Alex Johnson, RIP

Alex JohnsonWord just came down that longtime outfielder and 1970 AL batting champ Alex Johnson passed away Saturday at age 72 after battling cancer. He was the subject of a brief chapter in The Baseball Codes that didn’t make the final cut, mostly because it neither celebrates the game nor does it do much to explain attitudes about the unwritten rules. Still, it revisits a long-forgotten incident back in the days when baseball was undeniably less constrained than the modern iteration.

Don’t carry guns in the clubhouse. This should be an obvious rule. So when, on June 13, 1971, Alex Johnson accused Angels teammate Chico Ruiz of threatening him in the clubhouse with a pistol, people’s ears perked up. It was just the latest episode in a protracted soap opera of controversy that seemed to embody Johnson’s career, but even so, this was noteworthy.

For his part, Johnson was no stranger to clubhouse altercations. He scrapped with a variety of teammates, including a drawn-out brawl with Angels outfielder Ken Berry, and was saved from a braining at the hands of teammate Clyde Wright only when other members of the Rangers raced to disarm the pitcher of the stool he was about to swing.

Chico Ruiz, however, was different. Johnson and Ruiz had been close friends since their two-year stint together on the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1960s. Johnson had enlisted Ruiz as godfather to his daughter. But in 1971, for reasons his teammates had trouble discerning, Ruiz became a target for Johnson’s barbs. It became a regular occurrence around the Angels locker room that year to hear Johnson berating Ruiz with profanity and insults.

On that June day, both players served as pinch-hitters against the Senators, and had each repaired to the clubhouse prior to game’s end. This is where Johnson claimed that things got dangerously weird. With nobody to corroborate his story, however, and with Ruiz denying everything, an already disgruntled media turned even further against Johnson. One fed-up teammate said that if Ruiz did have a gun, his only mistake was not pulling the trigger. Shortly thereafter, Los Angeles Times columnist John Hall wrote that at least three players were “carrying guns and several others are known to have hidden knives—to use as protection in case of fights among themselves.”

Three months later, in a grievance hearing to challenge the club’s suspension of Johnson (which stemmed less from his accusation against Ruiz than a string of belligerent encounters with teammates and consistent incidents of failure to hustle), Angels general manager Dick Walsh finally admitted that Johnson’s allegations were valid and that Ruiz had, indeed, waved a pistol in his direction. This didn’t do much to help Johnson’s already diminished reputation, but it managed to lend a new layer of dysfunction to the Angels clubhouse.

Ultimately, things didn’t go well for either man. Johnson played his final game of the season on June 24, then was traded to the Indians. Ruiz, after being released during the winter, drove his car into a sign pole in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, 1972, and was killed instantly. Johnson was one of the few ballplayers to attend the funeral.

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Ah, to be a Rookie in the 1980s

Jose RijoGreg Zaun earned notice recently with comments about getting hazed by Cal Ripken and other Orioles veterans during his rookie season in 1995. From an interview on Blue Jays radio: “They taped me spread-eagle to the training table, they wrote ‘rookie’ on my forehead with pink methylate, and they shoved a bucket of ice down my shorts.”

Zaun recalled this (and much more) as a good thing, and lamented its deficiency in the modern game. He’s since backtracked a bit, going so far as to apologize to Ripken (at least according to Ripken), but this was normal baseball behavior in Zaun’s day, and his fond reminiscences on the topic are hardly unique.

In the spirit of rookies getting tied down by veterans, here’s an unedited interview snippet from former Reds ace Jose Rijo, conducted for The Baseball Codes in 2007:

If I was going out early to eat, they would put me at a table and say, “You’re a rookie, you have to wait for a veteran before you can eat.” They tied me to a chair with my plate right in front of me. That’s the type of thing I went through. Now, rookies don’t even wait for the game to end to go in and eat, they don’t stay quiet when a game is lost, they are emotional. I hate that.

Who tied you to the chair?

Oscar Gamble and Don Baylor. Believe me, I learned my lesson, and I’m glad they did that to me. It was an honor for me. I was like the bellboy for the team. Believe me, looking back now, it was a beautiful thing—it’s something everybody should experience, to come onto this level and learn these things. You don’t learn how to be a leader unless you learn first by having it done to you.

They tied a hungry Jose Rijo to his chair, with a plate of food just out of reach. It’s behavior of a bygone era, obliterated by huge rookie contracts and early-onset egos that are tuned to automatically recoil at such overtures. Was that kind of hazing a good thing? According to guys like Rijo and Zaun it was. But societies evolve and methodologies change. Today’s 20-year-olds aren’t attuned to the same kinds of messages as their counterparts from 20 years ago … which leads to the occasional comment from guys like Mat Latos, bemoaning lacking clubhouse standards. But when that type of hazing becomes institutionalized, a subset of the culture that is drawn to the abuse more than the message is afforded significant leeway to unload as it sees fit. And whichever way one chooses to spin it, brutality for brutality’s sake doesn’t tend to make for better people.

