Ron Roenicke and the Unwritten Rules

With Brewers manager Ron Roenicke in the news recently for inserting Carlos Gomez as a pinch-runner while holding a 5-0, eighth-inning lead over the Cubs, it seems an appropriate time to run the bulk of an interview we did with him in June 2006, for the Baseball Codes.

Many of Roenicke’s answers echo precisely what he said in the wake of the Gomez incident. I’m including the rest of the conversation because it’s so wide ranging, and because Roenicke has such clear opinions on the subject.

Roenicke was a coach on Mike Scioscia’s staff with the Angels at the time of the interview.

On the difference between the unwritten rules in the minor leagues and the major leagues:

It’s different when you talk about the minor leagues and the major leagues, because in the major leagues you’re there to win games. Yes, you don’t want to show anybody up, but your first responsibility is to your team. In the minor leagues—and here we’re talking about the stealing, not so much the 3-0 swinging—you’re trying to develop people.

Say you’re trying to develop a base stealer. Say he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to steal a base in a week. Now, the one time he gets on, you are up 8-0 in the sixth inning. Well, here’s his opportunity to practice, to learn how to steal a base, and yet you’re up by a lead where you usually wouldn’t run.

I tried to talk to the other manager before we played and tell them how I felt, so if that situation came up they knew, hey, I’m not stealing this to try to show you up. I’m not trying to increase the score of the game, or see how many runs we can score. I’m trying to develop these players; that’s our goal in the minor leagues.

In my second year managing I was in the California League, and we were playing the Padres’ A-Ball team, Rancho Cucamonga. Marty Barrett was managing them. I introduced myself to Marty before the game and said, “Hey, Marty, I’ve got some guys who need to learn how to steal. If we’re up by a lot of runs early in the game we’re going to keep going. I don’t know how you feel, but I won’t be offended or take it personally if you steal some guys who need to work on it, too.” He says, “Oh yeah, no problem.”

Well, we’re bashing the ball. We’re up 9-2 in the second inning, we get a guy on and we steal him. Marty goes bananas—he’s all ticked off at me. That stuff happens in the game.

The score ended up being 9-8, and Derek Lee was at the plate with two guys on, and he flew out to the fence. So that wasn’t a comfort zone for us. If you’ve been to Rancho Cucamonga, you know can score some runs in that ballpark.

What’s the ultimate yardstick for knowing when to back off?

It comes down to your responsibility. How many runs do you know that you need to win that ballgame that night?

When I came up (to the big leagues, with the Dodgers in 1981) they always told me, eighth or ninth inning, if you’re up by five runs you don’t steal any more. That was the unwritten rule. But today’s games have changed that. There weren’t the run totals we have now. I came up with the Dodgers, which was a hard park to hit in, and our pitching staff was so good, rarely did you score five runs in a game. Now, five runs in an inning happens almost every night in some ballpark.

Any individual night may be different from the night before. Maybe your stopper’s been in three games in a row and can’t pitch that night, so you don’t have that sure guy you can go to in the last inning. You want more runs.

Now the opposing team may not know that, so there comes the battle where they get ticked off about something you do, and maybe you’re doing it just because you know you’ve got a couple of guys you really can’t bring into the ball game.

Do you ever have to explain to the opposition why you did something the way you did?

Once in a while there’s a phone call made between managers. It doesn’t happen often, but once or twice a year you get a call, or you call the other side and say, “Hey, listen, I’m not trying to show anybody up, but this was our situation, this is why it happened.”

You do this because something happens during the game where you see their whole staff standing up and the players are ticked off and yelling something. Sometimes you need to explain that.

How do you deal with it when it makes sense for you—your pen is gassed, you want the extra run and they’re yelling? Do you feel the need to get them back for something you felt was justified?

If they retaliate, I’m mad. I’m going to talk to that manager. I don’t know anybody managing the game in the big leagues that would try to purposely show up the other team. I really don’t. If that guy is stealing, I think there’s a reason he’s stealing.

Now sometimes a player doesn’t know, and he just takes off, but that doesn’t come from the manager. But if it’s the manager, I don’t believe there’s anybody saying, “We’re going to abuse these guys, let’s score as many runs as we can.” I’ve never been around anybody like that. So, if somebody is doing it, and we’re on the other side, I rarely see Mike (Scioscia) that upset about when they do something that maybe we think they should not be doing.

