RIP

RIP Jay Johnstone

“There are a lot of people in asylums who are saner then Jay Johnstone.” — Tommy Lasorda

Photo by Rich Kee

Jay Johnstone passed away Saturday from COVID-19, contracted while living in a Granada Hills, CA, nursing home while suffering from dementia. He was 74 years old.

I covered Johnstone in all three of my books (he’s the only member of a Swingin’ A’s championship squad to have played for the 1981 Dodgers), and while reporting They Bled Blue I got to spend a glorious afternoon with him in Los Angeles, during which I learned precisely how committed the man was to his prankster persona.

My goal for the meeting had been to talk about Johnstone’s Dodgers, of course, and we did that, but the subject he returned to repeatedly was the pranks he was known for playing. Johnstone’s oddball reputation was hard earned, through 20 years of terrorizing teammates on eight clubs by doing things like building a mini locker inside of Ron Cey’s actual locker to emphasize the third baseman’s diminutive stature. So what if it took a trip to the lumber yard and two hours of construction before Cey arrived at the ballpark? To Johnstone, the payoff was worth it.

When it came to the 1981 Dodgers, Johnstone helped even the mood on a club with plenty of natural tension. His take-no-prisoners approach to clubhouse levity—doing things like shoving brownies into Steve Garvey’s glove and nailing teammates’ equipment to the clubhouse floor—involved neither politics nor malice, and was thus one of the unifying forces on a roster prone to division.

Johnstone’s most impactful moment came during the World Series against the Yankees. LA had lost the first two games, and found themselves in a 6-3 hole in Game 4, on the precipice of a 3-games-to-1 deficit. Johnstone helped turn the tables. I used the moment in They Bled Blue to illustrate not only Johnstone’s impact on that game, but on the club as a whole:

With one out in the sixth, Ron Davis walked Mike Scioscia, at which point Lasorda sent up Jay Johnstone to pinch-hit for Tom Niedenfuer. Johnstone was 35 years old and over the course of his career been sold once, released twice, and traded three times. He was a 16-year vet but had collected as many as 500 at-bats in a season only once. By the time he reached Los Angeles as a free agent in 1980—he accepted a $20,000 pay cut to move closer to his hometown of West Covina, about 20 miles from Chavez Ravine, the first free agent ever, it was said, to lose money on his new deal—he’d settled into something of a Svengali-like pinch-hitter role. (“Svengali” in this instance being defined as “crazy person put on the planet to drive Tommy Lasorda batty.”) The guy was an inveterate prankster, unable to stop himself when it came to stirring the Dodgers’ pot.

Johnstone once enlisted Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse to help him replace the desk in Lasorda’s office with a makeup table bearing a mirror ringed by white lightbulbs, to better suit the TV-friendly manager. In another prank, he removed every one of the dozens of photos from the wood-paneled walls of Lasorda’s office—even those of Frank Sinatra—and replaced them with publicity shots of himself, Reuss, and Stanhouse.* At Vero Beach one year, Johnstone broke into Lasorda’s room while the skipper was out and removed the mouthpiece receivers from the telephones. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, he and Yeager cinched a rope as tightly as possible between Lasorda’s doorknob and a nearby palm tree, preventing the manager from pulling his door open. Unable to escape or call for help, things truly hit home for Lasorda when he realized that he might have to miss breakfast. The manager knew exactly who to blame. During that day’s game in Orlando he stole Johnstone’s street clothes and forced him to ride home in his underwear.

The prank for which Johnstone is best known occurred in September 1981, a month before the World Series. Back in 1979, Reuss and then-Dodgers pitcher Ken Brett donned groundskeeper outfits and helped drag the infield during a game. Ever since, Johnstone had desperately wanted some of that action for himself. So before a game against the Pirates at Dodger Stadium—Los Angeles had long since clinched a playoff spot—he convinced Reuss to revisit the stunt. The players copped some coveralls and proceeded to serve as members of the four-man infield crew that went to work in the fifth inning. Because it was Reuss’s off-day and Johnstone rarely started, nobody missed them.

That’s not the same as going undetected, of course. Rick Monday made sure that scoreboard cameras were trained upon the duo so that everybody in the stadium could see what was happening. Upon finishing their dragging, the ballplayers received a full ovation. The only man in the building who didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture was Tommy Lasorda, who issued $250 fines before the players had even returned to the dugout. Johnstone was still in a side room, pulling on his uniform pants, when he heard the manager bellow, “Where the fuck is Johnstone?” As comeuppance for his childish behavior, Lasorda wanted him to pinch-hit for pitcher Terry Forster, posthaste. Johnstone was still buckling his belt as he made his way to the plate—and proceeded to bash a home run.

By the time Lasorda called upon him to bat for Niedenfuer in Game 4 of the World Series, Johnstone was in the throes of a deep tailspin, having hit .095 over the last three weeks of the regular season and .205 overall. He’d collected only three at-bats through LA’s first two playoff series and was still looking for his first postseason hit. That pinch homer against the Pirates had been his only longball since May.

Facing Davis with one out and one on and his team trailing by three, Johnstone—whose entire persona seemed to revolve around doing the unexpected—pulled his grandest trick to date: he homered. The Dodgers’ bench, which had to that point resembled the LA County morgue, came suddenly to life. “Here we are,” thought Johnstone as he rounded the bases. “That changes the whole game.” The two-run blast pulled the Dodgers to within one, at 6–5.

