RIP

RIP Willie McCovey

Willie Mac

I drew the above picture in 1980, when I was 10 and Willie McCovey was 42, shortly after he’d hit his final home run, number 521, tying him with Ted Williams on the all-time list. I was a kid, and he was my baseball hero, the last vestige of a classic Giants era that wrapped up before I was old enough to take notice. Willie Mays was long gone—first to the Mets, and then to retirement—but McCovey was still around, still doing great things even after he had long passed the point of being great himself. Mays was legend, but McCovey was tangible, something to grasp. He was right there, the wizened elder whose feats of strength, while increasingly rare, were still, on occasion, majestic. I remember my father explaining to me in the Candlestick Park grandstand that year how the slugger, wobbling atop arthritic knees that would eventually leave him wheelchair-bound, might be the only man in baseball to smack a ball off the right-field fence—as he’d just done—and never even consider advancing to second base.

McCovey died yesterday at age 80, succumbing to a panoply of health issues that began piling up before his career even ended.

By the time I came up as a sportswriter in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, Willie Mac was a regular at what was then known as Pac Bell Park, joining Mays to frequent the office of clubhouse manager Mike Murphy to such a degree that the duo effectively became part of the tableau, just another wondrous aspect of clubhouse culture. I spoke with him on occasion, but only when I had specific questions for a story I was working on, and always at a remove. Hanging out with McCovey? That was something Willie Mays got to do, not mortals like me.

As pertains to this space, when McCovey’s name came up during interviews for The Baseball Codes, it was almost universally under the same subject heading. The guy was known for his abundant power—it earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959, and the MVP a decade later—but people who played against him also remember how he leveraged his strength while tagging runners at first base. Lou Brock once said that leading off against the Giants was the worst experience a player could have. “He slapped that big ol’ glove down there, hard,” said Chris Speier.

“Willie would slap you so nicely,” recalled Dusty Baker. “He’d smile, then drop that hammer on your head, on your ribs.”

Did anyone hold it against him?

“Well, he was so nice, and he was so big, who could get mad at him?”

Which was a huge part of the guy’s appeal. The first baseman’s demeanor allowed him to keep runners close simply by the threat of tagging them, without real repercussions given that they knew it was never personal. His nature was further on display in an incident that had nothing to do with his tags, during a fight between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs in 1973. From Baseball Digest:

“When the scuffle flared to a red-hot pitch, Jose Cardenal, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound fight fielder for the Cubs, bolted directly toward Willie McCovey, the Giants’ 6-foot-4, 200-pound first baseman.

“ ‘I want you, beeg man,’ Cardenal shouted as he leaped to launch a swing at McCovey. His punch missed by a foot. McCovey laughed and declined to squash his antagonist.”

The guy was beloved. He ran the team’s kangaroo court during his playing days, and now has a statue memorializing the same swing pictured above gracing a cove named after him beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park. (Had McCovey played there, the theory holds, he’d have slugged untold balls into that water.) So deep is the respect for him that the Giants’ annual honorific for the player who displays the most spirit and leadership, as voted upon by teammates, is called the Willie Mac Award.

It’s a sad day for Giants fans. We’ve lost a legend.

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Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

Former Boston pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

Sign stealing

MLB Clears Astros Spy Of Wrongdoing, Because Whose Interests Is It Really In To Call Out That Kind Of Thing At This Time Of Year?

Astros camera

Some people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs. Okay, a lot of people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs.

According to Metro US and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a guy named Kyle McLaughlin, working for Houston, was perched in a dugout-adjacent photographer well without appropriate credentials and aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the ALDS. He was also caught doing it to the Red Sox during the current ALCS.

Houston said that it was a counterintelligence effort, an attempt by the Astros to ensure that opponents were not spying on them. Of primary concern were last year’s allegations that a Red Sox coach used an Apple Watch to steal opponents’ signs.

Passan’s report, however, details other allegations against the Astros that don’t much square with their defense. Among others, members of the Oakland A’s “noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,” with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are different layers to this kind of thing. If the signs are being stolen from the field of play without use of mechanical aid, that’s normal. If, for example, a baserunner at second has a clear view in to the catcher’s signs, and if the catcher has not mixed things up to the point that said baserunner can quickly and easily decipher them, and if those signs are then relayed to the hitter at the plate prior to the pitch being thrown—well, that’s mostly on the defensive team for not implementing better signs. Even if the runner is indicating only location—where the catcher places his target pre-pitch—that too can be countered by the catcher setting up too late in the sequence for the runner to do anything about it.

It’s all totally legal.

