Yesterday I discussed the general idea of social distancing on a ballfield, and how players who want to maximize the chances of playing a full, 60-game schedule would be well served to pay better attention to the league’s safety protocols.
Today I address the unwritten rules (that’s the beat of this blog, after all), which include long-held grudges and purpose pitches and cross-field taunting. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to COVID response. Because everything in the world right now comes down to COVID response.
Fireworks were anticipated when the Dodgers traveled to Minute Maid Park in Houston for their first meeting since news came out about the Astros’ trash-can banging during their disputed championship run in 2017—a run that, coincidentally, culminated in a seven-game World Series win over the Dodgers.
Joe Kelly was not on the Dodgers back then, but he’s on the Dodgers now, and he’s heard all the stories, and he’s the kind of pitcher known to stand up for teammates. (He was on the Red Sox team that lost to Houston in that year’s Division Series.) So when Kelly threw a 3-0 fastball behind Alex Bregman on Tuesday, close enough to raise the hair on the back of Bregman’s neck, it was tough to mistake it for anything but a message.
Things got even stranger when Kelly had to cover first base after the next batter, Michael Brantley, hit a would-be double-play grounder. Kelly was mildly and inadvertently spiked, then hung around the base for a moment to convey his displeasure.
That’s when a voice in the Astros dugout—it appears to be manager Dusty Baker—yelled, “Just get on the mound, little fucker.”
Joe Kelley has proved to need far less provocation than that.
After walking Yuli Gurriel on four pitches to put men at first and second, he delivered a pitch at Carlos Correa’s head. On one hand, that kind of location is never okay. On the other, it was a curveball—not the greatest weapon for pitchers with malice on their minds—and men were on first and second.
Correa ducked out of the way without much trouble, then stared down both Kelly and the Dodgers dugout. He ended up striking out on another curveball—this one down and away—to end the inning. Kelly immediately started jawing (according to Baker, he said, “Nice swing, bitch”), then made faces at his opponent, literally sticking out his lower lip in a mock pout. That’s all it took. Benches emptied.
This is where we return to the intersection of baseball norms and social distancing. In the former category, old habits can be hard to shake. In the latter, if ballplayers wanna play ball, they better start paying better attention to MLB’s protrocols—one of which explicitly bans fighting. (The specific language: “Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.”)
Still, players from both teams crowded around home plate. While there was very little contact, and while various members of both clubs actually wore masks, these players were close, and many of them were maskless.
We’re still less than a week into the season and the Marlins are triaging and sequestered, the Phillies are dormant and the Yankees, after doing nothing while waiting things out in Philadelphia are unexpectedly playing in Baltimore. If this doesn’t spur players to pay some better attention to risk mitigation, it’s likely that nothing will.
Nothing is as important right now as COVID mitigation, but seeing as this is an unwritten-rules blog, we should probably wrap up the situation between the Dodgers and the Astros. There’s no question that anger lingers in LA. During spring training, Cody Bellinger said that Jose Altuve “stole an MVP” from Aaron Judge, with Carlos Correa suggesting that Bellinger to get some facts or “shut the fuck up.”
Kelly denied intent on Tuesday, going so far as to illustrate his wild nature by referencing a viral video from early in the pandemic when, during a backyard bullpen session, he missed his target and broke a window in his home. (Not referenced was the fact that, since 2015, he’s struck out well over twice as many hitters as he’s walked.)
In the opposite clubhouse, Baker was livid.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” Baker said afterward. “I didn’t anticipate throwing over somebody’s head three balls and no strikes. One of our more important guys. If you’re going to throw at somebody, you don’t throw at the head. “You don’t throw at a guy’s head. That’s playing dirty baseball.”
What Baker did not do was order his pitchers to retaliate. For one thing, the Astros were three runs down and trying to keep the game close. In a truncated schedule, every loss bears extra weight. Also, all three Houston relievers who entered the game after Kelly’s shenanigans were rookies, two of them making their big league debuts. Asking a nervous kid to understand longstanding grudges, let alone execute a controversial purpose pitch, is asking for trouble in numerous ways.
The Astros may have dodged a bullet by not having to face a series of angry opponents had the 2020 season gone off as originally planned. But ballplayers, we’ve learned, are willing to wait. Joe Kelly is certainly not the only one who wants his shot at cheaters.
Meanwhile, the fan merch is out, and it’s spectacular.
Update 7/29: Kelly has been suspended for eight games, MLB citing Kelly’s history with this kind of thing as a factor in its decision. Dave Roberts has been suspended for one game, and Dusty Baker has received a sternly worded email or something.
Update 7/29: Dave Roberts has thoughts.