Presented without further comment:
From just before the break: The Blue Jays join Pedro Florimon in the 2018 pantheon of faking guys out of their damn socks.
Before we move into the season’s second half, let’s clear out some pre-All-Star business. Like, for example, what happened in Minnesota over the weekend. It started during Saturday’s game, with the Rays trailing 6-4 heading into the top of the seventh inning. They emerged, two walks, three singles, a triple and a wild pitch later, leading, 9-6. Tampa added five more in the eighth to build the lead to 14-6. It’s what happened in the ninth, though, that drew my attention.
With Minnesota’s rookie utility infielder Willians Astudillo on the mound to save a taxed bullpen, Tampa Bay’s first three hitters went homer, double, single. No problems yet. The Twins led by nine, and were playing station-to-station ball—advancing one base on a single, two on a double, etc.—as teams do in blowouts. (For all the disagreement about when a lead can officially be considered safe, nine runs in the ninth meets every definition … never mind that Minnesota had already cried uncle with the insertion of Astudillo.)
Kevin Kiermaier then scored Smith with a ground ball to first base that was initially mishandled by Ehire Adrianza, who recovered in time to get the out at first but had no hope of making the play at the plate. This was acceptable under the rule of thumb that if no play is imminent—if a runner can go into a base standing up—he should do so. Ten-run lead.
What came next, however, was curious. Daniel Robertson singled on a soft bouncer to center field, and Adeiny Hechavarria never hesitated from second, motoring home with Tampa Bay’s 17th run, taking an extra base when such tactics had long since become excessive. (The Rays’ 18th and 19th runs came shortly thereafter on Jake Bauers’ two-run homer.)
Maybe the Rays were excited by their late-game explosion. Or maybe, as was pointed out via e-mail by longtime reader and avid Rays fan Road Dog Russ, “the Rays don’t feel any lead they have is safe. (Hangs head and sighs.)”
Minnesota players refrained from commenting publicly about it as far as I’ve seen, but if we’ve learned anything about this year’s Twins, it’s that at least a few of them (step on up, Brian Dozier) take the unwritten rules to heart (sometimes in not such productive ways). If I noticed the play from my office in California, the Twins almost certainly noticed it from across the field.
Which leads us to Sunday. While it’s possible that Saturday’s incident is unrelated to what came next—I’ve seen no accounts linking them—carryover is always possible.
With the score tied 4-4 in the seventh and the Twins in a shift against batter Eduardo Escobar, the aforementioned Dozier took an enormous lead off of third base, and, in no danger of being picked off (what with the third baseman being stationed in the shortstop’s spot), began dancing back and forth like a lunatic. It was enough to distract rookie Rays reliever Diego Castillo into a balk, sending a jubilant, fist-pumping Dozier home with the lead run. The play was, by every indication, a response to Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, who had done something similar from third base on Saturday.
Castillo’s next pitch to Escobar came in at 101 miles per hour, low and inside, but not close enough to cause the hitter to so much as move his feet. When Escobar backed out of the box to collect himself, Twins third baseman Daniel Robertson yelled at him to step back in. That was pretty much that: Benches cleared, and hostilities were on. (As usual, no punches were thrown.)
“I wasn’t upset with the pitcher,” Escobar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I never said anything to the pitcher or the dugout. I got upset and frustrated with Robertson, the third baseman. I didn’t know why he was yelling at me. The previous pitch before everything happened, it was kind of close to me. I wasn’t upset about that either. Robertson just started opening his arm and yelling stuff at me, which I couldn’t hear very well. That’s why I got frustrated.”
Escobar had been hit by a pitch an inning earlier. According to various Rays, after Castillo’s inside pitch, Twins reliever Ryan Pressly began shouting from the dugout that Tampa Bay had put a target on Escobar. Rays manager Kevin Cash began heatedly shouting across the field for somebody in Minnesota’s to shut the fuck up.
After the game, Robertson explained that he felt Escobar was trying to stare down the pitcher, and had done the same to reliever Ryan Yarbrough following an inside pitch earlier in the game. The fact that he also called Escobar “a good dude,” and pointed out that they both like to eat at Fogo de Chao doesn’t much mask the fact that getting upset over the way a player looks at somebody is ridiculous. Brazilian-style meat may build bridges, but this ain’t that.
