Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.

***

On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.

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Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic

Recalling the First Guy to Play All Nine

Campy-Campaneris-Night

In the wake of Detroit’s Andrew Romine playing all nine positions during a game against the Twins, it seems pertinent to call up a shard that was trimmed from an early version of “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” concerning the early years of Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics.

Whereas Romine’s stunt appears to be motivated by manager Brad Ausmus’ simple appreciation of him as a player, when Campy Campaneris became the first guy ever to pull the trick in 1965, it was all about draw:

By 1965, Finley’s master plan of building from the ground up was not close to paying off. His two key pieces from baseball’s first-ever player draft, Monday and Bando, were still years away from big league playing time, and even with future stalwarts like Campy Campaneris, Dick Green and Catfish Hunter, the A’s finished 59-103—a level of futility that did little to help an apathetic fanbase overcome their dislike of the Owner. So Finley had to come up with other ways to draw a crowd.

One of them happened on Sept. 8, when he ordered manager Haywood Sullivan (who would go on to an extensive career in the front office of the Boston Red Sox) to play Campaneris at all nine positions, shifting him after every inning. It was a bald-faced promotional stunt; nothing like it had ever happened in major league baseball and for good reason—it had no on-field value. Still, with the A’s already approaching 90 losses and sitting 35.5 games out of first place, it might just get people to come out. An advertisement for that night’s game read:

“CAMPY” CAMPANERIS NIGHT
TONIGHT
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE
HISTORY OF THE MAJOR LEAGUES,
CAMPY WILL PLAY EVERY POSITION FOR ONE INNING
INCLUDING PITCHING AND CATCHING
For the most exciting and enjoyable evening of the 1965 season
* DON’T MISS THIS THRILLER *
Purchase Tickets Early—Available at all A’s Outlets

It worked. The gate of 21,576 doubled the previous night’s attendance and blew the following night’s 1,271 entirely out of the water. The only trouble was that the game went 12 innings, and the A’s might actually have won had they not been preoccupied with shuffling their Cuban missile all over the field.

In the sixth inning, Campaneris, playing right field, dropped a fly ball for an error that allowed California’s Albie Pearson to score, putting the Angels ahead, 2-1. In the eighth, with Campaneris on the mound (as promised), California scored its third run on two walks and a Joe Adcock single. Then in the ninth, the lightweight Campaneris, playing catcher for the first time in his big league career, was leveled by 200-pound Ed Kirkpatrick on a play at the plate. Campy held the ball for the final out of the inning but was carted off to the hospital with an injured shoulder. Kansas City still managed to score two in bottom of the frame to tie it, then held on for four more innings before succumbing, 5-3. Campy ended up missing four games. It was, said Sullivan after the fact, “a silly thing to do.”

 

 

Don't Call out Opponents in the Press, Retaliation

Pham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Cards Slugger Upset Over Cub Comments, HBP (Maybe Not in That Order)

Phammed

Losing to the Cubs offers indignities aplenty for St. Louis.

Yielding the pennant-clinching victory to Chicago, as the Cardinals did on Wednesday, is downright mortifying. Doing so at home only makes the suffering worse. Having what seemed like half the stadium cheering for the visitors was downright brutal.

Hearing Ben Zobrist talk beforehand about how the Cubs “intend to clinch there” and how “it’s going to be very satisfying” was enough to make at least one player angry.

Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham was especially pointed in his response to Zobrist’s comments. “He better not ask me how I’m doing on the field,” Pham told reporters. “I don’t want to be his friend. He said he’s going to come here and pop bottles or all that stuff. Don’t say hi to me on the field then.”

It would have been easier to brush aside as surface drama had Pham not been drilled in the ribs on Tuesday, then talked after the game about how “it was definitely on purpose.” The HBP had less to do with his comments, he said, than with Kris Bryant being drilled earlier in the game by a Carlos Martinez fastball that approached 100 mph. (The only thing keeping him from charging the mound, Pham said in a CBS report, was that “I don’t make enough money right now to face a suspension.”

 

He might be right about the motivation. Pham himself had hit a monster homer an inning earlier to give St. Louis a 5-1 lead, and when Bryant came up, two were out with a runner at third. Avoiding the reigning NL MVP with a base open is rarely a bad option.

Then again, Bryant was hit with a 2-2 pitch, which brought Anthony Rizzo to the plate. Moreover, Martinez was all over the place. The pitch before the one that drilled Bryant went wild, allowing Mike Freeman to advance. Then Martinez walked Rizzo to load the bases. Then he walked Wilson Contreras to bring home a run.

The teams played yesterday with little drama beyond Chicago’s champagne celebration (as Zobrist had predicted). With St. Louis battling for the NL’s final wild-card spot, nothing funky should go down when the teams meet tonight for the final time this season, except maybe in the case of a blowout.

Still, drama sure is fun.

[H/T: Christopher C.]

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Carlos Gomez Heard Somthing, Maybe, And Now He’s Mad at Collin McHugh

McHugh confused

Backstory plays an important part in most major league drama, and it’s possible that there’s some we don’t yet know about regarding Monday’s intra-Texas incident between the Astros and Rangers.

Then again, Carlos Gomez was at the center of things, so all bets are off.

Here’s what we do know: Gomez got angry at an inside pitch from Collin McHugh that didn’t come close to hitting him. He got angrier after the next pitch, a strike that he fouled off, staring down McHugh even while stumbling from the batter’s box on his swing. (Watch it here.)

