Thou Shalt Play Thy Best in September, Even If Thou Doest Stink to Yon Heavens

Lineup card

At least one of baseball’s unwritten rules is time sensitive, broken out only in the final days or weeks of a season, primarily by managers of mediocre teams. It’s an issue of sportsmanship-based lineup construction, hinging on the fact that simply because your team has little to play for, the opposition isn’t necessarily in the same boat.

Which leads to differing points of view. Does a manager field his best players when facing teams still in the playoff hunt, as a courtesy to those they’re battling for postseason berths, or can he keep trotting out prospects, the better to gauge what he’ll have to work with next season?

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is firmly in the former camp, playing his regular starters in this week’s series against the playoff-hungry Astros at Safeco Field. (Little matter; Houston took two of three.)

Elsewhere in the American League West, however, things played out differently. Last week the A’s called up Barry Zito for a nostalgia-heavy, swan-song start against Tim Hudson and the Giants. The lefty getting shelled for six hits and four runs over two innings made little difference to the big picture, what with both teams effectively out of the playoff chase.

When Zito’s turn came around yesterday, however, there he was again, making what was likely his final major league start. This time, however, his opponent was the Angels, battling Houston for a wild card spot. The Astros had just come off of three games against Seattle’s best (discounting the fingernail issue that sidelined James Paxton and Taijuan Walker’s innings limit, which would likely have sidelined both even had Seattle had something to play for), and now their primary opponent for a playoff berth got to tee off against Zito?

Houston manager A.J. Hinch took things in stride. “Anybody at this level deserves to be here in my eye,” he said in the Houston Chronicle. “You manage your own team and handle your own business.” (Zito gave up four hits and four walks over four innings, but the Angels only scored twice against him and the A’s ended up winning, 8-7.)

Teams aren’t always as forgiving as Hinch. From a post I wrote in 2011:

In 2004, going into the season’s final series, the Giants and Houston were tied for the wild card lead with 89-70 records. The Astros closed with three home games against Colorado, while the Giants visited Los Angeles.

Suffice it to say that members of the San Francisco clubhouse took note when Rockies manager Clint Hurdle trotted out a series-opening lineup featuring six rookies—Aaron Miles, Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, Jorge Piedra, Brad Hawpe and JD Closser.

The Giants managed to take two of three from the Dodgers, but it wasn’t enough; the Astros swept punchless Colorado.

“All we needed was for Houston to lose one game,” said then-Giants reliever Matt Herges. “We were watching that, yelling, ‘This is a joke.’ We couldn’t stand Clint Hurdle after that.”

Hurdle wasn’t alone in his thinking. (“Goddammit, if I’m that far out of the pennant race, the players I was playing weren’t worth a shit, anyway,” Jim Leyland told me when he was managing the Tigers. “You might as well take a chance and look at some new players for next year.”) Still, the majority opinion holds that such situations are best avoided. Hurdle got an extra look at a bunch of prospects, at a very real cost to the pennant race. McClendon could have spent the games against Houston evaluating prospects for next year, but recognized that he still has three more games against Oakland with which to do that.

And no, Barry Zito will not start any of them.


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Every Story Needs a Bad Guy; This One Has Him – But Not For the Reason You Might Think

Pap vs. Harp II

Turns out that Jonathan Papelbon’s old-school-vs.-new-school emotional crisis last week was only the beginning. At least then he was hitting members of the opposition.

In the aftermath of his physical assault on Bryce Harper Sunday, caught on TV for all to see, we’re left to digest the complex implications of not only what happened, but why.

After Harper failed to run out trotted slowly to first on an eighth-inning popup to left field (but still plenty fast enough to make it if the ball was dropped), Papelbon began railing on his lack of hustle before the guy even made it back to the dugout. When Harper failed to exhibit the kind of subservience one can only assume Papelbon expected a 22-year-old to pay a veteran of his stature, the closer went for his throat, literally. (Watch it here.)

Over at Fox, former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski makes the case, citing unnamed current and former big leaguers, that it was Harper in the wrong, that young players in baseball must pay emotional servitude to their seniors, as it is and as it has always been.

There’s something to this. Rookies who watch quietly tend to absorb more than those whose energy is spent making their own voices heard. For generations, upstart rookies were not allowed to exist in a big league atmosphere; veterans worked tirelessly to tamp them down until they were no longer noisy. That’s no longer so. Part of it is top-tier signing bonuses that put many young players on comparable financial footing with veteran teammates. Part of it is players being rushed to the big leagues earlier and earlier, making them more prevalent to the overall culture than ever. Part of it is the collective realization that stifling one’s teammates is simply not a productive use of one’s time.