LA tied the game two batters later, and took the lead for good in the seventh, holding on to win, 8-7, and won the series in six. Wrote Jim Murray in the next day’s Los Angeles Times: “Jay Johnstone is not supposed to be winning World Series games, he’s supposed to be pouring cayenne pepper in the coffee.”

When I met with Johnstone at an LA diner, he brought with him all three of the books he’d authored, each centered around baseball pranks (primarily his own). He paged through them with me, one by one, to make sure he didn’t miss anything while recounting the havoc he’d wrought. I’d already read them, of course—the first, Temporary Insanity, was a staple of my teenage years—and had long appreciated the lengths Johnstone would go to to mix things up. When he told me those stories, I was like a kid again. Take this one, in Johnstone’s own words from that day:

“[Dodgers publicity man] Steve Brenner would let me, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse know when Lasorda had a speech. So we’d call up and say, ‘Hi, I understand our skipper is coming out there. Would you like us to come out and say a few words?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you!’ So we’d show up and would be sitting in the audience. Well, Brenner gave us scripts of all Tommy’s jokes. So Jerry Reuss would get up to the dais and tell one of Tommy’s jokes. Tommy would look at him funny, and cross it off his list. Stanhouse would get up and tell another one of his jokes, and Tommy would cross that one off his list. Then I’d get up and tell one of his jokes. We told all his fuckin’ jokes. He was pissed. He was laughing, but he was pissed.”

The prank that stuck with me as a kid, and which made my own kids giggle when I recounted it for them yesterday, was recounted in that first book:

My favorite medical gag came one day at the Dodgertown dispensary during spring training. Instead of a urine sample, I had filled my vial with apple juice from the Dodgertown cafeteria. Then I walked into the dispensary and placed in front of the nurse.

“Gee, that’s awfully cloudy,” she said.

“Yeah, it sure is,” I answered.” Here, let me run it through again.”

With that, I chug-a-lugged the apple juice, and the nurse started screaming.

“Wait right here,” I said. “I’ll run out and bring another sample back. Should just take a second.”

By now, she had lost her glasses. I was afraid she might have a heart attack. The doctor got really mad at me because she was elderly. In fact, she retired soon after that.

Another moment for which Johnstone is remembered is being caught by Dodgers general manger Fred Claire in a concession line at Dodger Stadium in full uniform, waiting to buy a hot dog. I’d heard the story many times, including from Claire himself, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Johnstone that I was able to gain some context. From our discussion:  

“The reason behind that is that Lasorda brought a Little League team from where he lives out to Dodger Stadium at 10:30 a.m., and we had them on the field till 4 o’clock. We had them on that field for what seemed like eight hours, and there was no freaking food. None. And when the game started, I was hungry. So I walk upstairs, get right in the hot dog line, and who walks by but the general manager, Fred Claire. I didn’t expect that one. I said, ‘Hey, Fred! How you doing, buddy?’ So he calls Lasorda and says, ‘Dammit, your guy’s up in the hot dog line.’ ”

To make matters worse, Johnstone said, in the middle of the clinic somebody brought Lasorda a plate of pasta, which he ate in the dugout, in front of his starving players.

Jay Johnstone was 71 years old when I interviewed him for They Bled Blue, and was as vibrant as a teenager when it came to discussing his career. He’s gone far too early, and will be sorely missed.

* Bonus material, from my interview with Johnstone, regarding the purloined celebrity photos from Lasorda’s office walls: ‘We hid them in the locker room. Now he comes into his office, he has Frank Sinatra, he has Jilly [Rizzo, Sinatra’s body man], all these people—there may have been 15 or 16 people in the room, maybe more, and he’s screaming, ‘Get them fucking guys in here!’ He’s just ranting and raving. Don Rickles was there, and he said, ‘Now wait just one minute. How many games have those other guys ever won for you?’ ‘Shut up, Rickles!’ We just broke out laughing. It took us a while to get the pictures back up, but we got ‘em up.”

For what it’s worth, to this day Reuss denies any involvement in the scheme.

Stanhouse, Reuss and Johnstone. Photo by Rich Kee.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

All-Time Bat Flip Draws Old School Response From Team That Proclaims To Be Beyond Such Things When It’s Their Guy Doing The Flipping

To judge by Friday’s game, the White Sox aren’t so big on the golden rule. Willson Contreras did unto them, unleashing a monster bat flip after homering in the third inning, and they responded by drilling the Cubs catcher in the back four innings later.

Sure, every party on the South Side denied intent. Manager Rick Renteria said that the pitch got away from reliever Jimmy Cordero. Cordero said that “the ball sunk a lot” and “was just a bad pitch.”

Said “sinker,” of course, was 98 mph and connected with Contreras’s upper back. It came with nobody on base, in the seventh inning of a game that the White Sox trailed, 7-0. There was no tail to it, just straight-line execution. It looked intentional from the moment it left Cordero’s hand.

Part of the issue here is the notion of drilling anybody for bat flipping in the modern climate. Contreras didn’t stare anybody down or show anybody up; to the contrary, he was looking directly at his teammates in the first-base dugout when he let loose his lumber.

