Category Archives: Don't Steal with a Big Lead

Tropocolipse 2014: Red Sox Anoint Themselves Baseball’s New Code Police

Yuni points

Every day we see new evidence of the degradation of baseball’s unwritten rules, how past forms of moral governance have been swept away in favor of the far simpler ideal of simply letting boys be boys. The game’s few remaining old-school souls periodically remind us of this development, primarily through bursts of outrage at acts that, while once roundly condemnable, are barely even blip-worthy on the modern game’s radar.

Put another way: Baseball has its share of crotchety old men, sitting on the proverbial front porch and grousing about the way things used to be—and they will not be ignored.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you David Ross.

Sunday at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, Rays shortstop Yunel Ecobar stole third while his team held an 8-3 lead in the seventh inning. Five runs at that moderately late point in the game was once considered punishable with fines up to and including fastballs aimed at the noggin of the next hitter, or Escobar himself, or both.

The game, however, has changed considerably, as has its moral code. There is still gray area when it comes to running up the score, of course—questions about how much of a lead is enough, and when—but the last time anybody so much as blinked at something along the lines of Escobar’s steal, the Rays had “Devil” in front of their name … unless they hadn’t even come into existence yet.

That said, we’ll always have crotchety old men hanging desperately to outmoded morals as places upon which to park their high horses. As Escobar led off third, Ross started barking. Escobar responded in kind, at first with stunned confusion, then anger and finger pointing toward the Red Sox bench. A moment later Jonny Gomes raced in from right field, swings were swung and the scrum became official. (Watch it here.)

It is easy for one side of the confrontation to decry the other: Ross for being too high strung, or, if it’s crotchety old men doing the decrying, Escobar for rubbing Boston’s noses in a sizeable lead. The argument that put it all to rest, however, was delivered by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after the game:

“They took umbrage with the fact that Escobar had stolen third base with a five-run lead in the seventh. So that’s not nearly as egregious as last year in the playoffs, correct? Last year in the playoffs, when they had an 8-2 lead in the eighth inning, when Ellsbury led off with a single and stole second base and they ended up winning 12-2. I think that was a little more egregious than their interpretation of tonight. … I didn’t take any exception when they stole on us last year in the eighth inning in the division series. … Our goal is to prevent them from scoring runs, their goal is to score runs—the whole game. That’s always been the goal within the game of baseball. Apparently some of the guys on their bench did not like that. I really wish they would roll back the tape and look at that more specifically. You have to keep your personal vendettas, your personal prejudices, your personal judgmental components in your back pocket. So before you start screaming regarding any of that, understand what happened just last year, and also understand that in this ballpark five-run leads can evaporate very quickly.

Indeed, in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, then-Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury led off the seventh inning with a single, and stole second while his team held a six-run lead. David Ross was a member of that team. If he ever came out publicly against his teammate’s actions, those comments have not been widely circulated.

Then again, last year the Red Sox were on their way to hoisting the World Series trophy. On Sunday they were nothing more than a club with championship aspirations in last place and on its way to losing its 10th straight. Things that slide when one is winning tend not to in the darker hours.

Nothing feeds hypocrisy, it seems, like a healthy dose of frustration.

Of course, Escobar broke an unwritten rule himself by doing the one thing that could trip him up most: He responded. Had he kept to himself and put up with the bench jockeying for just a few moments, all would likely have ended well. Instead he was tossed, Boston is even angrier than it was before, and bad blood between two teams with a considerable history of the stuff is built anew.

Boston manager John Farrell did what he was had to in protecting his player, saying afterward in an MLB.com report: “We’re down five in the seventh so it’s somewhat of a gray area when you shut down the running game.”

Which is completely accurate, except for the part about the gray area. Ross had no business getting involved with Escobar over that particular action; he’s a 13-year big leaguer and should know better.

Take away the punches and the insults and the misplaced claims of moral outrage, however, and we’re left with one thing: a stark example of the degree to which baseball’s Code has changed. Argue all you want whether that’s for better or for worse—just don’t deny that it exists.

