Allen Barra, the author of a number of great baseball books, who has been praised within the pages of this very blog, saw fit to disagree with my opinions on the Alex Rodriguez/Dallas Braden affair via the Village Voice blog.
One of the reasons I take such delight in the A-Rod/Braden incident is that there are cogent and reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. I’ll stick firmly to my guns, but I can hardly fault those who disagree (at least those like Barra, who disagree coherently).
“Exactly whose space is the pitcher’s mound anyway — I mean, when there isn’t a play in progress,” asks Barra in his blog post. “Whose space in baseball is inviolate? Braden is quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘I don’t go out over there and run laps at third base … I stay away.’ Now, as long as Rodriguez isn’t taking fielding practice or a throw around the horn, why would he give a flip what Braden did at third base?”
The answer is simple: it’s Braden’s mound. And once he completes his inning’s work, it’s C.C. Sabathia’s mound. The pitcher’s mound is unlike any other space on a baseball diamond. Pitchers use it to literally survey the field from their vantage on high. Braden’s taken some flack for calling the mound the center of the universe, but that’s exactly what he was taught. It’s the point of origin for every play on a baseball diamond, a notion that can, for those who care to run this deep, lend a sacredness to it.
Agree or disagree with Braden, he lives as he preaches. “When I’m running across the back side of the field, I don’t ever run across home plate,” he told me this afternoon. “I don’t ever run on the catcher’s dirt, especially after the field is dragged. That’s not my area. It’s just little things, showing respect for the guys who prepared the field. Respect for the guys who go out and play on that field. Respect for the guys who are going to be busting their ass behind you on that field. Make it nice and clean for them. They’re the ones out there working on it—not you. If you’re a pitcher, stay on the mound.”
This serves to address Barra’s next point:
“Precisely what standard is it that Braden is holding himself to?” he writes. “As an American League pitcher, he doesn’t even have to bat or run the bases, so he never comes in contact with fielder’s space. Does Braden, for instance, figure he would be violating A-Rod’s ‘space’ by throwing a pitch up and in that moved him out of the batter’s box? If the mound is Braden’s space, why isn’t the box A-Rod’s?”
The difference is that a pitcher’s job description includes influencing batters’ strategy and positioning by moving them off the plate, as the pitcher sees fit. This is a function of pitching. A more appropriate comparison would have Braden walking over to smudge the lines of the batter’s box with his cleat while Rodriguez stood there, waiting. This, of course, would be ludicrous—a clear violation of the hitter’s space.
See where I’m going with this?
Part of Barra’s dilemma is that, despite an intricate knowledge of baseball, he (like many of his colleagues) hadn’t heard of the rule before this incident. “Where is this ‘unwritten rule’ that says you can’t cross the pitcher’s mound when running back to first from third?,” he wrote. “Rodriguez has 2181 big leagues games, and apparently he didn’t know it. Myself, I could have sworn I’ve seen that happen a thousand times over the years, and I’ve never seen a pitcher complain about it, much less throw a fit, or heard that there was an ‘unwritten rule’ to that effect.”
To be fair, I hadn’t heard of the rule either before I started researching this book. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a few things over the last four years. A small sampling of opinions:
Bert Blyleven: “I used to really get pissed if a guy flew out, say, and he came back and stepped on my mound. I used to say something to some of the hitters. Just don’t run on my mound. That was my mound that day.”
Jamie Quirk: “Stay clear of the mound. It’s his area; don’t try to run across it or toward him. Just go back to your dugout and stay clear. That’s just courtesy of doing things the right way.”
Dave Roberts: “That’s his office, his domain. To run across it is disrespectful.”
Jim Price: “I’ve seen that happen, and then there was retaliation.”
Bob Gibson: “(Steve) Carlton and I shared one pet peeve relating to the office (the term Carlton used to refer to the mound). We hated when hitters crossed behind it on their way back to the dugout. We took down names.” (From Stranger to the Game.)
This is just a small sampling, but it makes my point. Of course, these guys played in the 1960s and ’70s (save for Roberts—the one who stole the key base for Boston in ’04, not his older big-league namesakes), which illustrates the increasingly quaint nature of this particular rule. Quaintness, however, does not equal extinction. Braden made sure of that on Thursday. Who knows—perhaps he’ll even spark a renaissance.
Barra’s final point is actually one I agree with, at least in part. “Wasn’t Dallas Braden breaking some kind of unwritten rule by screaming from the mound like a nut both during and after the inning?” he asked.
Well, yes. It was clearly an over-reaction, although not egregiously so. A-Rod carries the reputation of a guy who takes certain strange liberties on a baseball diamond, a fact that automatically sets some guys on edge. When those liberties infringe on a pitcher’s perceived territory, in the process diminishing the level of respect he demands as a professional, tempers can flare. Braden might have lost his cool after the inning, but he certainly didn’t on the mound. Three pitches after Rodriguez’s indiscretion, Braden elicited a double-play grounder from Robinson Cano to end the frame, and went on to pick up his third win of the season in a 4-2 contest.
I’ll leave the closing statement to somebody who knows a thing or two about the unwritten rules, Tony La Russa.
“I think the toughness of the pitcher,” he said, “determines whether he will enforce that rule about the mound.”
Under that definition, Dallas Braden is one tough bastard.