Category Archives: Don't Steal with a Big Lead

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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Cubs Skipper Quade Serving as One-Man Code Army

Mike Quade: Needing a copy of the Brewers' and Dodgers' unwritten rulebooks.

One thing we’ve learned for certain so far this young season: Cubs manager Mike Quade is a fan of the unwritten rules. He gets bothered when they’re broken on his watch, and he’s willing to call out those who diminish their importance or ignore them altogether.

First, it was Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke, who inserted pinch-runner Carlos Gomez into the eighth inning of a game in which his team led 5-0, then watched unapologetically as Gomez stole two bases.

“These unwritten rules—everybody has their own interpretation,” said Quade. Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.”

Funny that “run into to trouble” is the phrase he chose.

Not two weeks later, Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis did literally that when he tried to swipe a base with his team holding an 8-1 lead in the fifth.

This seems like a good place to get into Quade’s notion of differing interpretations. When Gomez ran against the Cubs, his team’s 5-0 lead was considered insufficient by Roenicke to shut down his running game, but the eighth inning is without question an appropriate timeframe to have done so.

When Ellis swiped his base, the criteria were reversed; there’s little argument that an 8-1 lead is well within the boundaries of “safe,” but the fifth inning might be considered a touch early for some managers to call off the dogs.

“I do think I probably need to get a copy of the Milwaukee and L.A. unwritten rules books, too, unless they missed a sign,” said Quade.

As it turns out, that’s precisely what happened. After the game, Ellis and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly both confessed as much; Mattingly said his sign to third-base coach Tim Wallach was “missed” (whatever that actually means), and off went Ellis, possessor of zero prior steals over parts of four big league seasons.

The play was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Ellis was thrown out. It may also have been mitigated when the Dodgers sent Ellis to Triple-A Albuquerque days later.

Still, said Mattingly, “We knew when it happened, we figured they’d be irritated.”

Ellis’ steal brought to mind another Dodgers youngster who stole another base in an inappropriate situation. In the case of Roger Cedeno, however, there was no missed sign. From the Baseball Codes:

In a game in 1996, the Giants trailed Los Angeles 11–2 in the ninth inning, and decided to station first baseman Mark Carreon at his normal depth, ignoring the runner at first, Roger Cedeno. When Cedeno, just twenty-one years old and in his first April as a big-leaguer, saw that nobody was bothering to hold him on, he headed for second—by any interpretation a horrible decision.

As the runner, safe, dusted himself off, Giants third baseman Matt Williams lit into him verbally, as did second baseman Steve Scarsone, left fielder Mel Hall, and manager Dusty Baker. Williams grew so heated that several teammates raced over to restrain him from going after the young Dodgers outfielder.

The least happy person on the field, however, wasn’t even a member of the Giants—it was Dodgers hitter Eric Karros, who stepped out of the batter’s box in disbelief when Cedeno took off. Karros would have disap­proved even as an impartial observer, but as the guy who now had a pissed-off pitcher to deal with, he found his thoughts alternating between anger toward Cedeno and preparing to evade the fastball he felt certain was headed his way. (“I was trying to figure if I was going to [duck] for­ward or go back,” said Karros after the game. “It was a 50–50 shot.”) Giants pitcher Doug Creek, however, in a display of egalitarian diplo­macy, left Karros unmarked, choosing instead to let the Giants inflict whatever retribution they saw fit directly upon Cedeno. (Because it was the ninth inning, nothing happened during that particular game.)

At second base, Scarsone asked Cedeno if he thought it was a full count, and the outfielder responded that, no, he was just confused. “If he’s that confused, somebody ought to give him a manual on how to play baseball,” said Baker after the game. “I’ve never seen anybody that con­fused.”

In the end, it was Karros who saved Cedeno. When he stepped out of the box, as members of the Giants harangued the bewildered baserunner, Karros didn’t simply watch idly—he turned toward the San Francisco bench and informed them that Cedeno had run without a shred of insti­tutional authority, and that Karros himself would ensure that justice was administered once the game ended. Sure enough, as Cedeno sat at his locker after the game, it was obvious to observers that he had been crying. Though the young player refused to comment, it appeared that Karros had been true to his word. “Ignorance and youth really aren’t any excuse,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, “but we were able to cool things down.”

