They showed us what not to do in Minnesota on Wednesday. Then they showed us again … and again.
Oakland’s Josh Donaldson led off the anti-exhibition in the 10th inning by admiring his deep fly ball, which landed just outside the left-field foul pole.
He compounded matters by striking out on the next pitch, a 2-2 slider from Minnesota left-hander Glen Perkins, for the third out of the inning. At the end of his exaggerated follow-through, Donaldson flipped his bat end over end toward the visitors’ dugout, and prepared to take the field. (Watch it here.)
Perhaps Perkins would have tolerated the flip without the foul-ball pimping. Perhaps he would have let the pimping slide without the flip. As it was, he took the time to inform Donaldson exactly how he felt about both ends of the equation, yelling toward the plate as he descended the mound. Donaldson came right back with words of his own, and the benches quickly cleared. No punches were thrown.
“The dude struck me out, pretty good pitch, I flipped my bat and I hear him barking at me,” said Donaldson in an MLB.com report. “I look up and he says something, points his finger. … I don’t feel like I disrespected him at all. I’m out there trying to win a game for our team and he’s trying to win a game for his team. I don’t know what it was all about. I’ve never even spoken to the guy.”
By referencing his own bat flip, it’s pretty clear that Donaldson knows exactly what it was all about. In case there was any question, Perkins put it quickly to rest.
Asked by reporters after the game if Donaldson had admired his foul ball, the pitcher was succinct. “He did—I think everyone saw that,” he said. “He hit it a long way. But I’m strict, too. I’m not big on that.”
It’s unlikely that this will merit further visitation from either of the aggrieved parties, but in case it does, the teams wrap up the series this afternoon.
When it comes to matters of messaging, it’s all in the timing. On a ball field, that means an offended team waits for the appropriate moment to respond to the player who rubbed them the wrong way. This might mean waiting for an at-bat, for a game or for a season.
Brian McCann, it seems, is not much for waiting.
Carlos Gomez, the game’s second batter, homered against Paul Maholm Wednesday, then lingered in the batter’s box. Once he began to trot, his churn rate increased with every step; he shouted with increasing fervor at first baseman Freddie Freeman and Maholm even before reaching third.
Watching this, McCann decided to unload a few of his own notions on Gomez, and made sure that his message could not be ignored. The catcher planted himself about 15 feet up the third base line, completely blocking Gomez’s path to the plate. The runner would not pass without first getting an earful.
As it turned out, he would not pass at all. McCann shouted him down without ceding the baseline, players from both teams stormed the field, Reed Johnson landed a punch to Gomez’s noggin, and the ensuing scrum carried everybody to the backstop. Gomez was ejected shortly thereafter, and left the field without ever touching the plate. (The umps invoked Rule 7.06[a], which says that an “obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction,” and allowed him to score. Watch it all here.)
So what the hell happened? Start with the fact that, including the aforementioned at-bat, Gomez is hitting .450 against Maholm in 20 career at-bats. Add to that the June 23 incident in which Maholm drilled Gomez in the left knee with a fastball—a pitch that Gomez felt was deliberate. (This became clear when the outfielder pointed to his knee while yelling at Maholm as he rounded third base following his homer on Wednesday. He admitted as much after the game.)
It resulted in a pissed-off Dominican pimping his homer as an in-your-face means of taunting his antagonist.
McCann got into the act immediately, imploring Gomez, at top volume, to get his ass out of the batter’s box. It ended (for now) with the scrum at the plate. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my baseball career, whether it be the big leagues, Minor Leagues or little leagues,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
The moment was reminiscent of catcher Carlton Fisk’s reaction during a 1989 game, when Deion Sanders lingered in the batter’s box after popping up to shortstop. From The Baseball Codes:
Fisk was forty-two years old and entrenched at the time as one of the premier members of baseball’s old guard. Watching Sanders’s lackadaisical display, the future Hall of Famer could barely contain himself. “Run the fucking ball out, you piece of shit—that’s not the way we do things up here!” he screamed at the startled hitter, two decades his junior and playing in just his twenty-fourth big-league game. By that point, of course, it was too late; the ball was already settling into the shortstop’s glove, and Sanders had nowhere to go but back to the dugout.
