We’ll get to questions about propriety and merit and the very nature of baseball’s unwritten rules in good time.
First, though, why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?
Before the season started, the enduring questions regarding the rivalry between Texas and the Blue Jays had to do with the Rangers’ response to Jose Bautista’s world-beating bat flip during the teams’ ALDS showdown last October, and whether retaliation was imminent.
Matters seemed to be settled after the teams went an entire series at Toronto’s Rogers Centre in early May without so much as a peep. In the series finale, Bautista came to bat—twice—with his team leading 11-1. Let sit for a moment whether retaliation was even merited; if ever there was a place to enact it, it was right there, with no concern about an extra baserunner affecting the game’s outcome.
Bautista emerged unscathed. That should have closed the book on the incident. Should have, but didn’t.
On Sunday, Rangers reliever Matt Bush—making only his second big league appearance after a decade-long career nosedive—may have been trying to earn credibility points with his new teammates when he planted a fastball into Bautista’s ribcage.
It makes little sense why that pitch would bear any degree of intent. Texas had its chances back in Toronto. Bush was not with the Rangers at the time of Bautista’s perceived slight. The score was 7-6, and Bautista, leading off the top of the eighth, represented the tying run. And yet.
It was the final meeting of the season between the teams, and likely Bautista’s final at-bat of the game. Drilling him then left virtually no chance for recourse. “To me, it was gutless,” said Jays manager John Gibbons afterward, in an ESPN report. “The other 29 teams, they come at you right away, but to wait until the end, it just sort of tells you something.”
At that point, Bautista’s primary tool was the one he ended up using: a message-laden slide.
Forced to run by Justin Smoak’s grounder, Bautista launched himself late, at the legs of second baseman Rougned Odor. It was textbook, Bautista landing on the base instead of in front of it, undercutting Odor’s feet. According to the Code, it was clean—spikes down and centered. A million guys have made a million similar retaliatory slides over the years, the vast majority of which have been accepted by the opposition as nothing more than the price of doing business.
We are, however, in a new era, even beyond the rise of the Let’s Make Baseball Fun Again generation. It is a time of basepath sanity, where fielders’ safety is the subject of rulebook legislation. Bautista’s slide had nothing to do with fielders’ safety.
It probably didn’t matter either way to Odor, who would likely have come up swinging, regardless.
The rest of the story involves details, mostly:
- Bautista absorbed a solid right hook from Odor, definitely in the 99th percentile of effective baseball punches, but still managed to keep his feet.
- It turns out that Odor is quietly (or not so quietly) one of the premiere red-asses in the game.
- Ejections for Bautista, Odor, Josh Donaldson, and Rangers coach Steve Bueschele.
- Bush was allowed to remain in the game, but when asked afterward about the pitch in question, offered a telling no-comment.
- Toronto exacted retaliation of its own in the bottom half of the inning with the time-tested tactic of drilling Bautista’s counterpart on the Rangers, Prince Fielder. Again the benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.
- Subsequent ejections for Toronto pitcher Jesse Chavez and coach DeMarlo Hale.
In the aftermath of it all, we’re left with numerous questions. Most pertinent to this space has to do with the unwritten rules themselves. Although Bautista’s slide fell well within the boundaries of traditional Code tactics, it’s difficult to tell anymore whether traditional Code tactics—especially as they pertain to takeout slides—are even viable. Before, it was primarily middle infielders who didn’t appreciate them. Now, the league office has officially taken steps to legislate them out of the game. This likely means that baserunners are going to have to find new methods of conveying their grievances … or, more pragmatically, will have to learn to get over their grievances more quietly.
There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at hand. In the game’s aftermath, Bautista unloaded with both barrels at Rangers management, saying in the Toronto Star that “It shows a little bit of the apparent lack of leadership that they have over there when it comes to playing baseball the right way.”
Only last October, Bautista himself sparked a play-the-right-way controversy, only then he was on the other side of the debate, baseball traditionalists decrying his bat flip and its ensuing acclaim. To play both sides like that—to demand propriety only when it suits you—seems disingenuous.
There is, however, more to it. “Baseball plays are supposed to be taken care of by baseball plays,” Bautista also said yesterday. And he’s correct. A bat flip is not a baseball play. Drilling a batter is. So is taking out a fielder. The latest version of the Code mandates that non-baseball plays are largely exempt from retaliation. This is not what happened on Sunday.
Perhaps we’re facing another sea change with all of this, which is something we won’t know until we see players’ responses to coming contentions. Water has a way of finding its level.
Ultimately, amid the philosophical hand-wringing, we’re left with one primary concrete question: Why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?
Update (5/17): Odor’s been clipped for eight games and outed as a hypocrite.