The Waiting Game: or What to Do When Approached on the Mound by a Manager, in One Easy Step

Kendrick cardKyle Kendrick was frustrated on Saturday. He was pitching well right into the sixth, had helped his team to a 5-1 lead. Then, after a Buster Posey leadoff single, Pablo Sandoval popped up for what should have been the inning’s first out. But the ball fell between Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, at which point Utley tried to flip the ball to second for the force … which would have worked, had his throw not pulled Jimmy Rollins off the bag.

The next batter, Michael Morse, doubled home a run, and Ryne Sandberg came out to the mound for a chat. Kendrick, with little interest in conversation, did not wait for his manager, storming off to the dugout while Sandberg was en route, handing him the ball as they passed.

If the basis of the Code is respect, waiting for one’s manager to reach the mound is a baseball bedrock, even if the pitcher doesn’t agree with the decision to make a change. Especially if a pitcher doesn’t agree with his decision to make a change. Put differently: a red-assed pitcher irked by a hitter digging into the batter’s box is following a narrow band of his precedent-setting forebears, but a manager angry at being abandoned by his pitcher in front of a stadium full of people is directly in line with every guy who’s ever managed in the big leagues.

Seems like a decent segue into the A’s. As some of you know, I’m under contract to write a book about Oakland’s teams of the early 1970s (somewhat breaking news: the story is so large, with so many pieces, that the publication has been moved back to 2016 so I have the space to tell the story in the way it deserves to be told), and this story falls right in line with an incident from 40 years ago.

In 1974, Alvin Dark took over as manager of the two-time defending champions, and in the early going, his methodology was not well received by his players. In particular, Dark had a problem with pitcher management, frequently giving his starters early hooks that ended up backfiring when the bullpen blew some sizeable leads. The most egregious of these instances came in the season’s third game, when Dark was still trying to figure out his roster. He yanked Vida Blue two batters into the fifth inning, with Oakland leading Texas, 5-1. Rollie Fingers allowed both runners to score, and Blue became ineligible for the victory since he had not gone the requisite five frames. From that moment on, Blue held some pretty serious antipathy against Dark.

Fast forward to mid-July. Blue was pitching well enough, entering the fifth inning in New York with a 3-1 lead. But even as the pitcher began to struggle, Dark wanted to let him finish the inning, to become the pitcher of record. But Vida imploded, with four hits and two walks turning Oakland’s lead into a 6-4 deficit. Dark had to pull him with two outs in the frame to stem further damage. When he approached the mound, however, Blue walked straight past him and tossed the ball backward. Dark let it drop onto the ground. It was as insolent a move as could be imagined from a player who had just coughed up a lead. Not only that, but it was the second time in recent history that an A’s pitcher had done it; after the first time, by Ken Holtzman, the manger threatened a $250 fine for any subsequent miscreants.

When the team arrived at Shea Stadium for a doubleheader the following day (New York was a one-ballpark town while Yankee Stadium was undergoing renovations), the manager called them together. It had been precisely 100 days since the season opener, and Dark finally had had enough. They sat in a semicircle in the locker room, while the manager stood in the middle. He usually liked to pace when he addressed a group like this, but this time he stayed in one spot. He did not shout and he did not curse. More impactfully, for the first time that anyone could remember, the uber-religious Dark did not quote the bible even once.

“I’ve never been more disappointed in a group of young men in my life,” he said, according to his book, When in Doubt, Fire the Manager. “I’ve never been more disappointed in a team of world champions. If being a world champion makes you act the way some of you are acting, no thank you. I don’t care to be one.”

“Vida, you and I are even now,” he said. “I screwed you out of a game your first start of the season, and I was never more sorry in my life. But we’re even now. I left you out there yesterday, trying to get you a win, and I’m the one who suffers. You degraded the position of manager. Not me, the position, by acting like a bush kid.” Dark confirmed the $250 fine, and said that it would cost $500 if it happened again. He didn’t want to play catch with his pitchers when he removed them from games, he said.

The Phillies don’t have quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s did—nobody has quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s—but the lesson holds. Afterward, Sandberg labeled Kendricks’ action as no big deal (although he did see fit to talk to the pitcher about it on Sunday), and Kendrick confessed to letting the pressure get to him. “I didn’t handle it right,” he said in a CSN Philadelphia report.