- Jason

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Brewers Late Baserunning Renews Questions About How Much is Too Much

Ron Roenicke

The best-known and probably most widely debated of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when one can safely steal a base—or, more precisely, when one can’t steal a base.

The idea is similar to the one that prevents football teams not coached by Steve Spurrier from running up the score; once a game is in hand, respect for the other team informs a manager to back off. With a sizeable lead late in a game, a team is expected to top stealing bases, taking extra bases, hitting sacrifice flies, enacting sacrifice bunts and etc.

This rule is followed without exception, by most everyone in the major leagues.

Where things go sideways is the varying interpretations of “big lead” and “late in the game.”

On April 9, for example, the Brewers held a 5-0 lead over the Cubs in the eighth inning. With one out, Carlos Gomez—running for Mark Kotsay, who had just been walked by Jeff Samardzija—stole second.

It turned out to be irrelevant; Samardzija walked the bases loaded, then walked Gomez home.

Gomez’s manager, Ron Roenicke, had no problem with seeing his player running. Then again, inserting the speedster into the game was no less aggressive a move on Roenicke’s part.

“Up 5-0 in the eighth or ninth inning, I don’t worry about it one bit,” Roenicke said in an MLB.com report. “Today’s game is not 20 years ago. You can get five runs in one inning. … People used to say you’re not supposed to run in the seventh, eighth or ninth when you’re up by more than a grand slam. That is completely out of this game today. It’s not even close. So, for me, it’s not even an issue. If that’s brought up, it’s from people that really don’t understand today’s game.”

Also, this: “If somebody has that mentality, then they shouldn’t be in the game, and I just can’t imagine a manager having that mentality.”

It’s a line of thought that is no less aggressive than the tactic itself. Agree or disagree with Roenicke, to reduce the argument to “smart baseball people” vs. “not smart baseball people” is essentially empty bluster.

After all, Cubs manager Mike Quade understands the game a little. He is also a manager, it should be pointed out, and he took some exception to Roenicke’s approach.

“Everybody has to make their own decision on that,” he said. “There are unwritten rules, so I’d disgree with him on that.”

Quade’s words were diplomatic, but he was clearly a bit ticked off. Quade is in his first full season as a major league manager, and clearly doesn’t want to stir things up too vigorously. Then again, Roenicke has managed all of 16 games himself at this level, and stirring things up doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.

For all his bombast, of course, he made a number of valid points. From MLB.com:

“If my concern with my team is I need more runs to make sure we win this ballgame, or, more importantly, to make sure I don’t have to use certain people in my bullpen, that’s what it comes down to.”

“The other side, they don’t know what’s going on with us. Today we’re playing [the Cubs], and [if] all of a sudden it’s 7-0 in the eighth inning and he’s running, my thoughts aren’t, ‘He’s trying to show us up.’ He may have two relievers down in his bullpen I know nothing about. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’ve got arm stiffness, and he can’t afford in a 7-0 game to use his setup man or his closer. So if he’s running, I think there’s a good reason why he’s running.”

These thoughts are entirely consistent with the interview he gave us in 2006 for the Baseball Codes, concerning this very topic. The guy clearly believes what he speaks, at least in general terms. In specific terms, while the Brewers’ bullpen is dealing with Takashi Saito’s sore hamstring, they hadn’t exactly been burning through relievers. In the previous four games, dating back to Yovani Gallardo’s complete-game victory over Atlanta on April 5, no reliever had been used more than twice, and never for more than an inning at a time.

Sure, Roenicke didn’t want the game to get close enough to go deep into his bullpen, but that didn’t seem to be the real issue. Despite the fact that he’s clearly spent significant time considering the topic (or maybe because of it) Roenicke’s real issue appears to be with the Code itself.

At least that’s what can be surmised from his answer to a question about whether there’s any cutoff point at which stealing bases becomes unacceptable.

“No,” Roenicke said, “there isn’t.”

- Jason

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