The Baseball Codes

RIP Dave Nelson

Dave Nelson cardBrewers analyst Dave Nelson, who played in the big leagues for 10 years, was an All-Star in 1973, and served as a major league coach for 14 seasons, passed away today. Nelson was a firecracker of a player, stealing 94 bases between 1972 and 1973, but he was an even better interview. He was easily one of the most informative players I talked to for The Baseball Codes, spending the better part of an hour with me in the visitors’ dugout at AT&T Park before a Giants-Brewers game.

Herein are some of the best stories he told that day:

“I almost got into a fight in the major leagues one year because I stole home when we had a four-run lead in the seventh inning. It was against Blue Moon Odom, who was with the White Sox then. Paul Richards was their manager. I was playing for Kansas City, and Whitey Herzog was my manager. I stole home because Odom wasn’t paying attention, and he got all upset and said the next time he faced me he was going to hit me in the head. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. Did I do anything wrong?’ I was always taught was that managers would like to have at least a five-run lead going into the ninth inning, so at least they know a grand slam can’t beat them. We had a four-run lead, but this was the seventh inning and the White Sox had an awesome offensive team.

“So before the next game I was running in the outfield because we were getting ready to take batting practice. Their pitchers were running on the left field line. I’m running toward center from right, and Odom stopped running and began to yell at me, saying that he was going to hit me in the head. So I went up to him and asked, ‘Hey, what’s your problem?’ He said, ‘You showed up me and my team.’

“So I went over to Paul Richards, who was their manager, and I asked him, ‘Did I embarrass your team? Because I don’t think I did anything wrong.’ He said, ‘Dave, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was a great play on your part.’ I had already asked Whitey Herzog about it, and Whitey said it was a great play. But if Paul Richards thought it was a bad play, I was going to apologize to him. But he said, ‘No, that was great. It was Blue Moon’s fault for not paying attention to you. You can’t assume anything in this game.’

“We almost got into a fight over that. I always try to win, but I don’t want to do anything dirty to win.”

***

“One of my greatest thrills was playing against Mickey Mantle. By the time of my rookie year, Mantle was playing first base because his knees were bad. I’m leading off for the Indians in a game against the Yankees, and I push-bunt a ball between the pitcher and Mickey for a base hit. I was walking back, thinking, ‘Boy, what a great thing I did,’ and Johnny Lipon, our first base coach, says, ‘Dave, you don’t bunt on Mick out of respect.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right. He can’t move, but he’s a great player. So I’m standing on first base, and I’m thinking Mickey is going to say, ‘If you ever do that to me again I’m going to pinch your head off,’ or something like that. But he pats me on the butt and says, ‘Nice bunt, rook.’ I look at him and say, ‘Well, thanks, Mr. Mantle.’ Underneath my breath I said, I’ll never do that again. I was just thinking about how I want to get on base. I never thought about how revered this guy was.

“Later in the game he hits a bullet toward second base. I dive to field it and throw him out. He says, ‘Hey rook—give me a break, would you?’ ”

***

“In the old days, a manager would say, ‘I want you to knock this guy down. I want you to drill him.’ Billy Martin would say it. I remember in 1975, playing a game with the Rangers during spring training when Bill Virdon was managing the Yankees. Billy was our manager. We had hit Elliot Maddux, and I’m coming up to face a former teammate of mine, Denny Riddleberger. I just kind of knew that I was going to get drilled or knocked down because I was leading off the next inning. Well, the pitch came, and—boom!—knocked me down. It was good, old-fashioned chin music, and I hit the ground. So I said, okay, it’s all over and done with.

“Well, the next pitch—foom!—almost hit me in the head. I got up and I charged the mound. And Denny stood there and just looked at me and dropped his hands and said, ‘Dave, I’m sorry—I was ordered to do it.’ So what could I do? I can’t hit this guy. He’s my buddy, plus he was saying that he was ordered to do it. He had to save face. If your manager tells him to drill somebody or knock him down, then you’d better do it.

“So now there’s yelling and screaming going around, and Bill Virdon comes out and says, ‘That’s right, I told him to do it. How about that?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re the guy I ought to swing at!’ and I took a swing at him. He was a ways away from me, with some people between us, so I never made contact. He’d probably have tore me up. That guy was strong, boy.

