Tag Archives: Philadelphia Phillies

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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Welcome to Spring Training: Phils and Nats Get Testy Early

HalladayGiven that spring training is the prime time for ballplayers to catch up on outdated retribution—the games don’t count, and who really cares if somebody gets tossed—it’s a bit surprising we haven’t seen more of it this month. Then again, we’re only a week in.

The concept managed to hit its stride yesterday in Clearwater, when the Nationals and Phillies continued what has been a cycle of mutual antagonization that started last year, when Cole Hamels happily drilled Bryce Harper in a welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment, then confessed as much afterward.

Nothing was done about it last season (Hamels batted three times in his next start against Washington, once with first base open, and wasn’t so much as brushed back), but relations between the clubs are still running sensitive. Under normal circumstances, Stephen Strasburg hitting Chase Utley in the back ankle wouldn’t elicit much protest—it’s hardly the location to do any sort of damage, not to mention that Strasburg is still working out winter kinks. That it came from the Nationals, however, seemed to strike a chord.

Roy Halladay subsequently threw a pitch behind Tyler Moore (not ordinarily a prime target but by that point in the game the most veteran player remaining for the Nats). Afterward, the right-hander offered the usual platitude about having lost his grip, but then went into a fairly extended dialog about just what that kind of pitch can mean to a club.

“We do need to protect our guys to an extent,” he said in a Phillies.com report. “I’m not saying that’s what happened. It slipped, but I think that’s important. We’ve had a lot of guys hit over the years. I think as a staff we need to do a good job of protecting those guys. Spring training, I don’t think you’re necessarily trying to do it, but it wouldn’t have been the worst thing had it got him after getting one of our good guys.”

There’s also the fact that, according to a deadpanning Halladay, “Chase suggested drilling a few guys this year so I might mix that in.”

It may have been a joke, but it was rooted in reality, as Utley confirmed.

“I think we’re all fighting for the same thing,” he said. “We all want to win. I think, as a hitter, the more uncomfortable you are the more difficult it is to hit. But getting hit is part of the game.”

As for Halladay’s motivation, the action may have served two purposes. One was to reinforce to the defending division champs that the Phillies will not be pushed around this season. Another, even more likely, was to send a message to his own clubhouse, especially after the comments he and Jonathan Papelbon made about Philadelphia’s lack of leadership.

Agree or disagree with his plan of attack, Halladay is, without doubt, leading. The message has been sent; the next six months will tell us whether it’s been received.

(Via Yahoo.)

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All Quiet in Philly: Hamels-Harper Drama Reaches Accord

So the big showdown happened. Nearly three weeks after his drilling of Bryce Harper renewed baseball’s fascination with the unwritten rules, Cole Hamels stepped to the plate three times against Edwin Jackson, once with first base open, and didn’t even get brushed back.

People seem almost disappointed.

The Phillies, of course, got their retaliation back in the same game that Harper was first hit, when Jordan Zimmerman drilled Hamels in the leg. That effectively closed the book for both parties. There was a chance that Hamels’ after-the-fact admission could have earned him some extra attention, but that never came to pass.

Hamels said that it wasn’t “even in the back of my mind.”

Harper said everything was behind him, and that he didn’t think “anybody really cares about it anymore.”

Well, then. Movin’ on.

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Message Sent: Hamels Drills Harper, Floodgates Open

This is the Code, at its deepest and most ingrained levels. It is the confluence of ability and pride and hype and the concept that all men must earn their successes. It is the old guard welcoming the new—player and team alike—with an unmistakable challenge: Welcome to the big time. Let’s see if you can hack it.

It was Cole Hamels, burying a fastball into the small of Bryce Harper’s back in the first inning Sunday (watch it here), partly to warn the 19-year-old phenom that life at this level will be harder than expected, partly to provide a physical component to the opinion that the Nationals’ 18-9, NL East-leading start—5.5 games ahead of last-place Philadelphia—was still at least 75 wins short of actually meaning something.

Just in case there was any leeway in possible interpretations, Hamels made things clear after the game, telling the world that the pitch was laden with meaning.

“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said in a Philly.com report. “I mean, I’m not going to deny it. It’s something that I grew up watching. I’m just trying to continue old baseball, because I think some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything, because that’s the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not as that kind of old school, prestigious way of baseball.”

