Celebrations, Don't Peek

Tatis Chases Waterfalls, Bauer Responds In Kind

This weekend, the Padres and Dodgers showed us exactly how baseball is changing, and also exactly how it is not. On both counts, they’re right on the money.

Traditionally, baseball has frowned on showmanship, viewing it—particularly as pertains to batter’s box theatrics—as a personal affront to the pitcher. As a result, home run pimping has inspired its share of beanball responses over the years. Those who persisted tended to maintain that their celebrations were entirely about themselves and their teammates, and that lack of respect played no part.

It wasn’t until recent years that pitchers started to believe it.

The first-ever home run pimp may have been Harmon Killebrew, who is counted by many as the pioneer of watching one’s own fly balls leave the yard. No less than Reggie Jackson has pointed toward Killebrew as inspiration in that regard. Still, it took a truly free spirit like Yasiel Puig, who after coming up in 2013 consistently busted barriers around this topic, for the movement to gain its first semblance of legitimacy. During the World Baseball Classic in 2017, when the U.S. got a gander at teams like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with rosters stocked with big leaguers having the times of their lives, it finally started to settle in that this might be the shape of baseball to come.

Which brings us to Fernando Tatis and Trevor Bauer.

On Saturday, Tatis drilled two homers against the Dodgers star and leveraged both moments to the hilt, sending messages in direct response to prior theatrics Bauer had visited upon the Padres. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

After Tatis’ first homer, he covered his right eye with his hand while rounding the bases, in reference to a gimmick Bauer pulled during spring training in which he pitched the better part of three shutout innings against San Diego with one eye closed, then made sure that everybody knew it.

The Padres did not take major issue with this, but you better believe they noticed. Thus, on Saturday we got this:

Five innings later, Tatis did it again, hitting a quality 3-2 pitch from Bauer over the center field fence. This time, in addition to a bat flip and his standard backward shuffle while approaching third base, he included an imitation of the Bauer strut, which is actually the Connor McGregor strut, which the pitcher pulls out on occasion after a big strikeout.

Only a few years ago, the frequency of these displays, and their volume, would have elicited an on-field response. Now, however, we’re Letting the Kids Play, and Trevor Bauer is unlike other pitchers in oh so many ways. To his credit, he encourages this kind of stuff, going so far after the game as to use the word “soft” in reference to pitchers who retaliate for such things. “If you give up a homer, a guy should celebrate it,” he said. “It’s hard to hit in the big leagues.”

Bauer went even further on his YouTube channel, breaking down Tatis’ actions in a complimentary way. “It makes me feel good because they’re aware of my one-eye celebration,” he said. “My clip went viral, his clip can go viral—it’s good for baseball.” Bauer called Tatis’ bat flip on the second homer “tasteful,” and noted that the entire shtick was directed toward the San Diego dugout, not at Bauer or other Dodgers, “so, highest of high marks on that.”

Which brings us to the second part of the story. The part about which Bauer is less zen.

On the pitch that Tatis hit for his second homer, he appeared to look backward as catcher Will Smith was giving his signs. Tatis’ peek came too late to see Smith’s fingers, which he’d already folded back into his palm, but just in time to see the catcher lean to his right, a subtle clue that he was preparing to receive an outside pitch. This might be how the hitter was able to lean into a cutter that ended up well into the opposite batter’s box, and still managed to pull it over the wall in left field.

There are lots of ways to explain this. Bauer had been living on the outer edge against Tatis throughout the at-bat, placing four of his six pitches wide of the strike zone, so it didn’t necessarily take a magician—or a cheater—to discern what was happening. During his look back, it’s possible that Tatis was just scratching his nose and didn’t see a thing.

But the hitter’s body language—stepping toward the pitch even as Bauer was releasing it, and easily handling what should have been ball four by a considerable margin—said plenty. We’ve addressed the issue of peeking on a number of occasions in this space, like that time in 2017 when the Angels suspected various Oakland players of looking backward. Early in the pandemic, we also offered a host of examples from throughout history.

Whether Bauer noticed Tatis doing this in the moment is unclear, but he certainly did after the game. In the same YouTube clip, Bauer addressed the issue directly:

“If you start looking at signs, if you start pulling this bush-league stuff, that’s when people get pissed off. …. That’s the type of stuff that would get you hit in other games. Now, I’m mild-mannered about it. I’m going to send a message this way [via video] and say, hey, that’s not okay, and if you keep doing it something will have to happen.”

