Fights, Johnny Cueto, Retaliation

Hot-Headed Ways For Hot-Headed Men to Behave Like Hotheads

Cueto-DeJesusJohnny Cueto believes in responding should an opposing player disrespect him.

The guy also possesses the unfortunate combination of thin skin and anger-management issues. The same man who kicked Jason LaRue into retirement with a ridiculous display during a fight in 2010 was at it again on Sunday. Apparently irked in the first inning by David DeJesus’ decision to step out of the batter’s box during an at-bat, Cueto responded by flinging a fastball over the outfielder’s head—like, three feet over his head—when he came to the plate five frames later. (Watch it here.)

Plate ump Bob Davidson quickly warned both benches, curtailing retaliatory activity for the rest of the game, but the discussion was just getting started. And most of it centered on baseball’s unwritten rules.

Start with Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, who lasted just four innings. His postgame diatribe to reporters was long and pointed. Excerpts, from a CSNChicago report:

  • “I think that’s kind of immature on his part and totally uncalled for. He’s lucky that retaliation isn’t in our vocabulary here.”
  • “That’s kind of BS on his part. Just totally immature. If he has something to say about it, he knows where to find my locker and definitely I’ll find his.”
  • “If Cueto has any problem, he can throw at me and I’ll definitely return the favor. I didn’t like that one bit.”
  • “I hope he hears this, because I really don’t care. If we want to retaliate, we could have and lost a bullpen guy, but we don’t need that. We play the game the right way.”
  • “He needs to cut it out, because I’ll stop it.”

This from a guy who claims to have no personal history with Cueto. The message was, essentially, play the game the right way, or we’ll take care of it—the right way, via the Code. Problem was, Garza’s use of the media to address Cueto was itself against the Code, and served to puzzle one of the unwritten rules’ greatest practitioners, Cueto’s manager on the Reds, Dusty Baker.

Cueto hasn’t spoken to reporters since the incident, but Baker quickly picked up the slack. Rather than limit the scope of his conversation to on-field retaliation (perhaps spurred by Garza’s “find my locker” comment), he took things straight to the back alley.

“Take care of it then,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I mean, [Cueto] couldn’t hit Wilt Chamberlain with that pitch. … You got something to say, you go over there and tell him. Johnny ain’t running. Know what I mean? A guy can say what he wants to say, but it’s better if you go over and say it to his face.”

The most interesting part of the situation was when Baker recalled how, during his own playing days, situations were resolved a bit more directly.

“I just wish, just put them in a room, let them box and let it be over with, know what I mean?” he said. “I always said this. Let it be like hockey. Let them fight, somebody hits the ground and then it’ll be over with. I’m serious about that. I come from a different school. Guys didn’t talk as much. You just did it.”

He wasn’t just talking, either. As a player, was at the center of just such a situation. During a game against Pittsburgh in 1981, his Dodgers teammate, Reggie Smith, grew increasingly riled over the inside pitching of rookie Pascual Perez (despite the fact that Smith wasn’t even playing, due to a shoulder injury). When Perez hit Bill Russell with a pitch in the sixth inning, then hit Baker four batters later, Smith really started barking.

Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock motioned to Smith as if to say that he’d have to get through him to reach the pitcher, but Perez was not looking for protection. After striking out Steve Garvey to end the inning, Perez pointed first at Smith, then toward the grandstand. The two quickly retreated to the tunnels of Three Rivers Stadium to settle things, followed closely by teammates and managers.

As the 16,000 fans in attendance watched a vacant ballfield, puzzled, and umpires raced in an effort to intervene, a baseball fight broke out. Which is to say that, for all the dramatic build-up, tempers quickly cooled and peacemakers in the crowd broke it up before a punch, apparently, could be thrown.

The ultimate point, however, said Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, was that there was no carry-over. “It was taken care of,” he said.