That, though, is not the real issue.

What Nitkowski fails to acknowledge in his treatise is that clubhouse standing is not based purely on seniority. Veteran status plays a part in it, of course, and by that measure Papelbon, with his 11 years in the big leagues and 34 years on the planet, has it all over Harper.

Production, however, trumps seniority. Harper has made three All-Star teams in his four years in the league, and has already earned more MVP votes than Papelbon ever did. He’s the best player not just on the Nationals but damn well in all of baseball.

Papelbon, on the other hand, has been with the Nationals for all of two months. If anybody gets traded over this incident, it’s not going to be Harper. By this measure—which is more real than whatever hokum Papelbon or his defenders want to spin about veteran status—Harper wins in a landslide.

That, though, isn’t the real issue, either.

Evidence points toward Papelbon’s anger stemming from Harper’s decision to go public with his frustration over the closer drilling Manny Machado last week, telling the press that the closer’s actions were “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

In that much Papelbon is correct: Those kinds of comments are better delivered behind closed doors than in a public forum. Had Harper sat Papelbon down for a heart-to-heart about the nature of baseball and how much it hurts to get drilled in retaliation for a teammate’s ill-considered actions, things between the two might never have reached the critical state they eventually did.

But even that is not the real issue.

For somebody sticking to his guns about the way things ought to be, Papelbon failed both himself and his old-school proponents. In drilling Machado for showboating, the closer could cite historical precedence; ballplayers of yore did it all the time, and by gum the game was better then, and etc. But even if we ignore the big picture that tells us that’s no longer the case—not to mention the fact that a reticence to evolve is one of the most damning characteristics a person or organization can foster—it’s impossible to miss Papelbon conveniently ignoring as solid a tenet as baseball’s unwritten rules contain: Don’t throw at a guy’s head.

Had Papelbon drilled Machado in the thigh or in the ass instead of sending two pitches above his shoulders, there’s a good chance that Harper would not have said anything at all. And had Harper not said anything, Papelbon would have had little reason to extend his vendetta to his own damn dugout. And therein we find the crux of the issue.

The hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy of players hiding behind semi-formed tenets of decorum while conveniently ignoring their own culpability in a given matter. (And never mind Papelbon’s postscript lip-service statement, “I’m in the wrong there,” delivered without a smidgen of guilt.)

The hypocrisy of meathead pitchers trying to leverage the unwritten rules to bolster their own macho need to exact a toll whenever they can, wherever they are, while claiming the moral high ground.

The hypocrisy of somebody shutting out every detail of a situation save for the ones that bolster his own point of view.

The American sporting public is a forgiving crowd, but only when we’re certain we’re not being played. Athletes are given second and third and fourth chances, provided they’re honest about whatever it was that plagued them in the first place. Jonathan Papelbon will never come out and say that he dislikes Bryce Harper for his combination of youth and ability and earning potential and clubhouse leadership at an age when Papelbon himself was pitching in the short-season Class-A league in Lowell, Mass.

Sure, Harper might be grating. Many stars are. Their status affords them that leeway. Papelbon, however, refuses to acknowledge that status, and couches it however he can to validate his actions.

It’s a weak mindset, and goes a long way toward explaining the abundance of burned bridges the closer has left in his wake. Most good stories need a hero to save the day. This one has only a villain, but at least it’s enough to keep things interesting.

Update, 9-28: The Nationals seem to agree, suspending Papelbon for what amounts to the duration of the season.


Filed under Inter-Team Fighting, Veteran Status

Has Baseball Evolved? To Judge by the Response to Ham-Handed Intimidation Tactics, It’s At Least Getting There


By their inherent nature, sports are built to promote the concepts of good guys and bad guys. It’s them-vs.-us in tribal glory, where the opponent is the enemy simply by dint of wearing the wrong colors. This is why when we are provided an actual heel—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, John Rocker—we so revel in lambasting him.

The series of events that began on Wednesday with Jonathan Papelbon needlessly drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado had all the makings for just such a scenario. Papelbon, the crotchety closer who’s pissed off opponents and teammates alike with three clubs over the last five years, was perfectly positioned as the foil, serving up behavior so outlandish that his own right fielder, Bryce Harper, publicly groused that he’d probably be the one to take the fall for it.