What’s not legal, either in the unwritten rulebook or the actual one, is the use of binoculars, TV cameras, radio devices and the like, including Apple Watches. Unless a pitcher was exhibiting an obvious tell, it’s extremely unlikely that the Astros would be clapping or banging garbage cans in their dugout based on something they saw directly. Much more feasible is that somebody with a video feed was passing them timely information.

In my Apple Watch post I offered some brief history on illicit sign stealing, including the 1950s “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park, the military-grade gun sight that Bob Feller used to help the Indians to the 1948 pennant, and the Cubs’ traveling secretary, who used binoculars to nab opponents’ signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the 1950s. Such affairs are hardly a relic of the past, however. From that post:

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t knock it off, and Houston’s excuse that they were just being vigilant is valid. Or perhaps many teams are involved in this kind of thing, and are only very rarely caught, and the Astros were just trying to get away with something. (That said, we’re in the playoffs now. TV cameras are everywhere and people are paying attention. Houston really has to be smarter.)

MLB responded to the affair by increasing its security detail at Tuesday’s Game 3, sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball-ops and six from security—to monitor the game, including somebody in each team’s video-review room. Its takeaway: Houston did nothing wrong. The official statement:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

Look away. Nothing to see here.

Of course, even as the Astros claimed vindication—”They’ve done their investigation and cleared us” crowed Houston GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 4—there’s a lot more to unpack here. Taking Luhnow’s claims of innocence at face value means that, at the very least, his opponents—specifically Cleveland in the ALDS and Boston currently—may well be doing the things that the Astros have themselves been recently accused of. At a minimum, Houston’s suspicions were strong to station a non-credentialed employee in a sensitive location to enact shady surveillance tactics in response.

Is that actually likely? MLB’s claims to support the theory suggest that it is. Or maybe it’s just that the league office wants to avoid a spygate controversy blowing up on the cusp of the World Series, potentially sullying the eventual champion, whoever that might be.

When a baserunner is caught trying to relay pinched signs to a hitter, it’s incumbent upon his team to knock things off, at least for a while. My own guess is that the knock-it-off message here is coming from an institutional level, not from one player to another but from the commissioner’s office to the Astros, telling them that this entire affair is bad for business and it’d be best for everyone if it was quickly forgotten.

Which it no doubt will be.

Basepath Etiquette

Machado Adds Another Line To An Already-Packed Cheap-Shot Resume

Machado collides

Manny Machado is a dirty player.

He’ll insist otherwise, saying things like, “I play baseball,” and “that’s just baseball” and “call it what you want.”

Those are all comments he made when questioned about the latest episode in a career filled with dubious behavior, after he rammed into the right leg of Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar while crossing the bag on a groundout in last night’s Game 4 of the NLCS. Aguilar was positioned with his heel over the inside of the base, yet left plenty of room for the runner to pass. It is a play that Machado—and every player who has ever played baseball, all the way down to tee-ball leagues—has made repeatedly. Instead, he took the inside lane and plowed into Aguilar’s calf, appearing to kick the fielder as he passed. Had Aguilar’s spikes been planted firmly, it could have resulted in serious damage. The first baseman had words for Machado, Machado had words back, and the dugouts emptied with no small degree of confusion.

Ultimately, no blows were thrown and the only thing hurt was Machado’s reputation—which was hardly sterling to begin with. Hell, I was inspired to call the guy “among the most reckless, hard-headed and downright dangerous players in the game” way back in 2014.

Sadly, this type of play has come to define Machado’s career, which should otherwise be defined by on-field heroics befitting one of the sport’s best players. Recent reports have focused on plays earlier in this series in which Machado was docked for grabbing at the leg of Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia on a slide into second (a doubly stupid effort given that Cody Bellinger would have been safe at first regardless, but was called out as penalty for Machado’s deviance). This following a similar (if slightly less egregious) Machado slide that was not penalized, mainly because Arcia did not try to complete the play.

That was Monday. It doesn’t take much digging to add to the list of Machado’s dirt:

The Brewers are aware of all of this. Standard protocol in this type of situation mandates a bland public response no matter how much a team might be seething, even if that team ends up doing something about it on the field. Machado’s actions have gotten so out of hand, however, that Milwaukee players opted to deliver some unvarnished truth to whoever would listen.

Christian Yellich, in part: “He is a player that has a history with those types of incidents. One time is an accident. Repeated over and over again. It’s a dirty play. It’s a dirty play by a dirty player. I have a lot of respect for him as a player but you can’t respect someone who plays the game like that. it was a tough-fought baseball game. It has no place in our game. We’ve all grounded out. Run through the bag like you’ve been doing your whole life like everybody else does.”

