Author Archives: Jason Turbow

Let me Tell you About Back in the Day …

Gibson cardInteresting 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.

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On the Meritocracy of Baseball’s Showboats: Flair Goes to Those Who Earn It

Papi swings

The learning curve of minor league baseball isn’t just about good footwork and how to recognize a slider out of the pitcher’s hand. A reasonable factor in minor league development involves learning how to play the game in ways that have nothing to do with actually playing the game.

On Friday, Albuquerque Isotopes shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena hit his first Pacific Coast League home run, against the Reno Aces. The catch: the three-run shot turned an 8-0 game into an 11-0 game, and Arruebarrena pimped it like he was David Ortiz on Valium, taking an astounding 32 seconds to round the bases (by my imprecise stopwatch, based on the announcer’s call, owing to the video feed showing something else when Arruebarrena crossed the plate. Watch it here). According to Tater Tot Tracker, Ortiz’s slowest circuit this season is 33.39 seconds on April 9, but that’s his only one—the only one—to come in over 32.

Arruebarrena could actually stand to pick up a pointer or two from Ortiz in the ways of the home run pimp. Papi homered against the Rays on Sunday, offered a bat flip that was significant even by his own expansive standards, then took his usual glacial trip around the bases. (At 29.3 seconds, it was his sixth-slowest of the season, and the ninth-slowest overall this year; watch it here.) Rays starter Chris Archer said after the game in a Tampa Tribune report, “I don’t know what makes him think he can showboat the way he does and then nobody retaliate, nobody look at him in a funny way, nobody pitch him inside,” and that “he feels like he’s bigger than the game. He feels like the show is all about him.”

Ortiz’s ready response: “He’s not the right guy to be saying that, I think. He’s got two days in the league, and to be [whining] and complaining about stuff like that … what else?”

Boom. Get some time in the game, Chris Archer, and then come see me. Ortiz has earned leeway via nine All-Star selections and five top-5 MVP finishes. He hit more homers in 2006 than Chris Archer has career starts.  This is precisely what baseball’s hierarchy looks like.

Moving back to the minors: Arrubebarrena signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers out of Cuba in the off-season, and said that he was like countryman Yasiel Puig when it came to flair. Unlike Puig, however, the shortstop has not yet earned his right to pimp at will, at least in the eyes of his opponents. Also worth noting: Puig does not crack this year’s 10 slowest trots. Arruebarrena is not David Ortiz (not yet, anyway), and doing something like that in so pronounced a blowout is certain to elicit a response. Apparently, he had no idea about the mechanics of it all.

Reno did respond, as baseball teams have always responded: A message pitch to Arruebarrena during his first at-bat the following day, a high-and-tight number that had him ducking out of the way. He went on to strike out during the at-bat, during which time he committed the first of his mistakes: He got mad over standard procedure, executed responsibly, initiated by his own action that was far beyond the gray area of acceptability.

After the strikeout, catcher Blake Lalli apparently brushed Arruebarrena during the process of throwing the ball around the horn, and the batter got angry. The batter started jawing. The batter shoved Lalli and threw his helmet at another advancing member of the Aces. This is where Arruebarrena committed the second of his mistakes: When Aces players came a’charging, the shortstop ran, first around the back of the quickly forming scrum, then backpedaling to better keep his eyes on the two Aces in pursuit. That didn’t work, of course—he was quickly blindsided by a third Reno player, and all hell broke loose.

Arruebarrena’s third and biggest mistake of the day is a life lesson worth noting by all of us: Never start a fight you’re not willing to finish. And unless 20 yards’ worth of backpedal means something different in Havana than it means in Nevada, Arruebarrena wanted nothing to do with fisticuffs. One thing the shortstop must learn when it comes to baseball in this country is that flair is more acceptable than it ever has been, thanks to guys like Puig, but there must be substance behind it. Ortiz has earned it through a Hall-of-Fame career. Puig started earning it his very first week in the big leagues, when he was willing to throw down during a game in which he earlier had gotten drilled in the face.

It’s all a matter of building respect among teammates before asking them to raise fists on your behalf, and opponents before expecting that they’ll overlook your knuckleheaded, offensive behavior. To judge by his actions on Friday, Arruebarrena still has a lot to learn.

 

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Great Bathroom Moments, Vol. 217: The Travails and Ultimate Glory of Jeff Francoeur

So this is the kind of thing that happens to you when you’re the nicest guy in baseball. First, the deaf thing, now the bathroom thing.

During a minor league stint in the San Diego Padres system, Jeff Francoeur was the target of more than a few hijinx. In one of them, captured on film below, he was locked into a clubhouse bathroom for an hour. (The video was released by a teammate in honor of Francoeur’s recent call-up to the big leagues.)