Whether Hamels was annoyed by Harper’s questioning the strike zone in an earlier game—even as the Phillies pitched around him—remains unclear; the left-hander declined to discuss the point at which he decided to plunk him. Little matter—this is how veterans handled rookies for generations, and it was as retro an act as could be imagined in the modern game.

Frank Robinson was hit 20 times during his rookie season—the most of his career—a result, he said in the Sporting News, of “those guys . . . trying to test me. They were trying to see what I was made of.” Don Drysdale did much the same thing when he buzzed Orlando Cepeda in the future Hall of Famer’s first major league at-bat. In 1939, Browns manager Fred Haney ordered that Ted Williams be knocked down twice in a game, after the rookie had gone 7-for-16 against St. Louis over the previous four contests. Twice Williams got up, and put a stop to the tactic with a homer, a double and six RBIs.

Which, to Harper’s credit, is not dissimilar from what Washington’s rookie ended up doing on Sunday. After Harper was drilled, he didn’t hesitate in taking third when the next batter, Jayson Werth, singled to left. The moment Hamels threw to first to keep Werth close, Harper broke for the plate, sliding in easily under the tag of Carlos Ruiz. (Watch it here.)

Harper’s skills have never been questioned. With displays like the Sunday’s, his mental toughness will probably soon reach that point as well, if it hasn’t already. “If he continues to do that, he’s going to make a really good name for himself,” Hamels said afterward, admiringly.

The circle was closed in the top of the third, when Washington starter Jordan Zimmerman responded by hitting Hamels in the leg. (Unlike Hamels, Zimmerman denied intent. Also unlike Hamels, nobody believed him.) For his part, Hamels considered it an appropriate response.

“That’s the way it should work,” he said.

Though Hamels lost the battle, however, he clearly won the war. Harper may not have been prone to intimidation, but the Phillies’ left-hander shut down the rest of the Nationals over eight innings, allowing just five hits and Harper’s stolen run in a 9-3 victory. With as clear a message as Hamels delivered to Harper, there appeared to be just as much intent toward an increasingly confident Nationals team that, Hunter Pence said in the Washington Post, was playing like it had “a chip on their shoulder.”

Which brings up one more possibility when dissecting Hamels’ mindset. The act brings to mind the moment in 1974, when Dock Ellis sought to knock the swagger out of the upstart Cincinnati Reds with the revolutionary tactic of hitting every batter he faced. He opened the game by drilling Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession, then walked Tony Perez on four pitches after the first baseman—in clear recognition of imminent danger—bailed out as soon as each pitch was released. The right-hander was removed by befuddled Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh after going 2-0 on the next hitter, Johnny Bench, but by that point it didn’t matter—Ellis’ message had been sent. And here’s the key point: The most important recipients weren’t even members of the Reds, but Ellis’ own Pittsburgh teammates. Intimidating Cincinnati was an obvious bonus, but the pitcher’s primary goal was to jolt what he viewed more and more as a complacent Pirates clubhouse.

It worked. Having won only six of 18 before the game, Pittsburgh went 82-62 the rest of the way and won the National League East for the fourth time in five years.

The Phillies, by contrast, have won the National League East five years running. Hamels hasn’t shared his views on his team’s toughness (or lack thereof), but as one of only two pitchers remaining from the beginning of that run (Kyle Kendrick is the other), it would not be surprising were Hamels looking to send a message to a club struggling to maintain its position atop the National League’s pecking order.

Hamels’ act has drawn scorn from various circles, not least of them Washington’s front office. “I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chickenshit act in my 30 years in baseball,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo in the Washington Post. “[Hamels] is the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough.”

Rizzo continued: “He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”

In one capacity, at least, Rizzo is dead wrong. Hamels knows a lot about the guys he’s dealing with—at least the ones he’s dressing with each day.

The pitcher’s message couldn’t have been more clear. Now it’s up to the rest of us to figure out its intended recipients.

Note: A version of this post just went up at Sports Illustrated.com.

Update (5/07): Hamels was just suspended for five games—a predictable result after his admission. He won’t appeal, which essentially just pushes him back a day, for a Sunday start.

Update II (5/07): Phils manager Charlie Manuel put into words what we all already knew (at least as it relates to punishment from the league): If nothing else, Hamels should have kept his mouth shut.

