The Baseball Codes

RIP Tom Clark

champagne and baloneyI got the sad news this morning that poet Tom Clark has passed at age 77 after being hit by a car near his home in Berkeley. Clark was the poetry editor for the Paris Review for a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, and pertinently to my own work wrote Champagne & Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s, published in 1976. Clark was hardly an insider, didn’t have access similar to sportswriters of the era, but he loved baseball and had a keen eye for observation when it came to the A’s.

I encountered him randomly one day a few months back on Solano Avenue, about two blocks from his house and a half-mile from mine, and we struck up a conversation about the Swingin’ A’s, neither of us having any idea that the other had written a book on the subject. (I knew all about his book, of course, and that he lived nearby—it was just that until he introduced himself I no idea that the guy I was talking to was Tom Clark.)

He was Berkeley to the core, at least on the day we spoke, all mismatched patterns and textures and colors, his speech a patois of beat generation-meets-merry prankster, with an overt willingness to converse with whoever might cross his path. Every story offers a window, after all, and it was easy to see that he enjoyed the process of opening as many of them as he could. Despite the fact that I was running late, we must have talked for half an hour. As I raced home I figured that we could continue the discussion the next time we ran into each other in the neighborhood, now that I knew who to look for. I never saw him again.

Clark was part of a terrific generation of writers, the likes of which is becoming scarcer and scarcer. He will be missed.

 

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Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Acuna Drilled For Being Too Hot: When Will Baseball Be Through With Old-School Nonsense?

Acuna drilled

Jose Urena’s first-pitch assassination attempt on Ronald Acuna’s elbow yesterday brought to the fore an interesting tension for traditionalist lovers of old-school baseball, those who beat the drum loudest for playing the game “the right way” while calling for a return to the approach employed by previous generations of ballplayers. These fans yearn for a return to the time before prohibitions against collisions, when men were allowed to play with unbridled ferocity and vigor. Back then, of course, pitchers were allowed to throw the ball wherever the hell they wanted, with scant repercussion. In bygone eras, what Urena did yesterday was downright mainstream.

Acuna is the game’s hottest hitter, homering eight times in eight games prior to yesterday, including five straight, while leading off three in a row against the Marlins with longballs. Urena didn’t give him the chance for a fourth, planting a 97.5-mph fastball—the fastest first pitch he’s thrown all year, and in the 99th percentile of the 2,125 pitches he’s thrown overall, in terms of velocity—into Acuna’s elbow. It was unmistakably intentional.

There used to be a notion about drilling a hitter who was having too much success. The prevailing wisdom held that if a guy was seeing the ball well, that meant he was comfortable. And if a pitcher wants to get a guy out, part of his job is to remove as much of that comfort as he can. Any attention paid to avoiding baseballs, of course, is not attention paid to hitting them.

That’s more or less what Urena said after the game, when he told reporters in a rambling monologue that he was just trying to move Acuna’s feet—to make him less comfortable.

It was hogwash, of course. Urena led the league last year with 14 hit batters. Acuna was his 11th of this season. But the pitcher’s strategy was rooted in history.

In 1954, Joe Adcock set a record with 18 total bases, including four home runs, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. After he doubled again the next day, Clem Labine drilled him.

In 1969, Willie Stargell homered and singled in his first two at-bats against Bob Gibson, and was very intentionally drilled during his third. At least Gibson, probably the most notorious headhunter of the modern era, understood both sides of the dynamic. Once, when teammate Curt Flood demanded retaliation after Don Drysdale drilled him in the ribs, Gibson offered a simple response: “If you had eight hits in a row off me, roomie,” he said in a Newsday account, “I’d hit you, too.”

Hall of Famer Johnny Mize recalled getting hit in the head by pitchers Harry Gumbert and Harry Brecheen. “Were they throwing at me?” he speculated in the classic book, “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” “I don’t know. But one of them was a sinkerball pitcher; the other one was a control pitcher. And on each occasion I’d hit a home run the time before.”

During Don Baylor’s rookie year in 1972, he reached base in his first five at-bats against Andy Messersmith, including a double and a homer. In his sixth, Baylor told The New York Times, Messersmith “didn’t even look in to take a sign from the catcher. He just wound up and hit me in the back. As I’m walking to first, he calls over, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time?”

In 1987, after Andre Dawson hit three homers and a double in two games against the Padres, Eric Show hit him in the cheek with a pitch, requiring 24 stitches. (The teams ended up brawling, and Cubs rookie Greg Maddux responded by drilling Padres catcher Benito Santiago. After Maddux was ejected, his replacement, Scott Sanderson, threw three pitches at Tony Gwynn, missing each time. “Today was the first time in my life that I’ve been scared to go to the plate,” Gwynn said afterward, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

After that game, Cubs manager Gene Michael typified the difference in attitude between baseball then and baseball now, saying, “Headhunting and drilling somebody are a big difference. When you risk careers and lives, it has no place in baseball.”