In case one needed further proof of Frenchy’s character: This is not something one does to an asshole, because an asshole would not have fun with it the way Francoeur had fun with it. Clubhouse pranks are an ongoing way to deal with the pressures of a long season and, and ideally, bind teammates together. In this regard, Francoeur is a perfect target. There is obviously a code about what is and isn’t appropriate, and this one falls well within the safety zone.

It also harkens back to another locked-in-the-bathroom story, one with a grander scope and far greater consequences. I posted about it just last year (spurred by Fernando Rodney getting inadvertently stuck in the visitors’ dugout bathroom at the Oakland Coliseum), but with a lead-in as perfect as this, it bears repeating. It involves current Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, during his playing days with Kansas City.

From The Baseball Codes:

Bob McClure was a fun-loving reliever for the Brewers in the 1970s, some­one who proved, if nothing else, that he could take as good as he gave. The story started with his Sunday routine before day games, for which he holed up with a newspaper in the long cinderblock outhouse behind the outfield fence at Milwaukee County Stadium. It was a cool place for an American League pitcher to pass the morning in the shade of the bleachers, escaping the summer heat while his teammates took batting practice.

When the door slammed shut on McClure in the middle of one of these siestas, the pitcher attributed it to a gust of wind. But when he tried to exit, the door wouldn’t budge, even though it had no lock. With just a hint of panic, the pitcher pushed again . . . and again. Soon he was exert­ing so much energy in his frantic bid to escape that he had to stop for peri­odic breathers. The day was growing increasingly more sultry, and McClure worked up a sweat; eventually he kicked the air vents from the walls and stripped down to his underwear. “I bet I lost about seven or eight pounds in there,” he said. “It was hot.”

After a half-hour, the pitcher was able to wedge the door open just enough to squeeze through (“I still remember the scrapes across my chest”), whereupon he saw that someone had taken the rope from a flag­pole on the other side of the outhouse and pulled it so taut to reach the doorknob that the pole had bowed under the pressure. Once it was affixed to the handle, the rope’s tension kept the door from opening; it was only as the fibers started to give that McClure was able, finally, to free himself. (He found out later that members of the visiting Minnesota Twins, com­ing out for their own batting practice, had been told by his mystery assailant to watch the flagpole, that someone was locked in the lavatory and it would bounce every time he tried to get out.) He put on his clothes and returned directly to the clubhouse, as if nothing had ever happened. “I would say that, if someone gets you, never let them know that they got you,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate, if someone really gets you good, to overreact. Don’t get mad, just get even.” The problem was that he had no idea upon whom to visit his revenge.

Before a game several days later, McClure got his answer. As the pitcher loitered in the outfield during BP, a fan called him over to the bleachers. “Do you want to know who locked you in that room?” she asked. His instinct was to play dumb, but when the woman told him she had pictures, he couldn’t resist. She handed them over in exchange for a ball autographed by Robin Yount, and McClure saw exactly what hap­pened: It had taken two men to pull the flagpole rope tight enough to trap him, and their uniforms were clearly visible. It was pitchers Mike Cald­well and Reggie Cleveland.

McClure immediately set to plotting his revenge. Six weeks later, when the Brew­ers had an off-day in Kansas City before a series with the Royals, he struck.

While many players, including Caldwell and Cleveland, spent the after­noon golfing, McClure opted for a hunting trip with a local friend. On the way back they stopped by a farm, where the pitcher bought a small, live— and exceptionally filthy—pig. “It had so much pig dung on it that you couldn’t even hardly tell it was a pig,” McClure said. “It was perfect. We put it in a burlap sack in the back of my buddy’s pickup.”

When the pitcher returned to the hotel, he saw that his teammates hadn’t returned, and figured they’d be out until the wee hours. McClure bribed his way into the room that Caldwell and Cleveland conveniently shared, and let the pig loose atop the bed. “When that pig hit the sheet, it looked up at me and started projectile shitting everywhere, like a shot­gun,” he said. “That pig was alive. It jumps off the bed, and it’s squealing and going nutty. There’s shit on the bed, on the floor, on the curtains. It was so loud that I had to get out of the room.”

He was staying just across the hall, and hours later was roused by the sounds of his returning teammates. Caldwell was the first to enter, and nearly as quickly lit back into the hallway, shouting, “There’s someone in there!” As McClure listened with delight, his teammates rushed the room, then spent the better part of an hour trying to corner the pig. Finally, the noise quieted and McClure went back to sleep.