Kendrick is barely hanging on with a 5-11 record and 4.90 ERA, and has plenty of reason to be frustrated. All in all, however, this seems like a decent learning experience for the eight-year vet and the rookie manager, both in the nature of comportment, and how to handle oneself should things break down.

For another example of the concept, this one featuring Frank Robinson and discussed in The Baseball Codes, click here.

[H/T Hardball Talk.]

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Inside Intimidation Doesn’t Always Work Out the Way One Plans

One pitch. The next pitch. There is something to the idea of keeping hitters uncomfortable, but as Yoenis Cespedes shows, a batter’s comfort level is entirely internal.

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Scuff the Dirt, Bryce, but Make Sure to Watch Where you Walk

Bryce Harper drew some attention Saturday when he intentionally (and repeatedly) scuffed the Braves logo that had been imprinted in the dirt behind the plate at Turner Field in Atlanta. On one hand, it was just a bit of gamesmanship, intended to get Atlanta’s goat. On the other he was clearly disrespecting the home team. Ultimately, the gesture was so minor that it should serve as fuel for Braves fans, but not the Braves themselves.

It did bring to mind, however, an interesting piece of Code which might be the single most arcane and widely followed, both at the same time. While other antiquated unwritten rules, like “Don’t swing at the first pitch after back-to-back homers” have fallen nearly entirely off the map, this one, while just as quaint, continues to be ubiquitous. Harper himself was following it, even as he set about being bratty to the Braves.

It’s a simple one: Don’t walk between the pitcher and the catcher when you’re going up to hit—walk around. This almost never causes a commotion, because it’s almost never done. It’s as close to instinctive on the baseball landscape as the unwritten rules can get.

“It’s just bad etiquette to walk in front of the catcher,” said former A’s infielder and current A’s analyst Shooty Babbit. “It’s like breaking the rhythm of the game. You want to creep into the batter’s box; you don’t want to create any attention. You don’t want to give them any more incentive to get you out.”

Dusty Baker learned about it from Hank Aaron when he was coming up with the Braves. “He taught us to walk behind the umpire all the time,” he said. “Not so much for the rhythm of the game, but that it’s their territory, not yours.” Baker talked about the action showing respect for both catcher and umpire.

A poll of current major leaguers would probably draw more blank stares than anything, but one would be hard-pressed to find a guy who makes a practice of doing anything else.

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Hey, Kevin Towers: the Pursuit of Justice Doesn’t Always Make You Right. Sometimes it Just Makes You a Bully

McCutchen drilledSince taking over the Diamondbacks in 2010, general manager Kevin Towers has aimed to turn his franchise into the rootinist, tootinist, unwritten rules followingest team in the land. He installed noted red-ass Kirk Gibson in the manager’s seat. He went on the radio  and claimed  that “it’s going to be an eye for an eye, and we’re going to protect one another,” adding that “ if you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Well, Randall Delgado belongs in a Diamondbacks uniform. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Delgado has barely earned his keep when it comes to good pitching (5.61 ERA over 34 games in relief), but he has to be in Towers’ good graces after Saturday night’s performance. The gap between pleasing one’s superiors and appropriate behavior is where the crux of this story lies.

It started on Friday, when Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri inadvertently hit Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt on the hand. It was unquestionably a mistake—a fastball that sailed inside and barely clipped the batter, who flinched backward a hair too slowly. If D’Backs brass hadn’t decided to retaliate yet at that point, they probably gained clarity when the diagnosis came in: Goldschmidt’s hand was fractured and he’d miss significant time.

The Pirate to bear the retaliatory target was Andrew McCutchen—you hit our best player, we’ll hit yours—and Delgado drilled him in the ninth, after missing with his first offering (which came up and in, but not up and in enough), then sending a decoy breaking ball away. His third pitch, at 95 mph, hit McCutchen sqare in the spine. The outfielder gave no notice to the macho piece of Code saying that drilled batters should act like it didn’t hurt, instead going down as if he’d been shot. (A heater into the backbone will do that to a guy in ways that being drilled in the thigh will not.) On his way to first, he spiked his bat in anger. (Watch it here, including video of the leadup.)