When Neon Deion came to the plate two innings later, he took the time to inform Fisk that “the days of slavery are over.” The catcher responded in kind, and the dugouts quickly emptied. “I just told him I thought that there was a right way and a wrong way to play the game, and he was playing it wrong, because it offended guys like me,” said Fisk. “And if he didn’t care to play it right, let’s go at it, right here.”
That seemed to be the basis of McCann’s point as well. Remember, he delivered a similar message just two weeks earlier, to Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez. Unlike Gomez, Fernandez took it immediately as a learning experience.
To be fair, Gomez did as well, it just took him a bit longer. And he seems to be holding on to a bit more resentment.
“I did a little bit more [than I should have], and I apologize for this,” Gomez said in an MLB.com report. “But if you see the replay [from June], they hit me for no reason, and I tried to get it back today. It’s the only opportunity that I have, and that’s what I did.
“It’s nothing against the organization, for the Braves. I respect everyone. I would do the same thing if I’m on the other side if a guy did like I did today. Defend my teammate. But they are not in my head and on my side—they hit me for no reason. If I do something to get hit, I put my head down and go to first. But I didn’t deserve to get hit by a pitch last time, [so] that’s what I did today.”
So who wins here? Maholm may well have drilled Gomez for the inadequate reason of protracted success, but comes out looking squeaky clean, relatively speaking. Gomez showed up Maholm and looked like a jerk in the process. McCann simply illustrated the fact that he may well be a crazy person. (A crazy person with deeply ingrained thoughts about propriety on a baseball diamond.)
Ultimately, it comes down to one overriding factor: Carlos Gomez just invited the Braves—and every other team in baseball—into his head for future appointments. The guy showed that he can be knocked off his game (and out of a game entirely) simply by being hit by a pitch. It’s not going to happen all the time, of course, but an underlying tenet of the Code is this: Put yourself in the best possible position to win. If all one needs to do to fracture the concentration of an opposing All-Star is hit him with a baseball, it seems only natural that, when the time is right, it will happen again … and again … and again—right up to the point that Gomez shows he can deal with it appropriately.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a player melt down so thoroughly in so short a time, but Jose Fernandez put on a show on Wednesday.
But for every instance that inspired reminders of the 21-year-old’s immaturity, he managed to recover as well as any player could hope to following a display such as his.
A small accounting:
Top of the fifth inning: Justin Upton blasts a ball to center field, which is tracked down by Justin Ruggiano. From the mound, Fernandez is all smiles.
Top of the sixth: Atlanta’s Evan Gattis responds after hitting a 96-mph fastball into the left field bleachers by admiring it for a moment while briefly staring down the pitcher. Fernandez notices. (Watch it here.)
Two hitters later, Chris Johnson and Fernandez exchange words after Johnson flies out to center field.
Bottom of the sixth: Fernandez blasts a nearly 400-foot drive off Braves left-hander Mike Minor for his first career homer, flips his bat away and—ostensibly in response to Gattis—stands to admire it. This is not an innocent would-be slugger in awe of his own unexpected power; the move is intended to disrespect the Braves, who take it precisely that way.
Fernandez begins an exceedingly slow trip around the bases—28.58 seconds, according to Tater Trot Tracker. (It would likely be among the five slowest in baseball this year if David Ortiz had taken up a profession other than baseball.) Minor stared him down much of the way.
As he rounds third—Johnson’s position—Fernandez spits toward the base.
When Fernandez crosses the plate, Braves catcher Brian McCann informs him of the ways in which he has behaved badly. “You’re a kid and you’re in the big leagues and you need to do what big leaguers do,” Fernandez recalled him saying in an MLB.com report. The players go nearly nose to nose.
Johnson sprints in from third (making you-talk-too-much motions with his hand), and the benches and bullpens empty.
In the aftermath, Fernandez paces the dugout, smiling. (Watch it all here.)
It’s easy to quibble about overreaction and the unnecessary sensitivity of ballplayers, but there’s no mistaking the fact that messages of disrespect were delivered from both parties, and received as intended—none louder than Fernandez’s. That it came from a rookie only served to amplify things.
At this point, of course, Fernandez must be given credit for attempting to pacify the situation almost as soon as it came to a head, telling McCann during their confrontation that, “I’m sorry, the game got the best of me,” he recalled after the game in an MLB.com report.
“[McCann] was talking to me as a friend, or a dad, teaching a kid,” he said. “That’s how I felt.”
Fernandez later said that he was embarrassed by his actions, saying “it’s something that can’t happen. It’s not good for baseball.”
