Last week, the Athletic published a terrific oral history of Barry Bonds’ time in Pittsburgh. Included in the array of stories was one that took place when the slugger was 20 years old and in his first professional season, with the Prince William Pirates of the Single-A Carolina League.
Bonds himself narrates:
“One game, we were leading by seven or eight, and I bunted and got on base. I heard the other manager over there screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t calculate why. Right before my next at-bat, Bobby [Bonilla] comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. He says, ‘B.B., whatever is gonna happen next, don’t react.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘Just trust me.’
“So, I go up to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it. And I got drilled almost in the head — really high on the back or shoulder. I went down to first base. I didn’t do anything. I came into the dugout and Bobby Bo says, ‘This ain’t college, kid. You can never do that. We’re up by eight runs in the seventh inning. You do not bunt.’ I said, ‘I got that. I’ll never do that again.’ ”
Bonilla, of course, was all of 22, but in his fifth year in pro ball, so he knew whereof he spoke.
Bonds had about the highest baseball IQ of his generation, so the smart money’s on him not having repeated that particular maneuver early on. Later in his career, of course, the point became moot: On those occasions that he saw a hittable pitch, Bonds wanted to take advantage in grander ways than tapping it down the line.
News came down yesterday that Betty Caywood, who briefly worked as a broadcaster for Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics, passed away earlier this month at age 89. I wrote the following about her for The National Pastime Museum, a site that no longer exists, back in 2017.
When Charles O. Finley bought the Kansas City Athletics in 1960, he was ambitious, energetic and focused, but he was not a miracle worker. Not yet, anyway. The last-place club he acquired actually managed to fall in the standings, dropping from eighth out of eight teams to ninth out of 10, thanks to the introduction of two teams—the Angels and the Twins—to the American League in 1961. Even that indignity, however, would be superseded in 1964, when the Athletics tumbled to 105 losses and a last-place finish, a whopping 42 games behind the league champion Yankees.
It was impossible to note at the time, but that 1964 team showed the first vestiges of the championships that would be won in the decade to follow. The roster included rookies Campy Campaneris, Dick Green and Dave Duncan, as well as a 19-year-old with a wondrous sinkerball named Blue Moon Odom. Those players represented the first guard of the Swingin’ A’s to come, but were at that point too raw to be much good. Kansas City struggled with low attendance, barely scraping 500,000, and Finley grew desperate for solutions. Without the short-term ability to fix the product on the field, he exerted his influence in other ways.
Monte Moore had been the A’s lead broadcaster since 1962, and was so good that Finley kept him through the team’s move to Oakland in 1968, right on through to 1980. Quality, however, wasn’t the issue. Mostly, Finley wanted attention. His quick fix was Betty Caywood.
Caywood, in her early 30s, was a TV weather girl in Finley’s hometown of Chicago, with a master’s degree in speech pathology from Northwestern University. She knew next to nothing about baseball, but was capable in front of a camera, which was practical for Finley’s purposes, as was the fact that she was pretty, for he greatly enjoyed the company of pretty women. Finley lured her, she said later in an interview with KCUR radio, with “an amount of money that I couldn’t believe.”
Caywood was introduced to the team’s broadcast crew about three weeks before the end of the season, when the Athletics traveled to Boston for a three-game series. Shortly after the team checked into its hotel, Finley called Moore with instructions to meet his new colleague in the lobby.
“Who is he?” asked Moore.
“He is a weather lady from Chicago,” Finley informed him, adding that he wanted Caywood on the air that night, alongside Moore and his partner, George Bryson.
Finley tried to spin her ignorance about the sport as a positive. The A’s weren’t drawing much of an audience anyway, he figured, so why not try to interest a demographic that was otherwise indifferent to his product? “The idea,” he said in announcing the appointment, as reported in a contemporaneous account in The New York Times, “is that by putting a woman on the staff we’ll appeal to the dolls.” So ignorant was Caywood about the machinations of baseball broadcasts that when Finley informed her she’d be doing color work, she had no idea what he meant.
Caywood might not have been the ideal standard-bearer for women in sports media, but she nonetheless faced many of the same hurdles that the coming generation of more qualified females would soon encounter. On her first day on the job she was refused admittance to the Fenway Park press box, necessitating Moore call Finley, who in turn called Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey to straighten things out. Even after Yawkey made sure Caywood could get in, she was still barred from the press lounge, which forced Moore to deliver her dinner to the radio booth. Of course, such attitudes didn’t stop at least one member of the press from hounding Moore about setting him up on a date with her.