Here’s what we also know: Back on Aug. 31, McHugh drilled Gomez with a first-pitch fastball. It was unintentional—Gomez was leading off the second inning of a 1-1 game—but the batter has apparently held on to it. Or maybe it was the Aug. 12 game, in which Gomez was hit by Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers. Or maybe it was that benches-clearing incident between the teams on May 1, when Mike Napoli overreacted to a Lance McCullers message pitch that didn’t come close to hitting him.

Or maybe it’s just that the Astros were busy knocking Texas out of the wild-card race. Whatever the answer, Gomez has been hit by 19 pitches this season, putting him on pace to lead the league in any category for the first time in his 11-year career. McHugh didn’t drill him on Monday. He didn’t come close.

According to Gomez’s postgame comments, it was all a game of telephone, with McHugh telling some guy with the Astros that he was going to drill Gomez, and that guy either telling Gomez about it, or telling someone else who told Gomez about it, and … aren’t these adults we’re talking about?

Then again, Gomez is the guy who got into it with current Astro and then-Brave Brian McCann, and with Gerritt Cole. It’s also not the first time he pissed off a team for which he used to play. It clearly doesn’t take much to set him off.

It could even have started here:

Ultimately, it’s difficult to ascribe wide-reaching unwritten-rules themes to somebody who has repeatedly gone off his rocker over the years. Is Carlos Gomez a bit nutty? Probably. Does he have legitimate beef with Collin McHugh? Who knows?

The Rangers close their series with Houston tonight, and end their season on Sunday. Gomez’s contract with the Texas expires after this season, and for all we know he’ll re-sign with Houston.

Don’t count on it, though.

 

 

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Newsflash: Bat Flips Are a Thing Now

Bat flip

A retaliatory story in nine bullet points:

  • Luis Valbuena flipped his bat after a home run.

Fiers high ball

  • Fiers got suspended five games for it.
  • Fiers should have better things to care about in the modern game than an exuberant home run hitter.
  • Such as his 5.22 ERA, which, let’s face it, is enough to make anybody ornery.
  • The umpires were hasty in issuing warnings following Fiers’ purpose pitch, which precluded the Angels from responding.
  • Not that the Angels had much to respond to, since Fiers clearly wasn’t trying to hurt Valbuena so much as put his own cranky pants on display.
  • Which calls his suspension into question, since drilling the hitter was never part of his intent.

Also: Valbuena keeps on flipping. Were it not for the preceding kerfuffle, it would not even be noteworthy. It’s 2017, the Era of Puig. Time to move on.

 

Retaliation, Umpire Relations

Memo to Pitchers: ‘Kill the Ump’ is an Axiom, Not a Suggestion

Ump drilled

Shortly after Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and catcher James McCann were ejected by plate ump Quinn Walcott on Wednesday for arguing balls and strikes, Detroit pitcher Buck Farmer crossed up catcher John Hicks and drilled Wolcott in the chest with a fastball.

Cleveland TV broadcasters immediately implied that he did it on purpose.

Is intentionally hitting an umpire even a thing? There are many ways to think about this, primary among them being that no player wants to permanently find himself on the bad side of a given ump. Close calls can go either way, and just like their ballplaying counterparts, umpires have been known to carry grudges. To show up an umpire during an argument is one thing. To intentionally injure him is guaranteed to sour things not only with the umpire in question, but with the guy’s colleagues. Umpires are a tight-knit bunch, after all.

After the game, Hicks explained away the pitch as coincidental. “Obviously, it looks bad right after Brad and Mac get tossed, but it’s bases loaded, we’re trying to win a baseball game,” Hicks said in an MLB.com report. “Any thoughts of us trying to do that on purpose are just ridiculous.”

 

Ausmus, who heard the TV broadcast from the clubhouse after being ejected, agreed. “To imply that was intentional is, first of all, a lie,” Ausmus said. “If any player intentionally tried to hurt an umpire on this team, we’d deal with that severely. … But for anyone to imply that was intentional, it’s just completely wrong. And they’re out of line saying that, quite frankly.”

The denials from Detroit are likely valid, but there’s no getting around how bad it looks. Also, this kind of thing does happen from time to time.

In just one instance, from 1999, Tampa Bay was trailing the Angels 7-1 in the third inning, when Anaheim catcher Mike DiFelice failed to get his glove on a pitch that ended up rocketing into the facemask of plate ump John Shulock with such force that it bent the bars. It didn’t help that Tampa Bay’s starter, Wilson Alvarez, had been questioning Shulock’s calls all afternoon.

Shulock was irate, needing to be restrained from charging the mound by DiFelice.

“I know in my heart [he] meant to hit me, but I can’t prove it,” said the umpire after the game, in an AP report. “The catcher set up for a curveball outside, and he drilled me with a fastball inside. The more I think about it, I do think he did it intentionally.”

Alvarez, who was removed from the game immediately afterward, denied everything, because what else could he do?

“He’s going to get his,” Shulock said in the Los Angeles Times. “Things have a way of evening out in this game, and one of these days somebody is going to hit a line drive off the side of his head and I’ll be the first guy laughing.”

Shulock was certainly not the last guy laughing. Based on the fact that he had stormed the mound after being hit, and possibly because of his postgame comments, the umpire was suspended for three games.

Beyond that, there appears to be little aftermath. Alvarez injured his shoulder and missed the following two seasons, and never again had Shulock behind the plate for a start. (It’s interesting that during Shulock’s last season as an umpire, he worked the Tampa Bay-Oakland game the day before Alvarez pitched, and was immediately transferred to Arlington for a series against the Royals. The last game he called was on July 18 of that season.)

Buck Farmer’s pitch was far less suspicious than that, and Quinn Wolcott took it a lot better than Shulock did. That might be the end of things, but it’ll be interesting to see how and if Wolcott reacts the next time he calls balls and strikes against the Tigers.