Update II (5/08): Jim Leyland has weighed in, and feels that Hamels’ suspension was too light. In a burst of counter-intuitive blogging, I tend to agree with him. While I have no problem with Hamels’ tactics on the field, the fact that he admitted it gave MLB little choice but to punish him. A five-game suspension for a starting pitcher, however, has negligible effect — especially when it comes, as it did for Hamels, immediately following a start. Specifics of this case aside, forcing a pitcher to miss action, rather than simply delaying it by a day or two, would hold far more weight.

Update III (5/09): Apparently Hamels isn’t the only one who talks too much. Rizzo has picked up a fine for his comments.

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Filed under Bryce Harper, Cole Hamels, Retaliation

The Power of Suggestion: How to Clear the Bases with a Wave of the Hand

Josh Thole in the midst of disbelieving that he's actually been snookered quite as badly as he actually was.

When Jimmy Rollins held up his hand toward Mets baserunner Josh Thole last week, it meant by every indication that the ball was no longer in play–in this case, a bunt gone foul. Thole, who had steamed into second base on R.A. Dickey‘s sacrifice attempt, started jogging back to first.

The problem, at least as far as Thole was concerned, was that Dickey’s ball was still live, having been laid down perfectly inside the line. Cliff Lee threw the ball to Rollins, who relayed it to first baseman Jim Thome just ahead of a desperately diving baserunner. (Watch it here.)

“Jimmy put his hands up, like ‘Come in easy. You can come in easy,’ ” said Thole after the game in the Newark Star-Ledger. He later continued: “I looked at the umpire, and got a weird stare from him, and then I looked back and the ball was on his way to first. I didn’t know what else to do. I just kept running.”

If Rollins’ gesture was intentional (and with the shortstop failing to address the issue after the game, there is little reason to think that it wasn’t; see a screen grab at Philly.com), he added an entry to a sizeable section of Code dealing with gamesmanship. At its core: Get every advantage you can, in any way possible. Such plays are known as dekes (short for “decoy”), and although Rollins’ example wasn’t typical of the genre, it wasn’t quite original, either. From TheBaseball Codes:

In a 1972 game between the Giants and Padres, Johnny Jeter stole a base so easily that there was no throw. He dived headfirst into the base anyway, a clear sign that he hadn’t looked in to follow the action. See­ing this, San Francisco shortstop Chris Speier pounced. “Hold up, hold up—foul ball,” he said nonchalantly. Astonishingly, the ploy worked. Jeter started back to first base, Giants catcher Dave Rader fired the ball to second, and Jeter was tagged out. “Oh shit, was he pissed,” said Speier, grinning at the thought more than three decades later.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Had Jeter—or Thole, 40 years later—been paying attention, neither would have gotten snookered.

“I don’t think any baserunner should fall for a deke,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington. “There are things I’m supposed to be doing when a ball is put in play, so how can you deke me? A ball is hit, and I’m supposed to know where that ball is at all times. And if I run blind and get deked out, whose fault is that? Is that the infielder who deked me out, or is that my fault for not knowing what’s going on?”

The problem for Thole was that he had been paying attention.

“I knew the ball was fair,” he said in the Star-Ledger. “I even looked down. You can go watch the video. I checked in. The ball was on the floor. I just took off running back to first. I’ve got no other explanation . . . I don’t know what I was thinking.”

 

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Filed under Deke Appropriately, Jimmy Rollins

How to Make Friends and Influence People (or Not): Umpire Edition

Things got testy for Denard Span Tuesday.

We know already that there are different ways to deal with umpires—some effective, some not so much. We know already that superstars have more leeway in this regard than the average player. And if we didn’t know already that you may as well go ahead and vent once you have nothing left to lose in a game—say, if you’ve just been rung up on three pitches out of the strike zone as your team’s final out in the ninth inning—we learned about it on Monday.

We’ve learned a lot about umpire relations since Monday, in fact. Three examples (at least), in three different situations, with three different kinds of player. Whether these examples set any sort of precedent when it comes to understanding player-umpire relations is less clear than the fact that they were all wildly entertaining, and gave some insight into the psyches of those involved, players and umpires alike.