And then Buck Showalter stepped in. Finally, somebody who not only sees ludicrous things for what they are, but refuses to buy into a system that all but mandates senseless violence as an acceptable response mechanism.

The quick beats:

  • Machado hit a go-ahead homer off Nationals starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday, and admired it for a moment longer than Papelbon thought appropriate. Or maybe it was his pointing afterward, to the heavens, to the grandstand. Papelbon didn’t say.
  • Machado’s next at-bat came in the ninth, with the closer on the mound. Papelbon threw his second pitch up near Machado’s head; after it missed he did it again. Had Machado stayed in his crouch the ball would likely have connected with his cheek or ear. Because he stood up and spun toward the backstop, it merely ricocheted off the top of his shoulder. Papelbon was ejected immediately. (Watch it here.)

This goes beyond the simple etiquette of the unwritten rules. Once upon a time somebody like Papelbon could have gotten away with that kind of message pitch, informing the opposition that styling—even styling so slight as to have almost entirely evaded the TV replay—will not be tolerated, at risk of great physical peril. But baseball has moved on from that mindset, almost universally for the better. Machado did nothing outside the mainstream, his actions offensive only to the red-assed among us who cry that old-school retaliation is the only way to curb such offensive behavior.

Manny n BuckThe fact that Papelbon took things a step further, throwing two pitches near Machado’s head, is on its own merits worthy of a considerable suspension.

Modern-day baseball has graduated from making emotional slights physical. It’s not that skins have grown thicker over the years; it’s that as celebrations have become commonplace, most players just stopped caring about them. The question is no longer who thinks them worthy of retaliation, but who even notices.

On the other hand, Papelbon’s attack—an actual, physical assault with a baseball upon Baltimore’s best hitter—is the kind of thing that cries out for response. It would be easy to justify; when somebody goes full-bore loony, there are proven methods of getting his attention. Papelbon gave just such an opening to the Orioles, spurring Harper to grouse that the closer’s actions are “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

With that comment, Harper all but validated whatever response Showalter had up his sleeve. People filled the ensuing hours with discussion about when and how and on what part of the body Harper might wear one. And then we were surprised.

Showalter demurred.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he said in a Baltimore Sun report. “The best retaliation would be to win another game, right? That’s usually how it works. … The greatest form of revenge is success, isn’t that what they say?”

Can it really be that simple? Yep. Thursday saw no retaliation of any sort, save for Machado calling Papelbon a coward. And sure enough, the Orioles won. Like Showalter himself said, “That hurts more, especially when you take the high ground.”

Showalter knows whereof he speaks. Machado himself spurred a similarly embarrassing affair only last year, and the O’s skipper appears to want no part in revisiting any part of that mindset. Wednesday, Papelbon proved himself again as a heel who it’s fun to root against, but that, in sports, is old hat.

In avoiding unnecessary conflict, Showalter gave us the opposite—not just somebody worth cheering, but somebody worth emulating, a clean-cut cat whose clear-eyed logic carried the day. With the Orioles still holding an outside shot at a wild-card spot, Showalter allowed his team to do the one thing that’s absolutely necessary for the good of its immediate future: concentrate on playing baseball.

Well played, Buck. Well played.

Update 9-25: Well, there it is: three games for Pap.


Filed under Retaliation

Yogi Berra, RIP

Yogi 1

Baseball lost a great one when Yogi Berra, an unbelievably winning player with an even more unbelievably winning personality, passed away on Tuesday. In his memory, here’s a suitable passage from The Baseball Codes. The story is ostensibly about Berra’s teammate, Yankees pitcher Bob Turley, and his propensity for stealing the opposing team’s signs, but it ends up being about Yogi, because of course it does.

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

Berra was unique on the field and off, and it says something that the flood of obituaries and remembrances over the last day or so involve his kindness of spirit as much as or more than his baseball prowess. We lost a good one on Tuesday.

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Carnage in Chicago, But it Ain’t Joe Maddon’s Fault

Rizzo drizzoThere are lots of ways to look at the weekend’s incidents in Chicago, which resulted in six hit batters, four ejections, an in-dugout apology, some strategic rethinking about ages-old Code courtesy that’s long been questioned but never usurped, and a one-sided war of words waged by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

Start wih Maddon, whose reasonable explanations for everything that happened did little to mask that he spent the weekend playing each sides of debate, both as aggrieved victim and as innocent perpetrator, depending on whether his team was being drilled or doing the drilling. Chicago’s Dan Harren plunking Matt Holiday in the helmet? An accident, and don’t dare insinuate otherwise. Cards reliever Matt Belisle drilling Anthony Rizzo? As clearly telegraphed a hit as a hit ordered by Tony Soprano, whose name Maddon dropped in his postgame press conference. Never mind that Rizzo leads baseball in being hit by pitches, or that Belisle was still knocking off rust in only his second appearance since June after returning from elbow issues. (Watch Haren and Belisle’s pitches here.)

