Retaliation, spring training

Dyson Deals, Davis Ducks: Spring Dustup Has Giants, A’s in Midseason Form


Intent is everything. If a pitcher wants to hit a batter, and then hits that batter, you can be certain that the batter knows what happened, and why.

When the pitcher didn’t mean to do it, though, things are usually different. Balls slip, plans go sideways, and sometimes hitters have to wear one just because that’s the way the game sometimes works. For the most part, everybody understands this and moves right along without devoting too much energy to the proceedings.


Spring training is, by design, a place for players to work the winter kinks out of their games, so it should come as little surprise when the occasional fastball gets away from the occasional pitcher and ends up someplace it oughtn’t. Such a thing happened yesterday, and the A’s weren’t at all pleased.

Giants reliever Sam Dyson didn’t even have to hit the batter, Oakland slugger Khris Davis, to ignite anger. He only brushed him back with something high and tight.

Then again, Dyson had just given up three straight hits, including a double, an RBI single, and a two-run homer to Franklin Barreto, before Davis came to the plate, so perhaps the pitcher was acting in frustration. Ultimately, whether he meant it doesn’t really matter. The plausibility of intent was undeniable, and optics are everything when it comes to this kind of stuff.

Davis immediately had words for Dyson, and Giants catcher Nick Hundley had words for the A’s dugout. Dyson ended up rocked for four runs in two-thirds of an inning.

So a maybe-he-meant-it-but-probably-he-didn’t HBP went from nothing to something based on Davis’ reaction to Dyson, and Hundley’s ensuing reaction to Davis’ teammates. Things grew further inflamed when Roberto Gomez, the pitcher to follow Dyson, hit the first batter he faced, A’s prospect Ramon Laureano, on the hand. At that point intent ceased to matter. The Giants were officially throwing at Oakland, and Oakland felt the need to respond.

The mantle was taken up by right-hander Daniel Gossett, who got into 18 games for the A’s last year as a rookie and is hoping to land a rotation spot this season. After retiring the first four batters he faced, he planted a fastball into the back of Orlando Calixte, inspiring umpire Mike DiMuro to warn both benches against further such displays.* Calixte appeared to want a piece of the pitcher after scoring on Jarrett Parker’s double, but was instead directed to the dugout with no small urgency by teammate Mac Williamson.

Afterward, Giants manager Bruce Bochy didn’t want to talk about the confrontations, and A’s manager Bob Melvin dismissed the entire affair with the sentiment, “Boys will be boys.”

The Giants and A’s face each other six times this (and every) season (and once more in a split-squad game on Saturday), but this kind of thing will almost certainly be left behind in Arizona.

* When it comes to Gossett and Laureano alike, there’s no better way for a new pitcher to earn respect in a clubhouse than by standing up for his teammates. And there’s no more obvious way to stand up for teammates than a well-timed message pitch in response to some perceived injustice.




Oscar Gamble, RIP

Oscar GambleThe passing of good baseball men is starting to pile up. Just a day after terrible news about Kevin Towers, we learned that longtime outfielder Oscar Gamble has died at age 68.

I spoke to Oscar for The Baseball Codes, during which he told an excellent story about being drilled. It took place on April 18, 1976, when he was with the Yankees, in the third inning of a game against Minnesota. Graig Nettles had just connected for a two-out single against Bert Blyleven to bring home Roy White and give New York a 3-2 lead. Gamble was the next batter:

“Back then, if somebody in front of you hit a home run, you knew you were going to get drilled. I remember a lot of times that happened.

“This one was unexpected because Graig didn’t hit a home run, just a little broken-bat blooper—but I got drilled anyway. It knocked the wind out of me. That happened a lot to me in that kind of situation back then, and most of the time the guy threw at the bottom part of you. They weren’t head-hunting or anything like that. It was accepted in those days.

“When you get the wind knocked out of you, you can’t move. I was out there leaning on the bat—the bat was holding me up. It was one of them situations where you might charge the mound, but you couldn’t because you couldn’t breathe. It hits you right in the upper part of the stomach, where all that wind is. A lot of guys on my team knew it was intentional and were hollering, ‘Go get him! Go get him!’ I’m going, ‘I can’t even move. Hold me from falling . . .’ ”

Gamble eventually made it down to first base, and played the rest of the game. Blyleven and Minnesota won, 5-4, but the Yankees eventually made it to the World Series that season, where they lost to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.