“So I got kicked out of the game and all that stuff, but the funny thing about it was that later that year I had surgery on my ankle that was going to put me out until August. We had this charity golf tournament in Arlington Texas, and I was riding around in a golf cart. The Yankees had an off-day, and Bill Virdon was playing in that tournament. He sees me and says, ‘You’re a scrappy little guy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I just don’t like being thrown at. I have to defend myself, because if people throw at me and I don’t say anything about it, then they’re going to continue to do it. I just want people to know that I’m not going to take it.” He said, ‘Well, that’s the way to go.’ ”

***

“One time, playing against the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, Bob Coluccio was the hitter. He hits a double, the throw comes in to me at second base, I tag him and Bill Kunkel, the umpire, says, ‘Safe!’ I said to Bob, ‘Hey, why don’t you step off the bag and let me clean the dirt off of it.’ He steps off, and BOOM. It wasn’t the hidden ball trick or anything like that. He steps off the base, I tag him and the umpire calls him out. He kind of laughed about it, but when he went to the dugout, his manager, Del Crandall, jumped all over him.

“So now he comes back out as I’m running off the field after the third out, and he says, ‘You embarrassed me and my team, and I’m going to kick your butt.’ He says, ‘You better watch out when I come in to second base.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t embarrass your team, you did—for being stupid enough to step off the base.’

You try to do anything you can to win, as long as it’s not trying to embarrass somebody or do something dirty. But that’s just . . . that’s just playing baseball.”

 

 

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Gamesmanship, Sign stealing

Baez Blocks Basepath, Stuns Suspected Sign Stealer Into Submission

Baez blocks

Javier Baez has made inventive baseball a hallmark of his short career. Usually, this involves doing wondrous things with his glove. On Sunday it was by using his head in an especially curious way. In the era of the defensive overshift, this was maybe the overshiftiest move of all.

In the third inning of a game in Colorado, Baez suspected that DJ LeMahieu—the runner at second base—was relaying signs to the hitter, Nolan Arenado. Usually, this isn’t much of a problem; signs are easy to change once such suspicions arise, and a brief word to the suspected thief almost inevitably curtails the activity, at least for a while.

Baez, however, took another tack, literally positioning himself between runner and plate while catcher Victor Caratini was dropping down signals, before bouncing back to his regular spot prior to the pitch. The idea was to block LeMahieu’s view. Unsurprisingly, LeMahieu wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, especially after Baez began talking loudly about it after Arenado struck out.

“I said, ‘See the difference when they don’t know the signs,’ ” Baez recalled after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report, “and then [LeMahieu] said something,” Baez said. “He told me, ‘Then change the signs.’ ” Umpire Vic Carapazza eventually had to step in to calm things down.

The Cubs had been wondering about potential sign theft since the fifth inning of Saturday’s game, when the Rockies scored five runs on four two-out hits, every one of them coming with a runner at second.

There are a couple of things at play here. One is that this kind of thing goes on all the time. Whether LeMahieu was signaling pitch type or location—or even if he wasn’t signaling anything at all—standard procedure for the Cubs would simply have been to switch things up. It’s not a complicated process; the only thing that needs to change is the indicator—the sign telling the pitcher that the next sign is the one that counts—which can be done between every pitch if need be. Hell, teams can base signs on the count (on a 3-1 pitch, the fourth sign is live), the score or the inning. Catchers can switch to pumps, with the number of signs given being the key, not the signs themselves. Hell, during Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, he didn’t take any signs at all. Suspecting the opposing Tigers of foul play before the game even began, he called his own pitches for catcher Art Kusnyer, touching the back of his cap for a fastball, and the brim for  a curve.

The other thing to consider is simple decorum. By positioning himself between LeMahieu and the plate, Baez may have been able to interfere with some sign pilfering (though even that rationale is suspect given that the runner was four inches taller and could shift in either direction for a better view), but he also interfered with the playing of actual baseball. Jimmy Piersall was once tossed from a game for running back and forth while playing in the outfield as a ploy to distract Ted Williams at the plate. Was this so different?

