When Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez left the mound yesterday, it was as a hero to his team. By the time he reached his dugout he had something else to think about.
Rodriguez went six innings for the Sox, holding Houston to three runs on five hits while picking up the win in a 12-3 victory in Game 3 of the ALCS. The last of his 18 outs came courtesy of a Carlos Correa ground out. It was the third time on the day Rodriguez had retired Correa, who didn’t even breach the infield.
On his way down the mound, Rodriguez pointed to his wrist. It was a subtle gesture, but unmistakable. It wasn’t Correa’s time.
Correa is a self-professed keeper of clock, particularly during the playoffs. He made this clear after hitting a seventh-inning homer in Game 1, when he threw his bat, admired the blast and, looking into his own dugout, pointed exuberantly at his wrist while shouting, “It’s my time!” His teammates had urged him to do it, he explained to reporters later.
So it only made sense that Rodriguez gently mocked the man after besting him in Game 3.
Boston manager Alex Cora wanted no part of it.
As soon as he saw the display, Cora began yelling, “No!” and “Don’t do that!” When Rodriguez reached the dugout, the manager took a moment to speak directly into his ear. After the game, Cora laid it all out for reporters.
“We don’t act that way,” he said. “We just show up, we play and we move on. He knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”
There are a couple of ways to look at this. Under the modern baseball landscape, Correa is allowed to celebrate. He wasn’t showing up the pitcher or the Red Sox. He faced his own dugout while doing his wrist thing. It was strictly an internal matter, and entirely acceptable under the auspices of Let the Kids Play.
As far as I know, Cora made no public comment about Correa’s actions. He did not seek on-field retribution. He was willing to let the Astros be the Astros, and devote his attention to the playing of baseball.
Now we know that when it’s his guy doing the thing, it’s different.
At this point, even the old-school holdouts who still decry shenanigans like Correa’s must accept that this is the way baseball is now played. Alex Cora appears to be among their ranks. The Astros clubhouse is not his business. The Red Sox clubhouse is. And when one of his guys does something about which he disapproves—it should be noted that Rodriguez’s showboating was directed toward the opposition, unlike Correa’s initial salvo—he has every right to address it.
After Correa’s home run in Game 1, we got a telling statement from Hansel Robles, the pitcher who gave it up. “It did not bother me,” he told ESPN about the slugger’s It’s my time gesture. “Correa is one of the best hitters in baseball; you cannot make mistakes against him. But I did think for a moment … the standing at home plate … pointing to the watch … sometimes some of that stuff is a bit overboard. But let me tell you something, I have no reason to be mad at Correa. I am the one who made the pitch. In that at-bat, he did his job; I did not do mine.”
Don’t like it, but no hard feelings. Seems in line with the tenor of his manager.
Alex Cora has every right to set whatever expectations he wants for his players. If they don’t like it, if they rebel, if he loses the room, then he won’t be long for his job. In the meantime, the guy is on the cusp of the World Series, which on its own counts for quite a bit. His team is playing his brand of baseball, which is exactly how it should be.
Ray Fosse passed away yesterday after a 16-year battle with cancer. The thing is, nobody in Oakland knew anything about it until August, when, facing renewed assault from the disease, the ex-catcher could hide it no longer and had to step away from his broadcast duties for the team. Even his colleagues had no idea. I last spoke to Ray in June for a feature I was writing, and he offered no clue about having to endure what must have been a considerable personal struggle.
I’ve listened to Fosse on A’s broadcasts since the 1980s, and got to know him while researching Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, & Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. I traveled around the country to interview most of the team’s players for the book, but not Ray, who was happy to repeatedly carve out time for me before games at the Oakland Coliseum. Over the course of that summer I found myself repeatedly headed to the ballpark to hunker down for 30 or 45 minutes in Ray’s office, talking about the good old days.
Fosse was an interesting cat. He played in the big leagues for a decade and was a two-time All-Star. He won a pair of World Series with the A’s, but is best known for the collision with Pete Rose during the 1970 All-Star Game that resulted in a separated shoulder that hampered him through the rest of his career.