If it’s stealing, we’re looking at it and saying, “They’re not comfortable with the lead they have; they think they need more runs.” That’s saying a lot for our team—they’re saying they think we’ve got a pretty good offense.

People who get mad about stuff, I don’t understand it. There’s no way Mike is ever going to show up somebody. If he runs, it’s because he knows we need more runs on the board to win the ball game.

Have you ever had to take one of your own guys aside and tell him to cool it?

Sure. Bunting for a base hit when you’re up by a lot of runs and you aren’t a bunter. If you’re Chone Figgins, it depends on the score, but if it’s five or six runs up I’m OK with Figgins bunting. But if Garret Anderson or Vladdy (Guerrero) is in a slump and guys are way back on the grass and they bunt for a hit, I don’t like that.

I thought Figgins would bunt last night. [In the eighth inning of a game against Matt Cain of the Giants, Figgins singled to center for his team’s first hit in a game the Giants led 2-1.]

You mean, when he got the hit to break up the no-hitter? That’s another unwritten rule—do you bunt to break up a no-hitter?

If you’re Chone Figgins and it’s a one-run game, I think you do.

Well, that’s the thing—are we trying to win this game, or are we trying to ignore the unwritten rule to bunt and break up a no-hitter?

It’s not your job to preserve it.

It isn’t, but that’s another one of the rules. If we’re in the fifth or sixth inning and he bunts, that’s fine, but if you get to the eighth or ninth, most people would say he’s not supposed to bunt for a base hit. But for me, that’s part of his game, and it’s OK. You talk to a lot of managers who say it’s not.

It’s different if it’s San Diego [a reference to Ben Davis breaking up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001].

Yeah, bunting isn’t part of his game, and I don’t know if I like that.

Why, if you have one hit and it’s 2-1 in the eighth, would it conceivably be no problem for Figgins to bunt in an effort to be the tying run, but not when it’s 1-0 and you have no hits?

You’re right. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do it—it’s just one of those unwritten rules. You have to hit the ball to break up a no-hitter late in the game.

Do you recall, from playing days, having anyone on your team or the other team so blatantly violate a unwritten rule that either your manager or pitching staff decided it required retaliation?

It happened more when I played. Most of the time when somebody was thrown at it was because of what they did at the plate, maybe on a long home run. Now everybody (watches home runs) so nobody seems to care, but back then if you hit a home run, you didn’t stand there and watch it. It was that or breaking up two, going in cleats high. Those were the things that people got hit for.

On bunting against Nolan Ryan:

I bunted one time against Nolan Ryan. Now, I didn’t know. It was my second year in the big leagues, and I didn’t know. I didn’t get a hit, although I was bunting for a hit. I came back to the bench, and Mark Belanger was with us that one year, his final year, playing with the Dodgers. He said “Ron, just so you know, Nolan, when he was in the American League, if you bunted on him, the next time he threw at you.”

So I’m like, “Oh, great.” We played him three weeks later, and I’m worried about that first pitch, and he just threw a fastball right down the middle. He probably didn’t know who I was, and it didn’t matter to him.

Any other guys have private rules?

You didn’t dig in against anybody back then. The way guys dig in now, they’d be hit automatically by 90 percent of the pitchers back then. Same thing with home runs.

If you got hit and you were at fault, you just put your head down and went to first. If your teammates saw you hit a home run and watch it, your own teammates were mad because they knew somebody was going to get hit, and there were eight of them hitting before you got up. Sometimes they waited until you hit again, sometimes they hit the next guy. It depended on who the pitcher was.

Nolan, obviously, had a reputation. Pedro Martinez—I was just starting to coach when he came up. Before me, obviously, Gibson and Drysdale were the worst.

How about Steve Carlton?

I played with him. Now, Lefty was mean. If you hit a home run and you looked at it, then yeah, you were gonna get it. Most guys were like that, and Lefty didn’t care who it was.

Lefty was kind of a stickler for the unwritten rules. Yeah, he was a mean competitor. There were certain guys that you just knew you couldn’t get away with stuff that you might get away with elsewhere. When you got into the box, you knew who was pitching, and you’d better do the right thing. They had that reputation. You didn’t mess around and get them mad at you.

My brother (former big leaguer Gary Roenicke) got hit in the mouth by Lerin LaGrow, and Lerin was known to hit people. He got hit opening day in Oakland.

