make it if the ball was dropped), Papelbon began railing on his lack of hustle before the guy even made it back to the dugout. When Harper failed to exhibit the kind of subservience one can only assume Papelbon expected a 22-year-old to pay a veteran of his stature, the closer went for his throat, literally. (Watch it here.)

Over at Fox, former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski makes the case, citing unnamed current and former big leaguers, that it was Harper in the wrong, that young players in baseball must pay emotional servitude to their seniors, as it is and as it has always been.

There’s something to this. Rookies who watch quietly tend to absorb more than those whose energy is spent making their own voices heard. For generations, upstart rookies were not allowed to exist in a big league atmosphere; veterans worked tirelessly to tamp them down until they were no longer noisy. That’s no longer so. Part of it is top-tier signing bonuses that put many young players on comparable financial footing with veteran teammates. Part of it is players being rushed to the big leagues earlier and earlier, making them more prevalent to the overall culture than ever. Part of it is the collective realization that stifling one’s teammates is simply not a productive use of one’s time.

That, though, is not the real issue.

What Nitkowski fails to acknowledge in his treatise is that clubhouse standing is not based purely on seniority. Veteran status plays a part in it, of course, and by that measure Papelbon, with his 11 years in the big leagues and 34 years on the planet, has it all over Harper.

Production, however, trumps seniority. Harper has made three All-Star teams in his four years in the league, and has already earned more MVP votes than Papelbon ever did. He’s the best player not just on the Nationals but damn well in all of baseball.

Papelbon, on the other hand, has been with the Nationals for all of two months. If anybody gets traded over this incident, it’s not going to be Harper. By this measure—which is more real than whatever hokum Papelbon or his defenders want to spin about veteran status—Harper wins in a landslide.

That, though, isn’t the real issue, either.

Evidence points toward Papelbon’s anger stemming from Harper’s decision to go public with his frustration over the closer drilling Manny Machado last week, telling the press that the closer’s actions were “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

In that much Papelbon is correct: Those kinds of comments are better delivered behind closed doors than in a public forum. Had Harper sat Papelbon down for a heart-to-heart about the nature of baseball and how much it hurts to get drilled in retaliation for a teammate’s ill-considered actions, things between the two might never have reached the critical state they eventually did.

But even that is not the real issue.

For somebody sticking to his guns about the way things ought to be, Papelbon failed both himself and his old-school proponents. In drilling Machado for showboating, the closer could cite historical precedence; ballplayers of yore did it all the time, and by gum the game was better then, and etc. But even if we ignore the big picture that tells us that’s no longer the case—not to mention the fact that a reticence to evolve is one of the most damning characteristics a person or organization can foster—it’s impossible to miss Papelbon conveniently ignoring as solid a tenet as baseball’s unwritten rules contain: Don’t throw at a guy’s head.

Had Papelbon drilled Machado in the thigh or in the ass instead of sending two pitches above his shoulders, there’s a good chance that Harper would not have said anything at all. And had Harper not said anything, Papelbon would have had little reason to extend his vendetta to his own damn dugout. And therein we find the crux of the issue.

The hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy of players hiding behind semi-formed tenets of decorum while conveniently ignoring their own culpability in a given matter. (And never mind Papelbon’s postscript lip-service statement, “I’m in the wrong there,” delivered without a smidgen of guilt.)

The hypocrisy of meathead pitchers trying to leverage the unwritten rules to bolster their own macho need to exact a toll whenever they can, wherever they are, while claiming the moral high ground.

The hypocrisy of somebody shutting out every detail of a situation save for the ones that bolster his own point of view.

The American sporting public is a forgiving crowd, but only when we’re certain we’re not being played. Athletes are given second and third and fourth chances, provided they’re honest about whatever it was that plagued them in the first place. Jonathan Papelbon will never come out and say that he dislikes Bryce Harper for his combination of youth and ability and earning potential and clubhouse leadership at an age when Papelbon himself was pitching in the short-season Class-A league in Lowell, Mass.

Sure, Harper might be grating. Many stars are. Their status affords them that leeway. Papelbon, however, refuses to acknowledge that status, and couches it however he can to validate his actions.

It’s a weak mindset, and goes a long way toward explaining the abundance of burned bridges the closer has left in his wake. Most good stories need a hero to save the day. This one has only a villain, but at least it’s enough to keep things interesting.

Update, 9-28: The Nationals seem to agree, suspending Papelbon for what amounts to the duration of the season.


