Tag Archives: Retaliation

On the Merits of Appropriate Response, and the Response to That Response

ColeA measure of how far baseball has come—for better and worse—was on display Tuesday in Detroit. On one hand, the you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-yours mentality so prevalent in past generations has become rare enough for modern occurrences to make a bit of a splash.

On the other hand, the instincts that players once used to automatically rationalize that kind of behavior have atrophied. Such tactics now lead to full-bore freakouts … or at least baseball’s version of them.

In the wake of one such tit-for-tat exchange with Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez did the unthinkable in baseball circles—he publicly vented, going so far as to drop the “R”-word.

“I have no respect for no one on that team, including [Pirates pitcher Gerrit] Cole and their coaching staff,” he said in a Detroit Free Press account.

It started when Justin Verlander hit Starling Marte with a pitch in the fourth inning. It was clearly unintentional: a 1-2 count, a runner on first and the Tigers were losing, 3-0. Regardless, Cole—who has a history of paying attention to the Code—responded by drilling Martinez in the ribs during the very next frame.

This is what set the DH off.  “If they think that Verlander hit Marte with a 1-2 count—he was battling that at-bat—if they really think we did it on purpose, they’re playing the wrong sport,” he said.

Martinez is probably correct, even while overlooking the obvious point that Verlander’s intent likely didn’t matter. Cole appears to be a guy who embraces the old-school mentality of teammate protection, which is so outdated to have become cliché: You hit my guy so I’ll hit yours, and maybe you won’t take so many liberties with the inside corner next time. The fact that four Pirates players had been hit over the previous three games may well have factored into Cole’s decision to put his foot down.

This is not to say that Cole acted appropriately. But speaking personally as somebody who disagrees with the tactic of drilling an opponent simply to make a statement, I still have to appreciate a pitcher looking out for his guys.

Verlander himself responded by drilling the next batter he faced, Pedro Alvarez, on the thigh—at which point both dugouts were warned.

“I think in baseball there’s always been that, if someone deserves to be thrown at, I think a lot of times when it’s done the proper way it’s over after that,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said in the Free Press. “And it’s true. If it’s done the right way, both teams at the end say, all right, it’s over.”

Was it over? Various members of the Pirates clubhouse were dismissive of Martinez’s comments (“I wasn’t aware he was the voice of reason,” said Clint Hurdle in the Free Press), and the DH was drilled again yesterday, by reliever Jared Hughes, with an 89-mph fastball, in a situation that screamed for intent: The Pirates led 9-2 in the eighth inning, Martinez isn’t exactly Billy Hamilton on the basepathes and his role as a baserunner barely registered.

Today’s game went by cleanly until the ninth, when, with Pittsburgh leading 5-3 and first base open, Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon drilled Francisco Cervelli, who had opened the scoring with a fourth-inning homer. Martinez ended things by grounding out to first.

The rest of the story remains to be seen.

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

Oberholtzer tossed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. And [6-foot-6, 210-pound slugger] Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better. I shook him off. He went through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign, indicating a knockdown pitch]. I nod. I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and he was grabbing his bat and his helmet, and he gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first base and is coming toward the mound. I’m trying to get my glove off, because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die I’m getting the first punch in. And he came right up to the dirt and then just went around it. He pointed at me and said, ‘There’ll be another day, young man,’ and just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years after that said, ‘Dave, do you remember that incident?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘No.’ Just like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Keeping With Baseball Tradition …

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Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Via Hardball Talk]

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Armando Benitez Drilled Tino Martinez 17 Years Ago Today. No, He Was Not Playing by the Unwritten Rules

Seventeen years ago today, Armando Benitez intentionally drilled Tino Martinez after the preceding batter, Bernie Williams, hit a dramatic three-run homer. The event was more noteworthy for the ensuing mayhem—the fight ended up spilling into a dugout and resulted in suspensions for five players—than for the deed itself.

