Big Talkers Not Welcome: Fastballs in Cincy Lead to Words, and Players are Sensitive Creatures

Cubs-RedsIf you throw as hard as Aroldis Chapman, you must expect that your opponents will, on occasion, get squirrely. Should a ball get away from you and fly toward somebody’s head, this matter becomes especially prevalent. Should it happen twice in an inning—watch out.

Thursday, it happened twice to a single batter, Nate Schierholtz of the Cubs, and Chicago was not pleased. The pitches were obviously unintentional: The game was tied in the ninth inning, which is when closers pitch, which is why we so infrequently see closers carrying out any form of retaliation. The Cubs let Chapman know about it anyway, from the dugout at top volume. Things could have ended there, but for Chapman’s subsequent dismissal of the entire Chicago dugout—delivered with an insouciant wave of his glove toward their bench as he was leaving the field after recording the inning’s final out.

When Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took the field in the bottom half of the inning, it was time for the Reds dugout to weigh in. Rizzo had already been hit by a first-inning pitch from Homer Bailey, and was one of the primary Cubs to heap verbal abuse on Chapman. Somebody wearing Red said something with which he disagreed, and, throwing down cap and glove, he headed for the Cincy bench. Only a fool would have started a fight at that point, facing a line of guys in the other team’s uniform, and Rizzo is no fool. He did some shouting, however, and the Reds shouted back and the dugouts emptied. (Watch it here.)

It’s easy to ask what could have been done to avoid all this. It’s yet unknown what Cincinnati players yelled at Rizzo, but a ballplayer has little business approaching the opposing bench like that. It’s unknown what Cubs players yelled at Chapman, but he has to be aware enough to realize that multiple top-speed, head-high pitches at the same batter are going to elicit a response.

There’s something else at play here, as well: the disappearance of the quality bench jockey from the modern game. Once, players freely ragged each other from across the field in a back-and-forth patter designed to build unity on one side of the field and to get into players’ heads on the other. There were terrible aspects to the practice, such as what Jackie Robinson had to deal with on a fairly continual basis during the early part of his career, but there was also good to come from it. The patter between ballplayers took on a language of its own, and even as one side figured out just what to say to somebody in a given situation, players learned how to absorb the abuse without letting it get to them. The best bench jockeys performed verbal kung fu, turning the abusers’ words back on them with additional heft.

Stories of bench jockeys are ages old:

  • Schoolboy Rowe, a newly married pitcher for the Tigers, made the mistake during the 1934 World Series of concluding a radio interview with a question for his wife: “How’m I doing, Edna?” The St. Louis Cardinals made sure that the phrase was heard continuously and at top volume through all seven games.
  • During his early playing days, Leo Durocher went through a rough patch during which he was accused of stealing the pocket watch of his teammate, Babe Ruth. When Durocher took over as manager of the Dodgers years later, players from the Giants began waving Walker Cooper’s watch at him, saying, “Leo, look at the watch. Look at Ruth’s watch.”
  • The Washington Senators bench once rode Mickey Mantle so hard that he was distracted into thinking the fielder’s choice at second on a ball he hit was the inning’s third out, and didn’t even run to first to try to beat the double play.
  • After the publication of Ball Four, Jim Bouton took an abundance of abuse from around the league, from players shocked that one of their own would begin spilling secrets. The Reds, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose in particular, were particularly vocal, saying things like, “Shakespeare, you no-good rat-fink. Put that in your fucking book,” wrote Bouton in his follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally. The pitcher’s favorite line came when the count got to ball three: “What’s the tile of your book?” Later, Bouton wrote, he sat near Johnny Bench at a banquet and catcher told him, “I read where you said Pete Rose and I got on you from the dugout worse than anybody. Well, I want you to know we really weren’t that upset about the book. Pete and I got on everybody. So don’t worry about it.”
  • One of the most famous moments in baseball history, Babe Ruth’s called shot against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, was a result of bench jockeying. According to Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, Ruth wasn’t pointing to center field but responding, after two quick strikes, to the verbally abusive Cubs bench that he wasn’t yet finished hitting. His motion, said Herman, was to quiet Chicago pitcher Charlie Root, not to indicate where he intended to hit the ball.

Perhaps the best summation of the process came in a tale about none other than Leo Durocher, told in Sport Magazine in April 1947:

Once last summer (Durocher) was abusing Murry Dickson, Cardinal pitcher, from the coaching box so violently that umpire Lee Ballanfant begged him to lay off.