There’s also this:

Travis Shaw weighed in: “Dirty play. You saw the replay. He can say all he wants that he didn’t do it, but it’s pretty obvious he meant to do it. He’s shown it multiple times throughout his career. I mean, it’s just a dirty play. A kick to his leg right there. It was not by mistake.”

Even the Dodgers’ own Orel Hersheiser, on the team’s postgame show, offered a ruthless assessment, saying, “It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to himself. It’s embarrassing to the game,” and adding, “I wish he wouldn’t kick first basemen.”

Machado himself, as he did following his injury to Norris in 2014, nonchalanted the entire affair, telling ESPN’s Pedro Gomez after the game, “His foot was on the bag. I kind of tripped over him a little bit. That’s just baseball.” He reportedly apologized to Aguilar, but neither player would discuss anything that was said between them.

All in all, it’s a terrible and enduring look for one of baseball’s superstars. Even Brewers manager Craig Counsel got into the act, responding to a question about whether Machado went beyond the grounds of playing hard by saying, “I don’t think he’s playing all that hard.”

This, of course, dovetails with Machado’s other NLCS controversy, in which he failed to run out a grounder and then told Ken Rosenthal, “Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and … you know, whatever can happen. That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.”

This being the playoffs, the only way a Brewers pitcher will offer up a retaliatory strike is in a game that is well out of hand, and even that is unlikely. If anything, they are far more likely to wait until next season, probably during spring training when games don’t matter. Even if they do, it is almost certain to have no affect on Machado’s future behavior, which seems beyond outside governance.

Until then, these teams will keep battling, hopefully in a way that doesn’t put anybody in unnecessary peril.

Update 10-17: MLB agrees, and has fined Machado an undisclosed amount.

 

 

 

Pitch Tipping

Was Tipping Pitches To Blame For Severino’s Awful ALDS Start?

Severino

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. We’ve covered the topic in this space before, regarding Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and Matt Moore, among other instances. The Baseball Codes itself has an entire section on pitch tipping, including the following passage:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

If this is true it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone. On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record. But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking, and neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of, however, is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

MLB’s Unwritten Rules Commercial Doesn’t Say What You Might Think It Says

Puig tongue

As you’ve no doubt seen repeatedly by now, MLB has put out a let-the-kids-play commercial hyping the celebratory aspect of baseball. It seems like a decent opportunity for discourse on the nature of the unwritten rules.

The nearly universal takeaway of the spot is that it trashes baseball’s Code, dispensing with traditional decorum in favor of personality-driven enthusiasm—a direct effort to address the sport’s image problem. That’s because baseball tends to subsume its characters beneath the nature of the game, which has costs in terms of outreach and the marketability of its stars. The NFL—already at a wild disadvantage given that its athletes wear helmets and masks on the field—addressed a similar issue by reinstituting end zone celebrations, which in their wild creativity have brought new levels of attention to the sport. The NBA has no shortage of distinct and camera-friendly personalities. Mike Trout, meanwhile, can walk down Main Street in Anytown, USA, with a reasonable chance that he will go unrecognized.

None of this is in dispute. What the above theory misses, however, is that the commercial in question isn’t decrying the unwritten rules so much as marking their evolution. The Code is a fluid affair, as it’s been since the beginning, adapting to the times in whatever ways players see fit. Once, digging in against a pitcher would insure a knockdown pitch in response. Now, players dig in willfully and intentional knockdowns are nearly extinct. Once, barrel rolls into infielders and blowing up catchers were standard methods of operation. Now, spurred by changes to the actual rulebook, they’re seen in big league dugouts as acts beyond the pale. The Code is fluid.

The modern game obviously does not need to legislate on-field celebration. It’s a process that’s been building organically for years. Postgame midfield scrums surrounding walk-off heroes were once the strict purview of postseason play; now they happen during interleague games in May. Flipping a bat once assured a player retribution down the road, then along came Puig and everything changed. Pitchers bellow to the heavens and hitters, upon reaching base, make all kinds of hand signals—antlers, antennae, claws—to teammates in the dugout. Apart from the rare red-ass in MLB ranks, these acts go uncontested. This isn’t a challenge to the Code—this is the Code. The unwritten rules are whatever the majority of baseball players say they are.

So when MLB releases a commercial celebrating celebration long after such things have entered the mainstream, it’s merely acknowledging what already exists. The needle has moved, and that’s just fine.

