— Play Ball (@PlayBall) February 17, 2017
[H/T Big League Stew]
In support of my latest book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s — available March 7 at fine bookstores everywhere — I’ve been re-poring over old Oakland Tribunes and tweeting this-date-in updates for each of the team’s three championship seasons. Sign up at @DynasticBook to relive those magical seasons, one day at a time.
If you do, May 22 will bring you the bones of the following tale of retaliation, told in significantly more complete form here. From that day’s issue of the Oakland Tribune, 1972:
Ken Holtzman was sailing along with a 2-0 lead in the second inning when he grounded to Royals first baseman John Mayberry, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.
Mayberry took the ball, ambled over to the bag to make the third out, but stopped instead of crossing over toward the dugout. The 165-pound Holtzman, running full speed, crashed into Mayberry and went down as if knocked out by Joe Frazier.
When Lou Piniella led off the next inning, the still-shaken Holtzman threw the first ball over his hat.
“I don’t know where I was,” Holtzman said. “I was so dizzy and so mad, I thought Piniella was Mayberry so I threw the ball over his head. When I got back to the dugout they told me what I’d done.”
Piniella is shorter and doesn’t weigh as much as Mayberry. And not only is Piniella white and Mayberry black, but Piniella bats right and Mayberry left.
By the time Mayberry came up again, Holtzman’s head had cleared. He threw a ball over HIS head and then struck him out.
There’s nothing funny about concussions, of course, but Holtzman threw five more innings of one-run ball, then pitched complete games in five of his next seven starts without missing a turn. Seems like he was okay. And dedicated to sending a message.
Boy, was that a different time.
So Peter Gammons relayed an anecdote involving a team stealing a base with a big lead, and the opposition sending a message. This tale, however, has a twist:
Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When [Chase] Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.
This is a terrific tale—a hard-nosed veteran insisting on propriety at his own expense in order to teach a lesson to a young teammate.
The problem is, it doesn’t appear to have happened—at least not according to the details provided. Utley’s been hit by 17 pitches as a member of the Dodgers, and never after an ill-timed stolen base while Los Angeles held a big lead.
The closest match I could find happened last Sept. 12, when Los Angeles led the Yankees Yankees 5-1. With two outs and men at first and third, Howie Kendrick—the runner at first—took off for second. The throw from catcher Brian McCann was wild, allowing Josh Reddick to score from third, making the score 6-1. Andrew Toles then struck out looking.
Utley led off the following frame. Reliever Richard Bleier drilled him.
There are two primary problems here. One is that in the modern era, a four-run lead is hardly considered safe. The other is that the action went down in the third inning. No problem there.
So what happened? Gammons said that Utley asked to be drilled, not that he was drilled. Or, it could have happened in a spring training game. It might even have been while Utley was with the Phillies, the details twisted in the retelling.
But that’s the thing about baseball—tall tales have a way of sticking. Hell, legacies are built upon them. Whether or not Utley’s story actually happened, it could have happened, and that’s enough to bring a smile to one’s face over morning coffee.
More fun historical moments from my New Secret Project. (Try to pick up a pattern as items appear sporadically in this space.) This one’s from the New York Daily News, Aug. 27, 1980, and touches on a retaliation-worthy incident from a previous era:
Don’t invite Davey Lopes and Tug McGraw to the same party.
“There will be a day when McGraw hits,” Lopes said, “and he’ll be dead and you can put that in the newspapers.”
After Dusty Baker’s ninth-inning single had snapped a 4-4 tie in a game the Dodgers went on to win 8-4 Monday night, Philadelphia’s McGraw was trying to intentionally walk Joe Ferguson to load the bases and set up a potential double play. Ferguson, however, had other plans. On the second pitch, he leaned across the plate and lined a two-run single to right.
McGraw was not happy and took out his frustration on shortstop Bill Russell, the next batter. His first three pitches were tight and the fourth one plunked Russell, who charged the mound, starting off baseball’s latest beanbrawl. Lopes was outraged that McGraw would stoop to such a level.
“That was bush,” Lopes said. “He’s got his day coming. I don’t care if it’s eight years from now. I thought he had a little more class. I guess he doesn’t.” …
“It was as plain as the nose on your face that he should have been thrown out and heavily fined,” Lasorda said. “What gives him the right to throw four balls at a guy who has nothing to do with [Ferguson’s hit]?