“Please, Leo,” pleaded Ballantfant, “he’s a nice kid …”

“I don’t doubt it,” interrupted Durocher, “and after the game, I’ll be willing to buy Dickson a steak diner with champagne trimmings and take him to a show. But right now I want to beat him any way I can, see?”

Bench jockeying more or less died out in the 1980s, the victim of an evolving game. “I don’t know if it was just the teams not being teams for a long period of time together, a lot of player movement, playing with a bunch of different people, not having that team chemistry like that,” said Chris Speier, whose 19-year career ended in 1989, and who put up with a lot of it early in his playing days. “I don’t know when it stopped, but it definitely has stopped.”

Baseball diamonds are a more genteel place now, in many ways for the better. Still, when something comes up like what came up in Cincinnati yesterday, the downside of the disappearing bench jockey becomes clear. Modern players simply have comparatively little idea about how to deal with this kind of adversity.

Take the story of another Reds player, pitcher Mario Soto, who in 1982, rattled by heckling from Phillies third base coach Dave Bristol, walked six and gave up seven runs over 3.2 innings. He was so mad that after the game he called Philadelphia’s clubhouse and challenged Bristol to a fight. His manager, Russ Nixon, offered a different perspective. “That’s just something Mario is going to have to learn to deal with,” he said.

It was just as simple as that.

 

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Jim Brosnan, Pitcher of Baseballs, Chronicler of Baseball

Pennant RaceJim Brosnan, for a time one of the better relief pitchers in the National League, a member of the pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds in 1961, passed away June 29 at age 84. More even than for his pitching, Brosnan was noteworthy for his forays into the baseball-book canon. Jim Bouton is widely considered the first insider to expose the true lives of ballplayers, but when Brosnan’s The Long Season was published in 1960, Bouton was a 21-year-old in the Carolina League and still more than a decade away from a literary career. Brosnan wrote openly about how it feels to be a major league baseball player, in a way that nobody had before attempted let alone pulled off with such panache. And he truly wrote openly; no ghostwriting services were used.

His follow up effort, Pennant Race¸ about Cincinnati’s run toward glory in 1961, was equally compelling. Part of his truth-telling, of course, included the game’s unwritten rules, passages which serve as a snapshot in time. They capture not just baseball as Brosnan played it, but show just how much things have changed in the modern game. It’s a time capsule, freezing attitudes just the way they were.

Even all these years later, the words jump from the page. There’s little doubt that, when it came to multiple skill sets, Brosnan could spin a phrase better than any writer could spin a curveball. In honor of Brosnan and his efforts, here are some passages from Pennant Race that discuss retaliation and intimidation. Things couldn’t be more different.

Hunt and Sanford, of the Giants, dueled for six innings, tied up 2-2. Mays tried to steal second in the sixth, spikes up, cutting Elio Chacon, our Venezuelan second baseman, as he tagged Mays out.

“Mays slid a little high, didn’t he?” asked Bevan. Chacon was carried past our bench to the clubhouse, his sliced thigh visible, bleeding from three spike wounds.

“Somebody’ll have to knock Mays down now,” I pointed out. “Can’t have any rough stuff this early in the year.”

 

After you knock a hitter down, you still have to throw strikes on the next pitches. Unless you hit him. And that’s not the idea at all. No pitcher wants the hitter to reach base; he just wants to loosen them up a little with a judiciously placed scare ball.

 

[Joey] Jay lined a bases-loaded double off Don Drysdale to break up the game and smash hell out of Drysdale’s disposition. Drysdale absorbed the shock of Jay’s double numbly, but well enough to retire the side. On the Dodger bench, he fumed, burned, and blew up.

To start the sixth he threw a fastball behind Blasingame’s head. Blazer popped up the next pitch, so Drysdale knocked Pinson down with consecutive pitches. Pinson hit the third pitch to left for a double, and Drysdale threw the rosin bag into the air in disgust. When it came down he dusted his fingers and threw three straight pitches at Robinson. The third one hit Robbie on the arm, and Boggess, the umpire, threw Drysdale out of the game.

“That’s enough throwing,” Boggess said to Alston and Hutchinson. “I’ve had enough.”

Drysdale’s tantrum had angered his own catcher, Roseboro, who said to Robinson, “you know I ain’t callin’ ’em.” (The catcher is subject to retaliatory pitches from the opposing side, which often can’t get at the pitcher.)