 

 

 

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1975: Sending a Message in One Easy Step (Beanball Not Included)

Dick WilliamsResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Manager Dick Williams tells a tale of running up the score while at the helm of the California Angels, as a means of sending a message to A’s owner Charlie Finley—who had spent three seasons trying to keep his boot heel firmly affixed on the manager’s neck when Williams worked for him. From Williams’ autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

In April 1975, my Angels were leading the A’s 9-1 in the sixth inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Anaheim, and Mickey Rivers was on first base. I decided, up yours, Charlie. I sent Rivers to second base on a hit-and-run attempt. Our batter got a hit and Rivers scored all the way from first. And of course the A’s were angry. When you’re leading by a big margin, running like that is considered crass. Not just because you’re openly challenging the other team or making a comment on their ability to throw you out. Mostly, it’s because you don’t need to run. You’re winning by eight runs, you just need to keep your mouth shut and finish the game. You don’t need to run, and the losing team doesn’t appreciate it. You realize that more baseball fights start because of a needless steal than because of a stupid beanball.

I should mention here that it’s also considered crass for a team leading 9-1 to shout obscenities about the opposing team’s owner from the dugout. Particularly when the owner’s real name is being used, as in “Take that, Charlie, you son of a bitch!” Or perhaps even, “Fuck you, Charlie!” I must admit, that night I let a few such things slip. Was I looking for a fight? You decide. Oakland reliever Jim Todd thought so. He was already mad because, after not allowing an earned run all season, we had touched him up for five. Immediately after Rivers’ steal, Todd’s next pitch was directed at, and collided with, the top of Bruce Bochte’s head.

The first thing I did was run to home plate to check on Bochte. Every manager does that. I leaned down and saw that he still had both eyes. My job was done. Now I did something that most managers would not do. I charged the mound of a team I’d spent three wonderful years managing. I charged the mound and lunged at their 6-foot-2 pitcher, who was about 20 years younger than me but obviously without a gut in his body. He tried to run. I grabbed him by his belt and dragged him to the ground and started pounding on him. That’s right, I took on Jim Todd, and — you guessed it — soon I was rolling around with what seemed like 50 of my former players.

Anybody who knows Dick Williams and saw this scene would think, he’s a dead man. He’s lying on a pitching mound and is fair game for former players who truly are looking for his nuts with their cleats. But I guess the A’s liked me as much as I like them — or at least some of them did. My world darkened underneath a green and gold uniform, but the voice was friendly. “It’s Reggie,” the voice whispered. “I’m just going to lie here on you until this thing ends.” I laughed and he laughed, and we just lay there like two kids playing King of the Mountain while all hell was breaking loose on top of us.

Oakland center fielder Angel Mangual, with whom Williams had consistently feuded, did eventually sneak some kicks in to his former manager’s ribs, but it seems that, for Williams at least, all ended relatively well.

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A Tale of Spit and Run

Al KalineResearch for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest installment, from May 14, 1966:

Nobody threatens retaliation, but it is on record that Alvin Dark hung the label of “bush” on Al Kaline.

It was Dark’s first visit to Tiger Stadium as Kansas City manager. Kaline was on first with two out in the eighth and Detroit leading by nine runs. Kaline took off and stole second base on pitcher John Wyatt.

“Do you all steal when you’re nine runs ahead?” Dark asked a reporter in the clubhouse. “That was pretty bush. I heard about this fellow (Kaline) for years and years. What if he broke his leg? Detroit might finish sixth.”

Kaline’s explanation was that he was showing up Wyatt for being shown up himself.

“Wyatt threw me a spitball,” said Al. “I don’t mind if it means the game. But he was way behind. Normally I wouldn’t have done it. But when I had the chance to steal, I took off.”

Manager Charlie Dressen said Kaline did the right thing.

“I always say when you have 13 runs, get 14,” declared Charlie. “Let Dark say something to me if he doesn’t like it.”

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Bad Blood Easier to Stomach With Beef to Back it Up

Reggie and Epstein II

Mike Epstein (right, with Reggie Jackson): Sizable human.

Research for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest installment, from Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune, Sept. 8, 1972, touches on stolen-base propriety and a catcher’s right to block the basepath if he’s not holding the ball:

The bad feeling between the Athletics and White Sox won’t die. It bubbled to the surface again last night when Campy Campaneris stole two bases in the eighth inning with the A’s down by the eventual final score of 6-0.

Campy tried to score on a fly ball to right by Matty Alou. But Chicago catcher Ed Herrmann blocked the plate long before the ball got there, and Campaneris spiked him on the right thigh.

When the A’s took the field, White Sox manager Chuck Tanner yelled to Campy from the dugout that Herrmann was going to get him on any play at second base. A’s manager Dick Williams yelled back that the next time Herrmann tried to block the plate, his runner would come in higher.