Ultimately, the runner’s behavior was well within baseball norms. Baez’s was not. It’s not against the rules, as far as I can tell. Rule 6.04(c) states, “No fielder shall take a position in the batter’s line of vision, and with deliberate unsportsmanlike intent, act in a manner to distract the batter.” Though there’s nothing similar in play as pertains to baserunners, Baez’s tactics ran counter to the spirit of sportsmanship. There are countless other ways to deal with sign thieves that don’t interfere with the playing of actual baseball.

Next time this happens, Baez should avail himself of any, or all, of them.

 

Showing Players Up

Verlander Wins Word Battle, Then Wins Game

White Sox confusion

The idea of celebrating on a ballfield has gained significant traction over recent seasons, including just last week when we discussed the topic as pertains to Francisco Lindor.

Action picked up again on Friday, when White Sox third baseman Tim Anderson did some on-field celebrating to which Justin Verlander took exception. Generally speaking, this would paint Verlander as a crotchety old man (which, at age 35 he may well be), but as is the case with many things that happen under the Code, details matter.

As it turns out, Verlander was somewhat concerned about the unwritten rules, but more so about some inane baseball on the part of his opponent.

Anderson’s first celebration came after he broke up Verlander’s no-hitter in the fifth inning with a single through the left side of the infield. He clapped his hands and pointed toward his dugout upon reaching first base.

So far, so good. His team was down, 5-0, he was on base and trying to pump up his teammates. This is not unheard of in the modern era.

Then, on a 3-0 pitch to Omar Narvaez, Anderson broke for second, and celebrated again when he reached safely—never mind the fact that the pitch was ball four and the runner could have walked into second. (He was not credited with a steal.)

This is what irked Verlander.

“He steals on 3-0 in a 5-0 game, that’s probably not great baseball,” Verlander said afterward in a Houston Chronicle report, elucidating basic baseball concepts for reporters. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. But he celebrated that, though. And it’s like ‘Hey, I’m not worried about you right now. It’s 5-0, I’m giving a high leg kick, I know you can steal. If I don’t want you to steal, I’ll be a little bit more aware of you. But I’m trying to get this guy out at the plate.’ ”

Celebrating a good play is accepted behavior. What about celebrating a boneheaded play? Verlander had words for the runner, which he later said were aimed toward letting Anderson know he was being “a little overaggressive.” Some in the blogosphere have blasted Verlander’s sensitivity toward the Code; few have given him credit for strategy.

So prodded, Anderson took off for third on the 1-0 pitch to the next hitter, Adam Engel. Verlander picked him off with a throw to third, leading Anderson to backpedal toward second. Basepath confusion ensued, with two White Sox runners ending up at the base. Jose Altuve tagged Narvaez out.

“Stealing third in a 5-0 game with two guys on in an inning where I was clearly struggling—I walked a guy on four pitches and went 1-0 to the next guy—and I pick you off on an inside move after the way he had kind of been jubilant about some other things, I was just as jubilant about that,” Verlander said. The pitcher made sure to thank Anderson for giving him an out, which further angered the Chicago infielder.

“I could care less,” Anderson said afterward about his confrontation. “I’m out just playing and having fun. If he took it to heart, so what?”

That’s a terrible answer. Go play slow-pitch softball to have fun. Show up to a major league ballpark and help your team win games, which involves holding focus. Celebrating an ill-considered stolen base while your team is down five runs falls under that heading. So does taking issue with one of the sport’s headiest pitchers, who has clearly and correctly called you out for employing some stupid strategy.

Point, Verlander.

 

 

 

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Belt’s (Sort-Of) Bunt Breaks Up No-No, Everybody Remains Calm

Belt bunts

We have another entry in the bunting-to-break-up-a-no-hitter category only a short way into the season: Brandon Belt did it on Tuesday to ruin Patrick Corbin’s no-no in the eighth inning. It was completely aboveboard, for a host of reasons:

  • It was a swinging bunt, not a squared-up affair. Arizona manager Torey Lovullo called it a check-swing, but it looked to me more like a clear push toward the left side.
  • It would have been okay even if it was the buntiest of squared-up bunts, given that the game was scoreless and Belt represented the go-ahead run.
  • The reason Belt so wanted to push the ball to the left side was that, like Minnesota before them, the Diamondbacks had put on an extreme right-side shift against him. It paid off for them earlier in the game, when Belt grounded out to third baseman Daniel Descalso, positioned to the right side of second base, in the third inning. Descalso was positioned similarly in the eighth. It didn’t work out so well the second time around.