For those who need further proof of intent, when Towers went on his radio diatribe last year, he specifically called out his team’s lack of response when Goldschmidt was hit: “Goldy gets dinged, and no retaliation. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ If Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye. Somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.” So there.

(Worth noting: Goldschmidt was hit three times in 2013, all without response, all with Wade Miley on the mound for Arizona. Was Miley talked to? To judge by his egregious use of force this spring, yes.)

After the game, McCutchen took issue less with the drilling itself than with its details. “Retaliation is going to happen in this game, but there is a right way to do it,” he said in an MLB.com report. “They had plenty of chances. First inning, do it. Perfect time: one out, guy on second base. Get it over with. But they wanted to wait it out, wait until the ninth, second and third.”

Indeed, Arizon had first base open with one out and McCutchen at bat in the first inning. It is a tailor-made circumstance for those with pain on their minds. Trouble is, Gibson had a similar situation in June—first base open against the Brewers—and when he used it to drill Ryan Braun, it ended up costing his team the game.

So he waited. Even if Arizona’s need to retaliate is highly questionable, the method of execution Gibson chose is not. The game was tied in every one of McCutchen’s preceding at-bats, when allowing a baserunner in the name of vendetta would not just be wrong, it would have been even stupider than what the D’Backs ended up doing.

Gibson’s act might have played well when he was starring for the Tigers in the 1980s, but the game has changed. That kind of response to a clearly benign situation is no longer acceptable. McCutchen gets huge credit for not charging the mound, but that’s a possibility—if now a downright likelihood, and not just with the Pirates—if Arizona pitchers continue their reckless ways.

 

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Let me Tell you About Back in the Day …

Gibson cardInteresting stuff up today over at Hardball Talk about the idea of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale becoming a crutch for people trying to express how players of bygone eras wouldn’t put up with the shenanigans of today, even though they hit far fewer batters than their modern reputations would suggest. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of this myself; each guy is an easy stand-in to illustrate points about player toughness and the kinds of things modern players get away with.

Still, how representative were they, really? Despite all the talk about Gibson’s intolerance, there’s little question that he and Drysdale were outliers, simply the meanest characters fronting the scariest trigger fingers of their era. Virtually nobody could match those two—less in terms of sheer body count than in putting the fear of God into batters via a steady stream of knockdown pitches. It’s why they’re still the faces of that particular franchise.

But then there’s this: During the 1968 World Series, in which Gibson played a significant part, Pee Wee Reese apparently bemoaned the lack of modern-day attention to the preponderance of showboating. It’s easy to forget that for all the “kids today are soft” conversations we may have, the previous generation had those same conversations about us, and their elders had the same conversations about them.

Change is inevitable, and, apart from seismic shifts in societal mores, rare is the person who thinks that things are better today than they used to be. Always has been, always will be.

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On the Meritocracy of Baseball’s Showboats: Flair Goes to Those Who Earn It

Papi swings

The learning curve of minor league baseball isn’t just about good footwork and how to recognize a slider out of the pitcher’s hand. A reasonable factor in minor league development involves learning how to play the game in ways that have nothing to do with actually playing the game.

On Friday, Albuquerque Isotopes shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena hit his first Pacific Coast League home run, against the Reno Aces. The catch: the three-run shot turned an 8-0 game into an 11-0 game, and Arruebarrena pimped it like he was David Ortiz on Valium, taking an astounding 32 seconds to round the bases (by my imprecise stopwatch, based on the announcer’s call, owing to the video feed showing something else when Arruebarrena crossed the plate. Watch it here). According to Tater Tot Tracker, Ortiz’s slowest circuit this season is 33.39 seconds on April 9, but that’s his only one—the only one—to come in over 32.

Arruebarrena could actually stand to pick up a pointer or two from Ortiz in the ways of the home run pimp. Papi homered against the Rays on Sunday, offered a bat flip that was significant even by his own expansive standards, then took his usual glacial trip around the bases. (At 29.3 seconds, it was his sixth-slowest of the season, and the ninth-slowest overall this year; watch it here.) Rays starter Chris Archer said after the game in a Tampa Tribune report, “I don’t know what makes him think he can showboat the way he does and then nobody retaliate, nobody look at him in a funny way, nobody pitch him inside,” and that “he feels like he’s bigger than the game. He feels like the show is all about him.”