The next morning, the pitcher veritably bounced across the hall to see how his victims had held up. He entered the room under the pretense of rounding up breakfast companionship, but wasn’t at all prepared for what he saw. The place was spotless. The walls, the drapes, the bedspread, and the carpet had all been cleaned. Caldwell was lying on his back in bed, shirtless. Also on its back, in the crook of Caldwell’s right arm, was a freshly washed pig. It sported a red dog collar. Caldwell was feeding it French fries dipped in ketchup.

Feigning ignorance, McClure asked why there was a pig in the room and was told the entire story, up to and including an early-morning trip to a nearby pet store, where Caldwell bought collar, leash, and industrial-grade pet shampoo. The pig joined the team at the ballpark that day, serv­ing as the Brewers’ mascot. It ended up living on Cleveland’s farm, of all places, dreaming recurrently, no doubt, of room service and burlap.

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Courtroom Meets Code in the World of Civil Action Over Baseball Fights: Jose Offerman, Come on Down!

OffermanSo now we know what the legal community thinks of the unwritten rules.

In 2007, while playing for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, Jose Offerman charged the mound. While there, he hit used his bat to hit pitcher Matt Beech in the hand and catcher Jonathan Nathans in the head. (See photos of the incident here.) Now Offerman is on civil trial for damages borne from assault, and people on both sides of the courtroom are trying to explain in legal terms just what happened.

It started when Beech, pitching for the Bridgeport Bluefish, hit Offerman with a pitch. Beech, testifying in a deposition read on Monday, claimed that it was unintentional. “I threw him a cut fastball that hit him in the lower leg,” he said. “I did not hit him intentionally. If I had wanted to hit him, I would have aimed a fastball at his ribs, so no one else would get hurt.”

While it’s unclear how hitting Offerman in the ribs rather than the leg would keep others from getting hurt, Beech added that such information should be assumed knowledge for all ballplayers. Offerman, whose 15-year big league career included stops with seven different teams and two All-Star appearances, is counted among that group.

Nathans claims that his own aspiring baseball career was ruined, and is suing Offerman and the Ducks for $4.8 million. I’m sure the fact that he is now an attorney has nothing to do with it. (Not to mention the fact that a 28-year-old hitting .200 in the Atlantic League—who was playing with his seventh independent team since topping out at the Double-A level of the Red Sox system three years earlier—isn’t usually what one would call a lock for future big league riches.)

The Code came into play again when Joseph Klein, the Atlantic League’s executive director, stated for the record that “plunking is wrong.” Klein has a long and storied career in all levels of baseball, so his opinion is not uninformed. “Hitting players intentionally is not part of the game, as I see it,” he said, although based on the AP report of the trial he did not indicate whether he was talking about baseball in general or the Atlantic League specifically.

One thing that Klein was not prepared for, he said, was intervention by law enforcement, who arrested Offerman after the attack. “I was stupefied and dumbfounded,” the exec said. “What happens between the lines should stay between the lines.” In that, at least, the Code agrees: there are numerous ways to respond to a given grievance from within the field of play. (Then again, the unwritten rules also mandate that under no circumstances should a bat have to be entered as a piece of evidence in a potential trial, primarily because it has no business being anywhere on the field but the batter’s box or on-deck circle.)

Offerman was suspended indefinitely by the league, which has yet to rescind the ruling (mostly because Offerman hasn’t asked them to). Official charges were dropped after the player agreed to two years’ probation and rehabilitation. (It didn’t work. In 2010, while managing the Licey Tigers of the Dominican Republic Winter League, Offerman punched an umpire and was suspended for what ended up being three years.)

While it’s tragic to see a person sufficiently disturbed to go after somebody with a bat, it’s interesting to see a baseball pro discount, as Klein did, that the idea of hitting batters intentionally even exists. He did, however, discuss a time during his own playing career when such a thing happened to him:

Klein recalled that he, too, was the victim of a plunking.

“The ball hit me right here,” he said, pointing to the base of his skull, just behind his ear.

Smith asked whether Klein ever retaliated for that pitch.

Klein replied that although he didn’t charge the mound, the pitcher did get his comeuppance. Klein said he smacked a line drive back at the very same pitcher the next time he faced him 10 days later.

“Hit him right in the shin,” Klein said with a mischievous smile. “I was sort of happy about that.”

As for Offerman, I love him for the fact that, unrelated to any of this, he led the National League in errors three out of four seasons (nearly doubling up his closest competition in 1992) with the Dodgers. This led Jay Leno to joke that Offerman was so upset over his fielding that he decided to end it all and jumped in front of a bus. It went right through his legs.

If that’s not worth a few bucks whatever civil judgment is about to be rendered, I don’t know what is.

