Jerry Blevins and Carlos Zambrano gave us a brief taste this week, with a mini-war of words that played out on the pages of various newspapers.
It started when Zambrano claimed that Blevins—a left-handed reliever who had been inserted into Tuesday’s Cubs-A’s contest one batter earlier—“got lucky” by inducing him to pop out to second base to end the sixth inning.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella had let Zambrano hit for himself with two on, two out and the Cubs down, 5-2. The portly pitcher admitted that he was going after a home run.
Blevins didn’t appreciate the disrespect—especially coming from a guy who had given up five runs in six innings, and whose ERA stood at 5.66. Given the chance, he fired back.
“I did get lucky,” he said the following day in the San Jose Mercury News. “Any time they don’t pinch-hit for a pitcher to face me, I’m lucky. I’ve gotten a lot better hitters out than him. He’s a good hitting pitcher, but he’s still a pitcher. Yes I’m lucky—for them not pinch-hitting.”
In the pantheon of verbal battles, this is just a mild case of banter—although it did draw a rebuke from NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk, which asked, “What is it with A’s pitchers that make them so damn defensive? Is Blevins from the 209 too?”
When it’s done right, this sort of disrespect through the press can have disastrous results. Perhaps the most noteworthy incident occurred during the 1988 NLCS, when Mets pitcher David Cone published a bylined article in the New York Daily News (ghost-written by Bob Klapisch) that he quickly regretted.
The Mets had just touched Dodgers reliever Jay Howell for two runs in the ninth to take a 3-2 victory in Game 1. In describing the comeback to Klapisch after the game, Cone intoned that Howell kept going back to his best pitch, the curveball, again and again, failing to mix up his repertoire to a degree that would throw Mets hitters off balance. The strategy, Cone said, reminded him of when he was a high school pitcher, throwing curve after curve after curve.
From The Baseball Codes:
The sentence that made it to print read slightly differently: “Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher.” Cone has never denied uttering those words, but has long stressed that the context was skewed. One lesson he learned when the paper came out the next day was that context doesn’t count for a hell of a lot in the face of opponents spitting ﬁre over your sentiments. “All of a sudden,” said Cone, “it was me calling Jay Howell a high school pitcher.”
Just as suddenly, the Dodgers had new life. Manager Tommy Lasorda brought a copy of the Daily News—not so easy to ﬁnd on the streets of Los Angeles—into the clubhouse and ran it through a copy machine. Before the game, he rallied the team around him and exploded. “When we got to the clubhouse that day, the article was posted all over the place—we couldn’t miss it,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia. “We had our pre-game meeting, and Tommy used it for all it was worth. He kept saying that [Cone] was calling all of us a bunch of high-schoolers, not just Jay Howell. He kept saying that they thought we were a bunch of high school kids, on and on. He was pretty emotional, of course, as only Tommy can be.” . . .
When Cone took the mound, the Dodgers bench, ﬁred up by Lasorda’s speech, started riding him hard, offering up, said the pitcher, “bench-jockey insults that were as bad as I have ever heard.” It was vicious, it was loud, and it was relentless. “Everybody, right down to the trainer, was screaming at me,” said Cone, whose father, Ed, was sitting next to the Dodgers dugout and heard every word.
It worked. Cone, whose 2.22 ERA during the regular season was second in the National League, lasted just two innings, giving up ﬁve runs before being removed for a pinch-hitter in the third. It was the shortest outing he had ever made as a big-league starter.
Blevins v. Zambrano is a comparative blip, with no likely repercussions; barring a change of team for either pitcher, they won’t face each other again for years.
Still, it offers fabulous entertainment when watching from the outside.