The moment merits current notice for the fact that decriers of baseball’s unwritten rules—pundits like Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra—are using it to blame baseball’s Code for just how ludicrous this kind of behavior is. Referencing then AL President Gene Budig’s harsh words about Benitez when handing down the ensuing eight-game suspension for Benitez, Calcaterra wrote:

I do get the sense sometimes that no one inside the game thinks of throwing at guys as a bad thing in the sorts of terms Budig uses here. [Budig said, among other things, “The location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”] It’s all thought of as self-policing and part of the game and stuff. Maybe the violence is reduced because people don’t want to risk player health, but the idea that sometimes, well, you gotta throw at someone still lingers. It’s an odd little thing.

The point that is consistently overlooked by people who disagree with these methods of play is that Benitez’s strike wasn’t a product of the Code, it was directly contravening it. The unwritten rules aren’t set up to give license to guys who want to indiscriminately drill opponents whenever the mood strikes them. To the contrary, they present a framework for dealing with that type of thing when it happens.

You can disagree with Hideki Irabu responding on the Yankees’ behalf by plunking both Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson the next day, but the truth is that not only did he do it correctly (below the shoulders), but those Orioles were then within their rights to subsequently tell Benitez to knock off his shenanigans, because he was putting his teammates in harm’s way. Irabu gave the Yankees closure, and at the same time proactively dealt with Benitez’s future actions. (That latter note is strictly theoretical. The incident in question was actually the second time Benitez drilled Martinez following a teammate’s homer—the first occurred in 1995, when Martinez was with the Mariners—which does not speak well to the pitcher’s ability to listen or absorb.)

I have no problem with people criticizing a culture in which ballplayers throw baseballs at each other in anger. Usually I agree with them. All I ask is for a reasonable assessment before laying down judgement. The system can certainly be the problem, but sometimes it’s just a rogue player within it. Take the time to examine the difference.

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Bautista Proves that Grudge Homers are the Best Kind of Homers

With Yasiel Puig’s renunciation of bat flipping dominating the early-season talk about the subject, there’s another function of the tactic that has been largely overlooked—one that is less Look at me and more Look at yourself. It was illustrated to perfection on Tuesday by Jose Bautista.

With the Blue Jays leading 11-4 in the seventh inning, Baltimore right-hander Jason Garcia threw a fastball just behind the slugger, perhaps in response to the teams’ April 12 meeting in which Bautista homered off of Darren O’Day, then skipped toward first base. Garcia’s shot came so close that plate ump Mark Carlson warned both benches about further hostilities.

On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Bautista connected for his fourth home run of the season, a mammoth shot that scored Josh Donaldson ahead of him. Its no-doubt-about-it nature allowed the slugger to stand in the box and admire it before insouciantly flipping his bat away in disgust. It was a pure, cold message for Garcia. You want to play, he effectively asked the pitcher? This is how you play. (Watch it here.)

As he rounded the bases, Bautista got an earful from Orioles infielders, primarily Steve Pearce and Ryan Flaherty. He responded in kind. As he crossed the plate he took a moment to stare down the Baltimore bench.

Things grew further heated as Bautista trotted to his position at the start of the next inning. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones began hollering from alongside the dugout, at which point Bautista furiously pointed behind his back, reminding the Orioles how the whole thing started. (Watch it here.)

If anything, Bautista has proven adept at finishing things in a way that effectively gets under the skin of the opposition. His homer-‘n-skip act came in response to O’Day doing something similar after striking him out in 2013. His homer-‘n-pimp act came after Garcia’s near miss. The Orioles could barely stand either one.

Whether they take further action is yet to be seen, but if we judge the situation by what’s already happened, Baltimore’s response is almost beside the point. It seems certain that Bautista will get the last word.