 

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Whether ’tis Nobler in the Mind to Suffer the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune, or Just to Act Like an A-Hole Closer

Pujols arrowAt his very best, Fernando Rodney is ludicrous. His pre-scripted bow-and-arrow routine following saves—during which he pulls an imaginary arrow from an imaginary quiver and shoots it with his imaginary bow—is one of the sorriest sights in the sport. He says he does it for the fans, but is there a bigger cry for attention in the big leagues? More pertinently, is anybody short of those who would be cheering for him anyway entertained by his hack act?

Still, it’s easy enough to ignore. He does it after games have ended, when people are either celebrating or walking somberly off the field. On Sunday, however, Rodney took things a step farther, bow-and-arrowing not toward his usual spot in center field, but toward the Angels dugout (or, he said, the fans sitting above) … and not at the end of the ninth inning, but after protecting a one-run lead at the end of the eighth. In so doing, he broke new ground in the art of closer show-boatery.

Suffice it to say that the Angels weren’t pleased. “He woke up our dugout,” said Grant Green in an MLB.com report.

When Rodney came back out for the ninth, Mike Trout greeted him by drawing a walk, then scored the tying run on Albert Pujols’ follow-up double. Pujols responded by shooting an imaginary arrow at Trout, and Trout returned fire right back at Pujols. It was as fine an in-your-face moment as can be found on a big league diamond short of actual game play. (Two singles and two intentional walks later, the Angels took care of that, too, with a walk-off, 6-5 victory, courtesy of Green’s game-ending single. Rodney did not reach for his quiver again at that point.)

It must be accepted that closers have their shtick. Sergio Romo does a little dance. Rafael Soriano untucks his shirt. Jose Valverde just kind of loses his mind. One time, Aroldis Chapman even rolled. It goes all the way back to Brad “The Animal” Leslie’s crazed yelps following saves in the early 1980s.

Closer to the Rodney situation was when Brian Wilson did his typical arms-crossed-point-to-the-sky move against the Dodgers in 2009, after which Los Angeles third baseman Casey Blake mocked him for it in the dugout … then took it back when he found out it was a tribute to Wilson’s late father. If you’re going to do it on the field, however, it’s gonna be in play.

All of which is a leadup to some simple advice: If as a closer you’re going to act like a goon, save it until the game’s actually finished.

 

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The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Lewis shoutsSo this is what the ruination of baseball’s unwritten rules looks like. People keep marginalizing them, shunting them to the corner, labeling those who play by their merits as kooks and haters of fun. What we’re left with, at least in part, is this: Ballplayers, both red-assed and traditionalist, playing less by moral imperative than by half-formed opinions based on a system they don’t appear to fully understand.

Case in point: Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who on Saturday lit into Toronto’s Colby Rasmus (in the rare and wondrous Battle of the Colbys) for daring to lay down a bunt late in the game while the Blue Jays sat on a huge lead.

Except that it was only the fifth inning. And the score was 2-0. Oh, Colby Lewis.

The section of the unwritten rulebook that Lewis was attempting to channel was the one that dictates avoidance of running up the score late in games. It’s a simple matter of respecting one’s opponent enough to keep from embarrassing him … but that doesn’t have much relevance to whatever happened in Toronto. Just as Astros manager Bo Porter was ludicrous when he exploded over a first-inning Jed Lowrie bunt back in April, Lewis is ludicrous now.

Rasmus bunted because—here’s the pertinent part—his run mattered. Lewis was upset that Rasmus had taken advantage of a defensive shift designed to stop him from hitting. Now that such shifts are gaining traction even as the Code is losing it, we’re faced with an awkward intersection: Is there a moral component to playing straight-up against the shift with the fact that it presents an obvious weakness (nobody playing down the third base line) to exploit? The closest example I can conjure is the first baseman who plays off the bag despite a runner being on base late in a blowout game, with the expectation that the runner will hold anyway. He wants the defensive advantage of playing in the hole, and expects that his opposition will not take similar advantages of their own.

But those who think that situation is reasonable do so because of the lopsided score. In a close game, if a defense wants to gain the advantage of an extra defender on the right side of the infield, it has no business taking exception should a batter exploit that weakness. Which is not only what Rasmus did, but which is what every hitter with speed should do, at least on occasion.

Lewis had words for Rasmus on the field (watch it here) and after the game explained just what was going on. “I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it,” Lewis said in an MLB.com report. “You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played. I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average.”

Lewis’ criteria for judgment was that once Rasmus reached base, he didn’t try to steal and get himself into scoring position. “That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average, and I didn’t appreciate it,” he said, digging himself into a dangerous rabbit hole of inanity. Left unexplained: If in Lewis’ mind the game situation dictated that Rasmus wasn’t allowed to bunt, the question isn’t whether the pitcher’s head would have exploded had Rasums stolen a base, but how violently.