Start with Monday’s game in San Francisco, in which Roy Halladay walked Aubrey Huff in the fifth inning on an 88 mph cutter with two outs and a runner on first. Trouble was, Halladay didn’t agree that the pitch was a ball. (To his credit, neither pitch-tracking service Brooks Baseball; thanks to Hardball Talk for the link.)  From the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb:

Halladay snatched the throw from Carlos Ruiz and didn’t flinch. His eyes were focused on (Marty) Foster, the home-plate umpire . . . Foster noticed the death stare. He said something to Halladay, who barked back. Then Halladay pointed to make his anger totally clear. It was a brief exchange, one Halladay later claimed was not directed at Foster. But that was the pitcher’s way of being diplomatic.

The result: Five pitches later, Halladay threw another cutter to Brandon Belt, this one well off the plate. It was called a strike, Belt’s third of the at-bat. Inning over.

“His demands had been heard,” wrote Gelb. Halladay had “conquered the umpire.”

Across the country, more balls were being called strikes, including three of Fernando Rodney’s five pitches to Cody Ross, Boston’s final batter in the final frame of a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay.  (See them in another chart from Brooks Baseball, also via Hardball Talk.)

Ross, suffice it to say, was less than pleased, going off later in the Boston Herald about the ignominy of what had just occurred, calling the judgement of plate ump Larry Vanover “unacceptable.”

“If I’m going up there and striking out every at-bat, I’m going to get benched,” he said. “But it’s not that way with (umpires). They can go out there and make bad calls all day, and they’re not going to be held accountable for it.”

Confronting an umpire apparently made a difference for Halladay. The same might be said for Ross (who did it through the press), but not in a way that held any appeal for the player. It could be coincidence, but the following day, three Rangers pitchers struck out a total of 11 Boston hitters—a team high since opening day, when they struck out 13 White Sox—as Texas cruised, 18-3.

On Tuesday in New York, Minnesota’s Denard Span was tossed by plate ump Greg Gibson for arguing balls and strikes. Actually, he was tossed for the fact that he did so in an obvious fashion, swiveling his head backward as he stood in his batting stance to face the ump during the course of the conversation. (See it all here.)

It’s well-known that such a move is widely taken as disrespectful by umpires, and few are willing to tolerate much, if any, of it. This became clear when Span was caught by on-field microphones saying, “I didn’t disrespect you,” shortly before he was tossed.

Said Span in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “It went from Level 1 to “Level 10 in like two seconds.”

“You don’t want to turn on an umpire, to show him up,” said longtime catcher Ron Hassey, discussing the general concept, not Span specifically. “If you’re going to talk, talk straight out. He knows what’s going on. He can hear you.”

Ultimately, what do all these interactions tell us? Unfortunately, not a heck of a lot. Every ump is different, as are players’ relationships with them. Halladay’s ability to stare down an umpire certainly had no bearing on Span’s inability to try to talk sense to one.

None of the three players, of course, had anything on former Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren, long noted for his combination of blazing fastball and lack of control. Jim Bouton recounted in his book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the time that Duren walked three straight hitters on 12 neck-high fastballs. Wrote Bouton:

Finally he walked across a run and he stormed up to the home-plate umpire. “Goddammit, where the hell are those pitches?”

“Right up here, Ryne,” the umpire said, pointing to his neck.

“Well, goddammit,” Duren said, “I’ve got to have that pitch.”

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When Teams Meet to Beat the Heat

We’ve reached the point in the season at which good teams are looking toward the playoffs—and, to their horror, find themselves imagining some combination of absence or failure. Which is why managers have recently taken to the time-tested strategy of the closed-door meeting.

Last week it was the NL East’s turn. Monday afternoon, Braves skipper Freddi Gonzalez insisted that his team merited no such tactic, despite losing three in a row and 11 of 17. That very night, however, after watching his players go 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position during a 12-inning loss to Florida, he about-faced, closing the doors after batting practice on Tuesday, and gave his team a talking to.

The question, of course, is whether this type of thing has any affect. Overall, the results are decidedly mixed, but the tactic seems to be effective for Atlanta.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Braves last met after a loss to the Mets on June 5, then won six in a row.

“It’s almost like therapy,” said Chipper Jones in the AJC. “You knew what was going to be said, but it still helps to hear it, to say it, to look in your teammates’ eyes and let them see your conviction and know that you can’t help what happens next year. This might be your only opportunity.”

