Jose Mesa, Omar Vizquel, Retaliation

Mesa, Vizquel Shake Hands, Make Up. Except for the Shaking Hands Part. And the Making Up

This is the third and final segment of our  series detailing the ludicrously extended on-field feud between Omar Vizquel and Jose Mesa. Really, it’s just our way of wishing Omar luck in his new gig with the White Sox.

You can also read Part 1 and Part 2.

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“I thought he had taken care of business last year,” Vizquel told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after Mesa drilled him for the second time in two chances, and the first after Vizquel criticized him in print. “He hit me last year. And he hit me when he was with Seattle before the book came out. I don’t know what that was all about.”

Vizquel would continue to not know, because although Mesa proclaimed the feud to be over, he didn’t really mean it.

The next time the two met was in April, 2006; Mesa was with the Colorado Rockies, and despite the fact that Vizquel was disguised in the colors of the San Francisco Giants, the pitcher still managed to recognize him when he stepped to the plate.

The right-hander’s greeting: another fastball into the back.

This was the third straight time Mesa had plunked Vizquel. The protests of Giants manager Felipe Alou were met with deaf ears and a complete absence of warnings by the umpiring crew. After the game, plate ump Jeff Nelson went so far as to say that he had no previous knowledge of the bad blood between the players. And although the shortstop voiced his displeasure (going so far as to joke with media that he’d wear shin guards to the plate in the future), he once again chose to head to first base rather than a confrontation at the mound.

(It’s not like Vizquel was afraid to charge. In 1998 he went after White Sox pitcher Jim Parque after the lefty sailed a pitch over his head, for which he served a two-game suspension. Of course, at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Parque was virtually the same size as the shortstop, and far smaller than the imposing Mesa.)

This was all clearly fueled by a lack of closure on Mesa’s part. Any confusion about why Vizquel wrote what he did never abated; at the time the interviews were done for this story, the two had yet to speak to each other on the topic. (And Mesa certainly wasn’t speaking to reporters about it.)

“I think that was one of the things that bothered him so much—that I didn’t even talk to him about it,” said Vizquel. “I don’t think that I should. He doesn’t want to let it go. It’s still inside him, but it’s time to move on.”

As for the Giants’ response to Mesa’s attack, because it occurred in a 5-4 game (which the Giants would win 6-4 after scoring a run in the ninth), they were forced to keep their bullets chambered until the following day. Even worse form than a lack of retaliation, of course, would be to let ill-timed retaliation come at the expense of a victory.

The man to eventually handle the team’s business was San Francisco starter Matt Morris, who wasted no time in hitting Rockies slugger Matt Holliday in the first inning. It was a clear purpose pitch, and everybody with any sense of the situation was aware of its meaning.

Everybody, it seems, but plate umpire Travis Reininger. Reininger, a fill-in replacement from Triple-A, immediately warned both benches in an effort to stem the beanball tide.

For Morris, however, the problem with hitting a guy intentionally and absorbing an ump’s warning is that he was then forced into an uncomfortable attempt at precision, staying well off the plate lest he he hit a batter by accident. Which is exactly what he did, just two hitters later.

It was, in fact, just his eighth pitch of the game. Morris hit Rockies catcher Eli Marerro with a fastball, and was promptly tossed. The pitcher, well acquainted with the deny-everything rule about which Mesa seemed ignorant, offered up a quick disavowal when it came to Holliday. But when the subject of the Marerro pitch came up, he grew passionate.

“Why would I . . . after a warning, get thrown out of the game?” he asked reporters. “That’s the last thing I wanted. It’s unfortunate they think that way. The last thing I wanted to do was be taken out of the game. You wait five days to pitch, and to do that after a warning just doesn’t make any sense.”

Even some Rockies took up for Morris.

“Holliday was hit on purpose, but Eli’s wasn’t on purpose, and right then and there they blew the call,” said Rockies reliever Ray King—who was himself thrown out when he hit Vizquel in the eighth inning. “They shouldn’t have thrown Matt Morris out right there. It wasn’t intentional. We hit their guy the other day, they hit our guy. It’s over with. The umpires tried to take control of the game and they blew it by tossing Matt Morris right there, and that takes away from the game.”

It was, in the opinion of King and many others around baseball, another example of umpires legislating the Code out of existence—which is fine, until an excess of built-up pressure with no release valve leads to something far uglier than a simple fastball to the thigh.

In the San Francisco locker room, the bottom line was less about Morris’s ejection, which caused the Giants to burn through eight-plus innings of bullpen work, than the fact that the umpiring crew claimed no prior knowledge of Mesa’s ongoing vendetta. After all, the Giants’ starter was ejected after eight pitches and two maybe-he-meant-to, maybe-he-didn’t hit batters. Mesa remained undisciplined after his no-doubter from the night before.

When it came time for MLB’s discipline czar, Bob Watson, to dole out punishment, the Giants finally got their day in court. Although Morris was fined—along with Alou and pitching coach Dave Righetti, who were ejected along with him—none of the three was suspended. Mesa, however, was tagged for four games, which probably sent some signals that his antics were wearing thin with the folks at league headquarters.

This was fully evident when he and Vizquel next met, on Aug. 5. That day, in the bottom of the eighth inning of a 1-1 game, with a runner on second base—that’s right, first base was open—Mesa actually pitched to Vizquel, not at Vizquel. That the shortstop grounded out to second base, advancing the runner to third, was almost incidental.

The battle, as far as anyone could tell, was over. (The two met twice more that season, with Vizquel grounding out and singling to right field; each time he drove in a run.)

And the real take-home from this whole exchange? Vizquel said it best, speaking with the Cherry Hill Courier Post in 2003: “I guess you have to wait until you retire before you write a book.”

– Jason

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