Hell, Curt Schilling didn’t take offense when Ben Davis bunted against him to ruin his perfect game in 2001. That’s because, like the game in Toronto, the score was 2-0 and a baserunner could have made a difference.

Or one could look in another direction: When Jarrod Saltalamacchia bunted to break up a perfect game against Oakland’s A.J. Griffin in 2012, he was barely faulted for it by Oakland manager Bob Melvin, not because the score was close but because Melvin had put on a shift similar to the one Texas used on Saturday. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” said Melvin at the time.

Ultimately it’s up to players to recognize what is and isn’t appropriate, and to be damn sure they’ve been aggrieved should they get their jocks in a bunch over a given play. The Code is a powerful part of baseball’s social fabric, but only when it’s leveraged properly. Because the facts of the matter don’t back him up, all Colby Lewis is left with is a bunch of hot, angry air.

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Filed under Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Uncategorized

Wainwright Grooves, Jeter Pounces, Twitter Snarks. Come on, People

wainwrightSo Adam Wainwright grooved a fastball to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game. Some are saying he was abiding by the unwritten rules when he did so. Others think he simply rolled over to let Jeter have his way. Still others say he disrespected Jeter, for crying out loud, not giving him credit for being able to get around any longer on a real major league pitch.

Jeter was the game’s first American League hitter, and Wainwright’s first pitch to him was in the dirt. His second was a 91-mph fastball down the pipe, which Jeter lashed into the right-field corner for a double.

“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright told reporters, describing a fastball grooved for the hitter’s pleasure. “He deserved it.”

Yes, Wainwright laid in in there, fat and succulent, despite his ensuing half-hearted denials aimed at stemming a growing and faux controversy. Yes, he had every right to do what he did. More than that, he should be lauded for it.

The pitcher understood the situation, knew that Jeter is a once-in-a-generation player. Dominating on the field is one thing, but Jeter has captured the public’s attention and affection in a way so wholesome as to seem downright anachronistic. Becoming the enduring face of baseball’s enduring franchise is no easy task. Wainwright understands this, and in Jeter’s final All-Star Game, responded as he saw fit. His first move was to step off the mound when Jeter was introduced, to give the Captain an extra moment of mass adoration. His next was to tee one up for the guy. It was an exhibition game; give the man his glory.

Those who misguidedly blame the unwritten rules for the moment are half right. There is precedent for Wainwright’s action, and that precedent does fall within the sport’s unwritten rules, but there is nothing to dictate such a course of action. Had the right-hander pitched Jeter as he would any other batter (or like he would have had the contest counted in the standings)—had he struck him out with a two-seamer in the dirt—not a player in baseball would have cried foul.

An entire chapter in The Baseball Codes—Responding to Records—deals with the topic. Wainwright’s action was more along the lines of Responding to Legacies, but the concept is the same. An excerpt:

Tigers pitcher Denny McLain always had a soft spot for Mickey Mantle, having idolized him as a boy growing up in Chicago. When they met at Tiger Stadium in September 1968 the two were at opposite ends of their careers, McLain peaking en route to thirty-one wins and both the Cy Young and MVP awards, while Mantle was nine days from retirement. The great slugger’s previous home run, almost a month earlier, had him tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time list with 534.

Before the game, McLain decided to do his hero a favor. Recalled Tigers catcher Jim Price, “Denny told me, ‘Let him hit one.’ ” Price relayed the good news when Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, at which point the Yankees star extended his bat over the plate to indicate just the spot in which he’d like to see a pitch. McLain delivered, and Mantle connected for a homer. Said Price, “Denny stood out there on the mound and clapped.” Mantle had his milestone, and McLain had his joy.

Properly dealing with records—either one’s own or someone else’s— has long been a part of the Code. It’s why Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich laid down a curiously timed ninth-inning bunt to avoid a possible double play, assuring Joe DiMaggio another chance to extend his hitting streak in 1941. (DiMaggio did.)

It’s also why, when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson went into the final day of the 1959 season needing a hit in his first at-bat to push his average to .300, manager Casey Stengel informed him that since the Yankees didn’t have a single .300 hitter on the roster he’d be immediately removed from the game should it happen, to avoid falling below the mark in ensuing at-bats. It’s also why members of that day’s opponent, the Bal­timore Orioles, took up the cause: Brooks Robinson informed Richardson that he’d be playing deep in case the hitter found appeal in bunting; pitcher Billy O’Dell offered to groove pitches; and catcher Joe Ginsberg verbally called for pitches instead of dropping down signs. Umpire Ed Hurley even got in on the act, offering that, if Richardson could “just make it close,” things would go his way. Said Richardson, “There couldn’t have been a more complete fix on.” (The fix might have been on, but it wasn’t complete. Richardson doubled in his first at-bat, refused Stengel’s entreaties to leave the game, went 2-for-3, and ended up at .301.)