Bauer said that while “there’s no rule anywhere that says [Tatis] can’t look back,” there’s also “no rule that says I can’t stick a fastball in your ribs.”

This is classic unwritten-rules policing, albeit via video and not with a message pitch. You got caught, the other team let you know about it, and now you have to knock it off. It’s next-level code enforcement, and while many people have thoughts about Trevor Bauer, pro and con, he comes off as entirely reasonable in the above clip.

How Bauer reacts the next time Tatis (or any Padre, probably) does something similar will be something to see. Having publicly threatened to drill a guy, even obliquely, the pitcher is certain to draw notice from the league office should he ever decide to act on that impulse. The Padres, knowing this, might be further inspired to elicit such a response. And ever does the gamesmanship spiral continue.

In summary: Bat flipping and crazy trots around the bases are, for most people—and certainly for Bauer and Tatis—part of baseball’s mainstream. Peeking at a catcher’s signs is certainly not.

Both developments have been logged and noted, to be built upon the next time something like this goes down. We’re counting the days.

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

Don’t Ever Peek. And Don’t Ever Look Like You’re Peeking

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: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

For Omar Vizquel it was turning toward the umpire to call time because the scoreboard was playing video that he found distracting. For Von Joshua it was that he swiveled his head to scratch his chin with his back shoulder. Neither player peeked, or had intentions of peeking, but both were perceived to have done so. And each is convinced that what happened next—for Vizquel it was a first-pitch fastball from Roger Clemens into his ribs; for Joshua it was a Jim Bibby heater aimed at his head—was a direct result.

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

Say Hey, What Was That Pitch?

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: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

Some notable names have been named as possible peekers. In 2003, an anonymous coach told the Seattle Times that Ken Griffey Jr. had a curious habit of calling time once the pitcher came set, at which point he’d look down to see the catcher’s location. Bob Gibson said that Hank Aaron used to do it, and that Willie Mays was “one of the great peekers of all time.”

“Mays was peeking at [Cardinals catcher Tim] McCarver and saw something he didn’t understand,” wrote Gibson in Stranger to the Game. “So he stopped his warm-up swings, stepped out of the box, and said to McCarver, ‘Now, what was that pitch? What in the hell are you doing back there?’ I couldn’t believe the guy.”

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

Crime Dog Did Some Digging Of His Own

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: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

In 2001, Members of the Red Sox claimed that videotape proved Tampa Bay first baseman Fred McGriff peeked backward prior to hitting a home run … in a game that didn’t even involve Boston.

McGriff’s homer came off a pitch from Toronto closer Billy Koch, and the Red Sox-based allegations ended up in Peter Gammons’ notebook on ESPN.com. One member of the Blue Jays said in the Toronto Globe and Mail that the complaint came from pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, “who is paranoid as hell. He’s the same guy who thought we had a camera over the outfield fence (at the SkyDome) to steal signs.”

Toronto catcher Darrin Fletcher offered a more reasoned take on the matter, saying that it can be difficult to discern peeking from innocent head movements. “A lot of guys, if you watch them, they’re usually just glancing back at the position of their hands and bat,” he said. “You might think they’re peeking, but they’re not.”

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

‘If It’s Really That Blatant, You Have To Say Something’

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: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

Television cameras have caught the likes of Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, among others, casting backward glances during at-bats. After Game 1 of the 2000 NLCS, Jerry Grote, who had been a catcher for the Mets more than two decades earlier, informed team personnel that, while watching the game on television at home in San Antonio, he came to the conclusion that Cardinals first baseman Will Clark had been peeking at catcher Mike Piazza. (Clark went 1-for-3 in a 6-2 defeat.) Clark had already once been accused by the Mets of peeking, as a member of the Giants in 1993.

Whatever Grote saw, however, managed to escape Piazza. “I think I would notice,” said the Mets backstop in a Newsday report. “Some guys try to mix it into their routine. You just have to try to disguise it. And if it’s really that blatant, you have to say something.”

Perhaps in response, the Cardinals leveled accusations of their own, asserting that Mets third baseman Todd Zeile was tipped to pitch location by whistling from the New York bench.