Filed under Inter-Team Fighting, Veteran Status

Has Baseball Evolved? To Judge by the Response to Ham-Handed Intimidation Tactics, It’s At Least Getting There


By their inherent nature, sports are built to promote the concepts of good guys and bad guys. It’s them-vs.-us in tribal glory, where the opponent is the enemy simply by dint of wearing the wrong colors. This is why when we are provided an actual heel—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, John Rocker—we so revel in lambasting him.

The series of events that began on Wednesday with Jonathan Papelbon needlessly drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado had all the makings for just such a scenario. Papelbon, the crotchety closer who’s pissed off opponents and teammates alike with three clubs over the last five years, was perfectly positioned as the foil, serving up behavior so outlandish that his own right fielder, Bryce Harper, publicly groused that he’d probably be the one to take the fall for it.

And then Buck Showalter stepped in. Finally, somebody who not only sees ludicrous things for what they are, but refuses to buy into a system that all but mandates senseless violence as an acceptable response mechanism.

The quick beats:

  • Machado hit a go-ahead homer off Nationals starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday, and admired it for a moment longer than Papelbon thought appropriate. Or maybe it was his pointing afterward, to the heavens, to the grandstand. Papelbon didn’t say.
  • Machado’s next at-bat came in the ninth, with the closer on the mound. Papelbon threw his second pitch up near Machado’s head; after it missed he did it again. Had Machado stayed in his crouch the ball would likely have connected with his cheek or ear. Because he stood up and spun toward the backstop, it merely ricocheted off the top of his shoulder. Papelbon was ejected immediately. (Watch it here.)

This goes beyond the simple etiquette of the unwritten rules. Once upon a time somebody like Papelbon could have gotten away with that kind of message pitch, informing the opposition that styling—even styling so slight as to have almost entirely evaded the TV replay—will not be tolerated, at risk of great physical peril. But baseball has moved on from that mindset, almost universally for the better. Machado did nothing outside the mainstream, his actions offensive only to the red-assed among us who cry that old-school retaliation is the only way to curb such offensive behavior.

Manny n BuckThe fact that Papelbon took things a step further, throwing two pitches near Machado’s head, is on its own merits worthy of a considerable suspension.

Modern-day baseball has graduated from making emotional slights physical. It’s not that skins have grown thicker over the years; it’s that as celebrations have become commonplace, most players just stopped caring about them. The question is no longer who thinks them worthy of retaliation, but who even notices.

On the other hand, Papelbon’s attack—an actual, physical assault with a baseball upon Baltimore’s best hitter—is the kind of thing that cries out for response. It would be easy to justify; when somebody goes full-bore loony, there are proven methods of getting his attention. Papelbon gave just such an opening to the Orioles, spurring Harper to grouse that the closer’s actions are “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

With that comment, Harper all but validated whatever response Showalter had up his sleeve. People filled the ensuing hours with discussion about when and how and on what part of the body Harper might wear one. And then we were surprised.

Showalter demurred.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he said in a Baltimore Sun report. “The best retaliation would be to win another game, right? That’s usually how it works. … The greatest form of revenge is success, isn’t that what they say?”

Can it really be that simple? Yep. Thursday saw no retaliation of any sort, save for Machado calling Papelbon a coward. And sure enough, the Orioles won. Like Showalter himself said, “That hurts more, especially when you take the high ground.”

Showalter knows whereof he speaks. Machado himself spurred a similarly embarrassing affair only last year, and the O’s skipper appears to want no part in revisiting any part of that mindset. Wednesday, Papelbon proved himself again as a heel who it’s fun to root against, but that, in sports, is old hat.

In avoiding unnecessary conflict, Showalter gave us the opposite—not just somebody worth cheering, but somebody worth emulating, a clean-cut cat whose clear-eyed logic carried the day. With the Orioles still holding an outside shot at a wild-card spot, Showalter allowed his team to do the one thing that’s absolutely necessary for the good of its immediate future: concentrate on playing baseball.

Well played, Buck. Well played.

Update 9-25: Well, there it is: three games for Pap.


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Yogi Berra, RIP

Yogi 1

Baseball lost a great one when Yogi Berra, an unbelievably winning player with an even more unbelievably winning personality, passed away on Tuesday. In his memory, here’s a suitable passage from The Baseball Codes. The story is ostensibly about Berra’s teammate, Yankees pitcher Bob Turley, and his propensity for stealing the opposing team’s signs, but it ends up being about Yogi, because of course it does.

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

Berra was unique on the field and off, and it says something that the flood of obituaries and remembrances over the last day or so involve his kindness of spirit as much as or more than his baseball prowess. We lost a good one on Tuesday.