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Shout it From the Mountaintops, Just Don’t Shout it at Me: The Hunter Strickland World Series Experience

 

Prior to Wednesday, Hunter Strickland hadn’t had a good postseason in terms of results. On Wednesday he didn’t do much when it came to composure, either. Calling out the opposition is rarely a good idea this time of year.

Fine. Strickland was yelling at himself after giving up another playoff homer, this one to Omar Infante. But with self-flagellating macho displays of anger must come the understanding that said displays might sometimes be misread by, say, an innocent catcher who just happens to be trotting by on account of he was on base when the homer was hit.

Salvador Perez was incredulous. Strickland was a boor. Perez wondered if Strickland was talking to him. Strickland told him to kindly return to the dugout, sprinkling some less-nice words into the sentiment. Perez’s teammates emerged from the dugout in order to have his back. Strickland’s teammates more or less stayed put, while Buster Posey mostly settled for looking annoyed. Perez’s team won the game, Strickland’s did not. (Watch it all here.)

“He’s a really intense kid,” said Bruce Bochy afterward. “That’s probably an area he’s going to have to keep his poise.” Well, duh.

Internalization is good; considering your own role within a given negative experience can lead to positive behavioral changes and emotional growth. But even though that’s ostensibly what Strickland did, that’s not really what Strickland did. Really, he just turned into a rage monster. It started with himself, but soon enough found purchase in passersby, and collateral damage started to pile up.

This is not a good look for a guy whose stuff has put him in the “future closer” conversation. Closers are the guys who take things calmly, who are able to move on from a situation, good or bad, game to game and moment to moment. Getting into unnecessary shouting matches during the World Series does not exactly fit the bill.

[Image via CJ Fogler]

 

 

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Fall Down, Go Boom: Playoffs, Meet A.J. Pierzynski

Did A.J. Pierzynski flop? Of course A.J. Pierzynski flopped. Demean the guy’s character all you want, say that his motivation is outside the boundaries of baseball normalcy, but never say that this man isn’t at all times thinking about ways he could help his team.

The above image, taken during the second inning of Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NLCS, shows the catcher at his evil best. With Hunter Pence on first base and one out, the pitch bounced away from Pierzynski, and Pence advanced to second. The catcher, however, was cagey enough to note that the fortuitously timed backswing of Travis Ishikawa, which clipped him as he sprung up to corral the loose ball, could actually work to his advantage. The blow wasn’t hard enough to impede his progress, but after one step it occurred to him that falling to the ground might benefit his cause.

So Pierzynski tumbled onto his backside, flipping off his mask and helmet in the process in what looked like a belated attempt to make it appear as if they had been knocked off by Ishikawa. What he wanted: Plate ump Mark Carlson to decide that Pierzynski’s path to the ball had been impeded, rule batter’s interference, and send Pence back to first. What he got: Exactly that.

Shrewd. This is the guy who runs across the pitcher’s mound after being retired on the basepaths, just to try distracting the pitcher a smidge. He’ll intentionally get hit by a pitch and then bark at the pitcher, only to rile him up. He’ll act like he was hit by a pitch that didn’t hit him during a no-hitter. If there’s immediate benefit, great, but one gets the idea from looking at Pierzynski’s overall body of work that the guy’s primary goal is to needle his way under the skin of every one of his opponents until they’re thinking about what an asshole he is instead of paying attention to their jobs.

Still, who but an incredibly aware and overly wily player could even consider pulling off something like this, from the 2005 ALCS?:

(More on the fallout from that play here.)

Ultimately, it all makes Pierzynski an asset to whatever team he’s on, for reasons well beyond his ability to play baseball. There’s a reason that his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.” Hate him all you want, but give the guy some credit.

Update: As pointed out by reader RoadDogRuss, this was not even the first time Pierzynski fell down on the job.

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Because, Bryce Harper

Sure, Hunter Strickland said that he’d throw Bryce Harper another fastball. Was that really so incidiary? Harper seemed to think so. Upon taking Strickland deep again on Tuesday, we got all of this:

Fired up and passionate? A total jerk? You be the judge.

 

 

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The Art of Unnecessarily Picking up Other People’s Battles: Adrian Gonzalez, Come on Down!

It was noteworthy because it’s the postseason, and it was noteworthy because there’s some history between these teams, and it was noteworthy because it involved Yasiel Puig and everything that involves Yasiel Puig is noteworthy.

But, Adrian Gonzalez’s insistence aside, there’s no way on God’s green infield that Adam Wainwright was intentionally throwing at Puig in Game 2 of the NLDS on Friday.

It was the third inning. It was a 1-0 game. Puig was leading off. And, oh yeah, it’s the playoffs. Wainright needed to work inside, and he may have done so carelessly but certainly not intentionally. Puig seemed to realize this, understanding that an extra baserunner was precisely not what Wainwright wanted at that moment, and taking his base without protest. But Wainwright had earlier buzzed Hanley Ramirez at the hands, and in last year’s playoff series between these same teams, St. Louis pitcher Joe Kelly cracked one of Ramirez’ ribs.