Belt bunts sort of

Unlike Minnesota, nobody on Arizona’s side of the field seemed to take umbrage with Belt’s tactics following the D’Backs’ 1-0 victory. “Unfortunately we play a shift, we play an aggressive overshift and you saw what happened,” said Lovullo after the game, blaming himself, not Belt, in an MLB.com report.

This year we’ve already seen Cleveland bunt against the shift during a one-hitter and the Angels bunt against Cleveland during a no-hitter, which follow last year’s incidents involving Justin Verlander and Gio Gonzalez.

The good news is that, save for a few profoundly sensitive players in Minnesota, nobody really thought twice about any of these situations.

As for Belt, he continued to be a thorn in Arizona’s side on Wednesday night.

Showboating, Unwritten-Rules

Puerto Rico Ama A Francisco Lindor: A Celebratory Lesson

Lindor trots

I’ve referenced 2017’s World Baseball Classic twice in posts this season, and it’s only April. Today is the third—and most pertinent. Francisco Lindor hit a home run yesterday, then effectively paraded his way around the bases, skipping, waving his arms and inciting the crowd. Afterward, he publicly apologized for potentially offensive behavior.

As with most things, details matter.

The WBC was terrific because it showed us a Puerto Rico national squad that was unafraid, within the context of the way baseball is played on the island (and throughout much of Central America), to show some emotion on the field. Though the occasional American red-assed stick-in-the-mud took issue with this, it was generally seen as a good thing.

Lindor was on that Puerto Rico team. Last night’s game was held in Puerto Rico, against the Twins at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Of course Lindor celebrated.

Such is the reach of baseball’s unwritten rules—especially the part held up by American red-assed stick-in-the-muds—that Lindor recognized after the fact that his antics might not have been appreciated by the opposing team. Thus, we got this:

That Cleveland was playing the Twins was unfortunate, given Minnesota’s collective, ludicrous, unwritten-rules-inspired groan at a perfectly reasonable bunt earlier in the season. If any team would take issue with a hometown kid playing by hometown rules after succeeding in front of his hometown fans, it’d be these guys, right?

As it turns out: not so much.

Credit to Lindor for sensitivity with this issue, and relieved acknowledgement that everybody involved seemed content to let him have this particular moment.

Update, 4-18: The Twins agree: Lindor was a-ok.

Unwritten-Rules

A Treatise On The Unwritten Rules in 14 Tweets

Former Orioles closer Gregg Olson—the 1989 American League Rookie of the Year, who saved 217 games over a 14-year career—recently gave an interesting response to somebody who Tweeted the following at him in the wake of the Twins’ annoyance that somebody bunted against their shift in the ninth inning: “Bunting down 7 = bad. Utilizing the shift up 7 = okay. Clear as mud. These ‘unwritten rules’ are so lame.”

Olson has, over the ensuing two weeks, backed up his position by listing 14 unwritten rules, all of them presented here with annotations. All are valid, though some have faded a bit since Olson’s time.

The quibble I have here is that there’s a far more prominent exception to this rule than the shift: If the score is close and a player can reach base via a bunt, all is kosher at any time. Victories trump Code, always.

Superstition will never be defeated.

Outmoded these days. While still sometimes in play, it was once unequivocally true.

Yes! When Alex Rodriguez did this to Dallas Braden back in 2010, the general response was bewilderment about why Braden was so upset. Had people spoken to more pitchers, they would have heard more responses like Olson’s.

This is true, but in my book it’s more about baseball strategy than moral standards.