Maddon, however, didn’t want to hear it. (“Of course not,” he said, when asked about Belisle’s pitch possibly being unintentional. “That is ridiculous.”)

There are facts to back up the manager’s viewpoint, of course. Haren obviously did not mean to drill Holiday, but these are the Cardinals, whose institutional need to settle scores is so ingrained as to have been described in detail in the book Three Nights in August. (The focus of that book, Tony La Russa, has since moved on, but Mike Matheny has maintained the brand in a reasonable fashion.)

And that pitch Belisle threw sure looked intentional, aimed directly at its mark from the moment it left his hand. Haren, in fact, spent two seasons under La Russa in St. Louis, and knew enough to apologize to Rizzo after hitting Holiday for the HBP he was all but certain was coming. “They always police things like that …” Haren said in an report, saying that the Cardinals view retaliation as an intimidation tactic. “They might take it to the extreme a little bit with that stuff. I think everyone understands it. I guess at least they didn’t throw at his head.”)

The real intrigue became with the warning Maddon issued at the close of his diatribe: “We don’t start stuff, but we will finish stuff.”

That became clear on Saturday, when Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was hit twice (angrily spiking his bat after the second one, from reliever Fernando Rodney; watch it here). After warnings were issued, Cubs closer Hector Rondon furthered the tension by drilling pinch-hitter Greg Garcia to open the ninth, earning ejections for himself and Maddon.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to [hit anyone],” said Maddon, after the game.

Well, no. Not so obviously.

The denial of any intent for any action that can be justifiably read as antagonistic is part of the Code. But even were Maddon telling the truth, he had to realize that the chutzpah involved is overwhelming. Actually, he did.

“I know nobody wants to believe me,” he said. “You’re not going to believe me, all the Cardinal nation. God bless you, you’re not going to want to believe me, and I get it. There’s no way for me to sit here and even attempt to ameliorate your concerns. None of that was intentional, it just happens, it’s part of the game. Go ahead, lay it on me, man, I’m OK with it.”

Rondon drilled Garcia with a 96-mph fastball while his team held a four-run lead. Rodney is already known to go after people. It’s easy to explain away any one of Chicago’s three drillings that occurred after Maddon’s promise to “finish stuff,” but such blanket whitewashing is a stretch.

Perhaps it’s an indication that the Cubs are growing up as a franchise, that the mighty Cardinals finally see them as a threat and are responding in kind by breaking out big-boy tactics. It wouldn’t be a first. Chicago’s newfound success can be seen in Maddon’s own strategies; with his team in the heart of the wild-card chase the manager made clear his intention of placing the unwritten rules in a secondary position to winning games. In the eighth inning on Friday, he shut down his running game despite the Cardinals opting not to hold runners on first, on account of Chicago’s five-run lead. Maddon ended up having to warm up closer Hector Rondon in the ninth, on a day he would have liked to rest him entirely, and made it clear that he regretted the decision.

“The next time they [don’t hold our runners on base], we’re going to run,” he said. “I want everybody to know that. I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day. I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never [read] this book that the Cardinals had written regarding how to play baseball. If you play behind us, and we’re up by five points in the ninth, we’re running. And you have every right to do the same thing.”

Sunday’s series closer featured no big leads for either team to exploit. It also featured no hit batters. For those of you scoring at home, it was the final time during the regular season that these teams will face each other. So be sure to mark your 2016 NL Central calendars for some quality Code-based action.

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On the Merits of Asking For Time, and Reasoned Responses to Same

Weaver - Seager

Jered Weaver meltdowns tend to be memorable affairs. In 2011 it was a blowout with Detroit, after Carlos Guillen admired a homer while staring Weaver down.

Compared to that, Kyle Seager is a downright choirboy.

In the fifth inning yesterday, Seager did what Seager does, settling into the batter’s box while holding his left hand toward the umpire, asking for time while he adjusted and readjusted himself. It’s standard fare for the third baseman, but Weaver questioned him, and everything stopped. (It’s not like the Weaver hadn’t already faced the guy 35 times over the years. No, wait a minute … it’s exactly like that.) Weaver shouted at Seager. Seager shouted at Weaver. Then the hitter got back into the box and called time again.

