This Weekend’s Lesson in Facing Failure: Drilling A-Rod Isn’t the Answer

Oberholtzer tossed

The act of a pitcher hitting a batter on purpose is inherently divisive. Some (mostly outside the game) see it as an outdated form of brutality that lost all reasonable claims to relevance the day that Don Drysdale … or Bob Gibson … or Nolan Ryan retired. Others maintain that it helps keep order in the sport, and that its underlying purpose—to maintain respect among baseball’s ranks—is utterly justified.

But everybody, no matter how divided of opinion or dogmatically entrenched in their respective camps, can agree that Brett Oberholtzer acted like a punk on Saturday.

Houston’s 25-year-old starter, in his third major league season, had a rough go of it against the Yankees. He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, Brett Gardner, then walked a guy, then walked another guy. With one out, Brian McCann touched him for a grand slam. Five batters, four runs.

His second inning wasn’t much better. After getting a quick out, Gardner again touched Oberholtzer for a double, then scored on Chris Young’s home run. At that point, the young pitcher had several options. He could turn toward grit, and steel himself to make the best of a bad situation. He could turn toward optimism, and the self-belief that absence of success in the past does not necessarily equate to absence of success in the future. He could have just gone into auto-pilot mode and thrown whatever the hell his catcher called, consequences be damned.

Oberholtzer chose instead to drill the next hitter, Alex Rodriguez. So blatant was the intention that plate ump Rob Drake tossed him immediately. The pitcher submitted fully to the fact that he was simply unable to get anybody out, and gave in to his basest levels of frustration. (Watch it here.)

Such action was not always viewed so negatively. Back when pitchers went after hitters with relatively impunity, players paying for teammates’ success was commonplace. “In 1974 I was playing for the Yankees, and I hit behind Graig Net­tles the whole month of April,” said first baseman Mike Hegan in The Baseball Codes. “And Graig hit eleven home runs. And I was on my back eleven times. That’s just the kind of thing that happened. I got up, dusted myself off, and got ready to swing at the next pitch. It’s just what you do.”

For a more in-depth tale, we turn to Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, who talked about his time as a lefty reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid-1980s:

“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. And [6-foot-6, 210-pound slugger] Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better. I shook him off. He went through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign, indicating a knockdown pitch]. I nod. 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 he was grabbing his bat and his helmet, and he gets 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 base and is coming toward the mound. 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. And he came right up to the dirt and then just went around it. He pointed at me and said, ‘There’ll be another day, young man,’ and just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years after that said, ‘Dave, do you remember that incident?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘No.’ Just like that.

“What I’m saying is that back then, we were taught: Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

The modern landscape is different, of course. Even with increased awareness that hit batsmen are of little benefit to the game at large, had Oberholtzer utilized the lessons of his forebears and simply knocked Rodriguez down rather than hit him, he would have received no more than a warning.

Instead, he begged out of a game in which he stunk, in the most obvious way possible. No longer able to face his own failure, he emptied his aggression onto an opponent, and paid the price.

“I’m going on the record and saying that’s not how we operate around here,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch in an MLB.com report. “Obviously for all the adrenaline that goes on at the beginning of the game when we’re getting down, we don’t operate that way, we won’t operate that way. It’s not a reflection of anyone around here, including [Oberholtzer]. The Yankees know, I’ll make sure Alex knows. There’s no place in our game for that kind of activity.”

So little place that after the game, Oberholtzer was optioned to Triple-A Fresno.

The ultimate takeaway was elucidated by Hinch the following day, when he informed reporters that he had reached out to Yankees manager Joe Girardi to make sure that those in the New York clubhouse understood that things had been handled internally, and that nobody bore more ill-will against Oberholtzer’s act than the Astros themselves. In so doing, he cut to the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, and what makes them special.

It was, he said in the Houston Chronicle, “important to respect the opponent and let them know your perspective, and they would do the same. That’s a general respect that goes across baseball.”

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So What’s an Inside Pitch Between Friends?

Scherzer no-noDid he or didn’t he? Is Jose Tabata a perfect-game-spoiling ruiner of all things good, or a baffled hitter in a long string of baffled hitters to face Max Scherzer on Saturday? Was he leaning into the pitch, or drawing away from the pitch? Is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?

These are questions based on intent and situation. Tabata, of course, was hit by a pitch with one out to go in Scherzer’s would-be perfect game. Does a batter do anything possible to reach base so late in a game—which, at 6-0, has been all but lost—in which his teammates had not really come close? Is getting hit by a pitch to break up a perfect game anything like bunting to break up a no-hitter?