As a prep, the Marion, Illinois, native had turned down Bear Bryant’s pitch to play football at the University of Alabama in favor of baseball at Southern Illinois. Fosse was eventually selected seventh overall by Cleveland in the first-ever player draft in 1965, six slots after the A’s took Rick Monday. A power hitter with a rocket arm, he won Gold Gloves and made All-Star appearances his first two full seasons, in 1970 and 1971. The most notable moment of his career, however, was also its least fortunate. During the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati, with the score tied 4–4 in the bottom of the 12th inning, Pete Rose decided to win the game in front of his hometown fans. Taking off from second base on Jim Hickman’s single, Rose didn’t break stride around third. The throw home from Royals center fielder Amos Otis sailed wide, forcing Fosse several steps up the third-base line to field it. Rose led with his left shoulder as he barreled into Fosse, knocking the catcher backward and sending the ball ricocheting toward the third-base dugout. Rose scored, the National League won, and Fosse said his shoulder “felt as though it had been mangled.” When X-rays came back negative, Fosse, despite being unable to raise his left arm, opened the second half behind the plate for Cleveland, batting cleanup. The catcher, who collected 16 homers and 45 RBIs before the injury, accounted for only two and 15, respectively, in the second half. The following April, eight months after the injury, further X-rays detected the fracture through which Fosse had been playing.
Fosse ended up being an excellent defensive catcher for many years to come, but was never able to recapture the hitting touch he lost in that collision.
That wasn’t Fosse’s only notable injury. While helping to break up a clubhouse fistfight between Reggie Jackson and Billy North in June 1974, he was thrown backward into a locker partition and ended up with injuries to his C6 and C7 vertebrae, which impacted a nerve in his throwing shoulder. Misdiagnosed at first as having a separated cervical disc, he spent a week in traction at Merritt Hospital, 20 hours per day with a strap wrapped around his jaw and neck, pulling his head upward in an effort to alleviate pressure on his spine. Then he took six weeks off, hoping to heal naturally. Then he had surgery—which he scheduled himself at UCSF—to fix the problem.
After coming back that August, Fosse batted .185 with only one homer in 32 games. This led to one of my favorite comeback stories from those A’s teams. Charlie Finley wanted to omit Fosse from the playoff roster against Baltimore, but manager Alvin Dark, understanding the importance of a stout defensive presence, was adamant about his inclusion. (In the three months Fosse spent on the disabled list Oakland’s team ERA was 3.21; after he came back, it was an even 2.50.)
Fosse responded by hitting a game-sealing homer (after having already singled and doubled) in Game 2, which the A’s won behind a complete-game shutout from Ken Holtzman. (Notably, Holtzman’s 2.19 ERA when Fosse caught was nearly two points lower than it was with everybody else.)
This set the scene for the postgame press conference. From Dynastic:
After the game Fosse was shepherded to a media session in the exhibition hall between the Coliseum and the adjacent Coliseum Arena, home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. As usual, the Owner did his darndest to turn it into The Charlie Finley Show, bursting into the room and screeching, “Yeeeeeeah, Fosse—that’s my boy,” almost as soon as the questions for the catcher had begun. In his hand was a glass that had until very recently been filled with champagne. Once every head in the room had spun his way, Finley enthused, “It wasn’t the bat, it was the Fosse that swung it!” There was no moment, it seemed, beyond opportunity for the Owner to draw attention to himself. Fosse was incredulous. “Then why didn’t you want to play me from the beginning?” he yelled. It was an instinctive response. Finley didn’t even bother to answer. He didn’t have to. He’d already taken what he wanted.
The A’s won their third straight championship that season (and their second with Fosse). Finley sold him back to Cleveland after the 1975 campaign.
Fosse had worked on A’s radio broadcasts since 1986, and on their TV broadcasts since 1988. He will be missed by Bay Area baseball fans, and especially so by those who got to know him even a little.