Ortiz’s ready response: “He’s not the right guy to be saying that, I think. He’s got two days in the league, and to be [whining] and complaining about stuff like that … what else?”

Boom. Get some time in the game, Chris Archer, and then come see me. Ortiz has earned leeway via nine All-Star selections and five top-5 MVP finishes. He hit more homers in 2006 than Chris Archer has career starts.  This is precisely what baseball’s hierarchy looks like.

Moving back to the minors: Arrubebarrena signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers out of Cuba in the off-season, and said that he was like countryman Yasiel Puig when it came to flair. Unlike Puig, however, the shortstop has not yet earned his right to pimp at will, at least in the eyes of his opponents. Also worth noting: Puig does not crack this year’s 10 slowest trots. Arruebarrena is not David Ortiz (not yet, anyway), and doing something like that in so pronounced a blowout is certain to elicit a response. Apparently, he had no idea about the mechanics of it all.

Reno did respond, as baseball teams have always responded: A message pitch to Arruebarrena during his first at-bat the following day, a high-and-tight number that had him ducking out of the way. He went on to strike out during the at-bat, during which time he committed the first of his mistakes: He got mad over standard procedure, executed responsibly, initiated by his own action that was far beyond the gray area of acceptability.

After the strikeout, catcher Blake Lalli apparently brushed Arruebarrena during the process of throwing the ball around the horn, and the batter got angry. The batter started jawing. The batter shoved Lalli and threw his helmet at another advancing member of the Aces. This is where Arruebarrena committed the second of his mistakes: When Aces players came a’charging, the shortstop ran, first around the back of the quickly forming scrum, then backpedaling to better keep his eyes on the two Aces in pursuit. That didn’t work, of course—he was quickly blindsided by a third Reno player, and all hell broke loose.

Arruebarrena’s third and biggest mistake of the day is a life lesson worth noting by all of us: Never start a fight you’re not willing to finish. And unless 20 yards’ worth of backpedal means something different in Havana than it means in Nevada, Arruebarrena wanted nothing to do with fisticuffs. One thing the shortstop must learn when it comes to baseball in this country is that flair is more acceptable than it ever has been, thanks to guys like Puig, but there must be substance behind it. Ortiz has earned it through a Hall-of-Fame career. Puig started earning it his very first week in the big leagues, when he was willing to throw down during a game in which he earlier had gotten drilled in the face.

It’s all a matter of building respect among teammates before asking them to raise fists on your behalf, and opponents before expecting that they’ll overlook your knuckleheaded, offensive behavior. To judge by his actions on Friday, Arruebarrena still has a lot to learn.

 

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Great Bathroom Moments, Vol. 217: The Travails and Ultimate Glory of Jeff Francoeur

So this is the kind of thing that happens to you when you’re the nicest guy in baseball. First, the deaf thing, now the bathroom thing.

During a minor league stint in the San Diego Padres system, Jeff Francoeur was the target of more than a few hijinx. In one of them, captured on film below, he was locked into a clubhouse bathroom for an hour. (The video was released by a teammate in honor of Francoeur’s recent call-up to the big leagues.)

In case one needed further proof of Frenchy’s character: This is not something one does to an asshole, because an asshole would not have fun with it the way Francoeur had fun with it. Clubhouse pranks are an ongoing way to deal with the pressures of a long season and, and ideally, bind teammates together. In this regard, Francoeur is a perfect target. There is obviously a code about what is and isn’t appropriate, and this one falls well within the safety zone.

It also harkens back to another locked-in-the-bathroom story, one with a grander scope and far greater consequences. I posted about it just last year (spurred by Fernando Rodney getting inadvertently stuck in the visitors’ dugout bathroom at the Oakland Coliseum), but with a lead-in as perfect as this, it bears repeating. It involves current Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, during his playing days with Kansas City.

From The Baseball Codes:

Bob McClure was a fun-loving reliever for the Brewers in the 1970s, some­one who proved, if nothing else, that he could take as good as he gave. The story started with his Sunday routine before day games, for which he holed up with a newspaper in the long cinderblock outhouse behind the outfield fence at Milwaukee County Stadium. It was a cool place for an American League pitcher to pass the morning in the shade of the bleachers, escaping the summer heat while his teammates took batting practice.