For a historical reference, take the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, who had an August loaded with meetings. After a 7-1 loss to the Pirates in the first game of a doubleheader that Aug. 10, manager Dallas Green tore into his players with such fury that reliever Ron Reed had to be restrained from going after him.

“What Dallas was saying went right to the core,” wrote Tug McGraw in Ya Gotta Believe. “Sometimes it’s not what’s being said as much as it is who’s saying it and when they’re saying it. By this time of the year, Dallas had earned a lot of respect. We all knew he was real and wasn’t just a blowhard. So after the meeting, we went out and won eight of nine, including five in a row from the pitiful Mets.”

Less than two weeks later, however, the team lost the final two games of a series at San Diego, earning another dressing-down—this time by general manager Paul Owens, who singled out Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox for their poor play. Rather than let a player come after him, Owens got proactive, offering to fight whoever was up for the challenge. Philadelphia, 5-7 since that Mets series, went 23-11 to close the season (including 12 one-run victories) and went on to win its first World Series in nearly 100 years of existence.

This year’s version of the Phillies has recently had its own challenges. The same night Gonzalez addressed the Braves, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel “had a little talk” with his players following a poorly played 5-2 loss to the Astros, Philadelphia’s second straight defeat.

Manuel downplayed the incident afterward, but according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, “he rattled some cages pretty soundly.”

Not that it did much good. Nearly every Phillies player who took the field the following day was utterly ineffective, as they managed just four hits against Houston starter Bud Norris and two relievers. Luckily for Manuel and the good people of Philadelphia, one guy rose to the occasion: Roy Halladay, who spun a complete-game shutout.

It’s not like this is a new tactic; May alone saw at least four such meetings. (Only one of them was unusual, when the Mets closed the clubhouse doors to discuss the inflammatory comments made by owner Fred Wilpon in a New Yorker profile.)

On May 16, Cubs manager Mike Quade lectured his team after Carlos Zambrano blew a four-run, sixth-inning lead in a loss to the Reds. (The message delivered, according to Quade, via the Chicago Tribune: “That was embarrassing. That (stuff) has got to stop. And it’s everybody that was in that room for that meeting. Myself, the players and the coaching staff. It’s just not going to cut it right now.”)

The Cubs lost their next game. After going 6-and-6 over the next two weeks, they then lost eight in a row.

On May 16, Rockies manager Jim Tracy tried to end a 4-11 streak by addressing his club. (The message delivered, according to Tracy, via the Denver Post: “We need to get back to playing the game the way we did in spring training and the early part of the season.”)

The Rockies won their next two games, then went 3-11 over the following two weeks.

On May 22, Padres manager Bud Black called a meeting after his team was swept by Seattle. (The message delivered, according to Heath Bell, via the San Diego Union-Tribune: “We’re major league ballplayers. That no matter who we’re facing, we need to have a chip on our shoulders to go out there and win every single day.”)

San Diego lost three of its next four.

Heck, Mariners manager Eric Wedge closed his clubhouse doors on April 16—two weeks into the season—to berate his hapless club, which had just gone 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position against the Royals to drop its 11th game in 13 contests. (The message delivered, according to Wedge, via the Seattle Times: “I want them to have the mindset that’s aggressive and such to where we’re up there ready for anything.”)

Unlike the above teams, the Mariners actually responded, splitting their next eight games before winning five in a row on the road against Detroit and Boston.

* * *

It goes without saying that struggling teams call such meetings with significantly more frequency than those that are winning. One trick to a successful meeting, according to the New York Daily News, is to “always hold your clubhouse meetings the day before your best pitcher is pitching.” That was written in 2000, in response to Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who aired out his team after a 12-4 loss to the Braves—one day before Al Leiter took the hill. (Sure enough, Leiter was perfect into the sixth, and the Mets beat Atlanta, 6-3, making Valentine look like a genius.)

Of course, not all such meetings are simply about playing better. They also serve as a forum for players to air out grievances. (In a 1990 meeting, San Diego’s Jack Clark, Mike Pagliarulo and Garry Templeton verbally ganged up on Tony Gwynn, accusing the star outfielder of caring more about his own statistics than the team. In 1997, Dodgers Eric Karros and Ismael Valdez had to be separated after Karros criticized the pitcher during a meeting.)