The other part of the issue is that the modern climate exists thanks in huge part to a guy standing in the White Sox dugout when this all went down. Tim Anderson, of course, was at the center of a massive controversy last April, when he received similar treatment from the Royals for a bat flip of his own. At that time, the White Sox party line included defending Anderson’s rights to celebrate as he saw fit. This did not go unnoticed by the Cubs on Friday.

“All the hype was on the guy on the other side when [Anderson] bat-flipped, and we just let him play, right?” said Cubs manager David Ross afterward, in an NBC Chicago report. “I thought Tim Anderson’s bat flip last year, where he flipped it and looked in his dugout, that’s what you want. And that’s exactly what Willson did. He bat-flipped. It wasn’t to disrespect the other group. … Probably not my style if I’m playing, but these guys need a little bit of an edge. I don’t think he deserved to get hit at all. I don’t think you ever throw at somebody on purpose. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I knew it was coming,” Contreras said afterward, in an MLB.com report, adding that there was nothing wrong with what he did. “I celebrated with my teammates,” he said. “I got pumped up. I wear my emotions below my sleeves. That was one thing that I did. I have no regrets—zero regrets.”

Umpires ejected Cordero, which raised the White Sox hackles, possibly because there had been no prior warning. Renteria and pitching coach Don Cooper ended up ejected, as well.

So now we’re left to wonder where the line is drawn, even against the bat-flippingest team in the land. Not everybody on every roster shares similar feelings about every issue, of course, but even those members of the White Sox with a distaste for that brand of showmanship must recognize that the face of their franchise is also the face of the entire Let the Kids Play movement. And that bears significant weight.

Renteria seemed to spell it out pretty clearly after Anderson’s bat-flip controversy last year, describing his player’s actions in almost the same terms that Ross did on Friday.

“Everybody has those ‘unwritten rules,’ everybody has their own, I guess,” he said last April, in a Chicago Sun-Times report. “Timmy wasn’t showing them up or showing the pitcher up, he was looking into our dugout, getting the guys going.”

But the manager didn’t stop there. Renteria then laid down a rule that his team in no way followed yesterday.

“Get him out,” he said. “You want him to not do that? Get him out.”

In retrospect, there’s nothing golden about that.

Update (9-26-20): Renteria and Cordero have both been suspended.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

The Day That Barry Bonds Learned To Not Bunt During A Blowout Game

Last week, the Athletic published a terrific oral history of Barry Bonds’ time in Pittsburgh. Included in the array of stories was one that took place when the slugger was 20 years old and in his first professional season, with the Prince William Pirates of the Single-A Carolina League.

Bonds himself narrates:

“One game, we were leading by seven or eight, and I bunted and got on base. I heard the other manager over there screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t calculate why. Right before my next at-bat, Bobby [Bonilla] comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. He says, ‘B.B., whatever is gonna happen next, don’t react.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘Just trust me.’

“So, I go up to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it. And I got drilled almost in the head — really high on the back or shoulder. I went down to first base. I didn’t do anything. I came into the dugout and Bobby Bo says, ‘This ain’t college, kid. You can never do that. We’re up by eight runs in the seventh inning. You do not bunt.’ I said, ‘I got that. I’ll never do that again.’ ”

Bonilla, of course, was all of 22, but in his fifth year in pro ball, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Starting in 1988, Bonds went 8-for-14 when bunting for hits over the course of his career (stats are unavailable from before that point), and once told Alex Rodriguez that he could have hit .400 if he’d adopted bunting as a regular strategy.

Bonds had about the highest baseball IQ of his generation, so the smart money’s on him not having repeated that particular maneuver early on. Later in his career, of course, the point became moot: On those occasions that he saw a hittable pitch, Bonds wanted to take advantage in grander ways than tapping it down the line.

RIP

RIP Betty Caywood

News came down yesterday that Betty Caywood, who briefly worked as a broadcaster for Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics, passed away earlier this month at age 89. I wrote the following about her for The National Pastime Museum, a site that no longer exists, back in 2017.

When Charles O. Finley bought the Kansas City Athletics in 1960, he was ambitious, energetic and focused, but he was not a miracle worker. Not yet, anyway. The last-place club he acquired actually managed to fall in the standings, dropping from eighth out of eight teams to ninth out of 10, thanks to the introduction of two teams—the Angels and the Twins—to the American League in 1961. Even that indignity, however, would be superseded in 1964, when the Athletics tumbled to 105 losses and a last-place finish, a whopping 42 games behind the league champion Yankees.

It was impossible to note at the time, but that 1964 team showed the first vestiges of the championships that would be won in the decade to follow. The roster included rookies Campy Campaneris, Dick Green and Dave Duncan, as well as a 19-year-old with a wondrous sinkerball named Blue Moon Odom. Those players represented the first guard of the Swingin’ A’s to come, but were at that point too raw to be much good. Kansas City struggled with low attendance, barely scraping 500,000, and Finley grew desperate for solutions. Without the short-term ability to fix the product on the field, he exerted his influence in other ways.

Monte Moore had been the A’s lead broadcaster since 1962, and was so good that Finley kept him through the team’s move to Oakland in 1968, right on through to 1980. Quality, however, wasn’t the issue. Mostly, Finley wanted attention. His quick fix was Betty Caywood.

Caywood, in her early 30s, was a TV weather girl in Finley’s hometown of Chicago, with a master’s degree in speech pathology from Northwestern University. She knew next to nothing about baseball, but was capable in front of a camera, which was practical for Finley’s purposes, as was the fact that she was pretty, for he greatly enjoyed the company of pretty women. Finley lured her, she said later in an interview with KCUR radio, with “an amount of money that I couldn’t believe.”