When the door slammed shut on McClure in the middle of one of these siestas, the pitcher attributed it to a gust of wind. But when he tried to exit, the door wouldn’t budge, even though it had no lock. With just a hint of panic, the pitcher pushed again . . . and again. Soon he was exert­ing so much energy in his frantic bid to escape that he had to stop for peri­odic breathers. The day was growing increasingly more sultry, and McClure worked up a sweat; eventually he kicked the air vents from the walls and stripped down to his underwear. “I bet I lost about seven or eight pounds in there,” he said. “It was hot.”

After a half-hour, the pitcher was able to wedge the door open just enough to squeeze through (“I still remember the scrapes across my chest”), whereupon he saw that someone had taken the rope from a flag­pole on the other side of the outhouse and pulled it so taut to reach the doorknob that the pole had bowed under the pressure. Once it was affixed to the handle, the rope’s tension kept the door from opening; it was only as the fibers started to give that McClure was able, finally, to free himself. (He found out later that members of the visiting Minnesota Twins, com­ing out for their own batting practice, had been told by his mystery assailant to watch the flagpole, that someone was locked in the lavatory and it would bounce every time he tried to get out.) He put on his clothes and returned directly to the clubhouse, as if nothing had ever happened. “I would say that, if someone gets you, never let them know that they got you,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate, if someone really gets you good, to overreact. Don’t get mad, just get even.” The problem was that he had no idea upon whom to visit his revenge.

Before a game several days later, McClure got his answer. As the pitcher loitered in the outfield during BP, a fan called him over to the bleachers. “Do you want to know who locked you in that room?” she asked. His instinct was to play dumb, but when the woman told him she had pictures, he couldn’t resist. She handed them over in exchange for a ball autographed by Robin Yount, and McClure saw exactly what hap­pened: It had taken two men to pull the flagpole rope tight enough to trap him, and their uniforms were clearly visible. It was pitchers Mike Cald­well and Reggie Cleveland.

McClure immediately set to plotting his revenge. Six weeks later, when the Brew­ers had an off-day in Kansas City before a series with the Royals, he struck.

While many players, including Caldwell and Cleveland, spent the after­noon golfing, McClure opted for a hunting trip with a local friend. On the way back they stopped by a farm, where the pitcher bought a small, live— and exceptionally filthy—pig. “It had so much pig dung on it that you couldn’t even hardly tell it was a pig,” McClure said. “It was perfect. We put it in a burlap sack in the back of my buddy’s pickup.”

When the pitcher returned to the hotel, he saw that his teammates hadn’t returned, and figured they’d be out until the wee hours. McClure bribed his way into the room that Caldwell and Cleveland conveniently shared, and let the pig loose atop the bed. “When that pig hit the sheet, it looked up at me and started projectile shitting everywhere, like a shot­gun,” he said. “That pig was alive. It jumps off the bed, and it’s squealing and going nutty. There’s shit on the bed, on the floor, on the curtains. It was so loud that I had to get out of the room.”

He was staying just across the hall, and hours later was roused by the sounds of his returning teammates. Caldwell was the first to enter, and nearly as quickly lit back into the hallway, shouting, “There’s someone in there!” As McClure listened with delight, his teammates rushed the room, then spent the better part of an hour trying to corner the pig. Finally, the noise quieted and McClure went back to sleep.

The next morning, the pitcher veritably bounced across the hall to see how his victims had held up. He entered the room under the pretense of rounding up breakfast companionship, but wasn’t at all prepared for what he saw. The place was spotless. The walls, the drapes, the bedspread, and the carpet had all been cleaned. Caldwell was lying on his back in bed, shirtless. Also on its back, in the crook of Caldwell’s right arm, was a freshly washed pig. It sported a red dog collar. Caldwell was feeding it French fries dipped in ketchup.

Feigning ignorance, McClure asked why there was a pig in the room and was told the entire story, up to and including an early-morning trip to a nearby pet store, where Caldwell bought collar, leash, and industrial-grade pet shampoo. The pig joined the team at the ballpark that day, serv­ing as the Brewers’ mascot. It ended up living on Cleveland’s farm, of all places, dreaming recurrently, no doubt, of room service and burlap.

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