So deep was Caywood’s baseball ignorance that on the team’s next stop, in New York, Red Barber asked her into his radio booth to introduce himself. The Yankees were hitting, and it became apparent that Kansas City’s new broadcaster was at a loss when it came to their identities. “He asked me who was batting,” Caywood recalled on KCUR. “I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s a Yankee, and I’m not familiar with their lineup.’ He said, ‘It’s number 7.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I still don’t know.’”
No. 7, of course, was Mickey Mantle, 14 years and three MVP Awards into his career.
Things got no better on the Athletics’ next road trip, when a game in Minnesota went into extra innings. Kansas City scored in the top of the 15th to take a 7–6 lead, at which point Caywood, on the air, clapped her hands and exulted about being able to go home.
“What could I say to that?” asked Moore, looking back. “I said something like, ‘Well, Betty, you know that we’re playing in Minnesota, and because they provide all the baseballs, they get to bat one more time.’ She didn’t know that.”
By that point Bryson was no longer with the team, having been hospitalized in Missouri, about a week after Caywood’s debut, for a longstanding heart condition. He died some three weeks later, the result, members of the local media darkly joked, of having to tolerate Caywood’s entry into his booth.
Hiring the sport’s first female broadcaster worked out well for Finley in at least one regard: The attention he predicted Caywood would bring to the team panned out as expected. She appeared as a mystery guest on CBS TV’s What’s My Line, and the New York Times ran a front-page picture of her and Moore in its international edition.
Still, opinion against Caywood was so virulent—her nearly complete lack of knowledge being even more egregious than her gender, even to the hard-liners—that, combined with Bryson’s untimely death, Finley opted against bringing her back in 1965. He never found out whether his plan to attract female Midwesterners would have worked.
“I’m sure that everybody got a big laugh out of me, and I didn’t mind being laughed at,” said Caywood, looking back. “I figured I was laughing all the way to the bank.”
When it comes to respect on the ballfield, 2020 is a particularly weird time.
We’ve long discussed the myriad ways that players can express displeasure with the opposition through their actions on the field, but have never encountered it being done via muttering from one’s own dugout.
With a deficit of crowd noise, that’s now a thing. Like on Tuesday, when St. Louis manager Mike Shildt nearly inspired a brawl over something he heard the Brewers say.
In started in the bottom of the fifth inning on Tuesday in Milwaukee, when plate ump John Bacon called a strike on a 2-1 pitch to Ryan Braun. The hitter disagreed, saying, “No, no, no, no—that is not a strike, man,” loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Again, not so difficult sans crowd noise.)
Bacon is in his second year as a major league umpire, and Braun appears to have thought that he was being intimidated by St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. “Just because he gets mad at you,” he continued, “you can’t call that a strike, man.”
Later in the at-bat, Braun’s swing connected with Molina’s outstretched left wrist, resulting in only the third catcher’s interference call of Molina’s 17-year career—the first since 2006. Because the bases were loaded, the ruling brought home a run, extending the Brewers’ lead to 13-2. Even worse, Molina was injured, though he stayed in the game and X-rays later revealed no structural damage. As Shildt was checking on him, he heard something from Milwaukee’s bench that set him off, and he stomped all the way to the top step of the Brewers dugout to confront whoever said it. (What was said has not been disclosed by anybody on either side of the argument.)
“I don’t know where the insult came from,” said Shildt afterward, in an MLB.com report. “I feel like it was more directed to me, quite honestly. Did I do anything to warrant it? Perhaps. I was staring in the dugout. I will accept that. My hearing doesn’t suffer at all with a mask on.”
Shildt made clear that he was leveling no accusations against Braun, and that, above all, he had been frustrated by the interference call against a guy who simply does not draw interference calls. That didn’t make it okay with him, however.
“I’m not going to take it,” the manager said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. “I’m not going to take any chirping out of the dugout. We’re not going to start things, but we’re not going to take it. Heard something I didn’t appreciate. I will always have our players’ backs. I will especially have a Hall of Famer and a guy who has the most physical, mental toughness that I’ve ever managed and may ever manage. I will always have his back.”
Moments after Shildt arrived at the Milwaukee dugout, players were littering the field, with Shildt and Molina being particularly expressive in their displeasure.
Nobody ended up fighting, but both managers—Shildt and Craig Counsell—were tossed. By the end of the frame the Brewers led, 17-2.