RIP, Oscar Gamble.


Kevin Towers, RIP

Kevin Towers
                                                                                                                                               Photo: Mark Sobba

Kevin Towers, longtime GM of the Padres, lost his battle with thyroid cancer at age 56. Despite winning four division championships and the National League pennant in 1998, Towers is more recently remembered for his general managerial tenure with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2011 to 2014. Notable to this space, it was there that he publicly made his mark as an overt champion of old-school retaliation tactics.

It started following the 2013 season, when Towers went on his weekly radio show in Phoenix and talked about how his club was going to adopt “an eye for an eye” mentality when it came to retaliation, and warned that pitchers who “don’t feel comfortable doing it … probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

The following spring, Arizona pitcher Wade Miley—who was notably on the mound all three times that first baseman Paul Goldschmidt had been drilled the previous season, and who had failed to respond to any of them—went out of his way to hit Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in obvious retaliation for Mark Trumbo getting plunked. The move had Towers written all over it.

During the regular season that year, Pittsburgh right-hander Ernesto Frieri clipped Goldschmidt on the hand—a clear mistake, but one for which Towers’ team opted to respond, given that it fractured a bone. The next day, Arizona pitcher Randal Delgado slung a fastball into Andrew McCutchen’s spine.

At the end of the season, Tony La Russa canned the GM.

Agree or disagree with Towers’ inclinations—in the modern game he was a distinct outlier—there’s no question that he gave us all some stuff to talk about. RIP.


Bat Flipping

Flipping Out, World Series Edition

Correa flips

It wouldn’t be a World Series presented by YouTube TV Yasiel Puig without talk of bat flipping and impertinence in the face of Baseball Propriety. In Game 2, however, it was not Puig flinging his bat around—despite having hit a timely, monster home run—but Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who’s not known for such things.

Given the chance, in fact, Puig offered an anti-flip, gently laying down his lumber after his almost-game-saving homer leading off the 10th.

It was almost certainly in reaction to Correia, who a half-inning earlier had given Houston a 5-3 lead after going back-to-back with Jose Altuve.

Puig has long since won the battle to bring this type of showboating into the mainstream. Where he truly shined yesterday was in his postgame comments about Correa’s display.

“I loved it,” Puig told reporters. “It was a little bit higher than the bat flips I normally do. He was happy, and that’s the way you should play in the World Series. Not everybody gets to play in a place like this.”

Puig has long asserted this let’s-play-joyously message when it comes to his own on-field drama. Being consistent in the position as regards the opposition earns him additional credibility.

“Like a friend of mine once said, I don’t know why my bats are so slippery,” Correa said after the game in an report, jokingly about both his flip and Puig.

People who still begrudge these guys their moments are living in a bygone era. Time to get with the program.

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

Baez Wags, Puig Grins, All is Well With Baseball

Baez wags

In an otherwise dispiriting game for the Cubs last night, second baseman Javier Baez at least gave us this, the culmination of a play in which Yasiel Puig tried to stretch a base hit off the left-field wall in Wrigley into a double.


(Watch the whole thing here.)

It’s an undeniably fabulous moment, the reasons for which show exactly how far baseball has come in this regard. Baez knows exactly who he’s dealing with, and how his response will be taken—that there’s no chance Puig will cry “disrespect” in response. The runner does not disappoint, grinning once he realizes what’s happening.

Here it is from another angle:

This, then, is where baseball is headed, a game in which players making great plays are able to mess around with each other in mutually beneficial ways. To call it showboat-on-showboat crime would be inaccurate, because it’s not a look-at-me moment in any way. Far from a post-homer pimp—something which Joe Maddon is decidedly against—it is instead a means for Baez to connect with a like-minded colleague and make the game a little bit more fun for everybody.

Had it been Madison Bumgarner sliding into second, of course, Baez’s finger wag would have been way out of line (and he’d have heard about it in some potentially painful ways), but that’s the point. Bumgarner is among a shrinking cadre of red-asses who maintain that old-school is the only way to play the game.

In reality, however, there is ever more space for players like Baez, who simply glow with the joy of baseball—and allow others to do the same.

Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.


On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.