The act of a pitcher hitting a batter on purpose is inherently divisive. Some (mostly outside the game) see it as an outdated form of brutality that lost all reasonable claims to relevance the day that Don Drysdale … or Bob Gibson … or Nolan Ryan retired. Others maintain that it helps keep order in the sport, and that its underlying purpose—to maintain respect among baseball’s ranks—is utterly justified.
But everybody, no matter how divided of opinion or dogmatically entrenched in their respective camps, can agree that Brett Oberholtzer acted like a punk on Saturday.
Houston’s 25-year-old starter, in his third major league season, had a rough go of it against the Yankees. He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, Brett Gardner, then walked a guy, then walked another guy. With one out, Brian McCann touched him for a grand slam. Five batters, four runs.
His second inning wasn’t much better. After getting a quick out, Gardner again touched Oberholtzer for a double, then scored on Chris Young’s home run. At that point, the young pitcher had several options. He could turn toward grit, and steel himself to make the best of a bad situation. He could turn toward optimism, and the self-belief that absence of success in the past does not necessarily equate to absence of success in the future. He could have just gone into auto-pilot mode and thrown whatever the hell his catcher called, consequences be damned.
Oberholtzer chose instead to drill the next hitter, Alex Rodriguez. So blatant was the intention that plate ump Rob Drake tossed him immediately. The pitcher submitted fully to the fact that he was simply unable to get anybody out, and gave in to his basest levels of frustration. (Watch it here.)
Such action was not always viewed so negatively. Back when pitchers went after hitters with relatively impunity, players paying for teammates’ success was commonplace. “In 1974 I was playing for the Yankees, and I hit behind Graig Nettles the whole month of April,” said ﬁrst baseman Mike Hegan in The Baseball Codes. “And Graig hit eleven home runs. And I was on my back eleven times. That’s just the kind of thing that happened. I got up, dusted myself off, and got ready to swing at the next pitch. It’s just what you do.”
For a more in-depth tale, we turn to Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, who talked about his time as a lefty reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid-1980s:
“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. And [6-foot-6, 210-pound slugger] Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better. I shook him off. He went through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign, indicating a knockdown pitch]. I nod. I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and he was grabbing his bat and his helmet, and he gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first base and is coming toward the mound. I’m trying to get my glove off, because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die I’m getting the first punch in. And he came right up to the dirt and then just went around it. He pointed at me and said, ‘There’ll be another day, young man,’ and just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years after that said, ‘Dave, do you remember that incident?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘No.’ Just like that.
“What I’m saying is that back then, we were taught: Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”
The modern landscape is different, of course. Even with increased awareness that hit batsmen are of little benefit to the game at large, had Oberholtzer utilized the lessons of his forebears and simply knocked Rodriguez down rather than hit him, he would have received no more than a warning.
Instead, he begged out of a game in which he stunk, in the most obvious way possible. No longer able to face his own failure, he emptied his aggression onto an opponent, and paid the price.
“I’m going on the record and saying that’s not how we operate around here,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch in an MLB.com report. “Obviously for all the adrenaline that goes on at the beginning of the game when we’re getting down, we don’t operate that way, we won’t operate that way. It’s not a reflection of anyone around here, including [Oberholtzer]. The Yankees know, I’ll make sure Alex knows. There’s no place in our game for that kind of activity.”
So little place that after the game, Oberholtzer was optioned to Triple-A Fresno.
The ultimate takeaway was elucidated by Hinch the following day, when he informed reporters that he had reached out to Yankees manager Joe Girardi to make sure that those in the New York clubhouse understood that things had been handled internally, and that nobody bore more ill-will against Oberholtzer’s act than the Astros themselves. In so doing, he cut to the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, and what makes them special.
It was, he said in the Houston Chronicle, “important to respect the opponent and let them know your perspective, and they would do the same. That’s a general respect that goes across baseball.”