The answer is easy: Of course it isn’t. Tabata didn’t lean into the pitch. He watched a breaking ball that didn’t break as expected, and drew back his elbow—into the path of the ball as it turned out—far too late to make a difference. (Watch it here.)

Far more interesting is the question of insertion. It is fair under certain circumstances to question a manager for inserting a top-flight player into a blowout game for the sole purpose of spoiling a no-hitter. Tabata was pinch-hitting, but in this case somebody had to—the spot in the order belonged to reliever Vance Worley. So, given that the Nationals were already the presumptive victors, was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle under any obligation to utilize a lesser bench player? Would it have been more appropriate to call upon somebody like Corey Hart, who has more at-bats than Tabata this season but is hitting 90 points lower?

Nope. Leave it to Hurdle’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland, to explain the situation. I spoke to him in 2010, when he was managing the Detroit Tigers, about his decision to pinch-hit Ramon Santiago with two outs in the ninth inning against Chicago’s Matt Garza, who was pitching his own no-hitter. Detroit was losing, 5-0, and Leyland admitted to me that winning the game no longer factored into his strategy. (Santiago flied out to end it. Detroit’s starting pitcher that day: Max Scherzer.)

Knowing you’re not going to win, at what point do you let the guy have his no-hitter?
I don’t think you ever say that. I don’t ever say that.

No matter what the score, you’d send up your pinch-hitters?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’ think you ever say, “Let the guy have his no-hitter.” That’s not the way the game is played. If I’m going to say that, I might as well go home. That sends the wrong message to the people who paid for a ticket. I learned that from my parents—you get what you earn.

We play every game and compete until the end. There are 27 outs in a game, and you try to utilize all of them. It doesn’t matter what the score is. You have to understand the situation. Even if it’s 10-1 in the ninth inning, you might send someone up there to save a guy a tough at-bat against a tough pitcher, or a bench guy might be playing in the game the next day, so you want to get him an at-bat to help him track the ball a little bit. A lot of things go into it—it’s not cut-and-dried.

And then:

We’re paid to compete until the last out, regardless. That’s what we do for a living. Garza pitched a no-hitter, and I tip my cap to him. But when Verlander pitched his no-hitter against Milwaukee, he earned it, and he was supposed to earn it. That’s just the way things go.

You don’t want a no-hitter pitched against you. Everybody’s talking about how you should just let him have it. Well, no you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be that team. Detroit hadn’t had a no-hitter pitched against it in years. I didn’t want to be the guy from Detroit who finally got no-hit.

All fair points. I take some issue with the idea of pinch-hitting for a position player at that point—when a loss is all but assured—in a potentially historic game. It’s a point at which everything reverts to the status quo. Defensive alignments should be left alone, as should lineups. Even umpires should shade their calls with an eye toward the feat at hand, ruling in the favor of history on plays close enough for debate. Jim Joyce blowing an out call at first base during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game is a prime example. Another came in 1972, when, with Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas 26 outs into his own perfect game, plate ump Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch, close enough to argue, was a ball. (Pappas retired the following batter to complete the no-hitter.) Unlike that instance, there was no space for interpretation with Scherzer’s HBP—there was only one call for the umpire to make.

In this case, sending up Tabata to hit for the pitcher was the right move. Hurdle played it properly, Tabata did nothing wrong (Scherzer admitted as much) and the baseball world was deprived of a historic feat under appropriate circumstances.

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In Keeping With Baseball Tradition …

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Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

This seems like a good time for a quick dissertation on the meaning of—and the general spirit about—baseball’s unwritten rules. The last several years has seen what seems like a tidal shift of voices decrying their very existence, bemoaning what is deemed to be a culture of institutionalized violence in the name of some outdated code of moral conduct.

Let’s use an event from a minor league game on Friday to dispel some of that.

The scene: Moosic, Pennsylvania, at PNC Field. Pitcher Lester Oliveros of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings opens the game by surrendering back-to-back singles, then a three-run homer, then another homer. Down 4-0 before he’s recorded an out, Oliveros drills the next hitter, Austin Romine of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders directly in the helmet.

It’d be easy enough to decry this as macho posturing within an institutional framework that props up such behavior. When one is getting one’s teeth kicked in, after all, it behooves one to mix things up, to make the opposition less comfortable.