Occasionally, management will get involved. (During a meeting in 2006, for example, Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons challenged Shea Hillenbrand to a fight after the third baseman allegedly wrote “This is a sinking ship” on a clubhouse whiteboard.)

In 1983, Yankees manager Billy Martin called a team meeting—reporters included—so he could chew out New York Post writer Henry Hecht with extremely lively language for what he felt was inflammatory reporting. (In Martin’s defense, he was correct in his assessment.) The manager threatened to dump Hecht in the whirlpool if he so much as stepped foot in the manager’s office again.

“It was probably the best clubhouse meeting we ever had,” wrote Graig Nettles in Balls.

In 1971, Cubs manager Leo Durocher called a closed-door meeting in which he encouraged players to open up about what they thought was going wrong with the season. As it turned out, many of them thought the answer was Durocher himself; Ron Santo, Joe Pepitone and Ken Holtzman all criticized Durocher’s managerial style. Things got so heated that Santo had to be restrained by Billy Williams and Jim Hickman from going after the skipper. Team owner Phillip Wrigley responded by taking out a full-page ad in all four of Chicago’s daily papers, saying that it was Durocher’s team, and that anybody who didn’t like it could be moved in the off-season. He ended with the statement, “If only we could find more players like Ernie Banks.”

Durocher was fired midway through the following season.

Still, not all such gatherings are so morose. When Frank Robinson managed the Giants in 1984, he responded to an early-May slump by gathering the team for a talking to by “Dr. Johnson,” a local psychologist, with the message that “she will give you a good pep talk.”

When the “doctor” began to peel off her business suit in time to music pouring from a boombox in her briefcase, the skipper’s true intention became very clear.

“We still went out and lost that night,” said pitcher Mark Grant, “but we certainly had more fun.”

- Jason

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Rollins Steals, Ramirez Stews, Victorino Fumes, Polanco Charges. Just Another Day at the Yard

Much of the intrigue in the Code is looking at something like last night’s brawl between the Phillies and Giants and being far more interested in the causation of the event than the event itself.

Images from the fight are vivid: Shane Victorino getting plunked in in the lower back in the top of the sixth, then taking steps toward the mound; catcher Eli Whiteside tackling a charging Placido Polanco around the legs; Victorino charging into the scrum and belting Giants hitting coach Hensley Muellens. (Watch it here.)

But what led up to it?

Well, the pitch from Ramon Ramirez that hit Victorino, for one. It certainly seemed intentional. But why?

Popular sentiment holds that Ramirez was spurred by Jimmy Rollins‘  steal of second base moments earlier, with his team holding an 8-2 advantage. In many cases, a six-run lead in the sixth inning is firmly within the Code’s gray area when it comes to propriety for such a play. But for these Giants, who are last in the National League in runs scored and who had scored more than twice in only four of their previous 14 games, a six-run deficit may as well be 12.

So why wait until after Polanco singled to drill a guy? Simple frustration, perhaps; Rollins advanced to third on the play, and second base was open with two outs.

In the clubhouse prior to today’s game, I asked a number of Giants players about whether Rollins’ steal garnered notice in the San Francisco dugout. While nobody was interested in fanning these particular flames, let alone implicating Ramirez as having intentionally drilled Victorino, the only guy to deny taking note of Rollins’ steal was Jeremy Affeldt, and that was because he was in the bullpen, warming up, when it happened.

“We noticed,” one player told me, referring to Rollins. “I don’t want to speak for everybody, but a lot of us noticed.”

Another player went so far as to say that Rollins’ steal was simply the final factor in a string of things “that you just don’t do in somebody else’s ballpark.” He declined to elaborate, but little happened prior to the steal to draw the notice of the broadcast crew or people in the press box. One guess is that the Phillies were doing their share of chirping, which was enough—combined with San Francisco’s frustration over its recent losing streak, and Ramirez’s frustration over giving up four hits, a walk, a wild pitch and three runs over two-thirds of an inning—to push the pitcher over the edge.

The fact that it was Jonathan Sanchez’s first start against Philadelphia since last year’s dustup with Chase Utley in the NLCS could also have raised the tension.

When it came to the fight itself, none of it would have happened had Victorino not started toward the mound. As it was, he quickly reconsidered his action, slowing up after an aggressive first step, then stopping altogether to wipe his mouth with his shirt. This was clearly not a man with violence on his mind.