The incident also illustrated the importance of quality leadership, particularly on the part of Marlins manager Mike Redmond. “Tonight showed some immaturity on Jose’s part …” he said. “He got caught up in the emotions, but I’m not happy. It really ruined the night for me. I know that will never happen again. … We respect the game.”
Redmond took things a step further, making sure that Fernandez’s actions did not carry over. A meeting was set up in a hallway underneath Marlins Park, where Fernandez apologized personally to McCann and Minor.
This is unusual in baseball circles, but hardly precedent-setting. In 2006, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire led Torii Hunter across the ballpark to apologize to Red Sox brass for swinging hard at a 3-0 pitch while the Twins held an 8-1, eighth-inning lead.
Unlike the Fernandez situation, there was no disrespect intended on Hunter’s part. Precisely like the Fernandez situation, it did not matter—perception is everything. From The Baseball Codes:
After the game, Gardenhire took the outﬁelder to the visitors’ clubhouse to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.
“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player understands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”
“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper about the Hunter incident. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game.”
Fernandez’s mistake was considerably more profound, but his reaction was appropriate.
“I feel I don’t deserve to be here, because this isn’t high school no more,” he said after the game. “This is a professional game, and we should be professional players. I think that never should happen. I’m embarrassed, and hopefully that will never happen again.”
Wednesday was the final start of Fernandez’s season, with his team enforcing an innings limit on his young arm. The guy will probably go on to win Rookie of the Year, but, starting with his confrontation with McCann, he’s already begun to display the maturity of a veteran.
We’ve already discussed Tampa Bay rookie Wil Myers‘ predilection for styling after he hits a home run. Nobody’s has responded as of yet. Which might be the reason that not only is he continuing to do it, but he seems to be one-upping himself with every effort.
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.
I bring this up because of Wil Myers’ reaction to the first of two home runs he hit Sunday against Yankees starter Phil Hughes. There’s no mistaking the rookie’s bravado, and the fact that he did it against a seven-year vet struggling to find his way in the game certainly didn’t help matters. (It’s also not the first time for him.)
The Yankees opted against making it a public issue, but place Kline’s commentary after Rollins’ blast—which was only the third of his career—within the mainstream:
“That’s fucking Little League shit. 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.”
Kline never responded from the mound, because he faced Rollins only five more times over the course of his career, all with the game on the line. The Yankees visit Tampa Bay in late August. The convictions of New York’s pitching staff will be made apparent then.
Regardless of how you feel about baseball’s unwritten rules—and there are many who decry the eye-for-an-eye mentality of retaliatory HBPs—it is difficult to quibble with the sentiment at their core: enforcement of respect on a baseball diamond. Respect for one’s opponents. Respect for one’s teammates. Respect for the game.
In this regard, the Twins are proving to be an exemplary organization.
Big league ballclubs tolerate flashy displays by their players all the time, because picking one’s battles becomes an increasingly relevant pursuit when it comes to emotionally fragile superstars who are locked into multiyear deals. This leaves it up to the opposition to settle the score. Hence, the aforementioned retaliatory HBPs.
The period before these players reach multimillionaire status, however, presents a fertile time during which to instill appropriate work habits. Which the Twins appear to be doing.
On Tuesday, for example, Miguel Sano, playing for the team’s Double-A club in New Britain, hit a long home run, then watched it, then settled into a glacial home run trot that saw him take 29 seconds to round the bases. He did it against a Portland pitcher, Bobby Lanigan, who had until only recently been his teammate.
It was not the first time that Sano, the third-ranked overall prospect in the minor leagues according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has encountered such trouble. In April, he hit a grand slam while playing for Single-A Fort Meyers, then overtly flipped his bat. Later in the game, the opposing pitcher threw a fastball at his head in response. Sano reacted to that message with more of the same, homering during the at-bat, then pumping his fist and shouting toward his team’s dugout.
It seems that the Twins have seen enough. Sano was pulled from the game following his display against Portland, and has not seen the field since.
“Just a normal player-development decision,” said Twins farm director Brad Steil in the Pioneer Press. “We have discipline for all sorts of things that we do. This is one of them. He’s not going to play for a few games.”
Critics can decry the concept of retaliatory pitches ad nauseum, but if every organization approached things as proactively as the Twins have handled this situation, there would be far less call for them in the first place.