Carlos Gomez officially announced his retirement in Milwaukee over the weekend, and man are we sad to see him go. The guy played for six teams over 13 seasons, made a couple of All-Star rosters, had good speed and some power, played a solid outfield. But we loved him around these parts because there’s no player we covered more on the unwritten-rules beat.
Really, it’s not even close.
Gomez played with his own sense of panache, which in the days before on-field celebrations were common, tended to rub opponents the wrong way. Really, he was just ahead of his time. Also, he was frequently too fiery so for his own good.
His most notorious incident came in 2013, in in a game against Atlanta . Gomez, the game’s second batter, homered against Paul Maholm. This satisfied him for very particular reasons: About three months earlier Maholm had drilled Gomez in the knee with a fastball, which Gomez felt was intentional given that he’d battered Maholm to that point in his career. After hitting his homer, Gomez watched it for so long that catcher Brian McCann shouted at him to get his ass out of the batter’s box. This spurred Gomez to shout himself, at McCann and a number of other Braves, as he rounded the bases. Upon reaching third, he pointed at his knee. This was clearly all in service to revenge.
Thanks to that day, we now know that McCann harbors little tolerance for such shenanigans … and precious little patience. Rather than waiting for Gomez to cross the plate before lighting into him, the catcher planted himself about 15 feet up the third base line, completely blocking the runner’s path. When Gomez approached, he gave him an earful. It was a surreal scene.
From my post the next day:
McCann shouted [Gomez] down without ceding the baseline, players from both teams stormed the field, Reed Johnson landed a punch to Gomez’s noggin, and the ensuing scrum carried everybody to the backstop. Gomez was ejected shortly thereafter, and left the field without ever touching the plate. (The umps invoked Rule 7.06[a], which says that an “obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction,” and allowed him to score.) Watch it all here.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my baseball career, whether it be the big leagues, minor leagues or little leagues,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
He spurred a clash with Pittsburgh by showboating on what turned out to be a luck-induced triple. (“If you’re going to hit a home run, you can watch it,” said Gerritt Cole, the pitcher who served it up. “If you’re going to hit a fly ball to center field, don’t watch it.”)
There was the time that Gomez nicked Joe Mauer with a bat flip after a home run, then, with his back turned, gave Mauer jazz hands when the catcher mentioned that he might want to be more careful in the future. Never mind that the homer came when his team trailed 15-0.
There was the time that Gomez heard from somebody in the Astros system … or from somebody who heard from somebody in the Astros system … that Collin McHugh wanted to drill him for some reason or other, and then, when McHugh threw an inside pitch (which didn’t come close to hitting Gomez), he got all puffy about it, spurring benches to clear.
It wasn’t going to be a thing. Kevin Kiermaier slid home against the Blue Jays on Monday, and in so doing managed to inadvertently knock loose the card on which Toronto catcher Alejandro Kirk kept his team’s game plan for Tampa Bay hitters. Kiermaier looked down, saw the thing, snatched it up as subtly as possible and returned to his dugout.
The Blue Jays weren’t pleased. They wanted their card back, and sent a bat boy to the Rays dugout to ask for its return. Why the bat boy and not an actual team member? Who knows? Did low-keying the personnel decision affect Tampa Bay’s response? Well, whoever had it on the Rays’ bench refused to give it up, so maybe.
From where I sit, this one is easy to legislate. Kiermaier stole Toronto’s signs in the truest sense of the word. His actions were pure gamesmanship, and if Toronto decides that it wishes to not have its signs stolen in the future, it should do a better job of protecting them. (Like, for real. My kid’s travel ball team wears wristbands with plays in them and has managed to not lose a single card in three years. It ain’t that tough. Then again, Kiermaier himself said that just last week he lost his own card while sliding into second, and Tigers infielder Niko Goodrum tried to grab it. So who knows, maybe this some sort of epidemic we’re just learning about now.)
At first, this appeared to be a non-issue. Keirmaier stumbled through a postgame monologue about how he didn’t even know what it was when he picked it up and then he gave it to the Tampa Bay equipment manager and boy golly it was all just so confusing at the time. Very little of what he said was believable, but still, Rays manager Kevin Cash met with Jays manager Charlie Montoyo before Tuesday’s game, apologized for the whole affair and returned the card. Montoyo called it “agua under the bridge.”