Shildt was ultimately suspended for second game of yesterday’s doubleheader. As it happened, Cardinals starter Johan Oviedo hit three Milwaukee batters in that game, including Braun. Nothing seemed to come of it, with opinions in the Brewers clubhouse chalking it up to wildness. Brawn even addressed the theory that he’d somehow intentionally hit Molina with his swing.
“I couldn’t do that, literally, even if I tried, and I don’t know any hitter that would or could do that intentionally,” he said. “Certainly, I would never want to see Yadi get hurt. He’s always been one of my favorite players to compete against.”
This all serves to illustrate that the new normal involves people being able to hear things they’d have had no chance of hearing in previous seasons. It might merit a whole new purpose for signs.
Yesterday was the end of a five games-in-three days run for these teams. They close the season with five more games against each other in St. Louis, starting on Sept. 24.
Update: 9/18: For those convinced that Braun somehow intentionally, impossibly hit Yadi on purpose, now there’s this.
Occasionally, Let the Kids Play can be as simple as actually letting the kids play. Fernando Tatis Jr. doing heroics for the Padres is a perfect example of this. Who among mainstream viewers cares what the count was when he swung?
Yesterday gave us another homer-hitting Padre with his own dose of controversy, and in so doing presented reason to explore some depths of baseball’s unwritten rules.
The Padre in question is Trent Grisham, and the homer in question came off of LA’s Clayton Kershaw, and tied the game in the sixth inning. The behavior in question was a pretty profound pimp job, which led to significant jawing between Grisham and the Dodgers bench while Grisham was still rounding the bases.
First, some scene setting. The Padres are chasing LA in the National League West, having won 11 of their last 13 to reduce a six-game deficit to 2.5 going into last night. Also, the Dodgers are really good. While they’ve been winning the last seven NL West titles, the Padres have finished last three times and next-to-last twice over the past five years, finishing an average of 27 games back.
So yeah, they’re excited.
And yeah, when they tie a game with a huge homer against a future Hall of Famer, they’re excited.
And yeah, when it’s a 23-year-old who has never in his life had so monumental a hit, he’s excited.
And he’s allowed to be.
Based on how Grisham exhibited that excitement, however, the Dodgers thought otherwise.
After his swing, Grisham stood near the batter’s box (as home run hitters will do), but instead of admiring his handiwork he turned toward the home dugout and exulted with his teammates. It took him nearly 10 seconds to reach first base.
Some Dodgers took exception to this, raising enough ruckus in their own dugout that Grisham acknowledged it as he rounded third. Perhaps in response, he bounded atop home plate with both feet, raising the temperature to the point that plate ump Mark Ripperger warned the Dodgers to remain in their dugout.
”They wanted me to run and that was really about it,” Grisham said after the game in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They told me to get going a little sooner. That was it.”
Except that wasn’t it.
After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this: ”I don’t mind guys admiring a homer. Certainly it’s a big game, big hit. Really like the player. But I just felt that to kind of overstay at home, certainly against a guy like Clayton, who’s got the respect of everyone in the big leagues and what he’s done in this game, I just took exception to that. I think there’s a certain respect you give a guy if you homer against him.”
Once again, we’re faced with dissonance from an old-school sport being forced into a new-school box. Roberts has plenty of ground on which to base his argument. Throughout baseball history, respect is an earned commodity, achieved over time through one’s play, behavior and character. By that measure, there’s nobody more respected in the modern game than Kershaw. For a second-year player—who was 12 years old when Kershaw made his big league debut, it should be pointed out—to style in the batter’s box after besting so venerated an opponent is, in many eyes, wrong.
An example of this mentality was recounted in The Baseball Codes:
Admiring one’s own longball isn’t all that sets pitchers off. When Phillies rookie Jimmy Rollins ﬂipped his bat after hitting a home run off St. Louis reliever Steve Kline in 2001, the Cardinals pitcher went ballistic, screaming as he followed Rollins around the bases. “I called him every name in the book, tried to get him to ﬁght,” said Kline. The pitcher stopped only upon reaching Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen, who was moving into the on-deck circle and alleviated the situation by assuring him that members of the Phillies would take care of it internally.
“That’s fucking Little League shit,” said Kline after the game. “If you’re going to ﬂip the bat, I’m going to ﬂip your helmet next time. You’re a rookie, you respect this game for a while. . . . There’s a code. He should know better than that.”
