Dealing With Records

Wainwright Grooves, Jeter Pounces, Twitter Snarks. Come on, People

wainwrightSo Adam Wainwright grooved a fastball to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game. Some are saying he was abiding by the unwritten rules when he did so. Others think he simply rolled over to let Jeter have his way. Still others say he disrespected Jeter, for crying out loud, not giving him credit for being able to get around any longer on a real major league pitch.

Jeter was the game’s first American League hitter, and Wainwright’s first pitch to him was in the dirt. His second was a 91-mph fastball down the pipe, which Jeter lashed into the right-field corner for a double.

“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright told reporters, describing a fastball grooved for the hitter’s pleasure. “He deserved it.”

Yes, Wainwright laid in in there, fat and succulent, despite his ensuing half-hearted denials aimed at stemming a growing and faux controversy. Yes, he had every right to do what he did. More than that, he should be lauded for it.

The pitcher understood the situation, knew that Jeter is a once-in-a-generation player. Dominating on the field is one thing, but Jeter has captured the public’s attention and affection in a way so wholesome as to seem downright anachronistic. Becoming the enduring face of baseball’s enduring franchise is no easy task. Wainwright understands this, and in Jeter’s final All-Star Game, responded as he saw fit. His first move was to step off the mound when Jeter was introduced, to give the Captain an extra moment of mass adoration. His next was to tee one up for the guy. It was an exhibition game; give the man his glory.

Those who misguidedly blame the unwritten rules for the moment are half right. There is precedent for Wainwright’s action, and that precedent does fall within the sport’s unwritten rules, but there is nothing to dictate such a course of action. Had the right-hander pitched Jeter as he would any other batter (or like he would have had the contest counted in the standings)—had he struck him out with a two-seamer in the dirt—not a player in baseball would have cried foul.

An entire chapter in The Baseball Codes—Responding to Records—deals with the topic. Wainwright’s action was more along the lines of Responding to Legacies, but the concept is the same. An excerpt:

Tigers pitcher Denny McLain always had a soft spot for Mickey Mantle, having idolized him as a boy growing up in Chicago. When they met at Tiger Stadium in September 1968 the two were at opposite ends of their careers, McLain peaking en route to thirty-one wins and both the Cy Young and MVP awards, while Mantle was nine days from retirement. The great slugger’s previous home run, almost a month earlier, had him tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time list with 534.

Before the game, McLain decided to do his hero a favor. Recalled Tigers catcher Jim Price, “Denny told me, ‘Let him hit one.’ ” Price relayed the good news when Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, at which point the Yankees star extended his bat over the plate to indicate just the spot in which he’d like to see a pitch. McLain delivered, and Mantle connected for a homer. Said Price, “Denny stood out there on the mound and clapped.” Mantle had his milestone, and McLain had his joy.

Properly dealing with records—either one’s own or someone else’s— has long been a part of the Code. It’s why Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich laid down a curiously timed ninth-inning bunt to avoid a possible double play, assuring Joe DiMaggio another chance to extend his hitting streak in 1941. (DiMaggio did.)

It’s also why, when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson went into the final day of the 1959 season needing a hit in his first at-bat to push his average to .300, manager Casey Stengel informed him that since the Yankees didn’t have a single .300 hitter on the roster he’d be immediately removed from the game should it happen, to avoid falling below the mark in ensuing at-bats. It’s also why members of that day’s opponent, the Bal­timore Orioles, took up the cause: Brooks Robinson informed Richardson that he’d be playing deep in case the hitter found appeal in bunting; pitcher Billy O’Dell offered to groove pitches; and catcher Joe Ginsberg verbally called for pitches instead of dropping down signs. Umpire Ed Hurley even got in on the act, offering that, if Richardson could “just make it close,” things would go his way. Said Richardson, “There couldn’t have been a more complete fix on.” (The fix might have been on, but it wasn’t complete. Richardson doubled in his first at-bat, refused Stengel’s entreaties to leave the game, went 2-for-3, and ended up at .301.)

Since we’re on a string of Yankees-related events, we can also turn to Whitey Ford, who ended up facing former teammate Billy Martin, one of his best friends in the game, about six weeks after Martin had been traded from New York to Kansas City. It was the eighth inning and the Yankees were leading, 10-3. From Ford’s book, Slick:

I threw him a big slow curve and he took it for a strike. I got the ball back and said to him, “Same thing.” I wanted him to hit it for a single or double, but I threw another big slow curve and he wrapped it around the left-field foul pole for a home run. Now he was prancing around the bases, the son of a bitch. When I saw him prancing like that, I was sorry I did it.