Since we’re on a string of Yankees-related events, we can also turn to Whitey Ford, who ended up facing former teammate Billy Martin, one of his best friends in the game, about six weeks after Martin had been traded from New York to Kansas City. It was the eighth inning and the Yankees were leading, 10-3. From Ford’s book, Slick:

I threw him a big slow curve and he took it for a strike. I got the ball back and said to him, “Same thing.” I wanted him to hit it for a single or double, but I threw another big slow curve and he wrapped it around the left-field foul pole for a home run. Now he was prancing around the bases, the son of a bitch. When I saw him prancing like that, I was sorry I did it.

Ford’s action came as a favor to a friend in a situation that wouldn’t cost his team. Wainwright’s was a nod to the sanctity of baseball in an exhibition game that didn’t count for anything other than pride (and, stupidly, home-field advantage in the World Series). It’s a shame more of the public isn’t appreciating it as such. The man was pitching in a showcase to the most super of any superstar his generation will produce. With one pitch, he acknowledged all of it, every bit.

 

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Big Talkers Not Welcome: Fastballs in Cincy Lead to Words, and Players are Sensitive Creatures

Cubs-RedsIf you throw as hard as Aroldis Chapman, you must expect that your opponents will, on occasion, get squirrely. Should a ball get away from you and fly toward somebody’s head, this matter becomes especially prevalent. Should it happen twice in an inning—watch out.

Thursday, it happened twice to a single batter, Nate Schierholtz of the Cubs, and Chicago was not pleased. The pitches were obviously unintentional: The game was tied in the ninth inning, which is when closers pitch, which is why we so infrequently see closers carrying out any form of retaliation. The Cubs let Chapman know about it anyway, from the dugout at top volume. Things could have ended there, but for Chapman’s subsequent dismissal of the entire Chicago dugout—delivered with an insouciant wave of his glove toward their bench as he was leaving the field after recording the inning’s final out.

When Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took the field in the bottom half of the inning, it was time for the Reds dugout to weigh in. Rizzo had already been hit by a first-inning pitch from Homer Bailey, and was one of the primary Cubs to heap verbal abuse on Chapman. Somebody wearing Red said something with which he disagreed, and, throwing down cap and glove, he headed for the Cincy bench. Only a fool would have started a fight at that point, facing a line of guys in the other team’s uniform, and Rizzo is no fool. He did some shouting, however, and the Reds shouted back and the dugouts emptied. (Watch it here.)

It’s easy to ask what could have been done to avoid all this. It’s yet unknown what Cincinnati players yelled at Rizzo, but a ballplayer has little business approaching the opposing bench like that. It’s unknown what Cubs players yelled at Chapman, but he has to be aware enough to realize that multiple top-speed, head-high pitches at the same batter are going to elicit a response.

There’s something else at play here, as well: the disappearance of the quality bench jockey from the modern game. Once, players freely ragged each other from across the field in a back-and-forth patter designed to build unity on one side of the field and to get into players’ heads on the other. There were terrible aspects to the practice, such as what Jackie Robinson had to deal with on a fairly continual basis during the early part of his career, but there was also good to come from it. The patter between ballplayers took on a language of its own, and even as one side figured out just what to say to somebody in a given situation, players learned how to absorb the abuse without letting it get to them. The best bench jockeys performed verbal kung fu, turning the abusers’ words back on them with additional heft.

Stories of bench jockeys are ages old:

  • Schoolboy Rowe, a newly married pitcher for the Tigers, made the mistake during the 1934 World Series of concluding a radio interview with a question for his wife: “How’m I doing, Edna?” The St. Louis Cardinals made sure that the phrase was heard continuously and at top volume through all seven games.
  • During his early playing days, Leo Durocher went through a rough patch during which he was accused of stealing the pocket watch of his teammate, Babe Ruth. When Durocher took over as manager of the Dodgers years later, players from the Giants began waving Walker Cooper’s watch at him, saying, “Leo, look at the watch. Look at Ruth’s watch.”
  • The Washington Senators bench once rode Mickey Mantle so hard that he was distracted into thinking the fielder’s choice at second on a ball he hit was the inning’s third out, and didn’t even run to first to try to beat the double play.
  • After the publication of Ball Four, Jim Bouton took an abundance of abuse from around the league, from players shocked that one of their own would begin spilling secrets. The Reds, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose in particular, were particularly vocal, saying things like, “Shakespeare, you no-good rat-fink. Put that in your fucking book,” wrote Bouton in his follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally. The pitcher’s favorite line came when the count got to ball three: “What’s the tile of your book?” Later, Bouton wrote, he sat near Johnny Bench at a banquet and catcher told him, “I read where you said Pete Rose and I got on you from the dugout worse than anybody. Well, I want you to know we really weren’t that upset about the book. Pete and I got on everybody. So don’t worry about it.”
  • One of the most famous moments in baseball history, Babe Ruth’s called shot against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, was a result of bench jockeying. According to Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, Ruth wasn’t pointing to center field but responding, after two quick strikes, to the verbally abusive Cubs bench that he wasn’t yet finished hitting. His motion, said Herman, was to quiet Chicago pitcher Charlie Root, not to indicate where he intended to hit the ball.