So Weaver drilled him.

It was an 83 mph fastball, placed appropriately. Seager wasn’t the only one to get the message; plate ump Brian O’Nora tossed Weaver on the spot.

In Weaver’s defense, he doesn’t get upset over nothing. Back in 2011, Guillen had been the second Tigers hitter to pimp a homer on the day, and was clearly trying to show the pitcher up. Seager is similarly culpable; the fact that he gets away with asking for time with both feet planted firmly in the batter’s box doesn’t mean it should be done. Set feet are a universal signal for let’s play ball, and expecting personally tailored rules is certain to rile some people.

That said, Weaver’s reactions in both situations were poor—and undoubtedly compounded by the fact that he wasn’t pitching well in either game. On Wednesday he’d given up six hits, a walk and three runs in four-and-two-thirds innings, and would likely have topped 80 pitches had he made it to the end of the fifth. Seager was on the money when he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “If you hit me there it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, he was going to be out of the game. I guess he was tired of pitching.”

Score this one for Seager, as well as for the rest of the American League, which now fully realizes that Weaver’s head offers easy access when the chips are down.


Filed under Gamesmanship, Retaliation

Joaquin Andujar: RIP


Sad news just in from the Dominican Republic: Former pitcher Joaquin Andujar—four-time All-Star and the rotation cornerstone of St. Louis’ world champs in 1982—has passed away. Part of his success was predicated on effective use of intimidation, which led to one of my favorite stories in The Baseball Codes, courtesy of former pitcher Mike Krukow. Andujar comes across as a bit of a villain in the tale, but there’s no mistaking that for the better part of a decade he was one of the best pitchers in the National League. Baseball lost a good one.

In 1984, the Giants found themselves in an ongoing feud with St. Louis pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who frequently tried to establish his menacing mound presence through early-innings use of brushback and knockdown pitches. That appeared to be his strategy on July 17, when he hit San Francisco’s second batter of the game, Manny Trillo. In retrospect, it wasn’t his best decision.

“Manny was a teammate of mine on three teams and a very good friend, and a guy you should not hit when I was the pitcher,” said Mike Krukow, on the mound for the Giants that day. “And when Andujar got him, I said, ‘Okay, boys, wear your batting gloves on the bench because we’re going to fight when this asshole steps up to the plate.’ ”

When Andujar came up two innings later Krukow didn’t hesitate, putting everything he had into a fastball aimed directly at his nemesis . . . and missed. The ball ran inside and backed Andujar up, but didn’t come close to damaging its intended target. This only made Krukow angrier. The pitcher snapped the return throw from catcher Bob Brenly, stalked across the mound, and glared at the hitter. Again he fired his best fastball at Andujar . . . and again he missed. At that point, home plate umpire Billy Williams interceded, levying a hundred-dollar fine and tell ing Krukow, “I gave you two, and that’s enough.”

The pitcher knew he was beaten. He hadn’t been able to hit Andujar when he had the chance, and now he was out of chances. So he seized his only remaining opportunity, dropped his glove and rushed the plate in a rare instance of the reverse mound-charge. Krukow was able to throw a quick punch at his counterpart before the two were separated.

Inexplicably, once the fight was broken up, neither pitcher was ejected. “Now, how about that?” said Krukow, still amazed decades after the fact. “Billy Williams says to me, ‘Now, that’s it, I’m going to leave you in the game. You’re not going to throw at him anymore?’ I said, ‘No, no. I’m all right. Everything’s cool. I got him.’ ”

The umpire allowed Krukow to return to the mound, still in the mid­dle of Andujar’s at-bat. At that point, said Krukow, the first thought that flashed through his mind was “Son of a bitch—I have another chance to get him!” It didn’t take long, however, for the right-hander to realize the ultimate futility of the situation; in addition to Williams’s warning was Krukow’s own fear of missing Andujar a third straight time. Instead, he bore down and struck his antagonist out.

Although Krukow did no immediate damage at the plate, his tactics certainly had an effect. When Andujar got back to the mound, his 13-7 record and 2.88 ERA were rendered meaningless; the would-be intimida­tor quickly unraveled, giving up four runs to the Giants in his next inning of work, and seven runs overall in just over four frames. It was his worst start of the season, almost certainly a result of the confrontation a half-inning earlier. “We exposed his macho,” said Krukow. “It was great.”


Filed under Intimidation