(Robertson’s exact explanation: “When Castillo went down and low on [Escobar’s] ankles, he stared at him again. There was already a lot of chatter going on as far as the balk that happened right before that. Everyone was yelling at each other. He was looking back up at our pitcher again, and I just told him, ‘Hey, quit staring at our pitcher. Nobody’s trying to hit you; just get back in the box and hit.’ That’s about it, man. Then he kind of came back at me.”)
Escobar struck out on the next pitch, at which point Robertson was still talking. The hitter again took exception, this time as he walked past the Twins dugout, and again benches cleared. This time Escobar was ejected.
There’s a lot of fault to go around. Dozier did a mess of hollering all the way down the line as he was sent home on that balk, but he never directed it toward the pitcher or Tampa Bay’s dugout. If the Rays don’t like stuff like that, their best bet is to avoid balking in runs.
If Escobar was rattled by an inside pitch that was closer to being a strike than it was to hitting him, he’ll either need to fix that mentality or find a new line of work.
Kevin Cash decided that it was a good idea to repeatedly curse at his opponents. If he’s legitimately wondering why things got heated, there are a number of people he can see about that.
If David Robertson is really able to get bench-clearingly annoyed at the way an opponent looks at his teammate, he’d make an awesome nightclub bouncer, but might be a touch too sensitive for his sport of choice.
Also, don’t score from second on a single while up by double digits in the ninth. Who knows? That might have solved everything right there.
That Mark Canha flipped his bat after homering against the Giants in San Francisco on Saturday night was hardly noteworthy. It was a small affair, more toss than flip. The Giants did not appear to notice, at least so much as they let on.
It was Canha’s response to the flip, much more than the flip itself, that truly reflected the modern game.
“Growing up in San Jose and being a Giants fan and coming to all those games as a kid, it was nice to finally pop one and, given the situation, I was excited,” the Oakland outfielder told the media after the game. “So I got on Twitter and got out in front of this a little bit. I’m sure a lot of San Franciscans are offended by that, and I’m sorry.”
That wasn’t the good part. The good part is what came next.
“You know what, people getting offended by bat flips is so silly,” Canha continued. “I’m not sorry. I’m not really sorry. It’s part of our game. Everybody does it. If someone is going to throw at me because of it, I’ve got thrown at in the past this season for bat flipping. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson. If you’re offended by that, I don’t care.”
Now we’re cooking.
We’ve seen comments like these before, usually from Latin America-born players, who have tried for years to explain how celebratory displays are part of the baseball they grew up with, and how they make the game better. For a certain subset of critics, however, those guys are too other for traditional tastes—foreign voices that have no business telling Americans how their sport should be played.
Mark Canha was born and raised a Giants fan in Northern California. He went to U.C. Berkeley. He now plays for the A’s. There are few better examples of a Bay Area baseball kid made good. (And, okay, maybe some of those same critics who decry foreign voices will now dismiss Canha as a West Coast liberal, as if that has anything to do with anything, never mind that the guy’s politics are closeted to the point that I have no idea what they are.)
The point isn’t that Mark Canha is trying to move the needle. It’s that he’s being honest about the fact that the needle has already moved. This is Major League Baseball, 2018, and Canha is simply a product of it.
Also intriguing is Canha’s claim that he’s been thrown at this season in response to bat flipping. There are no direct ties—series in which he homered and was subsequently drilled. The best bet is a flip against Seattle, on May 2, of which you can catch a fleeting glimpse here.) Canha skated through the next day’s game unscathed, but was drilled by Mariners starter Mike Leake the next time the teams met, on May 22.
Then again, Canha said only that he was thrown at, not hit, in which case all box-score divination is moot. I’ll be sure to ask him about it next time I’m in the A’s clubhouse.
Who’d have guessed that the primary unwritten-rules-related topic of Major League Baseball 2018 wouldn’t be bat flips or even retaliatory pitches, but guys sliding into bases? In the modern world of fielder safety, we’ve reached the point that players are managing to get offended even on properly executed slides.