(“He hit Vic, then he came after Vic. Vic almost has to go unless he wants his teammates to call him chicken,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel in an AP report. “I think (Ramirez) was getting hit and he got mad and he was going to plunk somebody. He was going to send a message.”)

Polanco, however, was racing toward the mound until being waylaid by Whiteside. That was the moment at which things got testy. (That Victorino charged into the scrum in a second wave of anger will not play in his favor in the league office, nor will the fact that he pushed aside umpire Mike Muchlinski in his quest to do so.)

One more item of interest from the fight: Giants outfielder Pat Burrell, while abiding by the unwritten rule mandating that all players take the field during a fight, broke an actual rule when he did so. (Players not on the active roster are barred even from the dugout during games.)

Today’s contest was quiet (especially from the standpoint of San Francisco’s offense), and the bad blood appears to have subsided. All it takes, however, is one angry reliever to reignite things as if they had never abated, and to possibly set the Hawaiian flyin’ again.

- Jason

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Filed under Ramon Ramirez, Retaliation, Shane Victorino

Spring: A Time of Hope—and Retaliation

Nyjer Morgan, at the height of last year's problems.

Spring training is a grand old time for pitchers to let off some steam. Be they perturbed by an event from the game in front of them or harboring long memories from seasons past, the allure of repercussion-free retaliation (who cares if runs score during an exhibition game?) is felt at least a few times each season.

Look no farther than this week’s matchup between Cole Hamels and Bill Hall.

Hall, now with the Astros, was unhappy that Hamels appeared to be quick-pitching him, throwing the ball before he was fully ready. (How this tactic would help Hamels prepare for the regular season, I’m not sure.)

So Hall stepped out in an effort to slow Hamels. The pitcher’s response was to send his next offering inside, which was sufficient to send Hall from zero to boiling. According to the Houston Chronicle, he had to be restrained by plate ump Laz Diaz.

After the game, Hall called Hamels a “marked man”—not so much, he explained later, as it pertains to the left-hander’s physical wellbeing, but to the on-field respect he receives. Translation: Expect Hall to show Hamels up at the earliest available opportunity.

From the Chronicle:

I don’t know if he was mad because he gave up a homer (to Carlos Lee in the previous at-bat) or if he was mad because the umpire gave me time. But I’m not going to let him speed-pitch me. Obviously, he threw a pitch in, and I’m not going to let him disrespect me either. He kind of said something that I didn’t like too much. It’s over with. He’s definitely a marked man for me now, so when I do some damage off him, I’m going to let him know I did some damage off him. I can guarantee that.

I don’t feel like I do a lot of things to have pitchers mad at me for doing things on the field. I feel like I play the game the right way. But if you disrespect me, I’m going to do my best to disrespect you back. Obviously not in a way to disrespect the game, but obviously I’m going to let him know when I face him.

Well, okay. Houston opens with three games at Philadelphia, starting April 1. With Hamels scheduled to be Philadelphia’s No. 4 starter, however, Hall will likely have to wait until September—September!—for a chance to disrespect him back.

Elsewhere in the Grapefruit League, Nyjer Morgan was hit by Ricky Nolasco and wasted no time in accusing the pitcher of intent. Then again, after Morgan’s protracted saga against the Marlins last season—partial tally: he separated the shoulder of catcher Brett Hayes in a play at the plate; he reacted to being hit the following day by stealing two bases with his team down big (as clear an insult to the Marlins as could be delivered); he charged the mound when he was hit again later in retaliation for the stolen bases—one could hardly blame Nolasco.

Again, this is spring training—a time when many of these sorts of grudges get handled like this.

Rather than go on a near-meltdown-level tirade like last season, however, Morgan should be commended for his level-headed approach this time around. Instead of getting bothered, he stole second, advanced to third, then scored. (Watch the drilling here.)

From MLB.com):

“No question, without a doubt,” said Morgan when asked if he felt Nolasco hit him on purpose Sunday. “It’s obvious because of what happened last year. Obviously, they haven’t turned the page. But I’m going to be a stronger player, better person. I’m not going to react to it. I felt better by going out there and being able to steal that bag, getting myself over to third and generating a run. I felt more satisfied after that than staring at him and putting on my mean mug.”

The “mean mug,” of course, is a time-tested part of on-field intimidation. It’s what Morgan does with the rest of his body that truly counts.