Ford’s action came as a favor to a friend in a situation that wouldn’t cost his team. Wainwright’s was a nod to the sanctity of baseball in an exhibition game that didn’t count for anything other than pride (and, stupidly, home-field advantage in the World Series). It’s a shame more of the public isn’t appreciating it as such. The man was pitching in a showcase to the most super of any superstar his generation will produce. With one pitch, he acknowledged all of it, every bit.

 

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Dealing With Records

The Pros and Cons of Putting History First

Jay Schreiber of the New York Times raised an interesting question yesterday: Did Mets manager Terry Collins do the game a service by keeping his infield back with a runner on third and one out in a game New York led, 9-0, in the ninth inning over Tampa Bay?

The mitigating detail: R.A. Dickey hadn’t allowed a run in 32 2/3 innings, and while the knuckleballer wasn’t exactly approaching Orel Hersheiser’s record 59 consecutive scoreless frames, it was at least close enought to contemplate the possibilities.

Collins, however, was adhering to the Code—he claimed as much after the game—playing specifically not to stifle the opponent during a blowout with an unnecessary display of superiority, and happy to give up a run for a chance at an out. Sure enough, an infield out led to a run and the end of the streak.

Schreiber’s question: “Would Collins have kept the infield back in that situation and allowed Dickey’s streak to end on a simple grounder to short [had Dickey been at 52 or 53 innings instead of 32 2/3?]

The answer is, probably not, and justifiably so; in many situations through history, a player’s chance at greatness has trumped the unwritten rules. From The Baseball Codes:

Properly dealing with records—either one’s own or someone else’s— has long been a part of the Code. It’s why Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich laid down a curiously timed ninth-inning bunt to avoid a possible double play, assuring Joe DiMaggio another chance to extend his hitting streak in 1941. (DiMaggio did.)

It’s also why, when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson went into the final day of the 1959 season needing a hit in his first at-bat to push his average to .300, manager Casey Stengel informed him that since the Yankees didn’t have a single .300 hitter on the roster he’d be immediately removed from the game should it happen, to avoid falling below the mark in ensuing at-bats. It’s also why members of that day’s opponent, the Bal­timore Orioles, took up the cause: Brooks Robinson informed Richardson that he’d be playing deep in case the hitter found appeal in bunting; pitcher Billy O’Dell offered to groove pitches; and catcher Joe Ginsberg verbally called for pitches instead of dropping down signs. Umpire Ed Hurley even got in on the act, offering that, if Richardson could “just make it close,” things would go his way. Said Richardson, “There couldn’t have been a more complete fix on.” (The fix might have been on, but it wasn’t complete. Richardson doubled in his first at-bat, refused Stengel’s entreaties to leave the game, went 2-for-3, and ended up at .301.)

There are also some examples regarding Hersheiser’s record, the one Dickey was not allowed to approach, and Don Drydale’s mark prior to Hersheiser breaking it. The Code adherents in these cases weren’t players, however, but umpires:

When Drysdale was on the precipice of breaking Carl Hubbell’s National League record for consecutive scoreless innings in 1968, he loaded the bases against the Giants with nobody out in the ninth inning. When he hit the next batter, Dick Dietz, it forced in a run and killed his streak at forty-four innings, four outs short of Hubbell’s mark. Plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt, however, ruled that Dietz made no effort to get out of the way of the pitch, and ordered him back to the plate with a full count, whereupon he flied out to shallow left field. Drysdale got out of the inning unscathed, in the process tying Doc White’s 1904 record with his fifth straight shutout, and eventually ran his streak to fifty-eight and two-thirds innings.

If Drysdale needed assistance from an umpire while playing the Giants to set his mark, so too did the successor to his record. In 1988, Orel Her­shiser compiled forty-two consecutive shutout innings in pursuit of Drysdale’s standard before finally allowing a run on, of all things, a fielder’s choice—against the Giants, of course. Umpire Paul Runge, how­ever, belatedly called hitter Ernie Riles out at first, ruling that baserunner Brett Butler went out of his way to interfere with Dodgers shortstop Alfredo Griffin on the play at second, ending the inning and wiping the run off the board. (“That slide was just like every other time I slid,” said an indignant Butler, who had indeed advanced directly into the bag.) Her­shiser went on to run his scoreless-innings streak to fifty-nine. “It was a slow chopper, and there was no way they were going to get him at first no matter what I did, so what incentive did I have to try to take [Griffin] out?” said Butler. “A lot of times when records are in the balance like that, there’s no explaining some of the things that happen. People react in dif­ferent ways.”

Ultimately, it would have been difficult to protest against Collins looking out for the interests of his pitcher in such a situation. His strategy would have had nothing to do with disrespecting the Rays, and everything to do with propping up R.A. Dickey.

Not much fault to find with that.