This one cuts to the heart of many of the issues facing the modern game. As the Code fades and new generations of players come up with scant understanding about it, we will see increasingly more situations governed by inflamed emotions rather than reasoned responses. I’ve been discussing this with a reader over at The Baseball Codes Facebook page over the past few days, as pertains to Nolan Arenado’s recent mound charge:

Scott Ledbetter: This is MLB players taking exception to every little thing. My opinion, this is what happens when players embrace too much emotion. I agree the pitch on Margot, while injury producing, was not deliberate. I’ve seen plenty of batters get injured by a HBP that didn’t garner any retaliation, why did this one? Did anyone retaliate when Randy Johnson delivered an inside fastball to JT Snows face? Did anyone retaliate when Giancarlo Stanton took an errant pitch to his face?
The Baseball Codes: One thing worth exploring is the idea about WHY players are more sensitive now. The dissolution of the Code — the slipping grip it has over the way the game is played – – no doubt plays a part. The less clearly that players understand the scope that defines what is happening, the more likely they’ll react to it emotionally.
Scott Ledbetter: I think that’s a sign of the times… younger generations seems to be more sensitive in general, and that can carry over into all sports, not just baseball.
The Baseball Codes: I agree, but I’m talking about something different — a disconnection with the meaning behind certain established behavior, which leaves them with nothing but emotion (or, as you say, sensitivity) to govern their response.
Scott Ledbetter: I think I see what you mean. A lot of the younger players don’t seem to understand that some of the unwritten rules were responses to actual intent to harm other players, and it was the intent that determined how one responded. Nowadays, it’s seems like players feel the response is second nature because they forgot to understand the intent.
The Baseball Codes: Exactly!

Boy howdy does everyone have a different threshold. Once, a four-run lead after six was considered significant. Now, some managers consider a six-run lead in the eighth as still within striking distance.

This rule came into play with the aforementioned bunting-into-the-shift imbroglio, wherein the Twins expected Baltimore to transition into blowout mode (identified above by Olson as halting all stolen bases, but also including bunts, hit-and-runs, etc.) when they weren’t doing so themselves, defensively.

Absolutely correct, with the addendum that if you ARE caught, knock it off for a little while.

I will never question a pitcher about this one.

This rule can make it very difficult for friendly neighborhood reporters to do their job. I hate Rule #10.

This one is steadily changing—what’s considered to be showing up another team today is far less stringent than it was during Olson’s time. Only yesterday we talked about this as pertains to Javy Baez.

This makes sense. But if a pitcher gives up a hefty enough blast, he has far more important things to worry about than the fact that his outfielder made no effort to reach a ball that ended up in the third deck.

I just covered this one in March, in my Rusty Staub memorial post.

I haven’t heard too much about this one, save for the instances when substance abuse is impacting a player’s performance. Gregg, if you end up reading this, I’d love to hear a story about the response to somebody bringing a sandwich or etc. into the dugout during a game.

Seeing as his last post came only yesterday, give Olson a follow. One never knows when #15 might drop.

Bat Flipping, Don't Call out Opponents in the Press

Hurdle Frustrated by Baez’s Frustration, Word Battle Ensues

Baez flips

And here I was, thinking that the new world order had been firmly established. The Puig-ization of baseball, wherein players can more freely express themselves on the field—usually in the form of bat flips—had already taken hold when the Puerto Rico team showed us exactly how much fun that kind of thing could be during their second-place run in last year’s World Baseball Classic.

As it happened, the second baseman for Puerto Rico, Javier Baez, also plays for the Chicago Cubs. Last week, he went a bit homer-crazy against Pittsburgh, hitting four longballs across the series’ first two games. That wasn’t what set off Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, however, so much as the second baseman’s response to popping up with a runner in scoring position—which itself included a bat flip. It was borne out of frustration, of course, after which Baez made scant effort to run toward first. (Watch what little of it was captured in the telecast here.)

Hurdle was peeved enough to address it the following day, not only as pertained to Baez, but to the Cubs organization as a whole. Among his comments, as reported by the Athletic:

“When a player does something out of line, there are one or two guys who go to him right away and say, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here. What are you thinking when you do that? Do you know what that looks like?’ ” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, guys don’t understand what it looks like. Usually, you’ve only got to show them once or twice what it looks like and they really don’t want to be that guy anymore. . . .