It is macho posturing—that much is beyond debate—but it has no more place among the game’s unwritten rules than it does among the written ones. It goes against nearly every facet of the Code: A pitch above the shoulders; retaliation for teammates’ success; loose-cannon ethics that possess no space for the wellbeing of the opposition. The underlying tenet of the unwritten rules is the exhibition of respect, and this act decries it almost entirely, as it regards opponent and sport alike.

If the unwritten rules are to come into play here at all, it will be in the RailRiders’ response. Perhaps the imminent suspension will suffice, but there will likely be an on-field retort the next time Oliveros takes the field against against them. Red Wings manager Mike Quade is well acquainted with the Code; he can opt to let Oliveros take whatever may be coming in an effort to put the incident behind him, or he could simply refuse to play him against Scranton, hoping the pitcher will make the jump to the big club soon enough.

The Code also matters to the rest of Oliveros’ teammates, who should understand that his recklessness has put each of them in harm’s way should Scranton opt to retaliate in anything less than direct fashion. (Such a response would carry its own baggage, but there’s no mistaking that sharing a bus with guys who are pissed off at your actions can serve as a powerful deterrent in the future.)

Ultimately, Oliveros was an independent contractor, working outside the scope of any prescribed response to his situation. By ignoring the Code he set himself up to face every a host of corrective actions that have been developed specifically to keep guys like him in check. It can be a powerful tool … if one lets it.

[Via Hardball Talk]

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Jinx This: Gift of Gab No Match For the Power of a No-No

Heston no-no

In the supremely superstitious sport of baseball, nowhere is superstition more prevalent than in the midst of a no-hitter. The inner sanctum of said superstition involves never talking to the pitcher doing the deed. Don’t sit near him. Don’t acknowledge him in any way. Steer the hell clear.

This is how Giants third baseman Matt Duffy came to be so freaked out in the top of the ninth inning when he was approached from behind in the Giants dugout. The approacher: Chris Heston, moments away from sealing his no-hitter against the Mets. (Watch the final pitch here.)

In the eighth, Heston lost track of the outs—he thought there were two, but there was only one—and was doubled off of second base on Nori Aoki’s fly ball. It wiped a run off the board, as Duffy would have otherwise been able to tag up from third. This is how he came to approach Duffy in the dugout, to apologize for his unnecessarily reduced stat line.

“After the sixth, I didn’t want to go anywhere within five feet of him,” Duffy said in a San Jose Mercury News report. “We were in the dugout right before the ninth and he said, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry about that.’ I said, ‘Dude, uh, don’t worry about it. Don’t focus on that. It’s fine.’

“I was like, ‘Go talk to Nori.’ ”

Whether he talked to Nori was unclear. The move, however, proved jinx-proof.

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Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word: Junior Lake Goes Librarian on the Marlins

Lake shhhhh

People put differing amounts of credence into baseball’s unwritten rules, with a vocal faction consistently decrying their very existence. It takes an act of unusual persuasion to convince people on both sides of that aisle that somebody has crossed the line. Ladies and gentlemen: Junior Lake.

Lake’s actions after homering Wednesday against Florida not only had the Marlins outraged, but his own team, too. If we don’t hear more about this, it’s only because Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it known that he would handle the situation personally.

The preamble: Starlin Castro homered against Florida on Monday, then watched it, then delivered the season’s third-slowest trot. (Watch it here.) Last night, Dan Haren hit him in what can only be assumed to be response.

The main event: Lake homered off of Haren in the sixth inning last night. There’s little doubt that he had Castro on his mind when he watched the ball for five full steps toward first, then nonchalantly flipped his bat behind him as he began to jog. There were several things wrong with this scenario, beyond even the pimping and the flip.

  • It was Lake’s first homer of the season, and pimping in the big leagues is a meritocracy, something that must be earned. David Ortiz could maybe get away with it. Junior Lake can not.
  • It wasn’t like the homer won the game. Or even brought the Cubs close. Chicago was losing 6-0 when he hit it.
  • In response to the grief he was getting from the Marlins bench as he circled the bases, Lake put his finger to his lips in a Shhhhh motion after rounding third, while looking directly into Florida’s dugout.
  • Yep, he actually did that. (Watch it all here.)

Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto delivered some words when Lake crossed the plate. Lake fired back, and within moments benches emptied. The primary reason things did not get out of hand was Maddon, who assured Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez that the matter would be taken care of internally.

“I just spoke to [Lake] and spoke to him during the game,” Maddon told reporters after the game, via an MLB.com report. “We don’t do that here and that will be the last time you see it. I did tell them at home plate during the scrum. I told Chuck Hernandez because that’s who I saw. I said, ‘It’s our fault and we’ll take care of it.’ ”

It was reminiscent of a scene 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.”) …

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.”