Perhaps the best summation of the process came in a tale about none other than Leo Durocher, told in Sport Magazine in April 1947:

Once last summer (Durocher) was abusing Murry Dickson, Cardinal pitcher, from the coaching box so violently that umpire Lee Ballanfant begged him to lay off.

“Please, Leo,” pleaded Ballantfant, “he’s a nice kid …”

“I don’t doubt it,” interrupted Durocher, “and after the game, I’ll be willing to buy Dickson a steak diner with champagne trimmings and take him to a show. But right now I want to beat him any way I can, see?”

Bench jockeying more or less died out in the 1980s, the victim of an evolving game. “I don’t know if it was just the teams not being teams for a long period of time together, a lot of player movement, playing with a bunch of different people, not having that team chemistry like that,” said Chris Speier, whose 19-year career ended in 1989, and who put up with a lot of it early in his playing days. “I don’t know when it stopped, but it definitely has stopped.”

Baseball diamonds are a more genteel place now, in many ways for the better. Still, when something comes up like what came up in Cincinnati yesterday, the downside of the disappearing bench jockey becomes clear. Modern players simply have comparatively little idea about how to deal with this kind of adversity.

Take the story of another Reds player, pitcher Mario Soto, who in 1982, rattled by heckling from Phillies third base coach Dave Bristol, walked six and gave up seven runs over 3.2 innings. He was so mad that after the game he called Philadelphia’s clubhouse and challenged Bristol to a fight. His manager, Russ Nixon, offered a different perspective. “That’s just something Mario is going to have to learn to deal with,” he said.

It was just as simple as that.

 

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Jim Brosnan, Pitcher of Baseballs, Chronicler of Baseball

Pennant RaceJim Brosnan, for a time one of the better relief pitchers in the National League, a member of the pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds in 1961, passed away June 29 at age 84. More even than for his pitching, Brosnan was noteworthy for his forays into the baseball-book canon. Jim Bouton is widely considered the first insider to expose the true lives of ballplayers, but when Brosnan’s The Long Season was published in 1960, Bouton was a 21-year-old in the Carolina League and still more than a decade away from a literary career. Brosnan wrote openly about how it feels to be a major league baseball player, in a way that nobody had before attempted let alone pulled off with such panache. And he truly wrote openly; no ghostwriting services were used.

His follow up effort, Pennant Race¸ about Cincinnati’s run toward glory in 1961, was equally compelling. Part of his truth-telling, of course, included the game’s unwritten rules, passages which serve as a snapshot in time. They capture not just baseball as Brosnan played it, but show just how much things have changed in the modern game. It’s a time capsule, freezing attitudes just the way they were.

Even all these years later, the words jump from the page. There’s little doubt that, when it came to multiple skill sets, Brosnan could spin a phrase better than any writer could spin a curveball. In honor of Brosnan and his efforts, here are some passages from Pennant Race that discuss retaliation and intimidation. Things couldn’t be more different.

Hunt and Sanford, of the Giants, dueled for six innings, tied up 2-2. Mays tried to steal second in the sixth, spikes up, cutting Elio Chacon, our Venezuelan second baseman, as he tagged Mays out.

“Mays slid a little high, didn’t he?” asked Bevan. Chacon was carried past our bench to the clubhouse, his sliced thigh visible, bleeding from three spike wounds.

“Somebody’ll have to knock Mays down now,” I pointed out. “Can’t have any rough stuff this early in the year.”

 

After you knock a hitter down, you still have to throw strikes on the next pitches. Unless you hit him. And that’s not the idea at all. No pitcher wants the hitter to reach base; he just wants to loosen them up a little with a judiciously placed scare ball.

 

[Joey] Jay lined a bases-loaded double off Don Drysdale to break up the game and smash hell out of Drysdale’s disposition. Drysdale absorbed the shock of Jay’s double numbly, but well enough to retire the side. On the Dodger bench, he fumed, burned, and blew up.