Don't Peek, Sign stealing

The Pitcher Is That Way, Sir, Out Toward The Middle of The Diamond

Chapman peeks

While accusations continue to fly in Boston about high-tech sign-stealing espionage, similar gripes arose in Oakland on Wednesday that appear mainly to do with batters peeking at the catcher. Apparently, Moneyball budgets don’t cover Apple watches.

In the second inning, Angels catcher Juan Graterol began a discussion with the hitter, Oakland outfielder Mark Canha, that grew animated enough for plate ump Mike Everitt to separate them. TV cameras picked up Everitt informing LA’s dugout that the catcher suspected A’s players of stealing signs. Canha said later that Graterol told him to quit looking back at his signals, and that the catcher had already delivered a similar message to infielder Chad Pinder.

“I’ve never [peeked] in my career,” Canha said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “I thought it was just a Scioscia-Angels-Graterol tactic to make young players get uncomfortable, just get in my head. I was just like, ‘OK, play your little games and I’m just going to focus on the task at hand.’ ”

The issue came to a head in the fourth inning, shortly after Oakland’s Matt Chapman stepped into the batter’s box, when he and Graterol went nose to nose. According to Chapman, the second-inning exchange was only the latest example of LA accusing Oakland players both relaying signs from second base and peeking back at the catcher pre-pitch to pick up additional information.

“The catcher kept staring at the hitters as they were digging into the box,” Chapman said. “That’s not a very comfortable feeling having the catcher staring at you. It’s a little disrespectful. So when I got into the box, I just let them know we were not stealing signs and there was no need to be staring at us. He obviously didn’t take too kindly to that.”

It’s a thin argument. Just across the bay, Giants catcher Buster Posey—one of the sport’s headiest players—looks up from the squat at batters’ eyes all the time. Nobody has yet accused him of making them feel bad by it.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia offered a straightforward assessment. “They have a habit of glancing back,” he said about A’s batters. “On a day game or a night game when you can see shadows and a catcher’s head, it’s easy to look back and pick up some locations. So, Juan was just saying, ‘Hey, man, don’t look back.’ ” Given that Scioscia was among the best defensive catchers of his generation, it’s safe to assume that he knows whereof he speaks.

Graterol offered his own version of his conversation with Chapman. “I told him, ‘Don’t peek at the signs,’ because I saw him,” he said. “Chapman told me, ‘We don’t peek at the signs.’ I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ ”  At that point, Everitt stepped between them. When Chapman continued to chirp, he was ejected for the first time in his big league career.

To gauge by the clip above, Chapman was indeed looking backward when he stepped into the box. Maybe it was in response to chatter from his teammates about Graterol giving hitters the evil eye, and he wanted to check it out. Maybe he was peeking for signs or location. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—because Chapman offered the appearance of malfeasance, he left the Angels little recourse but to believe that was his intent.

Just as the primary responsibility for a team that’s getting its signs nabbed is to change the signs, Graterol had a number of options. He could have set up late in the sequence, once the hitter’s full concentration was on the pitcher. He could have set up early in one spot, and then shifted. He could have slapped his glove on one side of the plate while setting up on the other. Or he could have utilized the most surefire—and dangerous—peeker deterrent: calling for something away while he and the pitcher both understood that the next pitch would be high and tight. The Baseball Codes discussed a 1979 incident in which Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer gave suspected peeker Al Cowens just such a treatment, throwing a high, inside fastball after catcher Jim Sundberg had set up outside. Farmer caught Cowens leaning over the plate, with disastrous results:

The ball crashed into Cowens’s jaw, crumpling him instantly. Pete LaCock, who had been standing in the on-deck circle, was the first member of the Royals to arrive. “His glasses were still on and his eyes were bouncing up and down and I didn’t know if he was still breathing or not,” said LaCock. “I reached into his mouth and grabbed his chew, and right behind it came pieces of teeth and blood. It was an ugly scene.”

“I have to say he was throwing at me, maybe not in the face, but it was intentional,” Cowens said angrily after the game through a wired-together jaw. “That was his first pitch, and the two times before, he was throwing outside. He pitched me so well before. I can’t figure out why he pitched on the outside corner, struck me out, and then hit me.”