 

In the ninth [Joey Jay] threw two pitches over Amaro’s head in retaliation for a knockdown pitch that had bounced off Frank Robinson’s helmet in the eighth. Ed Vargo, the plate umpire, ran out to the mound to warn Jay not to throw at another hitter. And Hutchinson ran out to tell Vargo that he, Hutch, had told Jay to knock some Philly hitter down because “I’m not gonna stand by and see my boys hit in the head. I’ll do something about it. You umpires don’t seem to be able to!”

Hutch told Vargo to throw him out, not Jay, and when Vargo did just that, Hutch told him where he could stick the automatic fine that results from an umpire’s eviction order.

 

Sherman Jones shook his head at the suggestion that he picked the blue bill of a Cub’s cap as target number one.

“I can’t throw at a batter’s head. What if you would hit it? And killed him? How could you pitch again? Or live with yourself?”

His remarks sounded as if they came from a pitcher it less dedicated to Hutchinson then to his own conscience. Nice guys sometimes get hurt on the mound by line drives.

 

 

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‘What an Idiot!’ Say, Mike Napoli, What do you Really Think?

Napoli's blastMike Napoli had come through with the heroics, but he didn’t seem to believe it. One out away from a complete-game shutout, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka fed the Red Sox first baseman a 1-2 fastball out over the plate instead of the pitch Napoli expected—a splitter low in the zone, which had already served to strike him out twice on the night. It was a gift. Napoli treated it as such, hammering it over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium for a game-winning two-run homer.

Napoli’s problems began with his incredulty that Tanaka would throw him anything in that situation but the same unhittable pitch he’d already proven unable to hit. They manifested when he reached his dugout after rounding the bases. Even before he entered, he was shouting at his teammates, “What an idiot! What an idiot!” (Watch it here.)

The comments were picked up by TV cameras, of course, which is why this is a controversy. Napoli oviously did not intend to show up Tanaka; his comments were directed toward his teammates, not toward the field, and were made amid the rush of his success. Also, Napoli was right—Yankees catcher Brian McCann did all he could to have Tanaka throw the splitter, but was shaken off repeatedly. Still, any player in the modern era should know better—especially talking, as he did, from field level at the lip of the dugout, without even the cover of a position deep on the bench.

Such was the impact that Red Sox manager John Farrell was compelled to address it on Sunday.

“The one thing we don’t ever want our players to be is non-emotional,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m aware of the comment made last night. I didn’t hear it at the time. But I know this: We’ve got the utmost respect for Tanaka and I know Mike Napoli does.”

It’s reminiscent of a scene from The Baseball Codes, in which a youthful Eric Chavez was being interviewed before his A’s played the Yankees in Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS.

Responding to a press-conference question about his opponents, who had won the previous two titles, Chavez talked about how great the Yankees had been in recent years, what a terrific job they’d done, and how difficult it was to win as consistently as they had. He also added that they’d “won enough times,” and that it would be okay for somebody else to play in the World Series for a change. Chavez was twenty-two years old, wide-eyed and hopeful. There was nothing malicious in his tone.

Unfortunately for the A’s, the press conference at which Chavez was speaking was being broadcast live on the Oakland Coliseum scoreboard for early-arriving fans. Also watching were the Yankees, on the field for batting practice. “So he’s dropping the past tense on us? Did you see that?” spat third baseman Scott Brosius from the batting cage. One New York player after another—Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams—took Chavez’s comments and blew them up further. The Yankees hardly needed additional motivation, but now they had it. Their first three hitters of the game reached base, four batters in they had the lead, and by the end of the frame it was 6–0. The A’s were in a hole from which they could not climb out before they even had a chance to bat.

The Yankees didn’t have any such swing of success against the Red Sox on Sunday—they lost, 8-5—but it underscores the importance of understanding where you are and who can hear you before speaking your mind with anything resembling too much impunity.

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Takeout Order: One Second Baseman, With a Side of Sour Grapes

Desmond + GomezCarlos Gomez has taken heat in this space for everything from pimping to excessive pimping to his inability to handle criticism. Yesterday Gomez again managed to clear the bases over something he did … but this time he was in the clear. Maybe a guy’s reputation can precede him, after all.

In the eighth inning against the Nationals, Gomez was hit on the left arm by reliever Taylor Hill, making his big league debut. The next batter, Lyle Overbay, grounded a double-play ball to shortstop Ian Desmond, who tossed to second baseman Kevin Frandsen on the pivot. Frandsen just managed to get the throw off before Gomez, barreling in hard and fast, took him out with an aggressive slide. This is the kind of thing one does after one has been hit, a message to the other team that such liberties have not escaped notice.

The slide was clean. The message was sent. The inning was over.