Fine. I wasn’t even gonna post about it. And then the Jays had to go and do something stupid like drill Kiermaier in response.
It happened in the eighth inning when, with Tampa Bay leading, 7-1, Ryan Bourecki planted a 93-mph heater into Kiermaier’s back. The pitcher was ejected (as was Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker, who just about lost his mind when Borucki got the thumb, despite that being the most obvious outcome). Benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.
Bourecki later called it a mistake, something that nobody in the Rays dugout—particularly Kiermaier or Cash—believed. Twitter agrees with them:
“I hope we play those guys [in the playoffs], I really do,” Kiermaier said. “I hope we play them. The motivation’s there.”
Just wait to see what happens if the Rays are eliminated and the Jays move on. Who wants to bet on some of Toronto’s state secrets being spilled to whatever team they end up playing? Even if the card is entirely specific to Tampa Bay, there are certainly things to learn for any willing opponent.
The Rays could have been chivalrous and returned the card immediately, and it would have been a nice story. This is the big leagues, though, where teams scramble to gain any advantage within the rules (and sometimes beyond). Thinking that Tampa Bay—or any team—would do otherwise is simply folly for Toronto.
Remember when pulling a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter was a big deal? Like, it was so unusual that there was a whole passage in The Baseball Codes about Padres manager Preston Gomez doing it to Clay Kirby in 1970, and I’ve blogged about the topic again … and again and again. And again, andthenanotherfivetimes.
Boy have things changed. Welcome to Baseball 2021, where starting pitchers average 5.1 innings and complete games are a near-impossibility. Take Saturday, for example, when Corbin Burns no-hit Cleveland through eight innings, and was pulled prior to the ninth owing to having thrown a career-high 115 pitches. In his second full years as a starter, Burnes is one of the NL’s best pitchers. He’s averaging six innings per start. With Milwaukee on the cusp of the playoffs, management figured that his long-term health was not worth the risk.
Think about that for moment. Burnes was at 115 pitches, not a huge number for a stress-free game, generally speaking. With three outs to go he was virtually there. Burnes was, in fact, the first pitcher EVER to have been pulled while allowing no hits and only one baserunner across the first eight innings of a start. (That stat courtesy of The Athletic, which offered a nine-point list explaining why Burnes was yanked. One detail not mentioned in the Athletic: Major League pitchers have reached the 120-pitch threshold all of five times this season.)
When Burns’ manager told him that he would not be going out for the ninth he didn’t even seem to view it as unusual. Maybe it was such new territory for him that Burns didn’t have an instinctive frame of reference. Maybe the Brewers just really respect manager Craig Counsell’s decision-making. Or maybe this is the way baseball is now.
This is interesting mainly because of how little interest it actually holds. This kind of thing is the new normal.
This one had it all—flexing after home runs, mocking the opposing dugout mid-HR trot and even the ultra-rare pause during a different trot so said trotter might have some words with a fielder. We saw emptying dugouts and the highest order of New York drama.
All because of a whistle.
The Yankees and Mets beat the stuffing out of each other all weekend, with the Yanks’ 8-7 Saturday victory built atop a five-run second inning. The Mets suspected foul play.
“Something out of the ordinary was going on,” said Francisco Lindor, discussing the incident with reporters after Sunday’s game. Whatever it was, he said, “I took it personal.”
What he took personal was a series of whistles coming from the Yankees’ dugout, which the Mets took to be pitch signaling—particularly against Saturday’s Mets starter Taijuan Walker, who gave up three homers in that fateful second frame. Jonathan Villar went so far as to call a mound meeting because he thought that Walker might be tipping pitches and that the dugout whistles could be keyed to that detail.
With this in mind, the Mets were paying attention on Sunday. Sure enough, there was reliever Wandy Peralta, whistling away in their dugout in the early innings. When reporters asked about it later, Yankees players did not even try to hide it. Their excuse: Peralta was just trying to “bring some noise.”