My brother didn’t do anything to precipitate it; it was out of the blue. I’m not saying it was on purpose—it was out of the shadows and Gary said he never saw it coming. He wore a face mask the rest of the year, and he got drilled all the time. Pitchers tried to intimidate him.

I can remember some teammates, if they were thrown at during a game, that was it. They were done. They weren’t going to get a hit that game. And, I can remember other guys—you throw at Steve Garvey, I guarantee he was going to hit a bullet somewhere. He would grab that helmet, throw it on his head, get back in there and have a great at-bat.

Not too many guys can last in the major leagues if they can’t handle being thrown at, but some guys just didn’t know—they’d face one team and get throw at, but other teams didn’t try it. Guys didn’t talk that much back then. If you knew something about a guy, you’d keep it to yourself and have the advantage.

On learning the Code:

It was the veteran players who took you aside. When I first came up I can remember Rick Monday telling me, “Just keep your mouth shut and learn how to play the game.” He was right. I sat there. He knew I wasn’t a starter, and he wasn’t anymore, either. He took care of me more than anybody—him and Terry Forster. They took care of the young guys. Not just telling them what to do, but taking them out to dinner and teaching them how to be professional—really helping their careers.

Youth and money can be a volatile mix.

I think it’s gotten to the point where you can’t do it anymore (teach kids how to act on the road, and etc.). We’ve created a monster. The way things have evolved, it’s not just when you get to the big leagues, now—it’s also the minor league stuff. It’s the huge bonuses. The game has really changed.

The first time I saw it was with Steve Sax. He was the first rookie that stepped into the big leagues and got away with the stuff he got away with, with a sense of entitlement. I was waiting for Reggie (Smith) and Dusty (Baker) and (Ron) Cey and (Steve) Garvey to just grab him by the throat and put him up against the wall. For some reason, he got away with it.

He was making fun of the old guys, not paying attention during the ballgame, goofing around somewhere. Now he played a lot, but at the very beginning, maybe when he wasn’t in there every day, they told me, “You’re on the bench, you’re watching what’s going on, you’re talking to other veterans—you are at work.”

Now, Saxy, it’s his personality—he couldn’t sit still that long. He was off screwing around, playing practical jokes on the veterans—which you just did not do—and he got away with it. He was one funny guy, and I don’t know if it was because the guys liked that humor around, or what. He was the first guy I saw get away with it.

It gradually changed, and now a rookie steps into the big leagues and can do whatever he wants. There’s no, “Hey, that’s my seat,” or, “Rook, you sit in the front of the bus.” Now, you do whatever you want to do.

Players respected the game more back when we played, and probably 20 years before we played they respected it more than we did. I don’t know.

I think the money has really changed how people inside the game view the game. Now it’s a vehicle to wealth. There aren’t too many guys who play just for the love of the game. That’s a shame, but it’s true.

That’s why, when you have those (David) Ecksteins and (Darin) Erstads, they’re so rare. Vladimir, too. Vladimir absolutely loves to play baseball. I don’t think it would matter what he’s getting paid. He loves to play, and you can see it. You can see it in the dugout, you can see it in the locker room, you can see it out there in front of people.

So there are still a few—not many—that do play that way.

Are the guys who love the game the ones who automatically live by these rules?

A lot more so. Not always, not everything, but a lot more. As a staff, that’s what you want from everybody—you want everybody to feel that same way. Because it has changed so much, it has to be harder to be a coach now than it was before, with players and what their priorities are.

- Jason

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3 Comments

Filed under Ron Roenicke, Unwritten Rules

3 responses to “Ron Roenicke and the Unwritten Rules

  1. Pingback: Brewers Late Baserunning Renews Questions About How Much is Too Much | The Baseball Codes

  2. Aleksi

    I really enjoy this type of stuff. I am buying your book, I just heard about it tonight.

    Anyway, I noticed that more and more players in the Majors are walking across the batter’s boxes in front of the catcher and the umpire, without recourse. Is this kind of a fading tradition?

    Just yesterday, in game 3 of the 4 game series between the Giants and the Rockies, one of the low-order batters for the Rockies, the RF (I can’t remember his name, currently) walked right in front of Buster Posey and nothing happened and no one seemed to notice or say anything. I do know that Posey has been reserved about incidents before and was actually criticized for not being more vocal about his position but I wasn’t sure if this was another instance or not. Rarely on TV do they show the batter approaching anyway, so I can’t always tell who has crossed and who hasn’t.

  3. Aleksi

    Correction it was Ryan Spilborghs.

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