Don't Steal with a Big Lead

Davey vs. Rickey, Ten Years After

Ten years ago this weekend, Davey Lopes and Rickey Henderson had a little Code-related run-in. It would quickly turn into one of the most prominent kerfluffles in the recent history of the unwritten rules, sufficiently noteworthy to lead a chapter about when and when not to steal in a certain book devoted to the subject.

Similar situations still come up all the time. (Look no further than Carlos Gomez or A.J. Ellis earlier this year, or Nyjer Morgan‘s antics last season.) Still, in honor of the grandaddy moment of them all, it seems worth revisiting. From The Baseball Codes:

In July 2001, Rickey Henderson was forty-two years old and, by an enor­mous margin, baseball’s all-time stolen-base leader. The San Diego Padres outfielder was well over two decades into his major-league career and had long since been anointed the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Then he stole second base against the Brewers, and Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes exploded.

It wasn’t just any steal that set Lopes off—it happened in the seventh inning of a game in which the Padres led 12–5, after Milwaukee’s defense had essentially cried “uncle” by positioning first baseman Richie Sexson in the hole behind Henderson instead of holding him on. The play was so borderline, as far as stolen bases go, that it was ruled defensive indiffer­ence, and Henderson wasn’t even credited with a steal. That wasn’t his goal, however. Henderson was approaching Ty Cobb’s all-time record for runs scored (which he would ultimately best in the season’s final week), and he had just put himself into scoring position.

Lopes could not have been less interested in the runner’s motivation. As soon as Henderson reached second, Lopes went to the mound, osten­sibly to talk to pitcher Ray King but really to direct a tirade up the middle. At top volume and with R-rated vocabulary, Lopes informed Henderson that he had just become a target for the Brewers pitching staff.

“I didn’t appreciate what he did,” Lopes told reporters after the game. “I know he’s trying to obtain a record for most runs scored, but do it the right way. If he keeps doing stuff like that he’s going to get one of his play­ers hurt. I just told him to stay in the game because he was going on his ass. We were going to drill him, flat out. I told him that. But he chose not to stay in the game; I knew he wouldn’t.”

Henderson was removed after the inning by Padres manager Bruce Bochy, which the skipper insisted had to do with the lopsided score, not Lopes’s threats. Afterward, Henderson said that he was reluctantly fol­lowing green-light orders given to him by third-base coach Tim Flannery and sanctioned by Bochy, and that showing anybody up was the last thing on his mind. “Davey and I argued, but I told him that on my own, in that situation, I wouldn’t go down and steal that base,” he said. (“Rickey said I gave him the sign?” said a surprised Flannery when he heard Henderson’s take. “Rickey didn’t even know the sign.”)

“To be blunt, what he did was bullshit,” said King after the game. “We weren’t holding him on. If he’s going to break the record that way, he doesn’t deserve it. The guy’s probably going in the Hall of Fame, but to try to get to second base just to score a run, that’s sorry. When he took off I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

What Henderson had done was break one of the cornerstone entries in baseball’s unwritten rulebook: Don’t play aggressively with a big lead late in the game. It’s tantamount to running up the score in football, and no tenet of the Code is more simultaneously revered and loathed. It means the cessation of stolen-base attempts, sending runners in search of extra bases, swinging at 3-0 pitches, and an assortment of other tactics aimed toward scoring at all costs.

“There is no excuse that can be made up to justify trying to show some­one up,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, one of the Code’s staunchest practitioners in his twenty-five years at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. “There’s no excuse, and you can’t invent one.”

– Jason

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A.J. Ellis, Carlos Gomez, Don Mattingly, Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Mike Quade, Ron Roenicke

Cubs Skipper Quade Serving as One-Man Code Army

Mike Quade: Needing a copy of the Brewers' and Dodgers' unwritten rulebooks.

One thing we’ve learned for certain so far this young season: Cubs manager Mike Quade is a fan of the unwritten rules. He gets bothered when they’re broken on his watch, and he’s willing to call out those who diminish their importance or ignore them altogether.