[Gif via Baltimore Sports Report]

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On the Merits of Standing Up for One’s Teammates While Simultaneously Understanding When to Leave Well Enough the Hell Alone

Herrera's heat

You get your shot and then it’s done. This is a cornerstone tenet of baseball’s unwritten rules. If an opponent upends you—hits your batter, takes out your infielder—you have an opportunity to make things right. Singular. After that shot, hit or miss, you move on. That’s what makes baseball’s code functional, and its functionality is what has allowed it to persevere.

On Friday, Oakland’s Brett Lawrie took out Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar with a late, awkward—and, say some, dirty—slide. On Saturday, Yordano Ventura planted a 99 mph fastball into his ribs. Ventura had his shot, and it should have settled the score.

It didn’t.

Bad blood lingered in the Royals’ clubhouse, particularly from Escobar himself; the shortstop, day-to-day with a sprained and bruised knee, was outspoken in calling the play below board. (Lost in the errata of the aftermath was the fumbled text apology that Lawrie insists he sent to Escobar via a phone number given to him by Eric Hosmer, which Escobar just as firmly insists he never received. Who knew how differently things might have played out had Esco been appropriately placated to begin with.)

An aggrieved and injured player is enough to motivate disquiet in a clubhouse. The fact that to that point in the season the Royals had been hit by 13 pitches but had only hit three themselves could also have played a part.

There is no need for those numbers—hit batters on your side vs. how many your own team has hit— to be equitable, but a wild imbalance in that ratio can serve as an indicator for position players about whether their pitching staff is appropriately guarding their best interests. Were there ill will on the Royals in that regard, Ventura at least partially righted the ship with one blow.

Lawrie took it in stride, ambling to first base without protest, even as the pitcher (already frustrated by having given up five runs in the inning) did his best to spark confrontation by following the runner down the line. Umpire Jim Joyce ejected Ventura on the spot. For the second day in a row the benches emptied. (Watch it here.)

Baseball’s code indicates that at this point the score was even, both teams debt-free. That’s not what happened.

In the first inning on Sunday, Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain in the foot. Both benches were warned, and Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were ejected for arguing the issue. (Watch it here.) Were the pitch intentional it would have been entirely out of line, and the fact that Kazmir’s control for the rest of the game was spot-on does not reflect well on him in this regard. Still, a foot is hardly the target of choice for a pitcher with retaliation on his mind, not to mention that there was little reason for Kazmir to extend hostilities.

Debate about Kazmir’s motivation lasted until the eighth inning, until Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera wiped away thought of everything that came before, with two pitches that became the talk of the afternoon. With two outs and nobody on—and with Oakland holding a 2-1 lead, no less—the right-hander started Lawrie high and tight with a 100 mph fastball. His second pitch was equally blinding, and sailed behind the batter so close that even on replay it is difficult to see where it missed. Like Ventura a day earlier, Herrera was tossed. As if there was any doubt about the pitcher’s intentions, he began walking toward the clubhouse almost before plate ump Greg Gibson tossed him. (Watch it here.)

It still wasn’t enough. On his way off the field, Herrera looked toward the A’s dugout and pointed at his head. He later said that he was trying to say Think about what happened, but many in the A’s clubhouse took it as a threat to come closer next time. There is no more clear-cut violation of the unwritten rules than to threaten to throw at a player’s head, and if there was anybody in green and gold willing to give the Royals the benefit of the doubt, Herrera’s pantomime effectively cemented their opinions in the opposite direction.

Things could have ended after Lawrie was drilled on Saturday. They could have ended early Sunday, had the Royals ignored Kazmir’s fastball of debatable intentions. Now, though, the bad blood between these teams will be front and center when they meet again in June. It’ll be interesting to note whether the Royals’ HBP ratio will have changed by that point, but it probably won’t matter; the A’s are an outlier to them, and vice versa, and no amount of Royals whispering by Billy Butler is going to change things. This one will play out on the field.

Update (4-21-15): And repercussions have been repercussed. Herrera gets five games, Ventura a fine.

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