Those stories are fun, in part because they describe a game that is barely recognizable today. In the modern game, throwing at a hitter, even well below the shoulders, is always questionable. When the reason for it is as petty as Urena’s—Acuna was having too much success, so he had to go down—it’s downright unconscionable.

There are many reasons for this evolution, none more vital than the fact that, unlike in its heyday, baseball, lagging behind the NBA and NFL in youth demographics, is a sport that needs marketing. More than ever, MLB needs its young stars to do star-like things, and when one of the brightest of them, in the middle of the best run of his career, is senselessly cut down by a meathead pitcher, it diminishes the entire sport.

People who decry the sport’s unwritten rules as baseless and outdated fail to recognize that the Code shifts with the times—has always shifted with the times—and because something was once acceptable does not make it so today. For those like Keith Hernandez, who uttered the below inanity into a microphone that he knew was live …

… it’s time to realize that the sport you grew up playing is not the same sport that Major League Baseball is trying so carefully to cultivate today. Urena wasn’t playing by the modern version of the unwritten rules, he was playing against them.

There is simply no place in baseball for Jose Urena, or those like him. Suspension—real suspension, not some five-game nonsense under which Urena doesn’t even have to miss a start—is the best way to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. If Major League Baseball truly wants its players to recognize that times have changed in this regard, it has to start leading the charge.

Update (8-16): MLB has suspended Urena six games. Way to decidedly not make a stand, baseball.

 

Showing Players Up

Who Needs MadBum? Hundley Joins SF’s Pick-On-Puig Parade

Puig n Hundley

Bobby Thomson vs. Ralph Branca it ain’t, but this thing Yasiel Puig has going on with the Giants sure makes for some compelling theater. Up till now it’s mostly been beefs with Madison Bumgarner. On Tuesday, catcher Nick Hundley got involved. The theme, however, seems consistent: The Giants apparently want Puig to play the game the right way.

With two outs and nobody on in the seventh inning, and the Giants nursing a 1-0 lead, Puig fouled off a 1-1 slider from lefthander Tony Watson. Spinning from the batter’s box, he angrily snatched at his bat, clear frustration over missing a pitch—which, indeed, came in flat and hittable—that he felt he should have handled. A curse word was uttered.

Hundley didn’t like it. According to Puig, the catcher told him to “stop complaining and get back into the box.”

Puig did not take kindly to the sentiment, Hundley did not take kindly to Puig’s lack of taking kindly, Puig shoved the catcher, and benches emptied. A couple of Puig slaps to Hundley’s mask was about it for the physicality (excepting Hundley’s dramatic, if inadvertent, takedown of Dodgers coach George Lombard), but given the participants, none of it came as too much of a surprise.

Could Hundley have let the display go? Of course. Puig’s action wasn’t in any way directed toward the Giants. He spun away from the mound and was clearly talking to himself, not the opposition.

Could Puig have reacted a bit more calmly to the catcher? Let his own postgame statement—“When I got into his face he told me to also get out of his face, so that’s when I got upset”—answer that question.

More pertinently, the question raging this morning involves the notion that the Giants have somehow become baseball’s one-stop fun-police shop for play-the- right-way baseball. Maybe this is true, but up until yesterday it was almost entirely a Bumgarner-driven affair. Hell, just a night earlier the pitcher appeared to take exception when Puig offered a similar display of frustration in the batter’s box. Perhaps this is why Hundley was particularly sensitive to it on Tuesday. “It doesn’t happen with other teams, and it doesn’t seem to happen when we’re in San Francisco,” Puig told reporters after the game. “It usually seems to happen when we’re here, and I’m not going to let them act like that in our house.” (Puig might be right, but MadBum has had plenty of issues with plenty of other guys, too.)

Maybe it’s Puig himself. Maybe the most polarizing guy on the Dodgers, the King of the Bat Flippers, has simply become a personification in San Francisco of the Giants’ most bitter rivalry, a stand-in for the concept of Dodgerdom at large. Bumgarner aside, San Francisco players don’t seem to be a particularly uptight bunch, so perhaps Puig is just a straw man who the Giants (or some among their ranks) have propped up to help focus their competitive nature.

Whatever it is, it certainly hasn’t hurt—with a 2-1 victory, San Francisco has now taken two straight in Dodger Stadium, and sits only three games back of LA, and five out of first place. The teams play again tonight, then close the season with three games in the Bay Area.

 

Retaliation

Votto Visits Venomous Vibes Upon Retaliatory Reliever

Votto

In an old-fashioned game of payback in Washington on Saturday, Joey Votto drew the short straw.

