The reason the unwritten rules dominate baseball like in no other sport is the space within the game for messaging. The idea that if somebody wants to communicate an idea through action, there is sufficient opportunity to do so—be it a well-timed stolen base, some styling to start one’s home run trot or an intentionally hit batter.
The thing about the latter category is that we are rarely certain when a batter has been intentionally hit.
On Sunday, however, we were offered about as much certainty as can be reasonably expected, short of admission from the pitcher. Boston’s Ryan Dempster, facing Alex Rodriguez in the second inning, threw a knee-high fastball behind the batter. He followed that with two waist-high inside pitches, then planted a fastball into A-Rod’s elbow. Not even a hint at subterfuge—Rodriguez was marked. (Watch it here.)
Which is where the messaging comes in.
The immediate assumption was that Dempster, an old-school red-ass if ever there was one, was making a statement about PEDs, expressing his displeasure both at Rodriguez’s usage and his subsequent refusal to accept the punishment handed down by Bud Selig. Just two days earlier, after all, Boston players John Lackey and Jonny Gomes discussed their displeasure with the fact that Rodriguez was being allowed to play while appealing his 211-game, PED-related suspension.
If that’s what Dempster was doing, he has some precedent. In 1990, Bert Blyleven hit Baltimore’s Phil Bradley because of Bradley’s hard-line stance in labor negotiations which, in Blyleven’s opinion, prolonged settlement of the 32-day lockout that delayed the start of the season. Blyleven was concerned about pension time, did not appreciate tactics which stood to cost him financially, and expressed his displeasure from the pitcher’s mound.
Would it be so peculiar for another pitcher to take a similar tack? Maybe not, but then we hear this, courtesy of Yahoo’s Big League Stew: A Canadian hockey writer says that Dempster had different priorities.
This may seem so much more petty than PED grandstanding, but it’s also more feasible—and it, too, has precedent.
One of Tommy Lasorda’s go-to stories is about how, as a star-struck 14-year-old, he approached New York Giants outfielder Buster Maynard after a game in Philadelphia and asked him for an autograph. Maynard brushed him off.
Eight years later, Lasorda was a promising pitcher with the Triple-A Montreal Royals, in the Brooklyn Dodgers chain, when to his surprise he found himself facing a fading former big leaguer trying to hold his job with the minor-league Augusta Yankees: Buster Maynard. Lasorda’s first pitch knocked him down. His second pitch did the same. When Maynard came up again later in the game, Lasorda decked him a third time.
This time it was Maynard waiting for Lasorda after the game, asking what the heck was going on. Lasorda told him the story of saving up his money to go to a baseball game, only to be ignored by his hero. He concluded the sentiment with, “I wish I had hit you, you busher!”
If this was Dempster’s motivation, it was not apparent from field level at Fenway Park. Yankees manager Joe Girardi lit into plate ump Brian O’Nora for not ejecting Dempster—he was upset that the pitcher was given four pitches with which to work—and then warning both benches, precluding retaliation. Soon, he was himself tossed. On his way back to the dugout he shouted toward Dempster, “Somebody’s going to get hit.”
(In the middle of this came a highly unusual moment, in which the Red Sox bullpen came streaming onto the field as if to fight, despite no indication that Rodriguez would do anything other than take his base.)
Dempster denied everything, of course, and Rodriguez ratcheted up the best possible response when he took Dempster deep for a sixth-inning homer at the center of a four-run rally that proved to be the difference in a 9-6 New York victory. (Watch it here.)
Rodriguez also provided the quote of the night, when asked about whether Dempster should be suspended for his actions. “I’m the wrong guy to ask about suspensions,” he said in the Boston Globe. “I’ve got a lawyer I can recommend.”
The teams play seven times in a 10-game span in September. If there’s more to be said about this, it’ll be said then.
Update (8-20): Dempster has been handled, five games’ worth.