“Where is the respect for the game? [Baez] has hit four homers in two days. Does that mean you can take your bat and throw it 15-20 feet in the air when you pop up, like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men went over and talked to him, because I believe they’ve got a group there that speaks truth to power.” . . .

“There is entitlement all over the world. Sometimes, when you have a skill, you can feel special and you don’t get what it looks like. Most of the time here, we try to show our players what it looks that. And that’s usually enough.”

As it happened, members of the Cubs—reliever Pedro Strop, in particular—did pull Baez aside for a little dugout chat. We know this because Baez admitted to it while apologizing publicly for his actions after the game.

“You know what I really got out of today and what I learned?” he told reporters, as reported by NBC Chicago. “How ugly I looked when I got out today on that fly ball. I tossed the bat really high, I didn’t run to first base. One of my teammates came up to me, and he said it in a good way, and he said, ‘You learn from it.’ After I hit that fly ball and tossed the bat really high, I was kind of mad about it. Not because of the fly ball, just the way I looked for the kids and everybody that follows me. That’s not a good look. So I learned that from today.”

Hurdle is entitled to his opinion. He’s an old-school guy, a former catcher who learned to play the game under a structure wherein deviation from the norm constitutes something other than “the right way.” Every one of his sentiments was valid, but in making them public, the manager ignored another of baseball’s unwritten rules: Keep personal spats out of the media. Instead, Hurdle teed up Maddon for an all-time response, as part of a 17-minute media session prior to the following day’s game. The Cubs skipper, via the Athletic:

“It reveals you more than it reveals the person you’re talking about. I’ve always believed that. So whenever you want to be hypercritical of somebody, just understand you’re pretty much revealing yourself and what your beliefs are more than you are being critical or evaluating somebody. Because you have not spent one second in that person’s skin. . . .

“It’s just like people making decisions about Strop based on [the way he’s] sporting his hat, or Fernando Rodney. I think most of the time when you hear commentary—critical commentary—it’s really pretty much self-evaluation. It’s about what you believe. It’s about your judgmental component.

“I thought Javy did a great job in his response. I was very proud of him, actually. Like I said the other day, first of all, I didn’t see him throwing the bats. I missed that completely. But we’ve talked about it. His response and the fact that he owned up to it, my God, what else could you possibly want out of one of your guys?” . . .

“I did not see it coming at all. Clint and I have had a great relationship. I’ve known him for many, many years. I don’t really understand why he did what he did. You’d probably maybe want to delve into that a little bit more deeply on his side.

“But I do believe in not interfering with other groups. I’ve commented post-fights. Maybe I’ve incited a few things when it came to things I didn’t like on the field, when it came to injury or throwing at somebody. I’ve had commentary and I don’t deny that I have.

“But to try to disseminate exactly what I think about a guy on another team based on superficial reasons, I’ll never go there. I don’t know the guy enough. I’m not in the clubhouse with him. I don’t have these conversations. I don’t know what kind of a teammate he is. I don’t know any of that stuff, so I would really be hesitant.”

The modern era presents a different landscape than the one in which Hurdle rose through baseball’s ranks. Look-at-me moments across American sports began in earnest with the 24-hour news cycle, and have been driven into the relative stratosphere by a player’s ability to garner hundreds of thousands of follows and likes on social media, where it can literally pay to have a presence.

There’s also the fact that Hispanic influence in Major League Baseball is strong and getting stronger. Nothing I’ve seen has indicated bias on Hurdle’s part, but the Athletic’s Patrick Mooney made an interesting point as pertains to the Pittsburgh manager: “Let’s be honest: Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester are great players who sometimes show bad body language and we don’t hear about how they’re not showing proper respect for the game.”

In light of Hurdle’s “entitlement all over the world” comment, this rings especially true.

So where do we go from here? Ideally, everybody learns to keep things in perspective, and move along as innocuously as possible. Javier Baez has already started to do just that.

“To be honest, I got a lot of things I can say right now,” he said via Yahoo, in response to Hurdle’s comments, “but I don’t control what’s out there, what people talk about me. I’m just gonna keep playing my game.”