Lindor was having none of it. When he connected for his second homer of the game in the sixth inning—notably, against Peralta—he stared directly into the Yankees dugout while rounding the bases, and mimed a whistling motion.
In the scope of possible responses to signaled pitches, this one was mild. Nobody was thrown at and no on-field shouting matches ensued. Still, the Yankees were displeased. So displeased, in fact, that when Giancarlo Stanton hit his own homer in the seventh, he all but stopped between second and third base to give Lindor a piece of his mind. The players never came into physical contact—Lindor was out near the grass when it happened—but dugouts and bullpens emptied in response. Lindor and Javy Baez made keep-on-chirping puppet signals with their hands toward the Yankees’ scrum.
Today’s focus is on the fireworks, but the lasting import from yesterday’s game is that the Yankees’ upcoming opponents will now pay extra attention to possible signals from the New York dugout. If it exists, such a relay system doesn’t break any rules, but it’s certain to raise hackles in the opposing dugout.
For a team on the outside of the wild-card picture looking in, the Yankees need every advantage they can get. If similar whistling helped them at all during their 21-8 August, it’ll be a blow for them to curtail the practice now.
We frequently talk about baseball’s unwritten retaliation rules as having become outdated, an artifact from another era. Which is largely accurate; guys intentionally drilling each other makes less sense today than it ever has.
But set aside that construct for a moment. Today, let’s view things from the viewpoint of a struggling pitcher, desperate to prolong his time in the major leagues. Let’s view things through Sean Nolin’s eyes.
Nolin is a left-hander who prior to this season has had three cups of coffee in the big leagues, each so short that he continues to maintain his rookie status. The last of those stints came in 2015.
The six intervening years have seen two seasons wiped out by shoulder issues, and time spent in Mexico, Japan and the independent Atlantic League. Nolin began this season with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, in the Washington Nationals system. He is now 31 years old.
On July 30, the Nats traded Max Scherzer to LA, Jon Lester to St. Louis and Daniel Hudson to San Diego, opening some spots on their pitching staff. Nolin made his debut for them on Aug. 12.
Sean Nolin is not anyone’s idea of a star. Before yesterday he had appeared in four games for Washington, all starts, going 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA. Whatever impression he made did not include much in the way of mound dominance.
Yesterday’s impression was different. Yesterday he defended a teammate.
Let’s go backward for a moment to Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, when Braves closer Will Smith drilled Juan Soto. Atlanta held a three-run lead with nobody on and one out in the ninth when it happened, and there’s enough history between the two to make it appear intentional.
In August of last season, Smith was taking his warm-up tosses after entering in the middle of the eighth inning, when Soto, the on-deck hitter, sidled behind the plate to get a better scouting angle. Smith cussed him out for it.
Soto came to bat an inning later, at which point he blasted Smith’s first pitch deep over the left-center field fence. He watched it. Then he watched the pitcher. Then Smith said something to him so unkind that Nationals manager Dave Martinez felt the need to intervene.
Since then, Smith has faced Soto six times. The first five came in games Atlanta led by two runs or fewer. On Tuesday the margin was three—enough wiggle room for the pitcher to take some liberties. With his second pitch, he drilled Soto in the small of the back.
Literally one pitch later the game was over, pushing Washington’s response, should they choose to make one, to yesterday. The man to shoulder that burden: Sean Nolin.
There is nothing to indicate that Nolin was ordered by management to take action. Indeed, such a thing is quite rare in the modern game. There is everything to indicate that Nolin had much more to gain by standing up for his young teammate than he had to lose by risking an early ejection.
Sure enough, in the first inning, Nolin—playing by the ages-old adage, “You drill my No. 3 hitter, I’ll drill your No. 3 hitter”—threw his first pitch to Freddy Freeman behind the hitter’s back. With his second pitch he drilled him, and was subsequently ejected.
There’s an essay to be written about the part of baseball’s code that gives Nolin one chance to even the score, and that once he’d missed Freeman accounts should have been considered settled. (Indeed, Freeman said later that he told plate ump Lance Barksdale, “That’s all he gets,” after the first pitch missed.) There’s also one about the class Freeman showed by going to the Washington dugout to talk things over with Martinez, and about how he and Soto took their drillings with grace. Those aren’t this essay, though.