Caywood was introduced to the team’s broadcast crew about three weeks before the end of the season, when the Athletics traveled to Boston for a three-game series. Shortly after the team checked into its hotel, Finley called Moore with instructions to meet his new colleague in the lobby.

“Who is he?” asked Moore.

He is a weather lady from Chicago,” Finley informed him, adding that he wanted Caywood on the air that night, alongside Moore and his partner, George Bryson.

Finley tried to spin her ignorance about the sport as a positive. The A’s weren’t drawing much of an audience anyway, he figured, so why not try to interest a demographic that was otherwise indifferent to his product? “The idea,” he said in announcing the appointment, as reported in a contemporaneous account in The New York Times, “is that by putting a woman on the staff we’ll appeal to the dolls.” So ignorant was Caywood about the machinations of baseball broadcasts that when Finley informed her she’d be doing color work, she had no idea what he meant.

Caywood might not have been the ideal standard-bearer for women in sports media, but she nonetheless faced many of the same hurdles that the coming generation of more qualified females would soon encounter. On her first day on the job she was refused admittance to the Fenway Park press box, necessitating Moore call Finley, who in turn called Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey to straighten things out. Even after Yawkey made sure Caywood could get in, she was still barred from the press lounge, which forced Moore to deliver her dinner to the radio booth. Of course, such attitudes didn’t stop at least one member of the press from hounding Moore about setting him up on a date with her.

So deep was Caywood’s baseball ignorance that on the team’s next stop, in New York, Red Barber asked her into his radio booth to introduce himself. The Yankees were hitting, and it became apparent that Kansas City’s new broadcaster was at a loss when it came to their identities. “He asked me who was batting,” Caywood recalled on KCUR. “I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s a Yankee, and I’m not familiar with their lineup.’ He said, ‘It’s number 7.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I still don’t know.’”

No. 7, of course, was Mickey Mantle, 14 years and three MVP Awards into his career.

Things got no better on the Athletics’ next road trip, when a game in Minnesota went into extra innings. Kansas City scored in the top of the 15th to take a 7–6 lead, at which point Caywood, on the air, clapped her hands and exulted about being able to go home.

“What could I say to that?” asked Moore, looking back. “I said something like, ‘Well, Betty, you know that we’re playing in Minnesota, and because they provide all the baseballs, they get to bat one more time.’ She didn’t know that.”

By that point Bryson was no longer with the team, having been hospitalized in Missouri, about a week after Caywood’s debut, for a longstanding heart condition. He died some three weeks later, the result, members of the local media darkly joked, of having to tolerate Caywood’s entry into his booth.

Hiring the sport’s first female broadcaster worked out well for Finley in at least one regard: The attention he predicted Caywood would bring to the team panned out as expected. She appeared as a mystery guest on CBS TV’s What’s My Line, and the New York Times ran a front-page picture of her and Moore in its international edition.

Still, opinion against Caywood was so virulent—her nearly complete lack of knowledge being even more egregious than her gender, even to the hard-liners—that, combined with Bryson’s untimely death, Finley opted against bringing her back in 1965. He never found out whether his plan to attract female Midwesterners would have worked.

“I’m sure that everybody got a big laugh out of me, and I didn’t mind being laughed at,” said Caywood, looking back. “I figured I was laughing all the way to the bank.”

Don't Incite the Opposition

One Thing About Playing Baseball In 2020: People Can Hear You

When it comes to respect on the ballfield, 2020 is a particularly weird time.

We’ve long discussed the myriad ways that players can express displeasure with the opposition through their actions on the field, but have never encountered it being done via muttering from one’s own dugout.

With a deficit of crowd noise, that’s now a thing. Like on Tuesday, when St. Louis manager Mike Shildt nearly inspired a brawl over something he heard the Brewers say.

In started in the bottom of the fifth inning on Tuesday in Milwaukee, when plate ump John Bacon called a strike on a 2-1 pitch to Ryan Braun. The hitter disagreed, saying, “No, no, no, no—that is not a strike, man,” loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Again, not so difficult sans crowd noise.)

Bacon is in his second year as a major league umpire, and Braun appears to have thought that he was being intimidated by St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. “Just because he gets mad at you,” he continued, “you can’t call that a strike, man.”

Later in the at-bat, Braun’s swing connected with Molina’s outstretched left wrist, resulting in only the third catcher’s interference call of Molina’s 17-year career—the first since 2006. Because the bases were loaded, the ruling brought home a run, extending the Brewers’ lead to 13-2. Even worse, Molina was injured, though he stayed in the game and X-rays later revealed no structural damage. As Shildt was checking on him, he heard something from Milwaukee’s bench that set him off, and he stomped all the way to the top step of the Brewers dugout to confront whoever said it. (What was said has not been disclosed by anybody on either side of the argument.)

“I don’t know where the insult came from,” said Shildt afterward, in an MLB.com report. “I feel like it was more directed to me, quite honestly. Did I do anything to warrant it? Perhaps. I was staring in the dugout. I will accept that. My hearing doesn’t suffer at all with a mask on.”

