One pitch. The next pitch. There is something to the idea of keeping hitters uncomfortable, but as Yoenis Cespedes shows, a batter’s comfort level is entirely internal.
One pitch. The next pitch. There is something to the idea of keeping hitters uncomfortable, but as Yoenis Cespedes shows, a batter’s comfort level is entirely internal.
Balfour began jawing. Martinez jawed back. They exchanged at least 16 letters’ worth of four-letter words. Dugouts emptied. Angry hops behind phalanxes of teammates were hopped. Then Balfour got back to his job, got three quick outs, and sealed Oakland’s 6-3 victory.
Balfour is fiery. Also, Australian. He does a lot of spectacularly accented shouting on the mound, usually toward nobody in particular. It does, however, further his goal of being as intimidating as possible.
Martinez was having none of it. After fouling off a 1-2 pitch, he stared down the pitcher while adjusting his batting gloves. Upping the ante, Balfour impolitely told him to knock it off. Martinez responded in kind. According to videotape evidence, each thinks the other is a “bitch.” (Watch a bleeped version here.)
“Fuck that,” Martinez said to reporters after the game. “Not even the greatest closer, that’s Mariano [Rivera], tells you stuff like that. I’m not a rookie that he’s going to come in and say little shit like that.”
Balfour’s intimidation jab, it seems, was successfully parried. (It’s easy to say that Balfour is now in Martinez’s head, putting the hitter at future disadvantage, but it would be just as easy to say that Martinez did the same thing in reverse. )
The moment calls to mind one of the least plausible mound charges in history, mostly because it came from a guy widely considered to be among the best human beings to wear a baseball uniform. It was 2001, and in a game between the Royals and Tigers, Mike Sweeney caught everybody by surprise by going out of his squeaky-clean character to charge pitcher Jeff Weaver.
His reason: Weaver, he said, “said something I didn’t like.”
(Weaver’s insult came in response to Sweeney’s request that the rosin bag be moved to a different spot on the mound.)
Sweeney tackled Weaver, punches were thrown and the game was delayed for 12 minutes.
“It’s something I’ve never done before and it’s something I’m not proud of. But I had to do it,” Sweeney said later. “Weaver is a talented young pitcher, but I’d like to see him respect the game more. Tonight, what he did was uncalled for and I did what I did.”
The lesson: Don’t mess with a man’s respect.
Another incident had a more lasting impact. In 1931, the White Sox were playing an exhibition game against a Houston club from the Texas League, whose 20-year-old pitcher, reported Sport Magazine (and re-reported in David Gallen’s book, The Baseball Chronicles), would not stop talking to the hitters.
“Well, lookee, now watta we got here?,” he said. “Jes’ keep that ol’ bat on the shoulder, fellah. I’m a gonna breeze this here one right across the middle. Now don’t get the catcher fussed up by swingin’ at it. Jes’ save yer strength and watch ‘er go by.”
Irate White Sox manager Owen Bush called out to his hitter.
“What’s going on out there?,” he yelled. “You’re supposed to be a major-leaguer. You’re letting that dizzy kid make a fool outa ya!”
That “dizzy kid” was named Jay Hanna Dean. The next season he would win 18 games for the St. Louis Cardinals en route to a Hall of Fame career. And Bush’s inadvertent nickname stuck; the right-hander’s given name was quickly lost to history.
As for Balfour, he insisted that there were no prior problems with Martinez. He even went so far as to indicate there wasn’t even a present problem.
“It’s all good,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m cool with it, bro. Hey, he’s a great competitor. He’s a great hitter. I like a little fire and obviously he does, too. It makes for a bit of fun, right?”
It was a classic misdirection. With an 0-2 count on Miguel Cabrera to open the 10th inning on Saturday, Fernando Rodney sent a 100-mph pitch so outside the strike zone that catcher Jose Molina could not get a glove on it. Wildness thus established, he followed it up with a pitch near Cabrera’s head.
In many respects, the pitch was perfectly placed. It tailed in at the last moment, but was easily trackable by the batter and was never in danger of hitting him. Cabrera leaned back to avoid it, but it would not have made contact even had he remained still.
The strategy was also sound. The previous day, Cabrera had homered twice (and didn’t help matters by celebrating that game’s final out by performing what appeared to be an imitation of Rodney’s archer pose, which the closer strikes following saves). Cabrera leads the major leagues in batting average, RBIs and OPS, and is second in home runs. It was without doubt in Rodney’s best interest to make him as uncomfortable at the plate as possible.
And it worked. Cabrera flailed at the next pitch, a down-and-in changeup, for strike three.
Perhaps Cabrera’s displeasure was compounded by the result of his at-bat, but upon reaching the dugout he spent a considerable amount of time gesturing toward, and yelling at, Rodney. (Watch it all here.)