This essay is about the clubhouse standing of a middle-aged man looking to do whatever he can to stick around the big leagues for as long as possible. Nolin’s baseball ability has proven to be a marginal commodity in this regard, placing him squarely inside the realm of ballplayers for whom being a good clubhouse guy might carry outsized importance when it comes to securing his next contract.
In this age of fungible pitching staffs, where the bottom three guys in any bullpen are shuffled back and forth to the minors on a weekly basis, there’s value in having a reputation as somebody willing to stand up for teammates, of a proven willingness to throw the kinds of darts from which some pitchers might shy away. Bottom-of-the-rotation guys must feel the need to prove their value every day, in any way they can.
Sean Nolin knows this. He proved it yesterday. It’s strange to think that a start lasting one-third of an inning might be consequential to somebody’s career prospects, but that may well be the case here. Sean Nolin’s counting on it.
Mark Canha is a pest. Like, the Athletic had a whole thing last week about how Canha is a pest, and A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked about Canha being a pest, and although he refuted the word itself, he went on to describe Canha with sentiments that can be boiled down to a single word: “Pest.”
“He can get under people’s skin,” said Melvin, who talked about how long Canha takes to get ready in the box and how he sees a ton of pitches and, oh yeah, how he crowds the plate. “It can be a little unnerving when you have a guy like that that isn’t afraid to get [hit by a pitch],” he added.
Which brings us to today’s topic: Why Melvin was asked about Canha in the first place. Last Thursday, Canha leaned into a pitch from LA’s Dylan Bundy, taking it off of his sizeable elbow guard. There’s a rule about batters making an effort to avoid a pitch in order to be awarded first base, but even though Canha literally did the opposite of that, the rule was not invoked here. He’s tied for the major league lead with 18 HBPs this season—six of which have come against the Angels.
Bundy was angry. In fact, Bundy had precedent. Back on June 14, the right-hander hit Canha in the same spot on the same elbow guard in a strikingly similar fashion. Canha did not lean into that one quite as much, though he made similarly little effort to get out of the way.
At this point it’s safe to assume that Bundy is not a fan. He offered some thoughts as Canha trotted to first, and Canha offered some of his own. Few of them were G-rated.
Did it have an effect? Bundy walked the next two batters, and proceeded to give up three runs—the first scored by Canha himself—in the inning.
When Canha came up again in the second, Bundy offered a clear-cut message: a fastball behind Canha’s head, which would have hit him flush had he not nodded out of the way. Somehow, this response, far more egregious than anything Canha had done, escaped further notice from both the umpires (no warnings were issued) and from the A’s themselves (that was more or less the end of the confrontation).
Oakland won that game, and three of four in the series, and is 12-4 against the Angels this year. Hell, maybe LA isn’t angry enough. The teams will face each other three more times this season, in Anaheim in September. Count on Canha getting drilled again, one way or another.
The Cardinals believed that Mike Yastrzemski was stealing signs from second base yesterday. Yastrzemski knew this because the pitcher, rookie right-hander Johan Oviedo checked the card in his pocket to make sure that he was on the same page with catcher Andrew Kinzner. Then he checked it again. And again.
At that point, Yastrzemski decided to play the part, shifting and shuffling in ways that could easily be construed as signaling the hitter. Which was the point. Oviedo, thoroughly rattled, finally spun and yelled at Yastrzemski to “shut the fuck up.”
Thanks to the Astros, baseball has dealt with a lot of sign-stealing drama over the last couple of years, but nobody, then or now, has taken too much issue with a guy at second picking up whatever he can from his unique vantage point.
The great part about this is that Yastrzemski denied everything, saying that he figured that the Cardinals were getting paranoid, and so played it up.
“I didn’t want it to get to that extent,” said Yastrzemski in his postgame press conference. “I just wanted him to throw a fastball down the middle so [the hitter, Wilmer Flores] could hit a homer.”