Hell, it can even happen within the fabric of one’s own team. Take a story former AL MVP Al Rosen told me:
“I played behind Kenny Keltner, and when I went to spring training, the only time in the batting cage I got good pitches to hit was if there were other rookies there. The older guys were protecting Keltner. You had 10 swings or five swings—set by whoever was head cheese on the ballclub—and if you had five swings you didn’t get a good ball to hit. None of those older pitchers were going to get the ball in there so you could hit one hard. So you would struggle. All of a sudden a guy decides he’s going to start working on a split-finger or he’s going to start working on his slider. …
“You’d have to ask one of the coaches to hit you ground balls, and every time I walked out there, Keltner would show up and he would want to take ground balls. So I would go to the outfield and shag. It was a message: “Don’t mess with my position.”
Rosen’s solution was not to knock Keltner down a notch, but to show up hours early with other young players and run their own BP sessions.
For his part, Kershaw held no public animosity against Grisham, saying in an MLB.com report: “I’m not going to worry about their team. Let him do what he wants.”
This is what it’s come down to, then. In civil society, we expect youngsters to defer to their elders. The intern in an office does not speak to the CEO as if he or she were a peer. Baseball once hewed tightly to this norm, but, as with many areas of the American landscape, norms are falling away in increasingly rapid fashion.
Baseball, though, has long held itself as different than other sports—slower, more deliberate. Behavior that would fly elsewhere had no place on a ballfield.
That, though, is changing, spurred no doubt by the rapidity with which baseball’s popularity has been surpassed by the NFL and NBA. Let the Kids Play is a direct result, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But for those like Dave Roberts—hardly a hard-liner about anything, but with a firm sense of right and wrong—yielding their position is a difficult task. They’re going to have to, though, and soon. This is the new face of baseball—hopefully, say the folks in the marketing department, for the better.
It’s a funny thing, this COVID baseball. Some guys can’t seem to remember to wear a mask or stay within the perimeter of the team hotel, but when it comes to responding to past injustices they’re a bunch of goddamn elephants. Never forget a thing.
That is why, when Masahiro Tanaka pitched inside to Joey Wendle with two outs in the first inning of yesterday’s Yankees-Rays game, then drilled him with his next pitch (which, at 95 mph, was the hardest he threw all night by a considerable margin) nobody had to question what was happening.
The intent was clear. Tanaka has walked fourbatters this season over six starts. Wendle was the first one he’s hit. The question was, why?
Well, a day earlier the first pitch thrown by Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow had been up and in to D.J. LeMahieu—the latest in a pattern that has seen Rays pitchers working the Yankees, and LeMahieu in particular, inside all season long. That might have been it. Or maybe somehow the Yankees are still sore about the time late in 2018 when Rays reliever Andrew Kitteridge threw a retaliatory fastball at Austin Romine’s head (and missed). That seems like old news, especially given that C.C. Sabathia responded in spectacular fashion the following day, but people keep talking about it so maybe it’s still a thing.
Something that almost undoubtedly contributed is the fact that Tampa Bay has kicked the snot out of the Yankees this year, winning seven out of eight games prior to Tuesday night. Is that the difference in the American League East? Hell yeah, it is.
Maybe Tanaka just wanted to change the tone.
To his credit, Tanaka went by the unwritten rulebook and plunked Wendle in the backside. Wendle took it well, smiling in recognition as he trotted to first base—as did the rest of the Rays, who didn’t force the issue as the game progressed.
That’s where things stood until the ninth, when Aroldis Chapman, in to protect a 5-3 lead, threw his second pitch to Wendle up and in, at 95 mph. After Wendle grounded out to first, Chapman’s second pitch to the next hitter, Austin Meadows, was also up and in, this time at 99 mph. Meadows eventually lined out. This seemed like a message. It’s also where things took a turn.
With two outs and nobody on base, Chapman’s first pitch to Mike Brosseau was a 101-mph fastball that barely missed the batter’s head, Brosseau ducking out of the way in the nick of time. Chapman stalked down the mound toward the plate, all but daring Brosseau to respond. The umpires quickly intervened, warning both benches.
After Chapman struck out Brosseau to end the game, the Yankees dugout did a bit of yelling (much of it from third base coach Phil Neven, as is frequently the case). Yelling, in fact, seems to be a theme between these teams this season. Last month at Tropicana Field, reports had Nevin shouting “Get him out of there” every time a Rays coach visited the mound. Yesterday, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino shouted something similar after James Paxton gave up back-to-back homers to tie the score in the seventh. With no fans in the stands, sound carries this season. Maybe that set Chapman off.
Brousseau responded to the chirping and dugouts quickly emptied, even as “New York, New York” blared over the Yankee Stadium PA. At least nobody actually came into contact with the other team. Some players even remembered to wear masks.