“I told campy he should have come in higher and put those spikes right in Herrmann’s chest,” Williams said. “Any time a catcher blocks the plate like that without the ball he’s fair game, lunchmeat. I don’t think Herrmann would have done that with [six-foot-three, 230-pound] Mike Epstein as the runner.

“Herrmann told Reggie Jackson when he was at-bat that it was bush of Campy to steal those bases with us down the six runs. I say anytime you can move up 90 feet, take it. They weren’t holding Campy on at all. They were filling the holes to try to stop base hits.”

Campaneris, now second in the league and stolen bases to Dave Nelson of the Texas Rangers, said he’s trying to regain the King of Thieves crown he lost last year.

“I want to win the title every year,” Campy said. “If they don’t hold me, I still the base.”

In the clubhouse, both Tanner and Herrmann said they didn’t see anything wrong with Campaneris’ thefts. That’s what they said in the clubhouse. Winning pitcher Wilbur wood was more honest in his comments.

“It shows his stupidity,” Wood remarked about Campy’s 37th and 38th steals. “Suppose he gets thrown out at second base? Or third? Then he runs them right out of an inning. As things turned out, he did run them out of the inning because he got thrown out at the plate on a questionable fly.”

Both the A’s and White Sox remember an incident last year at the Coliseum when Chicago reliever Bart Johnson, now a minor-league outfielder, threw at two A’s and paid for it when Epstein hammered him down in a fight that brought all the players onto the field.

The White Sox have murmured about revenge since then, but then they don’t have any players as large as Epstein.

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The Subtlest Retaliation is Sometimes the Best

Sometimes even an inconsequential on-field action can merit retaliation—which will ideally be delivered in measures commensurate with the initial transgression. Which is to say, if a team must respond to a minor Code violation, here’s hoping they do it appropriately.

On Thursday, the Diamondbacks did.

With runners at first and second and nobody out in the eighth inning of their game in San Francisco, Adam Eaton (this one, not this one) grounded a ball to first base, where Brandon Belt made a quick relay to third. The play caught Pablo Sandoval off guard; instead of backing up a step to touch the base for a force play, he turned to make a sweep tag. So too did the play surprise baserunner John McDonald, who, instead of sliding—which he almost certainly would have done had he expected it—staggered toward the base and into Sandoval.

Surprised by the contact, the husky third baseman followed McDonald into foul territory after tagging him, and was quickly restrained by umpire Greg Gibson and Arizona third base coach Matt Williams before dugouts emptied. No punches were thrown, Sandoval quickly calmed down, and everybody went back about their business. (Watch it here.)

Such a situation hardly merits a drilling (especially because umpires warned both benches immediately following the incident). More appropriate is what Arizona ended up doing: In the ninth inning, while holding a 6-2 lead, Paul Goldschmidt led off with a single and promptly stole second.

Sure, four runs in the ninth is hardly a basis for rubbing anything in, but it was clear by that point that the Giants would not be coming back: They had been no-hit into the seventh by Trevor Cahill, and Arizona had one of the league’s top closers in J.J. Putz available if needed, with only three outs to go.

The Diamondbacks made their point, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

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Lack of Respect in the Windy City? De Aza Pays for Rios’ Mistake

Alejandro De Aza contemplates just having been hit with a pitch.

There is a persistent debate about the point at which a team should stop playing aggressively—the lead size that constitutes a blowout, and when it begins to matter.

According the Cubs, those numbers are six runs and the seventh inning, respectively—at least if Alajandro De Aza is to be believed.

De Aza, the White Sox center fielder, was drilled by the first pitch from Cubs reliever Manny Corpas leading off the eighth inning on Wednesday. It wasn’t that he and Corpas had any beef—to the contrary, said De Aza in a CBS Chicago report, “we’re cool, we’re friends, I’ve known him for a long time.”

The inspiration for the pitch—which De Aza felt was intentional (it certainly looked that way; watch it here)—was likely White Sox right fielder Alex Rios’ decision, after he led off the seventh inning with a single, to take off for second while his club led, 6-0.

Rios never made it, getting forced out on A.J. Pierzynski’s grounder, but the action was unmistakable—as was the response. De Aza said he thought Corpas was told simply “to hit the first guy.” (Watch some of his comments here.)