All of which was likely on Gonzalez’s mind when he stood at the plate, jawing with Cards catcher Yadier Molina, even as Puig took his base. That he was standing up for his teammate was admirable. That he chose to spark a benches-clearing dustup for an HBP that wasn’t even his own? Less so. That moment was Puig’s to do with what he wanted, and when he treated it calmly and rationally, Gonzalez should have, too. That the benches ended up clearing was entirely his fault.

“You guys keep doing this over and over. We’re not going to put up with that,'” Gonzalez said he told Molina, in an ESPN.com report. “They’re going to say it’s not on purpose, but come on. It’s Wainwright. He knows where the ball is going.”

Gonzalez said Molina told him, “You’ve got to respect me.”

“I thought that was out of context, but it’s what he said,” Gonzalez relayed.

One beautiful part of the exchange was that, thanks to Gonzalez’s outburst, Wainwright had the opportunity to approach Puig and explain face to face that he hadn’t meant to hit him. Puig appeared to go along with it.

Another beautiful part was when Ramirez, up three batters later, knocked Puig home with a single, providing the best sort of revenge for which the Dodgers could have asked.

 

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Everybody Needs Somebody, Even in the Center Field Bleachers: Victor Martinez, Chris Sale is Looking at You

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Stealing an opponent’s signs from the basepaths won’t exactly be met with a smile and warm handshake, but neither will it elicit too many bad feelings—especially if the thief knocks it off once the jig is up.

Nipping them from beyond the field of play via spyglass or binoculars, however …well, that’ll get ‘em every time.

On Wednesday it sure did. Chicago’s Chris Sale appeared in every way to be convinced that something was happening beyond the center field wall at Comerica Park. During the course of the game he pointed toward center field in anger and he pantomimed binoculars from the bench and, most notably to the would-be beneficiary of allegedly stolen signs, he drilled Victor Martinez to fully express his dissatisfaction with the situation.

In the cases of hitters being drilled for perceived slights (“I don’t like how you flipped your bat after that home run”), critics of such old-school retaliation are standing on solid ground. This, though, is different. If Sale was correct, Martinez and his team were benefitting at Sale’s expense via shady and illegal practices that would otherwise be beyond discipline. Sale wasn’t talking afterward, but a well-placed fastball is the time-tested and very effective behavior-correction method of choice.

Some pertinent details: Martinez is hitting .517 with three homers in 29 career at-bats against Sale (including a .647 mark in 17 at-bats in 2013). Nobody who has faced the left-hander that much has done better. But those numbers are home and road both, and it’s a safe assumption that Martinez is not getting signs from the stands on the road, at least on a regular basis. (Oh, what a story it would be if he was.) Still, when the pitcher at the wrong end of those numbers is a perennial Cy Young contender, it’s easy to see how he might think something is up.

The thing is, Sale went 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in two starts at Comerica Park last season, and this year struck out 10 while giving up one run in six innings in his only start there. So it’s clearly not a team-wide thing that has the guy riled. And, frankly, team-wide things are pretty much all that’s on the public record when it comes to this kind of activity.

In May, the Braves all but accused the Marlins of signaling hitters via their scoreboard. In 2011, the Yankees said that the Blue Jays were doing it from the Rogers Centre … and so did the Red Sox … and the Orioles. Whatever came of it? Not a whole lot. Even with damning evidence, when Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer was caught training binoculars on Rockies catchers in 2010, it elicited nothing more than a light warning from MLB’s home office.

And so Sale took action on his own. By the looks of it, the rest of his team was keyed to the moment, as well. From an MLB.com report:

In the first inning Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler on second and two outs, Ventura made a rare early visit to the mound. Sale threw two pitches outside of the zone and then intentionally walked Martinez.

Martinez stepped to the plate in the third with runners on first and second and two outs, and struck out swinging. On the last fastball to Martinez, catcher Tyler Flowers set up inside but the deciding pitch landed high and away. That pitch sequence followed two visits to the mound by Flowers and Sale taking a couple of looks back toward center. After the strikeout, Sale turned toward right-center field and tipped his cap. That was followed by a wave in the same general direction.

During the argument in the sixth, Sale appeared to reference Martinez’s “guy out there,” and Martinez said after the game that White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia told his one-time teammate during the scrum that the White Sox suspected sign stealing. Sale claimed postgame Wednesday that his hat tip was to a fan who was wearing him out during his pregame bullpen session, but Sale was unavailable for comment prior to Thursday’s contest. The left-hander was excused by the team for the game for personal reasons.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about what was tipping him off, and the possibility exists that it was all just an elaborate ruse to throw at Martinez simply because the hitter’s protracted success against him finally got under his skin. Either way, evidence suggests merely that Martinez is just a very good hitter who likes the kind of stuff Sale throws.

Hell, he’s hitting .556 in 18 career at-bats against Colby Lewis, and Lewis hasn’t even bothered to drill him once.

 

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