Desmond, however, took offense. As his teammates headed toward their dugout, the shortstop stopped for a chat with an incredulous Gomez. Things got sufficiently animated for the benches to clear, though nobody came close to throwing a punch. To judge by the players on the field, Desmond was the only red ass among them. (Watch it here.)

“I just told him I didn’t agree with the way he slid into second base with a seven-run lead,” Desmond said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I’ve defended that guy in a lot of clubhouse arguments. I respect the way he plays the game, but I’ve got no respect for that. If he thinks he got drilled on purpose by our pitcher making his Major League debut … to take it out on a guy who’s grinded his butt off to make a Major League career in Kevin Frandsen … In a World Series game, you slide like that. In a seven-run-differential game, there’s no time for that.”

On that point, Desmond is nuts. Gomez was responding to being hit—a reaction that is independent of circumstance, lopsided score or not. He responded with a clean, aggressive play, in the way that baseball players have always responded to similar events with clean, aggressive plays. On the Nationals broadcast, in fact,  color man (and former player) F.P. Santangelo called it, even as Hill was delivering the double-play pitch to Overbay: “If I’m in the middle infield right now and I’m turning a double play on a ground ball, heads up Kevin Frandsen.”

As the field cleared, Gomez even earned a pat on the back from Washington manager Matt Williams, who knows a thing or two about playing the infield. Hardly the stuff of vendettas.

It’s Desmond’s right to get upset at seeing one of his teammates taken out, but it’s also his responsibility to know the rules of the game as they pertain to propriety. Hiding behind a 9-2 deficit as an excuse to vent frustration is just weak sauce.

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On Successful Homecomings and Misread Grins: The Tale of the Trying Smile, by Ian Kinsler

GrinslerAh, respect. She is a vexing mistress.

Ian Kinsler, reluctantly departed from his career-long home in Arlington after an off-season trade with Detroit, returned for the first time yesterday as a member of the visiting team. He promptly took former Rangers teammate Colby Lewis deep.

And what did he do? He gave a little wave to his pals in the Rangers dugout. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he went around the bases. There was no animosity here; this was friendly stuff—a we’re-in-different-uniforms-but-I-still-like-you-mooks moment. To everybody, it seems, but Lewis. (Watch it here.)

Give the pitcher some leeway—he had just put his team in a first-inning hole and ended up taking the loss with a mediocre outing, and now boasts a 5.94 ERA on the season after missing all of last year due to elbow and hip injuries. His team has as many wins as the Astros. He deserves to be frustrated. But to take that personally? (If anybody possibly could, it would be Rangers GM Jon Daniels. But Lewis?)

“I guess ‘disappointed’ is the best word to describe it,” the pitcher said after the game in an MLive report.

There are lots of legitimate gripes in baseball about improper displays of respect, which can be dealt with in any number of time-tested ways. Lewis obviously wants other players, particularly those he knows personally, to be sensitive to his struggles. But Kinsler himself described the trip to Arlington as “my return home” (which was more than metaphor: his house and family are still there), and talked after the game about being “lucky enough to square one up.” If he lacks any respect for Lewis, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

There was no showboating here, nothing intended to call extra attention to Kinsler. It was just a guy soaking in a moment. Lewis should have let him have it.

 

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Ron Roenicke Does Not Like Hitting Guys on Purpose

On Thursday, Ron Roenicke explained why his team did not seek to escalate the budding feud with Arizona that exploded two days earlier, after Arizona’s Evan Marshall drilled Ryan Braun to load the bases, followed by Jonathan Lucroy’s grand slam.

“How many times we get hit during a season and how many times we hit people, it should explain how we feel about it,” the Milwaukee manager said in an MLB.com report. “We do the right things. We try to play the right way, and I’m not in control of what happens on the other side.”

For those scoring at home, how many times they’re hit is “a lot,” and how many times they hit people is, “not so much.” (The actual numbers since Roenicke took over are 248 and 125, respectively.)

“We try to pitch the way we should pitch,” he said. “We don’t throw at people. There’s a time you have to pitch inside to get people out. Good hitters you have to pitch inside. So that’s what happens.”

This is a terrific ideal, with obvious upside: Because Milwaukee pitchers don’t risk extra baserunners put on in the name of vendettas, Milwaukee pitchers are almost never hurt by extra baserunners put on in the name of vendettas. The downside, however, is a little more nuanced, and has to do with people far darker than Roenicke.