There are obvious questions about what this all means going forward. After the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash amplified them with the biggest megaphone he could find, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “mishandled by the Yankees” and “mishandled by the umpires.”
“They hit Joey Wendle intentionally in the first inning,” he fumed. “It was clear as day. Chapman comes in, he throws three different balls up and in. I get it—they don’t like being thrown up-and-in. But enough’s enough. We’re talking about a 100-mph fastball over a young man’s head. It’s poor judgment. Poor coaching. It’s just poor teaching, what they’re doing, and what they’re allowing to do. The chirping from the dugout.”
Strong opinions, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Then Cash said this: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”
Threat registered. “It sounds like they’re going to try to throw at us tomorrow,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll be ready.”
The teams meet today for the final time this regular season. Even with umpires on high alert, given what we’ve seen so far, this confrontation is far from finished.
Update 9/2: Punishment has been levied: Chapman docked three games plus a fine for throwing at somebody’s head; Boone suspended one game because Chapman is an idiot; and Cash suspended one game for his postgame threat.
Update 2, 9/2: Brosseau got his revenge on Wednesday, hitting two homers and doing this:
Now that we’re in the full throes of Let the Kids Play, the kids are playing more than ever. On one hand, we have Fernando Tatis Jr. swinging 3-0 for a late-game, blowout grand slam, which seemed to coalesce public opinion about just how ludicrous some of baseball’s unwritten rules can be.
On the other hand, Tatis was actually playing the game. MLB’s marketing slogan was, at the time of its release, geared more toward allowing a greater degree of celebration into the game. Bat flips and whatnot.
It is in that vein that we bring you Trevor Bauer, who celebrated a strikeout on Monday by pretending to open a beer on the mound. Bauer has long been outspoken about his support for emotional displays on the field, be they from pitchers or hitters. This, though, was so much more than that.
Prior to his pantomime, Bauer wrote the word “BUDS” on the back on the mound with his toe. What did it all mean?
It started on Aug. 14, when the Reds tweeted about Sonny Gray setting a team record with 45 strikeouts over his first five starts. Bauer’s succinct response in accepting a challenge: “Hold my beer.”
That was all it took. Because we live in a marketing-driven world and because Bauer is extremely online, Budweiser replied accordingly.
The guess here is that Bauer would have engaged with far less provocation. As it was, he jumped all over this corporate offering.
This, then, is how we end up with “BUDS” on the back of the mound …
… and with Bauer opening an imaginary beer to celebrate his 46th strikeout over five starts. (By game’s end, Bauer would have eight whiffs, and 49 on the season.
As it happened, his opponent that day was the Milwaukee Brewers. Could they be mad? Probably, but given that the pitcher’s pantomime had everything to do with Budweiser and nothing to do with them, it’s difficult to see this going much further. (No sign yet of actual Cincinnati Buds beer cans, as far as I can tell.)
Let the kids play. Then let them drink. Sometimes at the same time.
Yesterday, Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam and the internet lost its damn mind.
It wasn’t the homer that did it, of course, it was the response … something to do with the unwritten rules.
In this case, circumstances matter. It was the top of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded and the Padres were leading Texas by seven runs (thanks in part to a three-run homer by Tatis an inning earlier). Pertinent to this discussion, Tatis’ fateful shot came on a 3-0 pitch. The Rangers didn’t know it at the time, but the young slugger had missed (or ignored) a take sign from his coach.
With that, Rangers manager Chris Woodward removed pitcher Juan Nicasio, inserted pitcher Ian Gibault, and watched as Gibault threw a pitch behind the next batter, Manny Machado. Message delivered. (No warnings were issued, and no other pitches came close to hitting anybody.)
After the game, Woodward addressed the issue directly. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”
This is the point at which Woodward, and baseball in general, tends to lose touch with its fan base. What in the hell was the manager talking about, cried the majority opinion? Why should one of the sport’s brightest young stars be expected to do anything other than bright-young-star things, regardless of the situation?
It’s complicated. The rationale starts with pitchers, not hitters. During a blowout, nobody in either dugout wants to see the pace grind nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges of the strike zone, especially while down in the count. From The Baseball Codes:
The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.
At which point pitchers are expected (or were once expected, anyway) to throw something straight that will get the game moving again. For that one-pitch adjustment, hitters are expected (or were once expected) to lay off. As Sparky Anderson said in a New York Times report: “You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling, he’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”
Then again, Anderson said that back in 1993, which may as well have been 1893 as far as the evolution of the unwritten rules is concerned. The sport in which Anderson managed bears little resemblance to the modern game in numerous ways. A prominent aspect of this evolution is showboating, bat flips and the like, which once would have been certain to draw a pitcher’s attention but are now mostly background noise.