He’s off to a good start.

Update: Yahoo’s David Brown recently spoke to Florida’s Logan Morrison for his Answer Man column. Included in the conversation was the following exchange:

DB: Can there be peace between the Marlins and Nyjer Morgan?

LoMo: Yeah, absolutely there can be. You want me to expound on that?

DB: Please.

LoMo: Just don’t steal second base and third down by 10 runs.

DB: He was just fighting for that run. Trying to get back into the game.

LoMo: You could call it that.

DB: Nobody overreacted?

LoMo: I’m going to say everybody overreacted. … But … there’s baseball etiquette and baseball rules that need to be followed and they weren’t followed.

Update 2: Nolasco continues to deny intent.

- Jason

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Filed under Bill Hall, Cole Hamels, Nyjer Morgan, Retaliation

Sanchez Steamed at Utley’s Toss; Affeldt Stays Put During Fight

There was finally some Code-based action in the post-season Saturday, in San Francisco’s Game 6 clincher over the Phillies. It’s about time; these playoffs had been entirely too sedate.

It started when Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez drilled Chase Utley in the shoulder blade. It was clearly unintentional—there was already a man on first and nobody out in a 2-2 game—but that wasn’t the issue.

The ball bounced off Utley and up the line toward first base. The hitter, moving in that direction, caught in on a hop and tossed it back to the mound.

This did not sit well with Sanchez. He yelled, “That’s bullshit,” at the startled runner, to which Utley quizzically replied, “What’s bullshit?”

Within moments, both benches had emptied. (Watch it here.)

At issue for Sanchez:  disrespect from Utley.

“You don’t throw the ball back to the pitcher,” he said in an ESPN report. “You’re a professional. You don’t do that. And when he did it, he had this smile on his face, this look that said, ‘You’re nothing.’ And I didn’t like that at all. So I told him.”

There is, of course, the fact that Sanchez was struggling and clearly frustrated, and, if not looking for a confrontation, at least prone to embracing one.

Utley might have been telling Sanchez, “You can’t hurt me.” He might have been saying, “Here’s what I think about you and your tactics.” He might not have intended anything at all, and was simply returning the baseball he unexpectedly held to its place of origin. Not only did he not attempt to stare down the pitcher as he tossed the ball, he barely looked in his direction.

We don’t know what he meant, because he isn’t talking. “It’s just part of the game,” he told Jeff Fletcher of FanHouse. “You’ll have to ask (Sanchez).”

No matter the answer, there’s little doubt that Sanchez over-reacted. His was the response of a pitcher clearly on the ropes, with little left to lose. Although it’s improbable, the notion arose that he might be trying to get both himself and Utley tossed from the game, because he wasn’t going to last long, anyway. (Although Sanchez didn’t know it at the time, Bruce Bochy had already started toward the mound to remove the pitcher when the bad blood started to go down.)

Should Utley have reacted as he did? Probably not. Were his actions meritorious of the response they received? Absolutely not. The pitcher, in that situation, should have without question risen above such a level of perceived slight.

Clearly, Sanchez was not on his game, in pretty much any capacity.

* * *

As Sanchez was having his mini-meltdown on the mound, another suspect Code violation took place on the opposite side of the field.

As the benches emptied to surround the would-be combatants, the bullpens followed. The Giants’ pen, a level above Philadelphia’s, put San Francisco’s relievers a few steps behind their counterparts in the race to the field. One of them never made it at all.

Jeremy Affeldt, who had begun warming up moments earlier, made a move to join his teammates. Instead, bullpen coach Mark Gardner grabbed him, and issued an order.

“He said, ‘You stay here. You need to lock it in right now,’ ” Affeldt told the San Francisco Chronicle. ” ‘We’ve got a long game ahead of us, and you need to stay focused.’ “

So the lefty stayed put, much to the delight of Phillies fans, who derided him for his failure to join the on-field scrum. He entered the game when the field cleared, and threw two scoreless innings—including working out of the two-on, no-out jam he inherited from Sanchez.

This is the only instance on record I’ve encountered of a player able to avoid any negative clubhouse repercussions for failing to join his teammates in an altercation.

It couldn’t have been more appropriate.

- Jason

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Filed under Chase Utley, Everybody Joins a Fight, Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Sanchez, Unwritten Rules