Shildt made clear that he was leveling no accusations against Braun, and that, above all, he had been frustrated by the interference call against a guy who simply does not draw interference calls. That didn’t make it okay with him, however.

“I’m not going to take it,” the manager said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. “I’m not going to take any chirping out of the dugout. We’re not going to start things, but we’re not going to take it. Heard something I didn’t appreciate. I will always have our players’ backs. I will especially have a Hall of Famer and a guy who has the most physical, mental toughness that I’ve ever managed and may ever manage. I will always have his back.”

Moments after Shildt arrived at the Milwaukee dugout, players were littering the field, with Shildt and Molina being particularly expressive in their displeasure.

Nobody ended up fighting, but both managers—Shildt and Craig Counsell—were tossed. By the end of the frame the Brewers led, 17-2.

Shildt was ultimately suspended for second game of yesterday’s doubleheader. As it happened, Cardinals starter Johan Oviedo hit three Milwaukee batters in that game, including Braun. Nothing seemed to come of it, with opinions in the Brewers clubhouse chalking it up to wildness. Brawn even addressed the theory that he’d somehow intentionally hit Molina with his swing.

“I couldn’t do that, literally, even if I tried, and I don’t know any hitter that would or could do that intentionally,” he said. “Certainly, I would never want to see Yadi get hurt. He’s always been one of my favorite players to compete against.”

This all serves to illustrate that the new normal involves people being able to hear things they’d have had no chance of hearing in previous seasons. It might merit a whole new purpose for signs.

Yesterday was the end of a five games-in-three days run for these teams. They close the season with five more games against each other in St. Louis, starting on Sept. 24.

Update: 9/18: For those convinced that Braun somehow intentionally, impossibly hit Yadi on purpose, now there’s this.

Celebrations, Home run pimping, Veteran Status

Young Blood Heroic, Old Man Stoic, Dodgers Up In Arms About The Result

Occasionally, Let the Kids Play can be as simple as actually letting the kids play. Fernando Tatis Jr. doing heroics for the Padres is a perfect example of this. Who among mainstream viewers cares what the count was when he swung?

Yesterday gave us another homer-hitting Padre with his own dose of controversy, and in so doing presented reason to explore some depths of baseball’s unwritten rules.

The Padre in question is Trent Grisham, and the homer in question came off of LA’s Clayton Kershaw, and tied the game in the sixth inning. The behavior in question was a pretty profound pimp job, which led to significant jawing between Grisham and the Dodgers bench while Grisham was still rounding the bases.

First, some scene setting. The Padres are chasing LA in the National League West, having won 11 of their last 13 to reduce a six-game deficit to 2.5 going into last night. Also, the Dodgers are really good. While they’ve been winning the last seven NL West titles, the Padres have finished last three times and next-to-last twice over the past five years, finishing an average of 27 games back.

So yeah, they’re excited.

And yeah, when they tie a game with a huge homer against a future Hall of Famer, they’re excited.

And yeah, when it’s a 23-year-old who has never in his life had so monumental a hit, he’s excited.

And he’s allowed to be.

Based on how Grisham exhibited that excitement, however, the Dodgers thought otherwise.

After his swing, Grisham stood near the batter’s box (as home run hitters will do), but instead of admiring his handiwork he turned toward the home dugout and exulted with his teammates. It took him nearly 10 seconds to reach first base.

Some Dodgers took exception to this, raising enough ruckus in their own dugout that Grisham acknowledged it as he rounded third. Perhaps in response, he bounded atop home plate with both feet, raising the temperature to the point that plate ump Mark Ripperger warned the Dodgers to remain in their dugout.

”They wanted me to run and that was really about it,” Grisham said after the game in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They told me to get going a little sooner. That was it.”

Except that wasn’t it.

After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this: ”I don’t mind guys admiring a homer. Certainly it’s a big game, big hit. Really like the player. But I just felt that to kind of overstay at home, certainly against a guy like Clayton, who’s got the respect of everyone in the big leagues and what he’s done in this game, I just took exception to that. I think there’s a certain respect you give a guy if you homer against him.”

Once again, we’re faced with dissonance from an old-school sport being forced into a new-school box. Roberts has plenty of ground on which to base his argument. Throughout baseball history, respect is an earned commodity, achieved over time through one’s play, behavior and character. By that measure, there’s nobody more respected in the modern game than Kershaw. For a second-year player—who was 12 years old when Kershaw made his big league debut, it should be pointed out—to style in the batter’s box after besting so venerated an opponent is, in many eyes, wrong.

An example of this mentality was recounted in The Baseball Codes:

Admiring one’s own longball isn’t all that sets pitchers off. When Phillies rookie Jimmy Rollins flipped his bat after hitting a home run off St. Louis reliever Steve Kline in 2001, the Cardinals pitcher went ballis­tic, screaming as he followed Rollins around the bases. “I called him every name in the book, tried to get him to fight,” said Kline. The pitcher stopped only upon reaching Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen, who was moving into the on-deck circle and alleviated the situation by assuring him that members of the Phillies would take care of it internally.

“That’s fucking Little League shit,” said Kline after the game. “If you’re going to flip the bat, I’m going to flip your helmet next time. You’re a rookie, you respect this game for a while. . . . There’s a code. He should know better than that.”

