What with baseball’s Code being all about respect, and what with the topic frequently having to do with showing players up (see, bat flips, pitcher gesticulations and even the occasional kiss), it’s easy to overlook that the players a guy shows up don’t have to be on the other team.
Take Saturday’s game in Cleveland, for example. Lance McCullers, pitching for the Astros, had allowed runners at the corners with nobody out in the second, when Melky Cabrera smacked a ground ball right through first baseman Yuli Gurriel, playing in, for an error. McCullers did not take it well, showing visible frustration as he spun from the play, while screaming what looks on replay like an expletive.
The right-hander didn’t think any more of it until after the inning, when, approaching the dugout, he stuck out his glove for an attaboy from Jose Altuve. Instead, Altuve swatted McCullers’ glove away, spiked his cap, and proceeded to give the 24-year-old an impromptu etiquette lesson, at volume.
As it happens, ballplayers have a low tolerance for this kind of thing. The guy with perhaps the most pronounced reputation for such behavior is Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, whose competitive instincts and take-no-prisoners attitude helped him win 314 big league games over 22 seasons. Those same attributes also helped alienate scores of teammates.
“He’d glare at you,” said Dave Nelson, Perry’s teammate with the Texas Rangers. “Glare at you. And that bothered me, because nobody glared at him if he gave up a home run or something like that. I always felt like I deserved the same respect because I’m out there busting my butt just like he is. It wasn’t like I made that error on purpose.”
Oscar Gamble, Perry’s teammate in Cleveland, San Diego and with the New York Yankees, recalled a game in which Perry was throwing a shutout in Milwaukee. “The batter drilled it all the way to the wall,” he recalled in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “It was a little bitty guy, one of the infielders—he wasn’t supposed to hit the ball that far. And I ran about a mile to get to the ball. It seemed like I ran forever. I almost got to it, but if I’d caught the ball I’d have gone straight into the brick wall out there, and I ended up pulling up. Gaylord was going, ‘Oh, no,’ because he wanted his shutout so bad. He threw his hands up in frustration.”
The difference between Gamble’s story and others told about Perry in this context is that Gamble understood where the pitcher was coming from.
“Gaylord just loved to win so much,” he said. “You know, a lot of guys like to win, but he was one of those guys who, if you slacked on a ball, he would let you know about it. He was hard-nosed. He wanted every ball caught when he was pitching. Nothing wrong with that. I had so much respect for him because he just hated to lose. If you don’t do right, if you miss a ball you should have caught, you expect the fans to boo you. And this fan—Gaylord—was a player. That’s the way I looked at it. Some of the guys didn’t look at it like that.”
In reviewing McCullers’ play, the broadcast crew referenced an incident that occurred between Derek Jeter and David Wells, but omitted many pertinent details. The play in question occurred in 1998, after Wells elicited a popup from Baltimore’s Danny Clyburn, which fell between Jeter and outfielders Ricky Ledee and Chad Curtis (the latter two players serving as defensive substitutes in a blowout). The Yankees already held a six-run lead, but that didn’t stop the pitcher from staring down the trio—all of whom had played the ball too tentatively—from aside the mound, hands on hips. Wells proceeded to give up three more singles, and was yanked from the game. It culminated a stretch in which he gave up 13 earned runs over 19.1 innings across three starts.
Frustration aside, it didn’t take the pitcher long to recognize the error of his ways. “It was totally unprofessional on my part, and I plan on apologizing to all of them for it,” Wells told reporters after the game, according to a New York Daily News report. “These guys have been making plays behind me all year and don’t deserve that.”
Because Wells handled it expediently, and because he was a veteran on a veteran team, the slip-up did no lasting damage. Wells went on to win 18 games, and the Yankees won the World Series.
(Then again, New York traded him to the Blue Jays during the off-season as part of a package for Roger Clemens.)
(That said, the Yankees signed him again three years later as a free agent.)
Wells and Perry are hardly alone in their actions. Bob Gibson tells a story about throwing a fastball to Jim Pendleton of the Houston Colt .45’s during a game in 1962—not because he wanted to throw a fastball, but because Cardinals catcher Carl Sawatski demanded it, first by ignoring Gibson’s shake-offs, and then through a direct confrontation on the mound. Sawatski was 34 years old and a 10-year veteran, and Gibson, a decade younger, deferred to the veteran’s wisdom. Pendleton crushed the pitch deep over the left field wall.
In the aftermath, Gibson stood on the mound, hands on hips, and pouted. Sawatski wasn’t about to let it slide. “Goddamn it, rook”—Gibson was actually in his fourth season and on the cusp of making his first All-Star team, but the catcher wasn’t about to give him that much credit—“don’t you ever show me up like that again!”
Gibson, who possessed one of the hardest edges major league baseball has ever known, immediately saw Sawatski’s point.
“He was absolutely right,” the pitcher theorized in his book, Stranger to the Game. “That was the last time I ever expressed any emotion on the field. From that day on, I never showed anybody up.”
Whether McCullers has it in him to make a similar adjustment has yet to be seen, but to judge by the pitcher’s comments after the Cleveland game, he’s well on his way.
“I was real immature and let my emotions get the best of me,” the pitcher—who is the same age now that Gibson was at the time of his incident—told the Houston Chronicle. “I showed my frustration and Altuve was letting me know that we’re beyond that. I’m not 21 anymore. I’ve been around for enough—this is my fourth season with this team—and I know how hard they work and I know how hard they try. I feel really bad about letting my emotions get the best of me and I spoke to them, I apologized and it won’t happen again. He was just letting me know that, if I’m going to pitch with emotion like I do, which is great—that’s part of what makes me good—channel it for the right things.”
Being that the pitcher’s father, Lance McCullers Sr., himself played in the big leagues for seven seasons, Junior has a wealth of experience from which to draw. It’d be surprising if this was an issue again.