Swinging 3-0 is not quite the same thing, but it’s in the same ballpark.
Here’s the catch: The team doing the responding—the team at the wrong end of Cave’s swing—was Chris Woodward’s Texas Rangers. Woodward, it appears, is no stranger to having his pitchers mete out punishment for those who he feels cross a line, and swinging 3-0 is a prominent one for him.
Yesterday, the response from the Padres was less about the retaliatory pitch from Texas than with their own shortstop. On the telecast, cameras caught Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer—30 years old and a 10-year vet—telling various Rangers that “we’ll talk to him.” Sure enough, Hosmer sat Tatis down for a dugout conversation. Later, San Diego manager Jayce Tingler talked to reporters about the importance of getting signs correctly, called it “a learning opportunity,” and said “[Tatis] will grow from it.” (Prior to taking over the Padres, Tingler worked in the Rangers organization since 2007. The guess here is that he knows precisely what it will take to avoid bad blood with that team.)
But what about Tatis himself? On one hand, he’s 21 years old, in only his second season and hails from the Dominican Republic, where a freewheeling, unfettered brand of baseball is the norm. On the other, he grew up learning the major league game from his father, whose own big league career ran from 1999 to 2010, when Jr. was 11 years old.
“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis Jr. said after the game. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”
The reason that most pitchers no longer care about bat flips is that bat flipping has been divorced from the meaning it once held. It is now seen as a joyous act, not a disrespectful one.
Swinging 3-0 during a blowout holds deeper connotations, but ultimately the concept is the same. Either we let the kids play, or we don’t. When Sparky Anderson told the Times that, as pertains to swinging 3-0, “there is a thing in this game—honor—that will always stay with me and I’ll never give it up,” he was speaking from a different era.
At some point, baseball has to make up its mind. Until it does, this cultural dissonance of blowback against young stars doing things that the public wants to see is going to continue until everybody’s so frustrated that they turn their backs altogether. This is a problem that baseball is already trying to counter; it led to Let the Kids Play in the first place.
“I love this game, and I respect the game a lot,” Tatis said after the game. “I feel like every time I go out there, I just wanna feel respect for everybody else. … This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”
Generally speaking, a huge amount of the bad blood we encounter across the sporting landscape stems from respect, or lack thereof, between competitors.
Of course, respecting one’s teammates carries its own chapter in the book of unwritten rules, and is currently why so many members of the Cleveland Indians are unhappy with pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac.
In this case, the respect in question involves COVID protocols and the health of the rest of the team.
On Aug. 7, the two pitchers left the team hotel in Chicago, contrary to mandated practices. Plesac was caught attempting to return in the wee hours on Aug. 8. Clevinger kept his participation to himself until after he’d joined the team on its flight back to Cleveland.
This was a clear breach of trust as far as various Indians players were concerned. Last Friday, Aug. 14—a week after the duo had gone out—a team meeting was called to address the issue. Both pitchers apologized for their actions, but for some in the clubhouse it was not enough. Numerous players spoke of their anger and disappointment, with veteran Oliver Perez notifying the team that he would opt out of the season if Clevinger and Plesac joined the ensuing road trip to Detroit and Pittsburgh. Of particular concern, beyond players’ individual health situations, is the fact that pitcher Carlos Carrasco underwent leukemia treatment last year and is particularly vulnerable.
“They hurt us bad,” said Indians pitcher Adam Plutko, in a report by Jeff Passan for ESPN.com. “They lied to us. They sat here, in front of you guys, and said things publicly that they didn’t follow through on. It’s gonna be up to them. It really is.”
“We’ve got to understand that you can’t put yourself first,” Francisco Lindor told Cleveland.com. “In the times we’re in, you cannot put yourself first.”
Given that both pitchers have tested negative for COVID, the Indians front office could have justifiably let the situation slide without further incident. The anger among players, however, forced their hand, and Clevinger and Plesac were subsequently sent to the team’s alternate site in Lake County for at least 10 days. So diminished is the duo’s clubhouse standing that Cleveland.com openly wondered whether one or both should be traded.
This is all about trust. Traditionally, trust among teammates means being able to maintain one’s ability to perform on the field, and to protect teammates’ secrets off of it. Neither of those categories, however, has an impact on general health in the clubhouse. We are breaking new ground this season in so many ways.