First case in point: Last Friday in Milwaukee, the slide of Brewers infielder Eric Sogard was cut off prematurely when Cardinals shortstop Yairo Munoz, shifting over to field the throw, impeded his progress. It was a clean play all around—these things sometimes happen—yet feelings nonetheless managed to get scuffed. Sogard got up talking (“The first words that came out of my mouth,” he told reporters after the game, “were ‘are you all right?’ “), Munoz got up angry, and within moments the benches had emptied.
Then on Tuesday, Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison slid forcefully into second base, upending Mets second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The slide was legit, and Cabrera didn’t seem to take offense—but New York pitcher Jeurys Familia did, starting a shouting match with Harrison that, like Sogard’s play in Milwaukee, drew both teams onto the field.
These follow a questionable slide already executed this season by Roughned Odor in Anaheim, tit-for-tat slides in Pittsburgh, a dustup over a slide in Wrigley Field, and a slide that left the Yankees and Red Sox brawling on the Fenway Park infield. Collectively, it’s served to illustrate the unintended consequence of Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to insure the safety of catchers and infielders via ever more restrictive regulations against impact. The tighter the rules, after all, the more likely it is that somebody will violate them … and the more likely that defenders will imagine violations where none exist.
Once, of course, it was legal to crash into any base in whatever way a runner saw fit, short of standing up to take a guy out. Hal McRae was the king of high barrel rolls into second base, knocking fielders backward with such viciousness that the play was eventually outlawed with an injunction that is now informally known as the Hal McRae rule. Even recently, however, low barrel rolls were seen as acceptable, none more exemplary than Alex Rodriguez’s slide into second that took out Jeff Kent’s knee in 1998. Kent was decidedly displeased, but on the whole, critics viewed the play as clean.
After Don Baylor crashed into Cleveland second baseman Remy Hermoso in 1974 (a late feed from shortstop Frank Duffy had left Hermoso directly in Baylor’s path while awaiting the throw)—a blow that knocked the infielder out of action for nearly four months—Orioles manager Earl weaver had to convince Baylor that the play was clean, and that such collisions were simply part of the game. It was the only time in Baylor’s 19-year career, he said later, that he ever felt bad about taking out an infielder in such a manner.
Former Rangers manager (and career infielder) Ron Washington once explained to me that, as a coach, an appropriate response to such a play was not anger toward the opposition but better protection for one’s own infielders. “I told my guys to protect your ass at all times,” he said. “Don’t go across that bag on a double-play, lollygagging. You go across that bag with two things in mind: I’m gonna turn this sucker, and if anybody gets in my way I’m gonna blow him apart [low-bridging a throw, forcing the runner to hit the dirt to avoid it]. … I don’t care how simple the play is, you get yourself in a position of protection, because you never know.”
No longer. Dave Nelson talked about this very topic in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006, when he was a coach for Milwaukee.
“I’ll give you a good example,” he said. “Carlos Lee went into Todd Walker last year, hard, clean. Put Walker out of the game, hurt his knee. So one of my players, Russell Branyan says, ‘That’s a dirty play.’ And I said, ‘What? That’s not a dirty play. He went in there clean and hard.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but according to today’s standards, that’s dirty, because nobody does it.’ I said, ‘That’s the problem—nobody does it.’ He didn’t go out there to hurt him, he went out there to take him out of the double play. This is guys’ mentality today. This is how they think.”
That was before baseball implemented its current spate of rules.
I examined this evolution a couple years back, well before the current spate of basepath-related issues. What’s changed since that time is further restrictions on what players can legally do. Now, it seems, anything outside the proscribed guidelines—and sometimes well within them—is spurring players to anger. It goes a long way toward illustrating the effect of inherent competitiveness on a constrained landscape. The window for what is considered to be appropriate behavior in this regard is more diminutive than ever (even while the window for appropriate behavior as pertains to celebrations has been thrown wide open). Ballplayers have gained a new layer of entitlement, and damned if they’re not going to leverage it for all it’s worth.
After the Pirates-Mets game in which Josh Harrison was upbraided by Jeurys Familia for a perfectly acceptable slide, the Pittsburgh infielder took a reasoned approach to the situation.
