Blue Jays MVP Josh Donaldson—after getting targeted by pitches twice against the Twins over the weekend—garnered attention yesterday by decrying baseball’s unwritten rules as a matter of personal safety.
The direct quote, via SportsNet.ca:
“Major League Baseball has to do something about this. They say they’re trying to protect players. They make a rule that says you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catchers on slides into home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it. My manager comes out to ask what’s going on and he gets ejected for it. That’s what happens. I just don’t get the point. I don’t get what baseball’s trying to prove. If I’m a young kid watching these games, why would I want to play baseball? Why? If I do something well or if somebody doesn’t like something that I do, it’s, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna throw at you now.’ It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Donaldson’s issues started with the third pitch of Saturday’s game—a called strike with which he disagreed. When he grounded to short on the very next pitch, Donaldson slowed down before reaching first base, according to the Toronto Sun, at which point Twins bench coach Joe Vavra yelled “nice hustle.”
When Donaldson returned verbal fire, plate umpire Toby Basner, thinking the comment had been directed at him, ejected the third baseman.
In the first inning of Sunday’s game, Donaldson hit a mammoth home run to straightaway center field. Instead of immediately returning to his own dugout, however, he took a couple steps toward the Twins bench on the first base side of the field, staring daggers all the while. (Watch it here.) His explanation: “I looked right at the guy who chirped me yesterday and got me thrown out, I was letting him know I was coming to play today. Don’t comment on the way I play. It’s not your business how I play. I’m not on your team. If someone has a problem with the way I play, my manager or teammates will say something to me, not the other team.”
In the sixth inning, Minnesota’s Phil Hughes responded by throwing one pitch that just missed Donaldson’s hip, and another behind his back. The intent was obvious. Jays manager John Gibbons, after vigorously arguing for Hughes’ ejection, was instead ejected himself.
At the core of his argument, Donaldson has a legitimate beef. In the modern landscape, non-baseball activities—like, say, a few moments’ worth of dugout stare-down—virtually never merit physical retribution.
What Donaldson received, however, was decidedly not physical retribution. No pitch hit him, and, given that Donaldson himself used Hughes’ excellent control to support his claims of intent, things seemed to play out the way Hughes wanted them to.
There are a couple of takeaways here. One is that the incident that so upset Donaldson—Vavra riding him from the bench—illustrates just how thin ballplayers’ skin has grown over recent generations. Bench jockeying was once an art form, with insults hurled as much to distract the target as anything else.
In the 1922 World Series, Giants manager John McGraw’s dugout-borne insults distracted Babe Ruth into a 2-for-17 slide—his worst Fall Classic ever. Hell, even Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series was apparently a gesture meant to silence the bench jockeys in Chicago’s dugout, not to predict the homer he was about to hit.
Leo Durocher once rode opposing pitcher Claude Passeau so hard that upon being removed from the game, instead of handing the ball over to his manager, the pitcher fired it at Durocher, in the Brooklyn dugout.
No less a name than Mickey Mantle was so hounded by the Washington Senators that he failed to run out what became a double-play grounder, distracted to the point that he thought the lead out was the third of the inning.
Those, of course, are long-ago examples. Serious bench jockeying died out in the 1960s and ’70s. Still, “nice hustle” seems timid enough to ignore. Donaldson labeled it as the Twins “picking a fight from the bench,” but in reality, his decision to return fire—and subsequently getting tossed for it—is entirely on him. That’s precisely the result a good bench jockey is looking for.
The other part of the equation involves the pitches themselves.
“They’re putting my job in jeopardy,” Donaldson groused, invoking the gruesome face shot taken by Giancarlo Stanton in 2014. “What if he hits me in the neck right there? What if he hits me in the eye?”
Had Hughes hit him in the neck or the eye, Donaldson’s point would be unassailable. Even had Hughes drilled him in the time-tested fashion of planting one into his hip or thigh, or had he missed above the shoulders, Donaldson would have a legitimate gripe.
But a message pitch—even two of them—that fails to connect is not worth this level of vitriol. You mess with us, Hughes told Donaldson and the Toronto bench alike, and we’ll mess right back. It was a non-contact exchange of ideas, and that’s the sort of thing that helps keep baseball lively.