It speaks especially loudly that Clevinger is one of baseball’s brightest stars, that Plesac has put up a 1.29 ERA from the fourth spot in the rotation, and that both have been instrumental to Cleveland having the league’s best rotation through the early weeks of the schedule.
Passan’s report details service-time issues that might actually delay free agency for Clevenger and arbitration for Plesac by a full season, depending upon how long they are left off of the roster. That, though, is a front-office concern.
Far more interesting is what’s happening inside the clubhouse. For Indians players to force out two vital pieces of their early-season success because they don’t trust them speaks incredibly loudly about how seriously players are taking these particular concerns, and how much faith they are putting in each other as regards their own safety.
Clevinger and Plesac failed in that regard. How well they recover—how well they’re allowed to recover—remains to be seen.
In 2018, the Oakland A’s introduced a Kelly green alternate jersey that is an unmistakable throwback to their look from the Swingin’ A’s days of the early 1970s.
Last week, A’s first baseman Matt Olson introduced a hairy upper lip that is similarly reminiscent.
Taking a page from the team that inspired the Hairs vs. the Squares moniker against the Reds in the 1972 World Series, Olson sought a way to bust out of an early-season slump. Sometimes totems can be just the thing.
“I didn’t do it to look good,” Olson said Thursday in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “You know what they say, it’s never too early to hit the panic button.”
Olson had started the season 5-for-36, but after debuting his lip sweater on Wednesday homered twice, and then again on Thursday. After the latter, his teammates held index fingers horizontally atop their lips as he rounded the bases. “I think it has to [stay] now,” Olson said of his ’stache. “Not even by choice.”
Back in 1972, of course, the lip hair came courtesy of owner Charlie Finley’s offer to pay $300 to every player who grew out his own mustache in advance of the team photo on June 18. I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:
Baseball was a clean-cut sport in the early 1970s, and had been for the better part of a century. While ballplayers were known to grow mustaches over the winter months, they’d invariably shave them prior to the season, frequently as a rite of spring training. In 1972, however, Reggie Jackson did no such thing. When his lip hair remained in place through the duration of the Arizona exhibition schedule, his teammates took notice.
Whisker prohibition hadn’t always been enforced. Abner Doubleday himself wore a mustache in the 1830s. A photographic portrait of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, depicts eight of nine members sporting facial hair. But ballplayers of the early 1900s were seen as ruffians, low-ranking members of society whose reputations hindered the marketing of the sport; clean-shaved faces were part of reversing that image. In 1914, A’s catcher Wally Schang became the last major league regular to wear a mustache. Until Reggie.
“Reggie was being his basic hot dog self, wanting to do whatever he wanted to do, and no one was going to tell Reggie what to do,” said Rollie Fingers, who, along with most of his teammates, was appalled by Jackson’s new look. Understanding their inability to sway the superstar, Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker took a different tack, theorizing that growing their own mustaches would draw a blanket rebuke from Finley, who would in turn command every player, including Jackson, to shave.
The Owner learned about it on the team plane. There was Jackson, mustache in place, and the quartet of pitchers, similarly adorned. Instead of getting angry, however, Finley was thunderstruck. Always on the make for unique promotional opportunities, he let it be known: any player or staff member who grew a mustache by June 18, the date of the team photo, would receive a $300 bonus. He decreed it Mustache Day, with mustachioed fans admitted to the game free of charge. Most players jumped right on board. “For $300,” said Ken Holtzman, “I would grow hair on my feet.” Only three players—Sal Bando, Mike Hegan, and Larry Brown—remained reticent and clean-faced. During an ensuing conversation with the Owner, Bando soon found out exactly where he stood on the subject. “Mr. Bando,” Finley said to him, “I would like you to grow your mustache. We want to do it as a team, and we all are the same.” With that, the holdout players acceded. (Finley himself did not grow one, of course. He never for a moment viewed himself as being on the same level as his players.)
By June 18, not only was Finley’s own squad fully ’stached, but six members of the visiting Cleveland Indians grew out mustaches of their own, despite threats of fines from manager Ken Aspromonte if they didn’t shave after the series finale. Finley presented gold mustache spoons, with attached covers for eating soup, to players, staff, and the participating members of the Indians. At the Coliseum, 7,607 men got in free with the promotion. Plate umpire Marty Springstead took one look at third-base coach Irv Noren before the game and said, “Jesus, Irv, when are you going to shave that off?” Noren didn’t hesitate. “As soon as the goddamn check clears,” he said.