“Apparently he said, ‘Play the game the right way,’ ” Harrison told reporters after his dustup with Familia. “If you go back and look at the footage, I think I played the game the right way. Didn’t touch the guy, broke up a double play without hurting the guy or touching the guy. At the end of the day, I think that’s playing the game the right way.”
It is. Here’s hoping that the rest of baseball can come to recognize as much before too much longer.
The Tampa Bay Rays have a young roster. None of their regular starters are 30 years old. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that their pitchers didn’t seem to notice when Washington’s Michael Taylor stole third base against them while his team was leading 9-2 in the sixth inning back on June 6. It was a questionable decision, but when Taylor came up again in the eighth and grounded out against reliever Jose Alvarado, the matter appeared to be closed. (Taylor also came to bat four times the next time the teams played, this past Monday—three of which came with the Rays leading by seven or more runs, a perfect opportunity to drill a guy if a pitcher is so inclined—with nothing of note coming to pass.)
Usually, when a team passes up opportunities to respond to something like Taylor’s steal, it means they don’t much care.
But Sergio Romo cares. On Tuesday, Romo—at 35, the old man of Tampa Bay’s staff—let Taylor know exactly what he thought of his three-week-old steal. Romo couldn’t exactly drill the guy; a closer’s role involves pitching exclusively in games too close to cede free baserunners. Instead, the right-hander struck Taylor out to end the Rays’ 1-0 victory, then unloaded on him verbally before leaving the field.
It’s probably a better option than one of Romo’s colleagues planting a fastball into Taylor’s body, but it nonetheless served to empty the dugouts.
Romo was upset about Taylor’s steal, but he may also have been upset that other guys on his own pitching staff failed to respond to it. Either way, an awful lot of frustration was unleashed there at Tropicana Field.
The enduring question is, why should anybody care? It’s an ages-old conundrum, long memories in baseball, with copious examples from some historical greats. I’ve written in this space about waits endured by various pitchers before they exacted revenge. Bob Gibson and Stan Williams were noteworthy for it. Hell, Nolan Ryan used the occasion of the 1985 All-Star Game to settle a pair of grudges—against Rickey Henderson, who had hot-dogged his trot after homering against the right-hander in 1979, the year before Ryan moved to the National League; and against Dave Winfield, who had charged Ryan’s mound while with San Diego in 1980. Six years was nothing for the master of grudge-settlement, who put a message fastball underneath both hitters’ chins that day, both on 0-2 counts.
A passage in my most recent book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, pertains to this very topic:
In a May 18  game against the Royals at the Coliseum, Bill North let slip his bat on a swing against reliever Doug Bird, the lumber sailing harmlessly between the mound and third base. While going to retrieve it, however, North took an unexpected right turn and pounced upon the unsuspecting pitcher, peppering him with as many punches as he could land before being tackled away by players from both teams. The only guy in the building who wasn’t confused as hell was the guy swinging his fists.
The feud dated back to 1970, when North played for the Quincy (Illinois) Cubs of the Single-A Midwest League. Bird, pitching for Waterloo (Iowa), had given up homers to the two players preceding North in the lineup, and responded (in North’s opinion) by brushing the hitter back. “Hey, man, I didn’t hit those homers,” he snapped at the catcher before settling back into the box. The next pitch, a fastball, hit him in the head with such velocity that North required hospitalization.
“My ear was swollen for two weeks,” the center fielder said by way of explanation following his attack on the pitcher. “Two inches more and I would have been dead.” He’d been keenly waiting for revenge ever since, paying close attention to the transaction wire for the moment that Bird was called up from the minors. The fight occurred during the pitcher’s fourth major league appearance. “I don’t think I could live with myself and not challenge that dude,” North said.
Such certainty did not grip his teammates. “We were all looking at each other going, ‘What the hell is happening?’ ” said Joe Rudi. Added Ray Fosse, “We’re trying to win a championship, and when we found out this guy’s doing something to redress a problem from the minor leagues, we couldn’t believe it.” Joe Cronin suspended North three games and fined him $100.
In that vein, Sergio Romo getting some things off his chest is a feather in the wind. The teams don’t meet again this season, and it sure seems like something that won’t carry over like to next year, those other precedents be damned.