The pitcher was obviously not trying to hit Cabrera during extra innings of a 3-3 game. Even if he was, it is given wisdom that such a strike is far easier to execute when aiming at the torso than at the head, which is a smaller and more maneuverable target. Much more likely was that Rodney wanted to crimp Cabrera’s style—get him out of the dangerous space in which he’s resided all season—and either A) misjudged the height of his inside pitch, or B) didn’t care.
Cabrera didn’t comment afterward, but his manager, Jim Leyland, did.
“I don’t care about throwing inside but I don’t like it up there,” Leyland said in an MLB.com report, referring to Cabrera’s head. “We will not tolerate that. You can take that to the bank. We won’t tolerate that up to the head to anybody. … That will cause a lot of problems for people.”
It caused problems for Ben Zobrist on Sunday, when, with two outs and nobody on base in the first inning, Tigers starter Rick Porcello drilled him in the back with a 94-mph fastball. It was intentional and it was expected. Plate ump Vic Carapazza quickly warned both benches.
Cabrera got his own measure of revenge three innings later, when he crushed a homer into the Rays Touch Tank—only the second such blast in the ballpark’s history.
Despite Cabrera being “a little sensitive,” according to Zobrist, the Rays left it at that. Except of course, for the final explanation offered by Maddon for their lack of further response. Via Twitter:
To gauge it by the wisdom of the author of The Godfather, the Rays, apparently, will not forget this slight. Considering that they won’t face Detroit until next season (or in the playoffs), however, their memories will have to hold for a while.
When Orioles starter Jason Hammel drilled Detroit’s Matt Tuiasosopo on Saturday, nobody on either team felt strongly that he did it on purpose. The fact that there is no such thing as an 82-mph purpose pitch—which is where Hammel’s fateful offering clocked in—did not dissuade plate ump Hunter Wendelstedt from ejecting the right-hander on the spot.
It being the first pitch after back-to-back-to-back home runs, not to mention its location up near the batter’s head, will put a ballpark in that kind of mindframe. After all, the reasoning goes, even if Hammel didn’t mean to drill Tuiasosopo, perhaps he should have—especially after Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila just went deep. When one’s strategy as a pitcher isn’t working out quite as one had hoped—and make no mistake, three straight bombs under any circumstance will make a pitcher question his strategy—the only prudent plan is to change things up.
So when Hammel’s actions followed the script—even if, in retrospect, his intention appears to have been elsewhere—an umpire can hardly be faulted for ignoring the finer points of the situation. After all, there is plenty of historical precedent on which to build. A small sampling, culled from a long-ago post detailing four straight homers hit by the Diamondbacks (which focused more on the outdated unwritten rule of restraint from swinging at the first pitch after back-to-back—or more—home runs):
Former reliever and longtime pitching coach Bob McClure put it this way, in an interview for The Baseball Codes:
We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better—he was just going through them all. He called fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign—thumb swiped upward across index finger, indicating a knockdown] and I nod. So I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him.
He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and his bat was over there and he grabbed them and got right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first and is coming toward the mound, and I’m trying to get my glove off because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die, I’m getting the first punch in. [Kingman, one of the game’s premier power hitters, stood 6-foot-6, 210 pounds. McClure was 5-foot-10, 170.]
He came right up to the dirt, then went around it, pointed at me and said, “There’ll be another day, young man.” And he just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years later and asked him if he remembered that incident. He looked me right in the eye and said, no. Just like that.
All of which is a long way of saying that back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.
All of which goes toward the near certainty that Wendelstedt knew what he was going to do with Hammels in the case of a hit batter before the ball even left the pitcher’s hand.
“[Hammel] had probably 10 to 12 balls slip out of his hand today,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, defending his pitcher in the Baltimore Sun. [With a] breaking ball, it’s tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the major league offices. … I understand what the umpire’s trying to do, but it’s very tough for them to judge intent.”
“They claim there was no intent,” responded crew chief Jerry Layne. “Three home runs and a guy gets hit. You’re an umpire, what do you do?”
In many ways, the Code is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. But there are times when people—sometimes even against their better intentions—make sure that it stays at the forefront of people’s minds. Welcome to the milieu, Jason Hammels, even if you didn’t mean to be here.
Head-high fastballs from Cincinnati pitchers were the order of the holiday weekend. First came Johnny Cueto on Sunday, riling up Chicago’s David DeJesus. A day later, Aroldis Chapman sent a 100 mph offering past—and well above—Nick Swisher, all the way to the screen. He followed that with an equally hot pitch that ran considerably closer to Swisher’s noggin.