First, it was Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke, who inserted pinch-runner Carlos Gomez into the eighth inning of a game in which his team led 5-0, then watched unapologetically as Gomez stole two bases.

“These unwritten rules—everybody has their own interpretation,” said Quade. Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.”

Funny that “run into to trouble” is the phrase he chose.

Not two weeks later, Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis did literally that when he tried to swipe a base with his team holding an 8-1 lead in the fifth.

This seems like a good place to get into Quade’s notion of differing interpretations. When Gomez ran against the Cubs, his team’s 5-0 lead was considered insufficient by Roenicke to shut down his running game, but the eighth inning is without question an appropriate timeframe to have done so.

When Ellis swiped his base, the criteria were reversed; there’s little argument that an 8-1 lead is well within the boundaries of “safe,” but the fifth inning might be considered a touch early for some managers to call off the dogs.

“I do think I probably need to get a copy of the Milwaukee and L.A. unwritten rules books, too, unless they missed a sign,” said Quade.

As it turns out, that’s precisely what happened. After the game, Ellis and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly both confessed as much; Mattingly said his sign to third-base coach Tim Wallach was “missed” (whatever that actually means), and off went Ellis, possessor of zero prior steals over parts of four big league seasons.

The play was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Ellis was thrown out. It may also have been mitigated when the Dodgers sent Ellis to Triple-A Albuquerque days later.

Still, said Mattingly, “We knew when it happened, we figured they’d be irritated.”

Ellis’ steal brought to mind another Dodgers youngster who stole another base in an inappropriate situation. In the case of Roger Cedeno, however, there was no missed sign. From the Baseball Codes:

In a game in 1996, the Giants trailed Los Angeles 11–2 in the ninth inning, and decided to station first baseman Mark Carreon at his normal depth, ignoring the runner at first, Roger Cedeno. When Cedeno, just twenty-one years old and in his first April as a big-leaguer, saw that nobody was bothering to hold him on, he headed for second—by any interpretation a horrible decision.

As the runner, safe, dusted himself off, Giants third baseman Matt Williams lit into him verbally, as did second baseman Steve Scarsone, left fielder Mel Hall, and manager Dusty Baker. Williams grew so heated that several teammates raced over to restrain him from going after the young Dodgers outfielder.

The least happy person on the field, however, wasn’t even a member of the Giants—it was Dodgers hitter Eric Karros, who stepped out of the batter’s box in disbelief when Cedeno took off. Karros would have disap­proved even as an impartial observer, but as the guy who now had a pissed-off pitcher to deal with, he found his thoughts alternating between anger toward Cedeno and preparing to evade the fastball he felt certain was headed his way. (“I was trying to figure if I was going to [duck] for­ward or go back,” said Karros after the game. “It was a 50–50 shot.”) Giants pitcher Doug Creek, however, in a display of egalitarian diplo­macy, left Karros unmarked, choosing instead to let the Giants inflict whatever retribution they saw fit directly upon Cedeno. (Because it was the ninth inning, nothing happened during that particular game.)

At second base, Scarsone asked Cedeno if he thought it was a full count, and the outfielder responded that, no, he was just confused. “If he’s that confused, somebody ought to give him a manual on how to play baseball,” said Baker after the game. “I’ve never seen anybody that con­fused.”

In the end, it was Karros who saved Cedeno. When he stepped out of the box, as members of the Giants harangued the bewildered baserunner, Karros didn’t simply watch idly—he turned toward the San Francisco bench and informed them that Cedeno had run without a shred of insti­tutional authority, and that Karros himself would ensure that justice was administered once the game ended. Sure enough, as Cedeno sat at his locker after the game, it was obvious to observers that he had been crying. Though the young player refused to comment, it appeared that Karros had been true to his word. “Ignorance and youth really aren’t any excuse,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, “but we were able to cool things down.”