Because as clean as the Milwaukee manager wants to live, he has to deal with people in opposing clubhouses who harbor no such virtuosity. These are pitchers and managers who are all too willing to throw inside with impunity, not just to establish the inner portion of the plate but to intimidate opponents. One way to control this type of reckless behavior is to respond in kind. They’re known as message pitches for a reason, and the ones that come in response to hit batsmen are the clearest sort. We’re not talking about drilling somebody who flipped a bat, but holding accountable opponents who intentionally put your batters into harm’s way. It’s more than just making a statement—it is a physical reminder to the pitcher who started it that such behavior will not be tolerated.

There will also be questions raised should Brewers position players feel that said accountability is not a part of their team’s game plan. It’s easy to imagine a player, or a faction of players, growing upset over passivity from their staff after a critical mass of their teammates has been drilled, unanswered. (It’s easy to imagine because it has been a regular occurrence over the years—players calling out their own pitchers, wondering when somebody is going to step up and do something about all the guys being abused.)

None of which is to say that this is the right way to go. (Or that Roenicke doesn’t play by any other of the unwritten rules. He does.) Baseball is constantly changing, and so is the Code. If Roenicke is at the vanguard of a movement in which the only batters hit are hit inadvertently, more power to him.  The game will be better for it.

Ideals and reality don’t always mesh however, and watching this play out over time will prove useful to those trying to figure out which way the wind is actually blowing.

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On the Impracticality of Hitting Opponents Out of Anger, Arizona Diamondbacks Edition

Braun drilled

This is what it looks like when a plan doesn’t work out.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, angry with the Brewers for a variety of reasons, and with Ryan Braun for some very specific other reasons, finished a passel of business Tuesday in the span of two pitches. The first sailed behind Braun, the next drilled him in the backside.

Milwaukee’s response: Hit ‘em where it hurts.

Things grew heated in the sixth, when Milwaukee right-hander Kyle Lohse hit Chris Owings in the upper back, the ricocheting ball knocking his helmet off his head. It did not bear the marks of an intentional pitch; it was about the slowest fastball in Lohse’s arsenal during a close game, and the right-hander visibly blanched when the pitch made contact. (Watch it here.)

By itself, this may not have been enough to fully rile the D-Backs. But when, two batters later, Lohse threw a slider over the head of pitcher Mike Boslinger—who was trying to bunt Owings to second—Arizona took note. This pitch, too, was almost certainly unintentional. Why would anybody want to drill the pitcher in a two-run game? Much more likely, Lohse was trying to put a pitch in a difficult-to-bunt location. (In that, at least, he succeeded.) Add to that the fact that he grazed Didi Gregroius with a slider in the first inning, and manager Kirk Gibson’s mind was almost made up for him.

The very next inning, he had what he must have felt was a tailor-made situation. Not only were there runners on second and third with one out, leaving first base open, but the batter was Ryan Braun. The same Ryan Braun who Gibson was not at all shy about slagging last year, in response to the fact that the 2011 NL MVP led the Brewers to a taut playoff win over Arizona, and later admitted to have been juicing at the time.

“If I get a chance to see Braun, I got a question for him, right to his face,” said Gibson last year, in an Arizona Republic report. “Is he about rehearsed by now? About ready to come out? He’s probably been practicing at theater school somewhere. Anyway, she was looking at how things like that can influence people’s opportunities and the opportunity to do something like that.”

So: Pissed-at-the-present plus pissed-at-the-past apparently equals send-your-reliever-out-for-some-dirty-work. Arizona pitcher Evan Marshall sent a 94-mph fastball behind Braun’s back, drawing a warning from plate ump Ted Barrett. His next pitch was even faster, and connected with the small of Braun’s back. Barrett ejected him on the spot. Not so oddly, Gibson seemed delighted when Marshall returned to the dugout. (Watch it here.)

The plan, of course, backfired. Gibson strategized as best he could, using his statement to set up the double play in an instance when he would have been justified in ordering an intentional walk to do the same. But his team’s 4-3 lead turned into a 7-4 deficit when the next hitter, Jonathan Lucroy, touched reliever Brad Ziegler for a grand slam. (Watch it here.)

Oops.

The Diamondbacks have talked a lot of late about the need to stick up for their own in ways just like this, and followed up in as overt a way as he could. That’s the thing about planning, though—without execution, it doesn’t amount to a whole hell of a lot.

The teams have two more games, today and Thursday, with which to continue sending messages. If Gibson’s astute, he’ll recognize not only that he took his best shot (two of them, in fact), and that it didn’t work out so well for him. His slate should be clean. If the Brewers are astute, they’ll recognize that Lucroy gave them the best response for which they could ever have hoped.

Even-steven, everybody. Now go play some ball.

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