Hell, it can even happen within the fabric of one’s own team. Take a story former AL MVP Al Rosen told me:

“I played behind Kenny Keltner, and when I went to spring training, the only time in the batting cage I got good pitches to hit was if there were other rookies there. The older guys were protecting Keltner. You had 10 swings or five swings—set by whoever was head cheese on the ballclub—and if you had five swings you didn’t get a good ball to hit. None of those older pitchers were going to get the ball in there so you could hit one hard. So you would struggle. All of a sudden a guy decides he’s going to start working on a split-finger or he’s going to start working on his slider. …

“You’d have to ask one of the coaches to hit you ground balls, and every time I walked out there, Keltner would show up and he would want to take ground balls. So I would go to the outfield and shag. It was a message: “Don’t mess with my position.”

Rosen’s solution was not to knock Keltner down a notch, but to show up hours early with other young players and run their own BP sessions.

For his part, Kershaw held no public animosity against Grisham, saying in an MLB.com report: “I’m not going to worry about their team. Let him do what he wants.”

This is what it’s come down to, then. In civil society, we expect youngsters to defer to their elders. The intern in an office does not speak to the CEO as if he or she were a peer. Baseball once hewed tightly to this norm, but, as with many areas of the American landscape, norms are falling away in increasingly rapid fashion.

Baseball, though, has long held itself as different than other sports—slower, more deliberate. Behavior that would fly elsewhere had no place on a ballfield.

That, though, is changing, spurred no doubt by the rapidity with which baseball’s popularity has been surpassed by the NFL and NBA. Let the Kids Play is a direct result, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But for those like Dave Roberts—hardly a hard-liner about anything, but with a firm sense of right and wrong—yielding their position is a difficult task. They’re going to have to, though, and soon. This is the new face of baseball—hopefully, say the folks in the marketing department, for the better.  

Retaliation

‘It Sounds Like They’re Going To Throw At Us Tomorrow. We’ll Be Ready’

It’s a funny thing, this COVID baseball. Some guys can’t seem to remember to wear a mask or stay within the perimeter of the team hotel, but when it comes to responding to past injustices they’re a bunch of goddamn elephants. Never forget a thing.

That is why, when Masahiro Tanaka pitched inside to Joey Wendle with two outs in the first inning of yesterday’s Yankees-Rays game, then drilled him with his next pitch (which, at 95 mph, was the hardest he threw all night by a considerable margin) nobody had to question what was happening.

The intent was clear. Tanaka has walked four batters this season over six starts. Wendle was the first one he’s hit. The question was, why?

Well, a day earlier the first pitch thrown by Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow had been up and in to D.J. LeMahieu—the latest in a pattern that has seen Rays pitchers working the Yankees, and LeMahieu in particular, inside all season long. That might have been it. Or maybe somehow the Yankees are still sore about the time late in 2018 when Rays reliever Andrew Kitteridge threw a retaliatory fastball at Austin Romine’s head (and missed). That seems like old news, especially given that C.C. Sabathia responded in spectacular fashion the following day, but people keep talking about it so maybe it’s still a thing.

Something that almost undoubtedly contributed is the fact that Tampa Bay has kicked the snot out of the Yankees this year, winning seven out of eight games prior to Tuesday night. Is that the difference in the American League East? Hell yeah, it is.

Maybe Tanaka just wanted to change the tone.

To his credit, Tanaka went by the unwritten rulebook and plunked Wendle in the backside. Wendle took it well, smiling in recognition as he trotted to first base—as did the rest of the Rays, who didn’t force the issue as the game progressed.

That’s where things stood until the ninth, when Aroldis Chapman, in to protect a 5-3 lead, threw his second pitch to Wendle up and in, at 95 mph. After Wendle grounded out to first, Chapman’s second pitch to the next hitter, Austin Meadows, was also up and in, this time at 99 mph. Meadows eventually lined out. This seemed like a message. It’s also where things took a turn.

With two outs and nobody on base, Chapman’s first pitch to Mike Brosseau was a 101-mph fastball that barely missed the batter’s head, Brosseau ducking out of the way in the nick of time. Chapman stalked down the mound toward the plate, all but daring Brosseau to respond. The umpires quickly intervened, warning both benches.

After Chapman struck out Brosseau to end the game, the Yankees dugout did a bit of yelling (much of it from third base coach Phil Neven, as is frequently the case). Yelling, in fact, seems to be a theme between these teams this season. Last month at Tropicana Field, reports had Nevin shouting “Get him out of there” every time a Rays coach visited the mound. Yesterday, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino shouted something similar after James Paxton gave up back-to-back homers to tie the score in the seventh. With no fans in the stands, sound carries this season. Maybe that set Chapman off.  

Brousseau responded to the chirping and dugouts quickly emptied, even as “New York, New York” blared over the Yankee Stadium PA. At least nobody actually came into contact with the other team. Some players even remembered to wear masks.

There are obvious questions about what this all means going forward. After the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash amplified them with the biggest megaphone he could find, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “mishandled by the Yankees” and “mishandled by the umpires.”

“They hit Joey Wendle intentionally in the first inning,” he fumed. “It was clear as day. Chapman comes in, he throws three different balls up and in. I get it—they don’t like being thrown up-and-in. But enough’s enough. We’re talking about a 100-mph fastball over a young man’s head. It’s poor judgment. Poor coaching. It’s just poor teaching, what they’re doing, and what they’re allowing to do. The chirping from the dugout.”