– Jason

Carlos Gomez, Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Mike Quade, Ron Roenicke

Brewers Late Baserunning Renews Questions About How Much is Too Much

Ron Roenicke

The best-known and probably most widely debated of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when one can safely steal a base—or, more precisely, when one can’t steal a base.

The idea is similar to the one that prevents football teams not coached by Steve Spurrier from running up the score; once a game is in hand, respect for the other team informs a manager to back off. With a sizeable lead late in a game, a team is expected to top stealing bases, taking extra bases, hitting sacrifice flies, enacting sacrifice bunts and etc.

This rule is followed without exception, by most everyone in the major leagues.

Where things go sideways is the varying interpretations of “big lead” and “late in the game.”

On April 9, for example, the Brewers held a 5-0 lead over the Cubs in the eighth inning. With one out, Carlos Gomez—running for Mark Kotsay, who had just been walked by Jeff Samardzija—stole second.

It turned out to be irrelevant; Samardzija walked the bases loaded, then walked Gomez home.

Gomez’s manager, Ron Roenicke, had no problem with seeing his player running. Then again, inserting the speedster into the game was no less aggressive a move on Roenicke’s part.

“Up 5-0 in the eighth or ninth inning, I don’t worry about it one bit,” Roenicke said in an MLB.com report. “Today’s game is not 20 years ago. You can get five runs in one inning. … People used to say you’re not supposed to run in the seventh, eighth or ninth when you’re up by more than a grand slam. That is completely out of this game today. It’s not even close. So, for me, it’s not even an issue. If that’s brought up, it’s from people that really don’t understand today’s game.”

Also, this: “If somebody has that mentality, then they shouldn’t be in the game, and I just can’t imagine a manager having that mentality.”

It’s a line of thought that is no less aggressive than the tactic itself. Agree or disagree with Roenicke, to reduce the argument to “smart baseball people” vs. “not smart baseball people” is essentially empty bluster.

After all, Cubs manager Mike Quade understands the game a little. He is also a manager, it should be pointed out, and he took some exception to Roenicke’s approach.

“Everybody has to make their own decision on that,” he said. “There are unwritten rules, so I’d disgree with him on that.”

Quade’s words were diplomatic, but he was clearly a bit ticked off. Quade is in his first full season as a major league manager, and clearly doesn’t want to stir things up too vigorously. Then again, Roenicke has managed all of 16 games himself at this level, and stirring things up doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.

For all his bombast, of course, he made a number of valid points. From MLB.com:

“If my concern with my team is I need more runs to make sure we win this ballgame, or, more importantly, to make sure I don’t have to use certain people in my bullpen, that’s what it comes down to.”

“The other side, they don’t know what’s going on with us. Today we’re playing [the Cubs], and [if] all of a sudden it’s 7-0 in the eighth inning and he’s running, my thoughts aren’t, ‘He’s trying to show us up.’ He may have two relievers down in his bullpen I know nothing about. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’ve got arm stiffness, and he can’t afford in a 7-0 game to use his setup man or his closer. So if he’s running, I think there’s a good reason why he’s running.”

These thoughts are entirely consistent with the interview he gave us in 2006 for the Baseball Codes, concerning this very topic. The guy clearly believes what he speaks, at least in general terms. In specific terms, while the Brewers’ bullpen is dealing with Takashi Saito’s sore hamstring, they hadn’t exactly been burning through relievers. In the previous four games, dating back to Yovani Gallardo’s complete-game victory over Atlanta on April 5, no reliever had been used more than twice, and never for more than an inning at a time.

Sure, Roenicke didn’t want the game to get close enough to go deep into his bullpen, but that didn’t seem to be the real issue. Despite the fact that he’s clearly spent significant time considering the topic (or maybe because of it) Roenicke’s real issue appears to be with the Code itself.

At least that’s what can be surmised from his answer to a question about whether there’s any cutoff point at which stealing bases becomes unacceptable.

“No,” Roenicke said, “there isn’t.”

– Jason