Maddon, who has proven that there are some unwritten rules about which he simply does not care, did not treat this one with such nonchalance. Nor did he limit his lesson to the confines of the clubhouse. “I don’t want us to take a page out of ‘Major League’ and flamboyantly flip a bat after a long home run,” he said after the game, ostensibly referring to Castro as well as to Lake. “I don’t want that at all. That has nothing to do with us ascending. I would even like to use this moment for our Minor League guys, that [flipping the bat] doesn’t play. For our kids watching, it doesn’t play. Don’t do that. That’s not cool. It’s very, very much not cool. If you’re watching the game back home in Chicago tonight, don’t do that.”

Then again, this wasn’t the first time he tried to impart this edict since taking over on the North Side. Perhaps it’s not taking.

The Marlins have little need for recourse. Maddon’s gauntlet toss against his own player handled it, as did Lake’s own comment afterward that “I recognize that it wasn’t right. It was part of the emotions and part of the game and I want to apologize to Haren for that, because I respect him and didn’t mean it.”

More interesting than Florida’s response will be the response of Chicago players to their manager’s new directive. Is a new quick-trot era in Chicago upon us?

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RIP Ron Bergman, the Best to Ever Cover the Oakland A’s

Mustache GangAs I put the finishing touches on the first draft of my upcoming book about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next March), I am once again appreciating how much easier—and how much more enjoyable—my work has been thanks to the exceptional skills of Ron Bergman. Bergman covered the team for the Oakland Tribune during its entire championship run, starting from the moment they moved to Oakland in 1968, and also wrote for The Sporting News during the championship years. His book about that era, “Mustache Gang,” remains the best of a quality crop of contemporary accounts. He was connected, insightful and so witty it makes one’s teeth ache, to borrow one of his own phrases.

Bergman passed away yesterday, at age 80. He’d been in failing health for some time, to the point that he was unable to speak to me during the process of my reporting. Once upon a time, however, I got to encounter him with some regularity in the press box at AT&T Park. It was the early 2000s, and I was just coming up through the Bay Area sportswriting ranks. He was a columnist on the verge of retirement. To my uninformed self he was little more than an old guy with a thing for outsized leather jackets. I had no idea about his history or his ability, which is, enduringly, my own loss.

What Bergman did with those A’s was remarkable. He was so embedded that he became a regular in the bridge game run by pitchers Ken Holtzman and Rollie Fingers. He mined his sources with such authority that team owner Charlie Finley came to refer to him as “that little shit-stirrer”—a label that, even as it earned Bergman scant goodwill in the executive suite, garnered lasting respect from the rest of the press corps. (How far under Finley’s skin did he get? After Bergman wrote in The Sporting News that “In listening to the A’s play-by-play announcers you get the impression that there’s some sort of contest as to which one can make the most complimentary remarks about Charlie Finley,” the owner kicked him off the team’s charters and personally cancelled his hotel reservation for the next stop on the road trip.)

During the course of my reporting I read every issue of the Oakland Tribune between 1971 and 1976—a process that started out as “have to,” and ended up as “get to.” Bergie’s work made what could have been a mundane process insightful, educational and unforgettable. It seems only fitting to pull just a few highlights from my notes:

  • In response to the 62 transactions Finley made during the course of the 1972 season, and the fact that Oakland suited up 48 players on the year, Bergman wrote, “Once an Athletic, always an Athletic … or if not once an Athletic, then eventually an Athletic.”
  • He described Rollie Fingers during a hot streak as “on the verge of being declared unfair to hitters.”
  • Discussing the strength of Oakland’s reserves in comparison to Cincinnati during the 1972 World Series, he wrote, “The A’s have a great bench. Theirs is lowercase. The Reds’ Bench is tremendous. The Reds’ bench is underwhelming.”
  • Describing executive John Claiborne, who had just quit Oakland’s dysfunctional front office: “Unlike most office help hired by Finley in his baseball operations, Claiborne had some unusual handicaps. He wasn’t related by either blood or marriage to the owner. He had some baseball experience before joining the A’s. And he was competent.”

After the San Jose Mercury pulled its writers off the road in 1974, Bergman was the only one left traveling with the team. Said Jon Miller, one of the club’s broadcasters that season, “We would go into a city like New York, where they’d have eight or nine writers, and they’d come on the press box PA and say, ‘We want to welcome the Oakland press corps: Ron Bergman.’ He was it.”

He was it, in so many ways.

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