Strong opinions, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Then Cash said this: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”

Threat registered. “It sounds like they’re going to try to throw at us tomorrow,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll be ready.”

The teams meet today for the final time this regular season. Even with umpires on high alert, given what we’ve seen so far, this confrontation is far from finished.

Update 9/2: Punishment has been levied: Chapman docked three games plus a fine for throwing at somebody’s head; Boone suspended one game because Chapman is an idiot; and Cash suspended one game for his postgame threat.

Update 2, 9/2: Brosseau got his revenge on Wednesday, hitting two homers and doing this:

Celebrations

Well, That’s A Celebration We Haven’t Seen Before

Now that we’re in the full throes of Let the Kids Play, the kids are playing more than ever. On one hand, we have Fernando Tatis Jr. swinging 3-0 for a late-game, blowout grand slam, which seemed to coalesce public opinion about just how ludicrous some of baseball’s unwritten rules can be.

On the other hand, Tatis was actually playing the game. MLB’s marketing slogan was, at the time of its release, geared more toward allowing a greater degree of celebration into the game. Bat flips and whatnot.

It is in that vein that we bring you Trevor Bauer, who celebrated a strikeout on Monday by pretending to open a beer on the mound. Bauer has long been outspoken about his support for emotional displays on the field, be they from pitchers or hitters. This, though, was so much more than that.

Prior to his pantomime, Bauer wrote the word “BUDS” on the back on the mound with his toe. What did it all mean?

It started on Aug. 14, when the Reds tweeted about Sonny Gray setting a team record with 45 strikeouts over his first five starts. Bauer’s succinct response in accepting a challenge: “Hold my beer.”

That was all it took. Because we live in a marketing-driven world and because Bauer is extremely online, Budweiser replied accordingly.

The guess here is that Bauer would have engaged with far less provocation. As it was, he jumped all over this corporate offering.

This, then, is how we end up with “BUDS” on the back of the mound …

… and with Bauer opening an imaginary beer to celebrate his 46th strikeout over five starts. (By game’s end, Bauer would have eight whiffs, and 49 on the season.

As it happened, his opponent that day was the Milwaukee Brewers. Could they be mad? Probably, but given that the pitcher’s pantomime had everything to do with Budweiser and nothing to do with them, it’s difficult to see this going much further. (No sign yet of actual Cincinnati Buds beer cans, as far as I can tell.)

Let the kids play. Then let them drink. Sometimes at the same time.

Update 8/27: The Buds have arrived.

Let The Kids Play, Swinging 3-0

Rangers Don’t Dig Tatis’ Tater, Fuel Controversy Over How (Or Whether) To Respond To Blowout Tactics

Yesterday, Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam and the internet lost its damn mind.

It wasn’t the homer that did it, of course, it was the response … something to do with the unwritten rules.

In this case, circumstances matter. It was the top of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded and the Padres were leading Texas by seven runs (thanks in part to a three-run homer by Tatis an inning earlier). Pertinent to this discussion, Tatis’ fateful shot came on a 3-0 pitch. The Rangers didn’t know it at the time, but the young slugger had missed (or ignored) a take sign from his coach.

With that, Rangers manager Chris Woodward removed pitcher Juan Nicasio, inserted pitcher Ian Gibault, and watched as Gibault threw a pitch behind the next batter, Manny Machado. Message delivered. (No warnings were issued, and no other pitches came close to hitting anybody.)

After the game, Woodward addressed the issue directly. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

This is the point at which Woodward, and baseball in general, tends to lose touch with its fan base. What in the hell was the manager talking about, cried the majority opinion? Why should one of the sport’s brightest young stars be expected to do anything other than bright-young-star things, regardless of the situation?

It’s complicated. The rationale starts with pitchers, not hitters. During a blowout, nobody in either dugout wants to see the pace grind nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges of the strike zone, especially while down in the count. From The Baseball Codes:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

At which point pitchers are expected (or were once expected, anyway) to throw something straight that will get the game moving again. For that one-pitch adjustment, hitters are expected (or were once expected) to lay off. As Sparky Anderson said in a New York Times report: “You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling, he’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

Then again, Anderson said that back in 1993, which may as well have been 1893 as far as the evolution of the unwritten rules is concerned. The sport in which Anderson managed bears little resemblance to the modern game in numerous ways. A prominent aspect of this evolution is showboating, bat flips and the like, which once would have been certain to draw a pitcher’s attention but are now mostly background noise.

Swinging 3-0 is not quite the same thing, but it’s in the same ballpark.

It does happen from time to time. Last year, Twins outfielder Jake Cave swung 3-0 while his Twins led 13-5 in the ninth, and connected for a single. The next hitter, Max Kepler, saw three inside pitches and was drilled by the fourth.

Here’s the catch: The team doing the responding—the team at the wrong end of Cave’s swing—was Chris Woodward’s Texas Rangers. Woodward, it appears, is no stranger to having his pitchers mete out punishment for those who he feels cross a line, and swinging 3-0 is a prominent one for him.

(There are plenty of non-Woodward examples, as well. In 2017, Corey Seager swung 3-0 with a 5-0 lead, and before long teams were brawling on the field. In 2012, Jayson Werth swung 3-0 and benches emptied. In 2011, David Ortiz’s 3-0 swing helped lead to another fight. In the past, I’ve covered incidents from Davey Lopes, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield. Hell, in 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, fresh from Japan and unaware of this particular rule, was drilled for swinging 3-0 … and missing. Hell, Corey Kluber doesn’t even like it when guys swing hard against him, regardless of the count.)