Swisher can be seen on the telecast repeating the phrase, “Don’t do that” to the pitcher. After he flied out to left field, Swisher and Chapman exchanged words as he passed by the mound on his way back to the dugout. (Watch it all here.)
“The first one I saw go by and I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty quick,'” Swisher said in a USA Today report. “And then that second one was a little too close for comfort—100 mph at someone’s head? Let’s be honest. That’s not exactly the best thing.”
Reds manager Dusty Baker wrote it off to wildness—“Is that the first time you’ve seen Aroldis throw one to the screen?” he asked—but it’s also plausible that it was Chapman’s version of strategic intimidation. (Last season Chapman struck out 122 while walking 23. Wildness does not appear to be an integral part of his makeup.)
Yes, even guys with 100-mph fastballs like to give themselves an extracurricular edge now and again. Just ask Nolan Ryan.
The first game in which Bobby Grich ever faced the flame-throwing strikeout king, in 1973, he laced a ball down the right-field line and made the mistake of verbally urging it to stay fair. The ball went foul, however, and Ryan ensured that Grich remembered the at-bat by putting his next pitch, a Chapman-esque fastball, up near his head. “I got the message,” Grich said.
During his rookie season, B.J. Surhoff took a big swing against Ryan, and ended up on his back as a result of the right-hander’s next offering. Mike Devereaux, same thing. Mike Aldrete bunted against him and was subsequently knocked down on consecutive pitches. Milt Thompson bunted and was hit in the ribs. Doug Jennings faked a bunt and was drilled. After avoiding an inside pitch, Bert Campaneris motioned for the pitcher to throw it over the plate, and was rewarded by being hit in the knee. The list goes on and on.
The purpose, primarily, was to keep the opposition uncomfortably on its toes. “The intimidation factor,” said Chris Speier, who wracked up 45 plate appearances against Ryan over the years, “was so high.”
“Quite honestly, there were a lot of guys who wouldn’t even play against [Ryan],” said Jerry Remy. “They’d just bail out. It was funny when you saw the lineups—there were a couple guys who, when he was pitching, you knew would not be in that lineup. They’d come down with a mysterious illness. I think because he was the most intimidating pitcher in the league.”
Dusty Baker not only acknowledged that syndrome, but labeled it: “Ryanitis.” It’s still unclear whether his closer is trying to foster his own brand of Chapmanitis, but it’s as good an explanation as any.
The modern game, however, holds far less tolerance for those willing to place a ball near a hitter’s head than it did during Ryan’s era.
Swisher handled things well, not even moving his feet before re-setting after the first wild pitch, then responding to the second one by putting good wood on a ball that was ultimately caught at the wall. The Indians as a team comported themselves accordingly when interviewed after Monday’s game, and on Tuesday responded on the field, with starter Zach McAllister drilling Brandon Phillips in the ribs in the fifth inning, an apparent response to Chapman’s antics.
Intimidation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
“You’re only intimidated if you allow yourself to be,” said Andy Van Slyke, about his showdowns with Ryan. “It’s really that simple. If he hit me, I’d go take first base and steal second base and tell him to go fuck himself. That’s how you’ve got to play this game.”
First, Lance Armstrong admitting to doping, and now this. Remember all those guys Pedro Martinez intimidated with inside fastballs over the years? (He hit 141 hit batters over 18 seasons, finishing in the top three in the category five times; only one man ahead of him on the career HBP list from the modern era, Jamey Wright, hit more batters per nine innings.)
Turns out that he meant almost every one of them.
Yesterday, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe tweeted that “Pedro just admitted that 90 percent of the guys he hit were on purpose.”
Well, of course they were. During Martinez’s heyday, no American League pitcher was close to him in terms of command. He complemented a darting fastball with the game’s best changeup and an array of devastating breaking pitches—and didn’t stop there. He also took a page from Nolan Ryan’s playbook, turning the brushback, the knockdown and the hit batter into valid parts of his repertoire. As if trying to adjust from a low-90s fastball to a changeup in the mid-70s wasn’t tough enough, hitters also had to deal with the idea of staying light on their feet.
Sometimes, of course, this reputation was detrimental—Martinez engendered no shortage of opponents who much didn’t care for him, as this excerpt from The Baseball Codes will attest:
Take Reggie Sanders, who charged the mound in 1994 after being hit by Pedro Martinez. That the pitcher was trying to protect a 2–0 lead in the eighth inning was one clue it might have been unintentional; that it was an 0-2 count was another. That Martinez was in the middle of throwing a perfect game should have put to rest any lingering doubts. Without a shred of hyperbole, Sanders was the most obviously unintentionally hit batsman in the history of the game.
