Kyle Kendrick was frustrated on Saturday. He was pitching well right into the sixth, had helped his team to a 5-1 lead. Then, after a Buster Posey leadoff single, Pablo Sandoval popped up for what should have been the inning’s first out. But the ball fell between Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, at which point Utley tried to flip the ball to second for the force … which would have worked, had his throw not pulled Jimmy Rollins off the bag.
The next batter, Michael Morse, doubled home a run, and Ryne Sandberg came out to the mound for a chat. Kendrick, with little interest in conversation, did not wait for his manager, storming off to the dugout while Sandberg was en route, handing him the ball as they passed.
If the basis of the Code is respect, waiting for one’s manager to reach the mound is a baseball bedrock, even if the pitcher doesn’t agree with the decision to make a change. Especially if a pitcher doesn’t agree with his decision to make a change. Put differently: a red-assed pitcher irked by a hitter digging into the batter’s box is following a narrow band of his precedent-setting forebears, but a manager angry at being abandoned by his pitcher in front of a stadium full of people is directly in line with every guy who’s ever managed in the big leagues.
Seems like a decent segue into the A’s. As some of you know, I’m under contract to write a book about Oakland’s teams of the early 1970s (somewhat breaking news: the story is so large, with so many pieces, that the publication has been moved back to 2016 so I have the space to tell the story in the way it deserves to be told), and this story falls right in line with an incident from 40 years ago.
In 1974, Alvin Dark took over as manager of the two-time defending champions, and in the early going, his methodology was not well received by his players. In particular, Dark had a problem with pitcher management, frequently giving his starters early hooks that ended up backfiring when the bullpen blew some sizeable leads. The most egregious of these instances came in the season’s third game, when Dark was still trying to figure out his roster. He yanked Vida Blue two batters into the fifth inning, with Oakland leading Texas, 5-1. Rollie Fingers allowed both runners to score, and Blue became ineligible for the victory since he had not gone the requisite five frames. From that moment on, Blue held some pretty serious antipathy against Dark.
Fast forward to mid-July. Blue was pitching well enough, entering the fifth inning in New York with a 3-1 lead. But even as the pitcher began to struggle, Dark wanted to let him finish the inning, to become the pitcher of record. But Vida imploded, with four hits and two walks turning Oakland’s lead into a 6-4 deficit. Dark had to pull him with two outs in the frame to stem further damage. When he approached the mound, however, Blue walked straight past him and tossed the ball backward. Dark let it drop onto the ground. It was as insolent a move as could be imagined from a player who had just coughed up a lead. Not only that, but it was the second time in recent history that an A’s pitcher had done it; after the first time, by Ken Holtzman, the manger threatened a $250 fine for any subsequent miscreants.
When the team arrived at Shea Stadium for a doubleheader the following day (New York was a one-ballpark town while Yankee Stadium was undergoing renovations), the manager called them together. It had been precisely 100 days since the season opener, and Dark finally had had enough. They sat in a semicircle in the locker room, while the manager stood in the middle. He usually liked to pace when he addressed a group like this, but this time he stayed in one spot. He did not shout and he did not curse. More impactfully, for the first time that anyone could remember, the uber-religious Dark did not quote the bible even once.
“I’ve never been more disappointed in a group of young men in my life,” he said, according to his book, When in Doubt, Fire the Manager. “I’ve never been more disappointed in a team of world champions. If being a world champion makes you act the way some of you are acting, no thank you. I don’t care to be one.”
“Vida, you and I are even now,” he said. “I screwed you out of a game your first start of the season, and I was never more sorry in my life. But we’re even now. I left you out there yesterday, trying to get you a win, and I’m the one who suffers. You degraded the position of manager. Not me, the position, by acting like a bush kid.” Dark confirmed the $250 fine, and said that it would cost $500 if it happened again. He didn’t want to play catch with his pitchers when he removed them from games, he said.
The Phillies don’t have quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s did—nobody has quite as much drama in their clubhouse as those A’s—but the lesson holds. Afterward, Sandberg labeled Kendricks’ action as no big deal (although he did see fit to talk to the pitcher about it on Sunday), and Kendrick confessed to letting the pressure get to him. “I didn’t handle it right,” he said in a CSN Philadelphia report.
Kendrick is barely hanging on with a 5-11 record and 4.90 ERA, and has plenty of reason to be frustrated. All in all, however, this seems like a decent learning experience for the eight-year vet and the rookie manager, both in the nature of comportment, and how to handle oneself should things break down.
For another example of the concept, this one featuring Frank Robinson and discussed in The Baseball Codes, click here.
[H/T Hardball Talk.]