Current A’s third baseman Matt Chapman has been known to grow his own slump-buster mustache from time to time, though manager Bob Melvin took care to distinguish it from his teammate’s. “Olson’s got a little more growth going on than Chapman,” he said. “I think Chapman, it would take him a couple of years to get a mustache that actually looks like a mustache.”
Meanwhile, Olson is styling and raking in equal measures. Who knows—maybe he’ll start another trend.
Let’s start by noting that the pitch that precipitated Sunday’s mess did not hit Ramon Laureano intentionally. It was a 77-mph, full-count curveball from Humberto Castellanos, a 22-year-old pitching in his third big league inning, in only his eighth appearance above Single-A.
Then again, Laureano had already been hit in the game … by Brandon Bailey, a 25-year-old (who the A’s traded to Houston straight up for Ramon Laureano!) making his fourth big league appearance after jumping directly from Double-A.
Then again again, Laureano was also drilled in the first game of the series on Friday … also by Castellanos, back in his second-ever major league game. This one was a fastball, but at 88 mph, it was the slowest of the four that the right-hander threw during the at-bat. Also, the game was tied 1-1 in the 12th inning and, with runners already at first and second, it loaded the bases with one out.
So it’s safe to say that Ramon Laureano was not being targeted by the Astros over the weekend. It’s also safe to say that, when a player gets dotted three times over the course of a series—and his team five times, without a whiff of retaliation—regardless of intention, he’s entitled to be annoyed. And Laureano was. After the last incident, he chirped at Castellanos (strangely, it looked like he was showing the pitcher how to release a curveball), but it never appeared that he seriously considered charging the mound. Once Laureano reached first base, it seemed as if the game would proceed apace.
That’s the build-up.
The real issue was Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, who stood on the lip of the first-base dugout and, once Laureano had taken his base, lit into him. Instigation by a coach is particularly weak, especially with manager Dusty Baker—who’d been ejected an inning earlier for arguing balls and strikes—not being around to control it. What Cintron said has not yet been revealed, but it was enough to draw the baserunner’s attention. When Cintron took a challenge step toward the field, Laureano charged.
Before we get into the real issue here, let’s say for the record that charging an opponent near his own dugout is never a good idea, no matter who’s doing the charging. The attacker is wildly outnumbered, and, with baseball fights being group affairs, his chances to so much as land a blow are minimal.
But we’re playing in a time of pandemic, when Major League Baseball has expressly forbidden this kind of thing. From the 2020 operations manual: “Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action.”
So of course we had a scrum. Astros catcher (and former Athletic) Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before he ever reached Cintron, and members of both teams ended up milling about, nose to nose, as ballplayers do. A’s catcher Austin Allen briefly scrapped with Houston catcher Martin Maldonado. Laureano and Allen were ejected.
It’s another instance of high-profile athletes willfully ignoring their civic and personal responsibilities. On one hand, if the A’s and Astros want to keep playing baseball, they should do all they can to insure that COVID never reaches their clubhouses. Yesterday’s dustup was the opposite of that. We’ve already asked once this season whether love of baseball will be able to outstrip some of its athletes’ baser competitive instincts, then asked it again only one day later when Joe Kelly taunted these selfsame Astros into another confrontation. Do we love baseball enough? The answer is still unclear.
Beyond that, there’s the example that these athletes are setting for the rest of us. If a few angry words are worth the potential cost of sparking a 50-person scrum, what does that say to the public at large about the importance of safety? Cintron acted like a meat-headed moron, and Laureano should have known better than to take the bait.
The message from all of these men, intentional or not, is that machismo trumps common sense. It’s short-sighted and stupid. Nobody is innocent here.
MLB has been doing its part, suspending Kelly for eight games—more than 13 percent of the truncated season—for his idiotic behavior two weeks back. Similar penalties are in line for yesterday’s participants.
Baseball fights are traditionally free-range affairs, rarely coming to anything serious, specifically because so many players end up involved that it’s difficult to get any actual fighting done. Maybe there was some benefit to that, pre-COVID, but no more. For the first time ever, we need our ballplayers to be more than baseball-smart. We need them to be actual-smart. The big picture is no longer about a game or a series or even a season. It’s about helping to show that we’re all in this together and are doing what we can to help the common cause.
Be better, baseball.
Update 8/11: MLB decided that as the instigator, Cintron would be suspended for 20 games, or one-third of the truncated season. It’s the longest suspension for on-field behavior in 15 years, and the longest for a coach or manager since Pete Rose was shelved for 30 games after shoving an umpire in 1988. Laureano was docked six games for his actions. Both decisions seem about right.