Farmer’s reply was equally pointed, though he avoided a direct accusa­tion. “[Cowens] thinks I’m guilty of throwing at him,” he said shortly afterward. “I think he’s guilty of looking for an outside pitch and not moving.” It may not have been the result he intended, but the pitcher felt justified in protecting his own interests. “It’s a fine line out there,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you don’t want anybody to take advantage of you.”

In that regard, Graterol’s handling of the situation was downright genteel. Regardless, even though it was the final meeting between the teams this season, it’s unlikely that Chapman & co. will take similar liberties—or anything that resembles them—in the future.

 

Bert Blyleven, Bert Blyleven, Don't Peek, Hotfoots

A Selection of Blyleven, in Honor of the Hall

Today we’re honoring Bert Blyleven’s acceptance into the Hall of Fame with a pair of Byleven-based excerpts—the first from The Baseball Codes, and the second from the book’s initial draft, which didn’t make the final cut.

The right-hander’s kookiness is legendary, as was his penchant for practical jokes—one in particular.

The undisputed master of the hotfoot was pitcher Bert Blyleven. The right-hander pitched in the major leagues for twenty-two years, and if Cooperstown applied the instigation of podiatric discomfort as one of its entry criteria, he would have been enshrined five years after his 1992 retirement. How good was he? For a time, the fire extinguisher in the Angels’ clubhouse read “In case of Blyleven. Pull.”

Ordinary hotfoot artists settle for wrecking their teammates’ cleats, but Blyleven was so good that he took the rare step of drawing the opposition into his line of fire. In 1990, the pitcher, then with the Angels, set his sights on Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre, who made the mistake of conducting an interview near the Anaheim dugout. Never mind that Lefebvre was there at the request of Angels analyst Joe Torre; Blyleven was deeply offended. There was, in the pitcher’s mind, only one appropriate response.

“I crawled behind him on my hands and knees,” Blyleven said. “And I not only lit one shoe on fire, I lit them both on fire.” Torre saw it all, but continued the interview as if nothing was happening. As Blyleven retreated to the dugout to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he was dismayed to see that Lefebvre refused to play along. “We all stood there and watched the flames starting,” said Blyleven. “The smoke was starting to come in front of [Lefebvre’s] face, but he was not going to back down. By God, he was going to continue this interview. And Joe was laughing, trying not to roll.”

Torre offered up an apology as soon as the interview wrapped, but Lefebvre was too busy trying to extinguish his feet to pay much attention. He also knew exactly whom to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered a hundred dollars to anyone on his team who could hit a line drive off the pitcher’s face. Part of the reason the manager was so angry was that he was deeply superstitious about his shoes; in fact, he continued to wear the scorched pair for several weeks, despite the damage.

In the end, Lefebvre wasn’t the prank’s only dupe. “Bert really screwed me up with that one, because Lefebvre thought I was in on it, and I wasn’t,” said Torre. “Lefebvre didn’t think it was very funny—they were brand-new shoes and he got embarrassed in public. Blyleven was nuts—absolutely nuts.”

The unpublished excerpt has to do with the topic of peeking—a hitter looking backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs. This, as Blyleven explains, is strictly forbidden.

The day before one of his starts as a member of the Minnesota Twins, Bert Blyleven was watching his team’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers on the clubhouse TV. Incredibly, he could swear that as Paul Molitor fiddled with the bat resting on his shoulder, the hitter took the opportunity to look back at catcher Tim Laudner.

“I ran down between innings and told Laudner, ‘Next time Molitor comes up there, you tell that son-of-a-bitch that I’m pitching tomorrow, and I caught him peeking.’ Well, the next time Molitor gets in the box, I see my catcher talking to him. Laudner told him, and you could see Molitor step out and kind of shake his head. After the inning was over I went over to Timmy and said, ‘Timmy, what’d he say?’ He said, ‘Tell Bert I’m not peeking.’ Well, I saw him peeking.”

When Blyleven started the following day, Molitor led off the game. “I damn near knocked his helmet off,” said Blyleven, whose intimidation set the stage for strikeouts in Molitor’s first two at-bats. “He was a pretty easy out the rest of the day.”

The point being that the absence of concrete evidence didn’t matter a bit. Blyleven thought Molitor was peeking, so Molitor was peeking.

So congratulations, Bert. The Hall of Fame is about to become a much livelier place.

– Jason