Yesterday, the response from the Padres was less about the retaliatory pitch from Texas than with their own shortstop. On the telecast, cameras caught Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer—30 years old and a 10-year vet—telling various Rangers that “we’ll talk to him.” Sure enough, Hosmer sat Tatis down for a dugout conversation. Later, San Diego manager Jayce Tingler talked to reporters about the importance of getting signs correctly, called it “a learning opportunity,” and said “[Tatis] will grow from it.” (Prior to taking over the Padres, Tingler worked in the Rangers organization since 2007. The guess here is that he knows precisely what it will take to avoid bad blood with that team.)

But what about Tatis himself? On one hand, he’s 21 years old, in only his second season and hails from the Dominican Republic, where a freewheeling, unfettered brand of baseball is the norm. On the other, he grew up learning the major league game from his father, whose own big league career ran from 1999 to 2010, when Jr. was 11 years old.

“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis Jr. said after the game. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”

This is just another example of baseball needing to get a handle on outdated concepts of ballplayer decorum. Developing an entire promotional campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the idea of unfettered joy on a ballfield is fine … right up until an angry pitcher disagrees and responds to a bat flip with some questionable behavior. Somehow, Woodward’s Rangers have been involved in those fights as well.

The reason that most pitchers no longer care about bat flips is that bat flipping has been divorced from the meaning it once held. It is now seen as a joyous act, not a disrespectful one.

Swinging 3-0 during a blowout holds deeper connotations, but ultimately the concept is the same. Either we let the kids play, or we don’t. When Sparky Anderson told the Times that, as pertains to swinging 3-0, “there is a thing in this game—honor—that will always stay with me and I’ll never give it up,” he was speaking from a different era.

At some point, baseball has to make up its mind. Until it does, this cultural dissonance of blowback against young stars doing things that the public wants to see is going to continue until everybody’s so frustrated that they turn their backs altogether. This is a problem that baseball is already trying to counter; it led to Let the Kids Play in the first place.  

“I love this game, and I respect the game a lot,” Tatis said after the game. “I feel like every time I go out there, I just wanna feel respect for everybody else. … This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”

It was the smartest thing anybody said all day.

Respect Teammates

COVID Controversy Convulses Clubhouse In Cleveland

Respect.

Generally speaking, a huge amount of the bad blood we encounter across the sporting landscape stems from respect, or lack thereof, between competitors.

Of course, respecting one’s teammates carries its own chapter in the book of unwritten rules, and is currently why so many members of the Cleveland Indians are unhappy with pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac.

In this case, the respect in question involves COVID protocols and the health of the rest of the team.

On Aug. 7, the two pitchers left the team hotel in Chicago, contrary to mandated practices. Plesac was caught attempting to return in the wee hours on Aug. 8. Clevinger kept his participation to himself until after he’d joined the team on its flight back to Cleveland.

This was a clear breach of trust as far as various Indians players were concerned. Last Friday, Aug. 14—a week after the duo had gone out—a team meeting was called to address the issue. Both pitchers apologized for their actions, but for some in the clubhouse it was not enough. Numerous players spoke of their anger and disappointment, with veteran Oliver Perez notifying the team that he would opt out of the season if Clevinger and Plesac joined the ensuing road trip to Detroit and Pittsburgh. Of particular concern, beyond players’ individual health situations, is the fact that pitcher Carlos Carrasco underwent leukemia treatment last year and is particularly vulnerable.  

“They hurt us bad,” said Indians pitcher Adam Plutko, in a report by Jeff Passan for ESPN.com. “They lied to us. They sat here, in front of you guys, and said things publicly that they didn’t follow through on. It’s gonna be up to them. It really is.”

“We’ve got to understand that you can’t put yourself first,” Francisco Lindor told Cleveland.com. “In the times we’re in, you cannot put yourself first.”

Given that both pitchers have tested negative for COVID, the Indians front office could have justifiably let the situation slide without further incident. The anger among players, however, forced their hand, and Clevinger and Plesac were subsequently sent to the team’s alternate site in Lake County for at least 10 days. So diminished is the duo’s clubhouse standing that Cleveland.com openly wondered whether one or both should be traded.

This is all about trust. Traditionally, trust among teammates means being able to maintain one’s ability to perform on the field, and to protect teammates’ secrets off of it. Neither of those categories, however, has an impact on general health in the clubhouse. We are breaking new ground this season in so many ways.

It speaks especially loudly that Clevinger is one of baseball’s brightest stars, that Plesac has put up a 1.29 ERA from the fourth spot in the rotation, and that both have been instrumental to Cleveland having the league’s best rotation through the early weeks of the schedule.

Passan’s report details service-time issues that might actually delay free agency for Clevenger and arbitration for Plesac by a full season, depending upon how long they are left off of the roster. That, though, is a front-office concern.

Far more interesting is what’s happening inside the clubhouse. For Indians players to force out two vital pieces of their early-season success because they don’t trust them speaks incredibly loudly about how seriously players are taking these particular concerns, and how much faith they are putting in each other as regards their own safety.  

Clevinger and Plesac failed in that regard. How well they recover—how well they’re allowed to recover—remains to be seen.