It began in the sixth inning, when Reds righty Austin Brice plunked Bryce Harper in the knee. It was completely unintentional, what with being an 82-mph curveball and all, and would have meant less had Harper not departed the following inning with a team-described “stinger.”

It would almost certainly have drawn less notice had Cincinnati’s next pitcher, Jesus Reyes, not opened the seventh by drilling Washington catcher Spencer Kieboom. This one was a 96-mph sinker, but was even more clearly unintentional than Brice’s pitch, given that it was Reyes’ big league debut and Kieboom was the first batter he’d ever faced.

Once, two of mine—even unintentionally—meant one of yours. It was showdown baseball, prevalent in a long-gone era when message pitches, even those aimed toward the head, were accepted tactics. That brand of baseball hasn’t been played in a long while, but it was revisited on Saturday by Nats reliever Ryan Madson, who responded to Brice and Reyes by drilling Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto, just above his right knee. The situation was perfect—there were two outs with nobody on, the Nationals led by four, and Votto presented an obvious target. Madson’s weapon: a 96-mph fastball.

Votto got up slowly, and had some words for the pitcher as he hobbled to first base. Madsen, who at least drilled the hitter below the belt, paid no attention, not even looking Votto’s way. Upon reaching first base, Votto amped up the volume, shouting some easily lip-readable epithets toward the mound.

Afterward, Madsen offered standard platitudes about the pitch being a mistake. He also said, believably, “I never want to hurt a guy, never.” Votto didn’t say anything, departing the ballpark before reporters were let into the clubhouse.

If there is to be a response, it didn’t happen on Sunday, in a game that never held more than a two-run differential—hardly an occasion to cede free baserunners. (Votto did finally comment on the situation, though, saying in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Getting hit is a part of the game. Once you step into that box, you accept that getting hit could very well be part of the process.”)

If either team wants to continue this, it’ll have to wait until next season.

 

 

Bat Flipping, The Baseball Codes

Oh, That Flip

Franco flips

Ladies and gentlemen, Maikel Franco:

And again:

And the best, from Cut4:

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Omerta Code, The Baseball Codes

Addition By Subtraction: Nationals Thin Out Bullpen Roster For Non-Baseball Reasons

Kintzler

The big news out of Washington at the trade deadline was that the Nationals opted against shipping Bryce Harper out of town for the final two months of his contract. The small news was that they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler—a 33-year-old with a 15-16 record over parts of nine seasons—to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a low-ceiling pitcher in Single-A.

More interesting than the trade itself is why it was made.

According to the Washington Post, Kintzler became a persona non grata around Nationals Park after speaking to the media about what came to be described as a “dysfunctional” Washington clubhouse. (What he actually said, or even whether he even said it, is less important than the team’s feelings about the situation.)

From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

“The clubhouse is a mess,” said one source, whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity out of fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly. While the sources pinpointed a number of causes for the internal acrimony, they agreed that it was not purely a function of the Nationals’ underachievement but something that has festered throughout the season.

Never mind that at least four people—the source and three corroborators—spoke to Passan. Kintzler seems to have been fingered as the fall guy.

The internal reaction to this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A sign that has hung in many big league clubhouses over the years reads: “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.” Excommunicating those who choose to ignore it is nothing new.

“Players who are foolish enough to discuss what went on in a closed clubhouse meeting, or reveal that two players almost killed each other after the game, often turn up on other teams the next year,” wrote former pitcher and coach Tom House in his 1989 book, The Jock’s Itch. “That kind of behavior just isn’t acceptable. You must be loyal to your teammates, even though you may hate every last one of them.”

The notion is pervasive. For just one example, in 2011, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who had led the franchise to its first championship since 1917, looked on as his son spilled a variety of clubhouse secrets via Twitter. Guillen didn’t make it through the ensuing season, and apart from an aborted run in Miami in 2012, hasn’t managed since.

“Everybody wants to know what the team meeting was about,” said Dusty Baker. “Well, that’s the team meeting. If you are on the team, we’ll tell you. It’s not being anti-press, it’s not being secretive, it’s just how it is.”

Washington’s party line is that the team has a stout back end of the bullpen even without Kintzler, and wants to give a shot to rookie Wander Suero. Maybe this is the case. Then again, GM Mike Rizzo also said this:

In semi-related news, Washington also designated reliever Shawn Kelly for assignment after his sub-Little League reaction to giving up a homer in a blowout win.

The connective tissue between these moves, other than that both players pitched for the Nationals, was that they were both seen as expendable. Nats closer Shawn Doolilttle may be the least likely guy in the league to throw his glove in such a manner, but if he did, or if he’d leaked things to the press, you’d better believe that the team would give him every opportunity to make things right.

Kintzler and Kelley are not on that level. And when it comes time to shake things up on an underperforming roster, they’re just the type of players who can be easily thrown into the line of fire.