Don't Steal with a Big Lead

Davey vs. Rickey, Ten Years After

Ten years ago this weekend, Davey Lopes and Rickey Henderson had a little Code-related run-in. It would quickly turn into one of the most prominent kerfluffles in the recent history of the unwritten rules, sufficiently noteworthy to lead a chapter about when and when not to steal in a certain book devoted to the subject.

Similar situations still come up all the time. (Look no further than Carlos Gomez or A.J. Ellis earlier this year, or Nyjer Morgan‘s antics last season.) Still, in honor of the grandaddy moment of them all, it seems worth revisiting. From The Baseball Codes:

In July 2001, Rickey Henderson was forty-two years old and, by an enor­mous margin, baseball’s all-time stolen-base leader. The San Diego Padres outfielder was well over two decades into his major-league career and had long since been anointed the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Then he stole second base against the Brewers, and Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes exploded.

It wasn’t just any steal that set Lopes off—it happened in the seventh inning of a game in which the Padres led 12–5, after Milwaukee’s defense had essentially cried “uncle” by positioning first baseman Richie Sexson in the hole behind Henderson instead of holding him on. The play was so borderline, as far as stolen bases go, that it was ruled defensive indiffer­ence, and Henderson wasn’t even credited with a steal. That wasn’t his goal, however. Henderson was approaching Ty Cobb’s all-time record for runs scored (which he would ultimately best in the season’s final week), and he had just put himself into scoring position.

Lopes could not have been less interested in the runner’s motivation. As soon as Henderson reached second, Lopes went to the mound, osten­sibly to talk to pitcher Ray King but really to direct a tirade up the middle. At top volume and with R-rated vocabulary, Lopes informed Henderson that he had just become a target for the Brewers pitching staff.

“I didn’t appreciate what he did,” Lopes told reporters after the game. “I know he’s trying to obtain a record for most runs scored, but do it the right way. If he keeps doing stuff like that he’s going to get one of his play­ers hurt. I just told him to stay in the game because he was going on his ass. We were going to drill him, flat out. I told him that. But he chose not to stay in the game; I knew he wouldn’t.”

Henderson was removed after the inning by Padres manager Bruce Bochy, which the skipper insisted had to do with the lopsided score, not Lopes’s threats. Afterward, Henderson said that he was reluctantly fol­lowing green-light orders given to him by third-base coach Tim Flannery and sanctioned by Bochy, and that showing anybody up was the last thing on his mind. “Davey and I argued, but I told him that on my own, in that situation, I wouldn’t go down and steal that base,” he said. (“Rickey said I gave him the sign?” said a surprised Flannery when he heard Henderson’s take. “Rickey didn’t even know the sign.”)

“To be blunt, what he did was bullshit,” said King after the game. “We weren’t holding him on. If he’s going to break the record that way, he doesn’t deserve it. The guy’s probably going in the Hall of Fame, but to try to get to second base just to score a run, that’s sorry. When he took off I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

What Henderson had done was break one of the cornerstone entries in baseball’s unwritten rulebook: Don’t play aggressively with a big lead late in the game. It’s tantamount to running up the score in football, and no tenet of the Code is more simultaneously revered and loathed. It means the cessation of stolen-base attempts, sending runners in search of extra bases, swinging at 3-0 pitches, and an assortment of other tactics aimed toward scoring at all costs.

“There is no excuse that can be made up to justify trying to show some­one up,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, one of the Code’s staunchest practitioners in his twenty-five years at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. “There’s no excuse, and you can’t invent one.”

– Jason

2 thoughts on “Davey vs. Rickey, Ten Years After

  1. Thank you for posting this. For me, particularly after the Pujols/Braun HBP mess last night in Milwaukee, the Jered Weaver/Tiger incident the night before, and after the Rolen/Rasmus-LaRussa communication problems, I am convinced more than ever that MLB team social workers could play a useful role in the clubhouse. Their primary duties could be to facilitate communication and elevate emotional intelligence among players and managers. I would like to see the elevated anger, violence, and miscommunications to stop.

    In the Rickey case, I think that if Ray King, Lopes, and the Brewers wanted to throw out or pick-off Rickey, why not try their best to do that? It seems like, when Rickey stole second, their feelings were hurt, and they feel their honor has been disrespected. Why not play the game and try to tie the score, rather than respond with threats of violence to the other team? It seems a greater disrespect of one’s own team to say, essentially, “go easy on us, we’re incapable of scoring 7 runs in the next three innings.” (Rickey’s steal was in the top of the seventh)

    Now I’m wondering if the are philosophers who specialize in baseball/sports ethics… If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to search.

    1. Thanks, Mark :
      That has been my argument my whole life. Why aggresiveness should stop just because the score is lopsided?. In todays game, no lead is safe due to the lively ball, shorter fences, mediocre pitching just to mention a few situations for a big inning. I seen runners stealing second and third on the so called defensive indiference. The runner will not stay put if given the chance to advance a base. In some cases that prevents the end of the game on a double play. There is no time limit unlike other sports. May be the guy needs a stolen base to tie or break a record and he is entitled to try regardless of the score. It will be bad for baseball to prevent the fans to be part of history just because a silly unwritten code. Anyway, at what point of the game it is decided to stop been aggressive?, Who decides that, the players?. The Managers?. The Owners?. Frankly, it makes no sense Lets keep looking for a philosopher..

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