 

 

Cheating, Gamesmanship

Baez’s Attempt To Hug It Out Almost Saved Chicago’s Season

Javy hugs

As the game wore through extra innings last night in Chicago, the Cubs grew increasingly desperate to score. They’d left the winning run stranded at third in the eighth, and had another runner in the ninth they could not advance.

Then, with one out in the 11th, with Javy Baez at second and Daniel Murphy at first, Wilson Contreras topped a grounder to Nolan Arenado at third base. It was a great chance for the rocket-armed fielder to double up the gimpy-legged Contreras—who only moments earlier had precipitated a minutes-long delay when his left calf muscle cramped—and end the inning.

Instead, Baez, baseball’s most creative player, wrapped up Arenado in a bear hug as the tag was applied. It was, on the surface, a friendly gesture, Arenado responding with a smile and a hug of his own. The idea of doubling up Contreras was lost, especially to an umpiring crew who detected no hint of malfeasance from the victim.

It made no difference in the end, as the next batter, Victor Caratini, grounded out to end the inning, and the Rockies went on to win in 13. Had Murphy ended up scoring from second, however, Baez’s hug would have gone down as an indelible moment in what would have been a Chicago victory.

I have a book about the 1981 Dodgers, called They Bled Blue, coming out next March. What jumped out to me in relation to Baez’s hug was a moment from the 1978 World Series that I describe in the introduction. The Dodgers led the series two games to one, and were ahead in Game 4, 3-1, in the sixth inning. Then the Yankees put two men on base—Thurman Munson at second and Reggie Jackson at first—against Dodgers starter Tommy John. That brought up Lou Piniella. From They Bled Blue:

Piniella tapped a humpbacked liner up the middle, which Bill Russell, moving to his left, reached in plenty of time for the putout. The shortstop, however—whose nervous glove had long belied his supreme athleticism—was coming off a season in which he’d finished third in the National League in errors. He nearly made another one here, the ball clanking off his mitt, a miscue that looked inconsequential when it rolled directly toward second base, allowing Russell to snatch it up three steps from the bag and race over to force Jackson for the inning’s second out . . . which is where things got interesting.

With Russell having been in position to catch the ball on the fly, both runners had retreated to their bases of origin. Munson, in fact, made such a belated start toward third that had the shortstop thought to reach to his right upon gathering in the loose baseball, he might well have been able to tag him then and there. Russell didn’t, of course, because there was no need: an accurate relay to first base—which the shortstop provided, firing a bullet to Steve Garvey in plenty of time to retire Piniella—would complete an inning-ending double-play. There was, however, an impediment: Jackson, having backtracked, was rooted in the baseline only steps away from first. As the throw rocketed toward its intended target, Reggie did the only thing he could to extend the inning—he leaned ever so slightly toward right field, his hip jutting out just far enough to deflect the throw, which bounced off him and toward the grandstand alongside the Yankees dugout, allowing Munson to score.

The Dodgers screamed interference. Tommy Lasorda speed-waddled onto the field, tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin as he argued at top volume with umpires Frank Pulli and Joe Brinkman. Pulli, stationed at first, later admitted that his view of the base runner had been obstructed and that he had little idea whether Jackson might have intentionally interfered with the ball. Brinkman said that he’d been looking at second base to call the force-out when the ball hit Reggie . . . or, depending on your rooting interests, when Reggie hit the ball.

The play might have been dirty, but there’s no denying that it was smart. Had Jackson done nothing, the inning would have been over. The frame would similarly have ended had Reggie been called for interference, as he should have been. As it was, though, he got away with it, allowing Munson to close New York’s deficit to 3–2, The Sporting News later calling it “one of the shrewdest and most significant plays” in World Series history. Had Jackson not done what he did, Tommy John—whose previous two starts were a four-hit shutout over Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and LA’s victory over the Yankees in the first game of the World Series—would have been in the middle of another four-hitter, trying to protect a two-run lead in the late innings. Instead, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run advantage, Lasorda pulled the left-hander after Paul Blair’s leadoff single in the eighth. Two batters later, reliever Terry Forster allowed a game-tying double to Munson, and the game went to extra innings. New York won it in the 10th, and the Dodgers, instead of being one win from a Series victory, found things knotted at two games apiece. It wrecked them.

The Yankees, of course, went on to win that World Series. Things didn’t work out so well for Baez, but it is likely that his hug was specifically intended to curtail the possibility of Aranado ending the inning with a double-play. If that’s the case, one could—as with Reggie, 40 years earlier— fault his sense of fair play. Just like Reggie, of course, Baez’s was a winning proposition with no attendant downside, and the possible upside of being a game-winner.

There’s a reason he’s one of the savviest players in baseball.