Sure enough, Oviedo threw a fastball about as down the middle as a pitch can be. Flores flied out to end the inning.
“You just got to sell it sometimes,” Yastrzemski said. “We’re in the entertainment business. It’s just another way you can impact the game.”
Whether or not Yaz was actually stealing signs, this is wonderful. It’s reminiscent of Gaylord Perry fidgeting like mad on the mound, going to his cap, to his sleeve, to his mouth, to his collar and to his cap again, pitch after pitch, even when he wasn’t trying to load up the baseball. Perry knew that every ounce of energy a hitter devoted to figuring out whether or not he was reaching for some grease was an ounce of energy not devoted to an optimal hitting approach. And damned if it didn’t work.
It worked for Yastrzemski, too. Sort of. Oviedo lasted four innings and the Giants won the game.
Gamesmanship has always had a role in baseball. With a sport so deliberate, psychological ploys can find space to breathe, and those that work go down in lore. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic in The Baseball Codes, covering everything from deking runners to the hidden-ball trick.
A favorite story that didn’t make the book involved Pete Rose showing up to the 1978 All-Star Game with a batch of Japanese baseballs provided by his sponsor, Mizuno. The foreign balls were slightly smaller and more tightly wound than their North American counterparts, and traveled farther when hit. Rose convinced his NL teammates to use them during batting practice, and to keep it a secret. He then talked a number of American League players into watching their opponents take some cuts.
Using the smaller balls, the National Leaguers put on a show, blasting drive after drive over the spacious outfield in San Diego. When they were done, they took care to collect all the balls and return them to their clubhouse. Using standard major league baseballs for their own batting practice, the American Leaguers had a much rougher go of things.
How much impact the psyche job had is unknown, but one thing is definite: Rose and his NL teammates won their seventh All-Star Game in a row, 7-3.
Today, we are in a new era of gamesmanship based around baseball’s recent obsession with sticky stuff. Not long ago—like, even a week—managers hewed strongly to a tradition that prevented them from asking umpires to inspect the opposing pitcher for hidden substances like pine tar. Because umps did not possess the power to initiate such examinations on their own, this was the only way that pitchers could be checked.
Because every team had players who utilized similar tactics, checking the opponent was a surefire way to have your own pitcher tossed from the game at some point in the future. Restraint from the practice was a matter of self-preservation.
Now that umpires are required to examine every pitcher, sometimes at multiple points during a game, managers seem to have eased up when it comes to their own approach to the issue. At least Phillies skipper Joe Girardi has.
On Tuesday, after Washington’s Max Scherzer had already been checked twice by umpires, per league mandate, Girardi stepped up the attention in the fourth inning after he noticed the pitcher run his hand through his hair while on the mound. The manager’s postgame explanation involved the suspicion that Scherzer was hiding some sort of substance there, based in part on Girardi never having noticed Scherzer self-toussle like that.
In many corners, however, people suggested that Girardi was merely trying to rattle the pitcher, who had been visibly annoyed during his previous searches.
Grover Cleveland Alexander’s strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to snuff out a bases-loaded rally in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series is an iconic baseball moment. Less remembered is the detail that when Alexander—39 years old and having pitched a complete-game victory over the Yankees only a day earlier—was called in from the bullpen, he took his time getting to the mound. Like, he really took his time.
By that point in his career, Alexander was unflappable. He also knew that Lazzeri, while coming off of an excellent season, was a 22-year-old rookie who had never before faced such pressure. As Les Bell said in Peter Golenbock’s Spirit of St. Louis, “At that moment, [Lazzeri] was a youngster up against a master.”
Alexander’s extra-languorous stroll to the mound very intentionally gave Lazzeri extra time to think. And as we all learned from Bull Durham, thinking is not a ballplayer’s ally. It was pure gamesmanship, intended to get an opponent off of his mark, and it worked. Lazzeri fanned, rally snuffed and lead maintained, Alexander pitched two more shutout innings to clinch the title for St. Louis.