Still, it wasn’t enough to keep him in the batter’s box. Martinez had been brushing back Cincinnati batters, including Sanders, all afternoon. After one such pitch in the ﬁfth inning, Sanders gave the pitcher a long, angry glare, which Martinez returned in kind. After he plunked Sanders three innings later, Martinez even went so far as to raise his arms in frustration before realizing that it would be a good idea to defend himself.
It takes a special kind of pitcher to pull off something like that. Martinez has just rejoined the Red Sox as a special assistant to General Manager Ben Cherington, where he will hopefully continue to lend insight into the machinations that made him such a force of nature. Welcome back to the big leagues, Pedro.
When longtime Pirates manager Chuck Tanner passed away last week, most of the obituaries focused on his years as a manager, particularly the time he spent at the helm of the Pittsburgh Pirates—whom he guided to a championship in 1979.
Tanner was also a player, however, and though his star never shone bright in that role, the lessons he learned during those years informed his managerial decisions for the rest of his career.
I spoke to Tanner over the phone in 2008, expecting a 15-minute conversation in which he would answer a number of specific questions I had compiled. Instead, we talked for close to two hours, during which it became clear that at his essence, this was a guy who simply loved baseball, who jumped at the opportunity to talk shop.
It was a fantastic conversation, which led to two stories in the original manuscript for The Baseball Codes. Unfortunately, both were excised due to space considerations. In honor of Tanner, however, I present them here.
Long before Chuck Tanner went on to win the 1979 World Series as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was a scrappy outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves. In 1955, Tanner’s rookie season, he was on first base in a game against the Phillies when Hank Aaron hit a shot to the left side of the infield. The feed went to second baseman Granny Hamner, who eyed the young Tanner barreling toward him.
At 28, Hamner was only three years older than Tanner but had already been in the big leagues for 12 years and possessed a veteran’s bag of tricks. He sidearmed the relay to first, aiming the ball at Tanner’s forehead. The runner was forced to hit the dirt in order to avoid being brained, and Hamner was spared a potential collision.
As Tanner lay on the ground trying to figure out what had just happened, Hamner approached, with words of wisdom. “Hey kid,” he said, “this is the big leagues.” Tanner never forgot.
Two years later Tanner was with the Cubs, and again found himself on first base against Philadelphia. Again a ground ball was hit to the shortstop, Chico Fernandez, who juggled it for just a moment, giving Tanner the extra time he needed. He barreled into Hamner, spiking him hard in the knee—an act that drew denunciations from many of the Phillies players.
After the game, Tanner went out to get some food. He was eating by himself when Hamner surprised him by showing up in the same restaurant, not hesitating to limp toward his table. He sat down and ordered a beer for each of them.
“He said, ‘You know, Chuck, when you hit me I remembered what I said to you when you were a rookie,’ ” Tanner recalled.
Tanner’s retaliation was taken as exactly that, and although physical damage was done, Hamner bore no hard feelings.
In 1959 Tanner was sold to the Cleveland Indians—and one of the first players he saw upon entering the clubhouse was none other than Granny Hamner, who had joined the team just weeks earlier. Tanner warily eyed the players in the clubhouse, guys like Johnny Temple, Billy Martin and Vic Power—“a bunch of tough guys,” he said—wondering what Hamner might have had in store for him.
“I walk in the door, (Hamner) sees me, and I said, ‘Hi, Granny,’ ” said Tanner. “He said to the guys, ‘Hey, be nice to that guy. He never forgets.’ They all laughed when he told them what happened. It took me a couple of years to get him, but I never forgot it. That’s the game. That’s the way the game is.”
The next story took place when Tanner was a member of the Chicago Cubs.
Leaving the ballpark after a game in which he hit a home run against St. Louis’ Sam Jones in 1957, Tanner said the pitcher went out of his way to flag him down. “Hey Chuck,” said Jones, “the next time I see you, you’re going to have to take one out of your ear.”
It was either misguided banter or a clear attempt at intimidation. Either way, it didn’t sit well with Tanner.
“I was in the middle of a conversation with somebody and I said, ‘Just a second, I need to say something to this guy,’ ” said Tanner. “I took about five steps toward Jones and said, ‘Hey Sam, I just want to tell you something ahead of time. If I go down, fine. But if I can get up, you’re going in the hospital for three months. Remember that.’ ”
Tanner didn’t make a habit of digging in against pitchers, but the next time the two squared off, about two weeks later, he did just that, then hit a shot that was caught by left fielder Del Ennis. “He just looked at me,” said Tanner. “He never threw at me. If I hadn’t said anything when he said it to me, who knows what would have happened. . . . I have to say something back. The hell with you, you know.”
That’s about as old-school—and beautiful—as it gets. Chuck Tanner will be missed.