Donald Hall died on Saturday. Best known as a poet, he was also a baseball nut who wrote two books about the sport—Fathers Playing Catch With Sons, a book of essays; and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, an illuminating portrait of one of the most charismatic and enigmatic ballplayers of his time.
From Country of Baseball:
“In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”
“The old first baseman, making the final out of the inning, in the last year he will play, underhands the ball casually toward the mound, as he has done ten thousand times. The ball bounces over the lip of the grass, climbs the crushed red brick of the mound for a foot or two, and then rolls back until it catches in the green verge. The ball has done this ten thousand times.”
The book is best known for breaking the story about Ellis pitching a no-hitter on LSD—a detail so taboo that in the original pressing Hall wrote that the pitcher had merely been drunk. (“I wrote ‘we made some screwdrivers’ instead of ‘we took some tabs,’ ” Hall later clarified. “I substituted ‘about noon the next day, I realized I was pitching,’ for the more astonishing ‘I might have slept maybe an hour. I got up maybe about nine or ten in the morning. Took another half tab.’ When he arrived at the clubhouse, my bowdlerized story had Dock drink a lot of coffee. Instead he swallowed Dexamyl and Benzedrine. ‘When I took those greenies,’ he had told me, ‘that knocked that acid out of there. Had a couple of bennies, too.’ ”)
There are many, many other worthy stories:
When [Pete Rose Jr.] was three, Pete asked Dock under the stands to pitch to the boy. “He’s just like his father,” Dock says with admiration. “He stands just like him.” Dock asked him where he’d like the pitch. “Get your shit over the plate,” the boy said. “Get that damned shit over.”
In the lobby of the San Francisco Hilton, as we head out for dinner after a game, we see a Pittsburgh Pirate sitting alone in a large, pretentious chair. This ballplayer is white, mustachioed, elegantly dressed, and he sits upright, cool, handsome, and dignified. “What’s happening?” says Dock.
“Oh,” says the ballplayer, sophisticated and detached, “I’m waiting for someone to pick me up for dinner.” He pauses minutely, and just as Dock is about to speak, he continues, “I don’t know who she is yet, but she’ll be along.” Then he squints down the dark hallway at a young woman registering. The squint is theatrical and exact. “No,” he sighs. “Not her. I’m too beautiful.”
Less poetic but just as interesting is Ellis detailing his reason for wearing hair curlers in the early 1970s, a fashion statement that elicited derision from fellow players but which came with a purpose:
I find myself curious about the curlers . . . Although I spend a good deal of time with Dock, I never see him wearing curlers around the house. I wonder why he wore them just before games. I ask him.
“That’s when I was throwing spitballs. When I had the curlers, my hair would be straight. Down the back. On the ends would be nothing but balls of sweat.”
“Spitballs!” I say. . . . “So you wore curlers for the sake of pitching?”
“Oh, yes! Just one touch at a time. It was something I experimented with. I do well with them.”
“Do you still throw them?”
“No. Every once in awhile, I want to load up. I don’t fool with it. I throw it sometimes to left-handed hitters, when I get two strikes on them, if a man’s on first, to get them to hit into a double play.”
“When did you start throwing spitters?”
“In nineteen seventy-two, at the end of the year. I threw it four consecutive games. Natural sweat. When it gets wet, at the end of my hair there are balls of water. Before every pitch, I would get it.” Dock would reach to the back of his head, and load up his fingertips. “Then I pick up the resin like this.” He looks as if he wipes his fingers on the resin, but really he keeps his fingertips from touching the bag, then he appears to wipe his hand across his shirt. “I go across my chest like this. I wipe my hat. I get my thumb dry—but I would have it. I threw ninety-nine percent spitballs when I was throwing spitballs, July and August, nineteen seventy three.”
“What makes a spitball drop? How do you throw it?”
“One of the real heavy spitball dudes broke it down for me. You drop the ball on the mound, get a rough side on it. You get the spit or sweat or Vaseline—whatever you use—on the balls of your fingers, and put your fingers on the fat part of the ball, the rough side for more traction. Then you release it from the balls of your fingers, and it’ll slow, it’s got to go down, it’s the only place it can go.”
Hall was 89 years old. Baseball has lost a longtime supporter.