In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game — starting with swinging at a 3-0 pitch.
In 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo jumped to the major leagues after a decade of playing professional baseball in Japan. Well-schooled in the customs of his native league, Shinjo quickly discovered the culture gap. In Japan, a 3-0 swing while holding a big lead was hardly objectionable. As it turned out learning that was not the case in the U.S. proved painful.
On May 24, with his New York Mets club holding an 11-3 lead over the Marlins in the bottom of the eighth inning, Shinjo stepped to the plate with one out and the bases empty. He took three straight balls, then swung at and missed the fourth pitch. On the fifth pitch, he flied out to deep right field.
The result of the at-bat was less important than the impression it left on the Marlins, who felt that Shinjo committed a breach of etiquette in any language. Their next day’s starter, Brad Penny, responded.
Contained therein is a lesson in retaliation cause and effect. By the time Penny decided to exact revenge, he and the Marlins held a 3-0, seventh-inning lead. The right-hander had given up only five hits to that point, one of them, to Robin Ventura, immediately preceding Shinjo’s at-bat. With one out, Penny drilled Shinjo in the left shoulder, a message that Todd Zeile, standing on deck, understood and did not appreciate.
Later, Penny denied that there was intent behind the pitch, but said in the New York Daily News that Shinjo “did deserve to get hit after what he did last night. You don’t do that. I know he’s new over here, but he’s got some things to learn.”
Penny, too, had some things to learn, one of them being that, no matter how well one is pitching, it’s not a great idea to simultaneously and with a single pitch wake up a sleeping lion and bring the tying run to the plate.
That tying run, Zeile, planted Penny’s first pitch over Shea Stadium’s left-field fence to tie the game. As Zeile rounded third, he had some choice words for the pitcher, capped by the statement, “That’s for Shinjo.”
“If somebody thinks you retaliate for somebody swinging 3-0, you’d better learn what retaliation is,” said Mets manager Bobby Valentine after the game. “It’s no reason to hurt someone. It’s this new ‘Let’s wear a skirt’ baseball. I’ve been in the game 33 years, and I’ve never worn a skirt. Let it be known, we’ll swing 3-0 whenever we get the chance. That’s the way I was taught. The guys on the other side don’t like it, don’t get behind eight runs.”
To judge by the ensuing approach of his players, Valentine knew better. It showed a week later when, against the Phillies, New York jumped out to a 9-0 lead in the seventh inning. Shinjo swung first pitch. When center fielder Darryl Hamilton went 3-0 on reliever Jose Santiago, he watched two strikes before grounding out to the pitcher. Five days after that, the Mets jumped out to a 6-0 lead over Tampa Bay; Lenny Harris worked a 3-0 count, then watched a called strike. The day after that, holding a 9-3 lead in the seventh inning over Baltimore, Timo Perez watched a strike after going 3-0 against Chuck McElroy. The list goes on.
As for Shinjo’s lack of fluency in the American game, the Marlins weren’t the only disbelievers.
“The only (Japanese) guy who did that, swung at a 3-0 pitch, was Shinjo—everybody else, I think they know,” said Mac Suzuki, a native of Kobe, Japan, who spent the first 10 years of his professional career in America—including stints with the Mariners, Royals, Rockies and Brewers—before heading home to the Japanese league when he was 28. “They ask somebody what they can do, what they cannot do. The guys right now, guys playing in the States, they study before they come. Only Shinjo—Shinjo was kind of crazy.”