Retaliation

The Fine Art of Negotiation, Baseball Edition: How to Keep Your Hitters From Getting Drilled

win-winBaseball retaliation is generally considered to be a you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy proposition, designed either to curtail unwanted activity from the other team or to make some sort of macho statement. Many decry it as unnecessary, and say that the game would be better if it didn’t exist.

Sunday we saw a story of what it takes for a pitcher—an old-school pitcher with retaliation on his mind—to not only acknowledge that point of view, but to agree with it. The story comes from FanGraphs’  David Laurila, who got it from Astros bench coach and former Orioles manager Dave Trembley.

It dates back to September 2007, and a game in which Baltimore pitcher Daniel Cabrera found himself distracted by Coco Crisp, dancing back and forth while taking his lead from third base. Distracted, Cabrera ended up balking the run home, then grew angry. The right-hander’s next pitch, to Dustin Pedroia, came in head high. This infuriated the Red Sox, and served to clear the dugouts.

When no retaliation occurred the next day under the watch of Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka (or the string of relievers who followed after he was knocked out in the third), Josh Beckett—Boston’s starter for the series finale—decided to take matters into his own hands.

“[Beckett] is old-school, and Cabrera popped Pedroia for no reason, so I knew one of our guys was going to get it,” said Trembley in Laurila’s account. “[Nick] Markakis, [Brian] Roberts … somebody was going to get it.”

Instead, Trembley approached Red Sox manager Terry Francona with a proposition. From FanGraphs:

“I called Tito,” he said. “I said, ‘If I tell you that I’m going to suspend Cabrera, will you tell me none of my guys are going to get thrown at?’ He said he’d get back to me. When he called back, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to suspend Cabrera?’ I said that I was. I’d talked to [general manager] Andy MacPhail and Cabrera was going to miss a start—we were going to take his money.

“Beckett pitched the next day and didn’t hit anybody. If I hadn’t called Tito, one of our guys would have gotten drilled, and deservedly so. Cabrera had a reputation and a problem with Boston and New York. Whenever they hit home runs against him, he’d hit somebody. To this day he’ll tell you he wasn’t throwing at Pedroia, but everybody on the team knew he did. An incident like that can get ugly.”

For somebody to work within the system as Trembley did is both remarkable and honorable, not to mention pragmatic. It leads one to wonder why more managers don’t take that tack.

Then again, maybe some of them do, but we just don’t hear about it. Trembley’s story is not so dissimilar from another incident involving Francona and the Red Sox, which was featured in The Baseball Codes. Pick up the action in a 2006 game between Boston and the Twins, which Minnesota led 8-1 in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs and nobody on base, the batter was Torii Hunter, who worked the count against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez to 3-0:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0, as it did with Hunter, it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s influence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t fly by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.

“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embar­rass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”

It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competi­tive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can suffice.

After the game, Gardenhire took the outfielder to the visitors’ club­house to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.

“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player under­stands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”

Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the final frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the mem­bers of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no bean­balls were thrown the following day.

“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “You say, hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a vet­eran, but he had to do it.”

[Thanks to reader Shawn Y. for the heads-up.]

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