After the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum played coy. “I don’t know,” he said in an MLB.com report. “He hit him. It happens sometimes.”

Especially when somebody is paying scant attention to the score. Rios has stolen 171 bases across his nine-year career, so he should have a pretty good idea of what’s appropriate in that regard. It’s also possible that the order came from the bench, probably as a hedge against the double-play more than as a straight steal. If that’s the case, it’s less likely that Robin Ventura simply lost track of the score than that he was insufficiently comfortable with a six-run lead at that point in the game. (Why he would feel that way when facing a Cubs offense that ranks in the bottom five of the National League in hits, runs, doubles, homers, OBP, OPS and slugging is another question.)

Either way, it was the final meeting of the season for the Chicago clubs, so we won’t see a response any time soon. And if De Aza and Corpas meet up during the off-season—you know, like friends do—they’ll hopefully come to the conclusion that the incident was strictly the business of the unwritten rules.

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Davey vs. Rickey, Ten Years After

Ten years ago this weekend, Davey Lopes and Rickey Henderson had a little Code-related run-in. It would quickly turn into one of the most prominent kerfluffles in the recent history of the unwritten rules, sufficiently noteworthy to lead a chapter about when and when not to steal in a certain book devoted to the subject.

Similar situations still come up all the time. (Look no further than Carlos Gomez or A.J. Ellis earlier this year, or Nyjer Morgan‘s antics last season.) Still, in honor of the grandaddy moment of them all, it seems worth revisiting. From The Baseball Codes:

In July 2001, Rickey Henderson was forty-two years old and, by an enor­mous margin, baseball’s all-time stolen-base leader. The San Diego Padres outfielder was well over two decades into his major-league career and had long since been anointed the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Then he stole second base against the Brewers, and Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes exploded.

It wasn’t just any steal that set Lopes off—it happened in the seventh inning of a game in which the Padres led 12–5, after Milwaukee’s defense had essentially cried “uncle” by positioning first baseman Richie Sexson in the hole behind Henderson instead of holding him on. The play was so borderline, as far as stolen bases go, that it was ruled defensive indiffer­ence, and Henderson wasn’t even credited with a steal. That wasn’t his goal, however. Henderson was approaching Ty Cobb’s all-time record for runs scored (which he would ultimately best in the season’s final week), and he had just put himself into scoring position.

Lopes could not have been less interested in the runner’s motivation. As soon as Henderson reached second, Lopes went to the mound, osten­sibly to talk to pitcher Ray King but really to direct a tirade up the middle. At top volume and with R-rated vocabulary, Lopes informed Henderson that he had just become a target for the Brewers pitching staff.

“I didn’t appreciate what he did,” Lopes told reporters after the game. “I know he’s trying to obtain a record for most runs scored, but do it the right way. If he keeps doing stuff like that he’s going to get one of his play­ers hurt. I just told him to stay in the game because he was going on his ass. We were going to drill him, flat out. I told him that. But he chose not to stay in the game; I knew he wouldn’t.”

Henderson was removed after the inning by Padres manager Bruce Bochy, which the skipper insisted had to do with the lopsided score, not Lopes’s threats. Afterward, Henderson said that he was reluctantly fol­lowing green-light orders given to him by third-base coach Tim Flannery and sanctioned by Bochy, and that showing anybody up was the last thing on his mind. “Davey and I argued, but I told him that on my own, in that situation, I wouldn’t go down and steal that base,” he said. (“Rickey said I gave him the sign?” said a surprised Flannery when he heard Henderson’s take. “Rickey didn’t even know the sign.”)

“To be blunt, what he did was bullshit,” said King after the game. “We weren’t holding him on. If he’s going to break the record that way, he doesn’t deserve it. The guy’s probably going in the Hall of Fame, but to try to get to second base just to score a run, that’s sorry. When he took off I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

What Henderson had done was break one of the cornerstone entries in baseball’s unwritten rulebook: Don’t play aggressively with a big lead late in the game. It’s tantamount to running up the score in football, and no tenet of the Code is more simultaneously revered and loathed. It means the cessation of stolen-base attempts, sending runners in search of extra bases, swinging at 3-0 pitches, and an assortment of other tactics aimed toward scoring at all costs.

“There is no excuse that can be made up to justify trying to show some­one up,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, one of the Code’s staunchest practitioners in his twenty-five years at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. “There’s no excuse, and you can’t invent one.”

- Jason

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