So Adam Wainwright grooved a fastball to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game. Some are saying he was abiding by the unwritten rules when he did so. Others think he simply rolled over to let Jeter have his way. Still others say he disrespected Jeter, for crying out loud, not giving him credit for being able to get around any longer on a real major league pitch.
Jeter was the game’s first American League hitter, and Wainwright’s first pitch to him was in the dirt. His second was a 91-mph fastball down the pipe, which Jeter lashed into the right-field corner for a double.
“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright told reporters, describing a fastball grooved for the hitter’s pleasure. “He deserved it.”
Yes, Wainwright laid in in there, fat and succulent, despite his ensuing half-hearted denials aimed at stemming a growing and faux controversy. Yes, he had every right to do what he did. More than that, he should be lauded for it.
The pitcher understood the situation, knew that Jeter is a once-in-a-generation player. Dominating on the field is one thing, but Jeter has captured the public’s attention and affection in a way so wholesome as to seem downright anachronistic. Becoming the enduring face of baseball’s enduring franchise is no easy task. Wainwright understands this, and in Jeter’s final All-Star Game, responded as he saw fit. His first move was to step off the mound when Jeter was introduced, to give the Captain an extra moment of mass adoration. His next was to tee one up for the guy. It was an exhibition game; give the man his glory.
Those who misguidedly blame the unwritten rules for the moment are half right. There is precedent for Wainwright’s action, and that precedent does fall within the sport’s unwritten rules, but there is nothing to dictate such a course of action. Had the right-hander pitched Jeter as he would any other batter (or like he would have had the contest counted in the standings)—had he struck him out with a two-seamer in the dirt—not a player in baseball would have cried foul.
An entire chapter in The Baseball Codes—Responding to Records—deals with the topic. Wainwright’s action was more along the lines of Responding to Legacies, but the concept is the same. An excerpt:
Tigers pitcher Denny McLain always had a soft spot for Mickey Mantle, having idolized him as a boy growing up in Chicago. When they met at Tiger Stadium in September 1968 the two were at opposite ends of their careers, McLain peaking en route to thirty-one wins and both the Cy Young and MVP awards, while Mantle was nine days from retirement. The great slugger’s previous home run, almost a month earlier, had him tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time list with 534.
Before the game, McLain decided to do his hero a favor. Recalled Tigers catcher Jim Price, “Denny told me, ‘Let him hit one.’ ” Price relayed the good news when Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, at which point the Yankees star extended his bat over the plate to indicate just the spot in which he’d like to see a pitch. McLain delivered, and Mantle connected for a homer. Said Price, “Denny stood out there on the mound and clapped.” Mantle had his milestone, and McLain had his joy.
Properly dealing with records—either one’s own or someone else’s— has long been a part of the Code. It’s why Yankees outﬁelder Tommy Henrich laid down a curiously timed ninth-inning bunt to avoid a possible double play, assuring Joe DiMaggio another chance to extend his hitting streak in 1941. (DiMaggio did.)
It’s also why, when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson went into the ﬁnal day of the 1959 season needing a hit in his ﬁrst at-bat to push his average to .300, manager Casey Stengel informed him that since the Yankees didn’t have a single .300 hitter on the roster he’d be immediately removed from the game should it happen, to avoid falling below the mark in ensuing at-bats. It’s also why members of that day’s opponent, the Baltimore Orioles, took up the cause: Brooks Robinson informed Richardson that he’d be playing deep in case the hitter found appeal in bunting; pitcher Billy O’Dell offered to groove pitches; and catcher Joe Ginsberg verbally called for pitches instead of dropping down signs. Umpire Ed Hurley even got in on the act, offering that, if Richardson could “just make it close,” things would go his way. Said Richardson, “There couldn’t have been a more complete ﬁx on.” (The ﬁx might have been on, but it wasn’t complete. Richardson doubled in his ﬁrst at-bat, refused Stengel’s entreaties to leave the game, went 2-for-3, and ended up at .301.)
Since we’re on a string of Yankees-related events, we can also turn to Whitey Ford, who ended up facing former teammate Billy Martin, one of his best friends in the game, about six weeks after Martin had been traded from New York to Kansas City. It was the eighth inning and the Yankees were leading, 10-3. From Ford’s book, Slick:
I threw him a big slow curve and he took it for a strike. I got the ball back and said to him, “Same thing.” I wanted him to hit it for a single or double, but I threw another big slow curve and he wrapped it around the left-field foul pole for a home run. Now he was prancing around the bases, the son of a bitch. When I saw him prancing like that, I was sorry I did it.
Ford’s action came as a favor to a friend in a situation that wouldn’t cost his team. Wainwright’s was a nod to the sanctity of baseball in an exhibition game that didn’t count for anything other than pride (and, stupidly, home-field advantage in the World Series). It’s a shame more of the public isn’t appreciating it as such. The man was pitching in a showcase to the most super of any superstar his generation will produce. With one pitch, he acknowledged all of it, every bit.