It should be noted that the Dodgers beat McGraw’s Phillies in the NLCS in both 1977 and 1978, so some degree of intolerance between the clubs would be only natural.
It’s also not surprising that Lopes—the most outspoken player on that Dodgers team—took up the cause with reporters after the game while Russell himself, notoriously reticent, kept quiet.
Also noteworthy is the comment from Lasorda. His outrage was no doubt genuine, but so was the hypocrisy; as a pitcher the guy was famous for knocking down opponents. Even once he became a manager he couldn’t stop getting into fights. As a Giants fan growing up, I hated that guy. As a baseball fan, though, it’s hard not to love him.
Researching a new project, I ran across a tale of a player waiting for revenge through multiple teams, multiple leagues and even multiple countries. It all ended with a fight … but not one that might have been expected.
From The Sporting News, Aug. 25, 1973:
Tommy Lasorda once managed pitcher Elias Sosa in the Dominican Republic winter league. Last winter, however, Lasorda helmed the Licey Tigers, which included eight young members of the Dodgers. Sosa, a member of the San Francisco Giants, pitching for the Escogido Lions, drilled Steve Garvey, then Von Joshua, and the Tigers rushed the field. Sosa retreated to right field to escape, but was subsequently drilled by Licey’s Pedro Borbon, of the Reds.
Accusing Lasorda of ordering the pitch, Sosa carried his grievance all the way to San Francisco the other night, where he threw one at the skull of Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith, who narrowly escaped. Sosa caught a verbal shot from Lasorda, who was told the next day by manager Charlie Fox to stop harassing his pitcher.
A shocking thing then happened. The two suddenly started throwing punches. Charlie grew up in the Irish section of the Bronx. The fight was slowed instantly when the stomachs of the two collided, but Lasorda claims to have landed pulverizing punches.
The windup, according to Lasorda, was a promise on the part of Sosa to get even with him in Santo Domingo, where Elias has friends.
Lasorda, of course, loved to fight and was never shy about retaliation, so maybe Sosa had a point. Of course, to exact revenge upon Lasorda in a different league, against a player who wasn’t even in the country when the first shot was fired, took things to an unprecedented level.
Sosa ended up pitching for Lasorda in Los Angeles in 1976 and 1977, so his feelings couldn’t have been too badly hurt.
Yordano Ventura was killed over the weekend in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. On-field and off, this is tragic. The guy was 25 years old, with a lot of growing still to do.
The right-hander possessed some of the best stuff in baseball, but was still figuring out how to harness it, putting up ERAs over 4.00 in each of the last two seasons. When Ventura was right, though, he was nearly untouchable, highlighted by a 7-1 record with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his last 11 starts of 2015.
The thing about being able to throw 100 mph, though, is that people are going to take issue when that stuff comes too far inside. Which never seemed to bother Ventura very much. As such, he became a prominent face in an increasingly complex transition from whatever baseball’s Code was, to whatever it will be. He celebrated on the mound. He enjoined opponents in battles both verbal and physical. He seemed all too willing to get into it on the field for any reason. No clearer evidence of this exists than his record two Aprils back, when Ventura scrapped with Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie and Adam Eaton—three players on three teams in a span of four starts. Last year’s brawl with Manny Machado furthered the pitcher’s reputation.
Ventura undeniably brought excitement to the sport, but at the same time he gave opponents a blueprint for how to draw his focus away from the task at hand. A run-in with Blue Jays first-base coach Tim Leiper in the 2015 ALCS is a perfect example of a team knowing just how easy it was to get into Ventura’s head. The pitcher’s own teammates appeared to grow weary of his antics, publicly backing him less and less frequently as his rap sheet grew.
The thing about Ventura, though, was that we always wanted to see what came next. His talent was one thing—skill that, if ever fully harnessed, could have made him one of the game’s best pitchers—but to overlook his personality would sell the man short. He was a guy who asked into an area softball game a day after his team lost the World Series. He was a guy who took pleasure in visiting kids’ lemonade stands.