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Carnage in Chicago, But it Ain’t Joe Maddon’s Fault

Rizzo drizzoThere are lots of ways to look at the weekend’s incidents in Chicago, which resulted in six hit batters, four ejections, an in-dugout apology, some strategic rethinking about ages-old Code courtesy that’s long been questioned but never usurped, and a one-sided war of words waged by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

Start wih Maddon, whose reasonable explanations for everything that happened did little to mask that he spent the weekend playing each sides of debate, both as aggrieved victim and as innocent perpetrator, depending on whether his team was being drilled or doing the drilling. Chicago’s Dan Harren plunking Matt Holiday in the helmet? An accident, and don’t dare insinuate otherwise. Cards reliever Matt Belisle drilling Anthony Rizzo? As clearly telegraphed a hit as a hit ordered by Tony Soprano, whose name Maddon dropped in his postgame press conference. Never mind that Rizzo leads baseball in being hit by pitches, or that Belisle was still knocking off rust in only his second appearance since June after returning from elbow issues. (Watch Haren and Belisle’s pitches here.)

Maddon, however, didn’t want to hear it. (“Of course not,” he said, when asked about Belisle’s pitch possibly being unintentional. “That is ridiculous.”)

There are facts to back up the manager’s viewpoint, of course. Haren obviously did not mean to drill Holiday, but these are the Cardinals, whose institutional need to settle scores is so ingrained as to have been described in detail in the book Three Nights in August. (The focus of that book, Tony La Russa, has since moved on, but Mike Matheny has maintained the brand in a reasonable fashion.)

And that pitch Belisle threw sure looked intentional, aimed directly at its mark from the moment it left his hand. Haren, in fact, spent two seasons under La Russa in St. Louis, and knew enough to apologize to Rizzo after hitting Holiday for the HBP he was all but certain was coming. “They always police things like that …” Haren said in an MLB.com report, saying that the Cardinals view retaliation as an intimidation tactic. “They might take it to the extreme a little bit with that stuff. I think everyone understands it. I guess at least they didn’t throw at his head.”)

The real intrigue became with the warning Maddon issued at the close of his diatribe: “We don’t start stuff, but we will finish stuff.”

That became clear on Saturday, when Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was hit twice (angrily spiking his bat after the second one, from reliever Fernando Rodney; watch it here). After warnings were issued, Cubs closer Hector Rondon furthered the tension by drilling pinch-hitter Greg Garcia to open the ninth, earning ejections for himself and Maddon.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to [hit anyone],” said Maddon, after the game.

Well, no. Not so obviously.

The denial of any intent for any action that can be justifiably read as antagonistic is part of the Code. But even were Maddon telling the truth, he had to realize that the chutzpah involved is overwhelming. Actually, he did.

“I know nobody wants to believe me,” he said. “You’re not going to believe me, all the Cardinal nation. God bless you, you’re not going to want to believe me, and I get it. There’s no way for me to sit here and even attempt to ameliorate your concerns. None of that was intentional, it just happens, it’s part of the game. Go ahead, lay it on me, man, I’m OK with it.”

Rondon drilled Garcia with a 96-mph fastball while his team held a four-run lead. Rodney is already known to go after people. It’s easy to explain away any one of Chicago’s three drillings that occurred after Maddon’s promise to “finish stuff,” but such blanket whitewashing is a stretch.

Perhaps it’s an indication that the Cubs are growing up as a franchise, that the mighty Cardinals finally see them as a threat and are responding in kind by breaking out big-boy tactics. It wouldn’t be a first. Chicago’s newfound success can be seen in Maddon’s own strategies; with his team in the heart of the wild-card chase the manager made clear his intention of placing the unwritten rules in a secondary position to winning games. In the eighth inning on Friday, he shut down his running game despite the Cardinals opting not to hold runners on first, on account of Chicago’s five-run lead. Maddon ended up having to warm up closer Hector Rondon in the ninth, on a day he would have liked to rest him entirely, and made it clear that he regretted the decision.

“The next time they [don’t hold our runners on base], we’re going to run,” he said. “I want everybody to know that. I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day. I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never [read] this book that the Cardinals had written regarding how to play baseball. If you play behind us, and we’re up by five points in the ninth, we’re running. And you have every right to do the same thing.”

Sunday’s series closer featured no big leads for either team to exploit. It also featured no hit batters. For those of you scoring at home, it was the final time during the regular season that these teams will face each other. So be sure to mark your 2016 NL Central calendars for some quality Code-based action.

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