For Scherzer, the reality was that he had just inadvertently thrown a 1-2 pitch toward the head of Nationals hitter Alec Bohm, which Bohm had only narrowly managed to avoid, and was desperate to find some extra tack to help him grip the ball. Rosin is legal on a big league mound, but without a mixing agent Scherzer was stuck. It was a cool night, and the right-hander wasn’t sweating much. In fact, the only place he could find some accumulated moisture was under his cap. So he ran his hand through his hair.
After the right-hander threw two straight strikes to whiff Bohm, Girardi pounced.
Here’s the thing about gamesmanship: It works best when an opponent has a weakness to exploit. For Scherzer, it was twofold. One is that he’s an avowed supporter of tack, and has already been named in an ongoing drama that involves Angeles clubhouse man Bubba Harkins providing sticky substances for players around the league. The other part has to do with a groin injury that cost the pitcher nearly two weeks, during which time MLB announced its no-tolerance policy. Monday’s start was Scherzer’s first since June 11, and he’d had only one bullpen session to prepare for his new, tack-free reality.
Was Girardi pointedly trying to exploit these details? He vehemently denied it, but the Nationals don’t seem to believe him.
On May 29, 1974, Minnesota’s Jerry Terrell came to the plate at Fenway Park with runners at the corners and one out in the top of the 13th inning. The score was 4-4. As Red Sox pitcher Diego Segui went into his windup, Terrell bent down to grab some dirt from the batter’s box—a trick he’d learned as an amateur to lure a pitcher into halting his delivery. Such a tactic isn’t legal in the big leagues, with rule 4.06(a)—falling under the Unsportsmanlike Conduct category—specifically prohibiting the calling of time while a ball is in play “for the obvious purpose of trying to make the pitcher commit a balk.”
On that day, umpires didn’t catch it. Segui paused, the balk was called, and what would be the winning run crossed the plate.
Gamesmanship won again.
As Scherzer finished the inning, Nationals coaches—clearly unimpressed with Girardi’s strategy, be it gamesmanship or a genuine suspicion that Scherzer was cheating—unloaded on the manager. So too did Scherzer, who stared daggers into the Phillies dugout as he walked off of the field. Upon reaching his bench, he repeatedly showed Girardi his cap and glove, shouting, “They’re clean! They’re clean!” as he mockingly ran his hand through his hair.
When Washington hitting coach Kevin Long—formerly on Girardi’s staff with the Yankees—continued the verbal assault, Girardi stormed the field ready to fight, and ended up ejected. Later, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo called Girardi “a con artist.”
There is an old story from the early part of the 20th century involving a fastball pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who was giving the Pirates fits. Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner’s solution was, while batting, to catch one of those fastballs barehanded and insouciantly toss it back to the mound. With two strikes in the count the umpire called Wagner out, but the tactic worked. According to legend, anyway, the pitcher walked the next five hitters.
Girardi’s ploy, whatever its motivations, did not have a similar effect. Scherzer walked the next batter following his mound inspection, but retired five straight after that to earn his sixth win of the year in a 3-2 Nationals victory.
The main question we’re faced with now is whether Girardi’s con (if it actually was a con) will take root. Max Scherzer is too stout a pitcher, both mentally and physically, to be trapped by such shenanigans (if they actually were shenanigans), but other pitchers—especially in a league dominated by 20-something-year-old relievers—are more suspect.
Just as MLB rules prohibit a hitter from calling time in order to discombobulate a pitcher, so too do they prohibit a manager from executing a substance check for similar reasons. The umpire’s in Tuesday’s game, in fact, conferred before checking Scherzer, to confirm the validity of Girardi’s point.
That alone is an endorsement for the purity of the manager’s motivation. Whether he should have done what he did is a different story, however, as is the fact that such a tactic has now been inexorably planted into the heads of every coaching staff in baseball. If Billy Martin can wait until the right moment to have the umpires check George Brett’s bat, you can bet that there’s somebody out there right now anticipating a key spot in an upcoming pennant race to pull this particular card from his back pocket.
We can only sit back and watch the fireworks explode when he does.