From a baseball standpoint, we’re left mostly with questions. The kid was just starting to mature into whatever he would have become, and getting to watch that process in a player is one of the great joys of baseball fandom. There might have been nobody more emblematic than that in all the sport. When Jose Fernandez passed away too soon, we had a pretty good idea of how great a pitcher he could be. With Yordano Ventura, we were just beginning to find out.
So ballplayers won’t be dressing each other up like women anymore. Depending upon one’s perspective, the latest decree against this particular subset of rookie hazing is either outrageous or long overdue. We’ve heard many opinions since the news dropped, but for the most part they’ve ignored what I think is a vital piece of the equation: Why do it in the first place?
Rookies weren’t always made to dress like cheerleaders, of course. Like any facet of the sport’s unwritten rules, the practice had evolved over time.
Once, rookie hazing consisted mainly of failing to acknowledge a greenhorn player, sometimes to a nearly complete degree. Rookies were ignored among clubhouse conversations to the point that former Giants third baseman Jim Davenport estimated that a player in the 1950s had to accumulate at least four hundred at-bats before he was allowed so much as to speak up in the presence of veterans.
One extreme example: In 1949, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner so dominated his position that when a hotshot youngster who played the same position tried to take his rightful spot in batting practice, Keltner—abetted by various veteran teammates—chased him away. The same thing occurred when the kid grabbed a glove to work on fielding ground balls. At that point Keltner was a seven-time All-Star, and viewed the rookie as a direct threat to his job. The lockout repeated itself day after day, until the kid realized that his only way to practice was to show up early, hours before the rest of the team. Luckily for Al Rosen, a fellow rookie, Ray Boone, was willing to throw early BP for him. The following season Keltner’s fears were realized when Rosen supplanted him with a 37-homer season.
That kind of mindset has evolved, of course. With the advent of enormous signing bonuses came an increased premium on young players’ success. With the advent of enormous salaries for stars, teams are increasingly forced to lean on youngsters to fill out rosters. Once, a five-year minor league gestation period was status quo. Now, players shoot through the system in as few as one or two seasons.
So how to keep rookies in line while (mostly) avoiding the kind of overt tactics that could prove deleterious to their performance? Dressing them up was one answer. The tradition may have started with a shoe store in Atlanta that in the 1970s and ’80s sold garish footwear—wild colors and platform soles—that veterans took to foisting upon younger colleagues when passing through town. Before long, pant cuffs were cut to accentuate the shoes. Outrageous thrift-store clothes were integrated into the mix. Sixto Lezcano’s Brewers teammates dressed him all in green—suit, shirt, socks and shoes—for an entire West Coast swing. (“I looked like a fuckin’ grasshopper,” he said.) Now we see superheroes and cowboys in addition to Hooters waitresses. In 2007, Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka traveled to Toronto while dressed like a Teletubby.
What those decrying the new anti-drag decree seem to miss is that the act is in no way about women’s clothing. It’s about initiation, rites of passage that welcome new members into old clubs. It has no prescribed shape, only prescribed function. (At least that’s the way it should be. There’s no accounting for those who integrate sadism into the act.)
The real issues arise not when players dress up in whatever outfit is presented to them, but when they refuse. It’s an act of rebellion that, right or wrong, can fracture a player’s standing in the clubhouse. From The Baseball Codes:
After teammates on the Orioles replaced Armando Benitez’s clothes with a dress on getaway day, he refused to don the outﬁt and, screaming for the return of his wardrobe, pinned down a number of veterans against the far wall of the shower room with a steady barrage of baseballs picked out of a nearby bucket. In the end, the pitcher refused to capitulate, even after being told that his clothes had been packed and were already en route to the airport. “He wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts on the frickin’ plane,” said one team member. “That didn’t sit too well with the veterans, I can tell you that.”
“The guys who make a big fuss about it, who get mad at it, they’re usually the ones who don’t last too long,” said Doug Mientkiewicz, who was forced into female clothing by his Twins teammates as a rookie in 1998. “If you can’t be mentally strong enough to wear a dress for one day when every other rookie is, too, then you’re probably not going to be mentally strong enough to handle an 0-for-35 stretch in four different cities.”
Women’s clothes are leaving big league wardrobes, but they didn’t matter anyway. Effective methods exist to welcome new members into any club, and this particular one will soldier on without missing a beat. Anybody who insists otherwise just isn’t looking hard enough.