To start the sixth he threw a fastball behind Blasingame’s head. Blazer popped up the next pitch, so Drysdale knocked Pinson down with consecutive pitches. Pinson hit the third pitch to left for a double, and Drysdale threw the rosin bag into the air in disgust. When it came down he dusted his fingers and threw three straight pitches at Robinson. The third one hit Robbie on the arm, and Boggess, the umpire, threw Drysdale out of the game.

“That’s enough throwing,” Boggess said to Alston and Hutchinson. “I’ve had enough.”

Drysdale’s tantrum had angered his own catcher, Roseboro, who said to Robinson, “you know I ain’t callin’ ’em.” (The catcher is subject to retaliatory pitches from the opposing side, which often can’t get at the pitcher.)

 

In the ninth [Joey Jay] threw two pitches over Amaro’s head in retaliation for a knockdown pitch that had bounced off Frank Robinson’s helmet in the eighth. Ed Vargo, the plate umpire, ran out to the mound to warn Jay not to throw at another hitter. And Hutchinson ran out to tell Vargo that he, Hutch, had told Jay to knock some Philly hitter down because “I’m not gonna stand by and see my boys hit in the head. I’ll do something about it. You umpires don’t seem to be able to!”

Hutch told Vargo to throw him out, not Jay, and when Vargo did just that, Hutch told him where he could stick the automatic fine that results from an umpire’s eviction order.

 

Sherman Jones shook his head at the suggestion that he picked the blue bill of a Cub’s cap as target number one.

“I can’t throw at a batter’s head. What if you would hit it? And killed him? How could you pitch again? Or live with yourself?”

His remarks sounded as if they came from a pitcher it less dedicated to Hutchinson then to his own conscience. Nice guys sometimes get hurt on the mound by line drives.

 

 

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‘What an Idiot!’ Say, Mike Napoli, What do you Really Think?

Napoli's blastMike Napoli had come through with the heroics, but he didn’t seem to believe it. One out away from a complete-game shutout, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka fed the Red Sox first baseman a 1-2 fastball out over the plate instead of the pitch Napoli expected—a splitter low in the zone, which had already served to strike him out twice on the night. It was a gift. Napoli treated it as such, hammering it over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium for a game-winning two-run homer.

Napoli’s problems began with his incredulty that Tanaka would throw him anything in that situation but the same unhittable pitch he’d already proven unable to hit. They manifested when he reached his dugout after rounding the bases. Even before he entered, he was shouting at his teammates, “What an idiot! What an idiot!” (Watch it here.)

The comments were picked up by TV cameras, of course, which is why this is a controversy. Napoli oviously did not intend to show up Tanaka; his comments were directed toward his teammates, not toward the field, and were made amid the rush of his success. Also, Napoli was right—Yankees catcher Brian McCann did all he could to have Tanaka throw the splitter, but was shaken off repeatedly. Still, any player in the modern era should know better—especially talking, as he did, from field level at the lip of the dugout, without even the cover of a position deep on the bench.

Such was the impact that Red Sox manager John Farrell was compelled to address it on Sunday.

“The one thing we don’t ever want our players to be is non-emotional,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m aware of the comment made last night. I didn’t hear it at the time. But I know this: We’ve got the utmost respect for Tanaka and I know Mike Napoli does.”

It’s reminiscent of a scene from The Baseball Codes, in which a youthful Eric Chavez was being interviewed before his A’s played the Yankees in Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS.

Responding to a press-conference question about his opponents, who had won the previous two titles, Chavez talked about how great the Yankees had been in recent years, what a terrific job they’d done, and how difficult it was to win as consistently as they had. He also added that they’d “won enough times,” and that it would be okay for somebody else to play in the World Series for a change. Chavez was twenty-two years old, wide-eyed and hopeful. There was nothing malicious in his tone.

Unfortunately for the A’s, the press conference at which Chavez was speaking was being broadcast live on the Oakland Coliseum scoreboard for early-arriving fans. Also watching were the Yankees, on the field for batting practice. “So he’s dropping the past tense on us? Did you see that?” spat third baseman Scott Brosius from the batting cage. One New York player after another—Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams—took Chavez’s comments and blew them up further. The Yankees hardly needed additional motivation, but now they had it. Their first three hitters of the game reached base, four batters in they had the lead, and by the end of the frame it was 6–0. The A’s were in a hole from which they could not climb out before they even had a chance to bat.

The Yankees didn’t have any such swing of success against the Red Sox on Sunday—they lost, 8-5—but it underscores the importance of understanding where you are and who can hear you before speaking your mind with anything resembling too much impunity.

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