If that incident somehow did not meet Baker’s criteria of guys not talking as much, another of his teams was involved in an off-field fight—this one in which fighting actually occurred, with punches and everything. Except instead of involving opposing teams, it featured only participants from his own roster. It was 1973, and Baker played for the Atlanta Braves, under manager Eddie Matthews. From The Baseball Codes:

The way Davey Johnson, then a star second baseman for the Braves, tells it, after an initial verbal disagreement with Matthews, the manager invited him into his room and challenged him to a fight. Johnson, reluctant at first, changed his mind when Matthews wound up for a roundhouse punch, then knocked the older man down. Matthews charged back, and as the sounds of the scrape flooded the hallway, players converged on the scene. In the process of breaking things up, several peacemakers were soon bearing welts of their own.

“The next day at the ballpark we looked like we had just returned from the Revolutionary War,” wrote Tom House (a member of the team, who, true to the code of silence, left all names out of his published account). “Every­body had at least one black eye, puffed-up lips, scraped elbows, and sore hands. It had been a real knockdown battle.”

This was something that couldn’t be hidden from the press. Matthews called the team together, and as a unit they came up with a story about a game that got carried away, in which guys took good-natured beatings. Flimsy? Maybe. Accepted? Absolutely.

“You can ask Hank Aaron and others on that team,” Johnson said, laughing. “Eddie said his biggest regret [in his baseball career] was not having it out with me again. That one never got out. It never made the papers.”

The Cueto-Garza-DeJesus situation will probably never come close to that. But that’s kind of the point. The call-and-response nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—taking care of things on the field, as it were—exists to prevent this sort of thing. And, save for the occasional below-decks brawl every few decades or so, it works pretty well in that regard.

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Brandon Phillips, Don't Call out Opponents in the Press, Fights, Johnny Cueto

A Dark Day for Baseball Etiquette in Cincinnati, Pretty Much All Around

This is what can happen when a player utters even a syllable too many about his opponent. (Though to be fair to the Cardinals, “little bitches” is a full four syllables.)

A day after forgetting to use his inside-the-clubhouse voice when discussing feelings about the St. Louis ballclub with the press—which included referring to them by the above epithet—Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips stepped to the plate yesterday as the Reds’s first hitter of the game.

Upon entering the batter’s box, he tapped his bat on the shin guards of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and plate ump Mark Wegner as a means of greeting.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s standard practice for Phillips, meant as nothing but a friendly hello.

At least until he encountered a short-fused catcher who clearly prefers that his team be referred to in terms more genteel than “little bitches.”

“Why are you touching me?” he asked Phillips, as reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “You are not my friend, so don’t touch me.”

Phillips had thrown down the gauntlet with his comments, and Molina was only too happy to pick it up. Both teams flooded the field, and the scrum quickly turned into a baseball rarity—a fight in which actual blows were thrown. Managers Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa were ejected. (Watch it here.)

The appropriate response to Phillips and Molina: Grow up a little.

The unwritten rules mandate on-field retaliation only for on-field breaches of etiquette, and nothing more. Phillips ran his mouth, and the Cardinals responded in the best way possible, holding him to a combined 1-for-10 over the ensuing two games, while winning both to move into a tie with Cincinnati in the NL Central.

Molina should have let his comments go, and concentrated on the game, not a silly schoolyard spat. (He did use the confrontation as a bit of personal motivation, hitting a second-inning homer off Johnny Cueto.)

Now, what had been an unendorsed bit of foolishness from a single player has turned into genuine bad blood. It certainly helps make things interesting as the teams battle for the division lead, but these matchups are loaded with motivation based on baseball alone. Watching players act like testosterone-fueled kids does nothing for the purity of a good stretch drive.

* * *

During the course of the festivities, Baker and La Russa got into it, bringing quickly to mind the fact that they haven’t had the smoothest relationship over the years.

When Baker was with the Cubs in 2005, La Russa went public about concerns over Kerry Wood’s inside pitches, which was followed by Cards pitcher Dan Haren hitting his counterpart on the Cubs, Matt Clement.

Baker took it as an attempt at “selling wolf tickets,” or overtly trying to intimidate his team, saying in the Chicago Tribune that “no one intimidates me but my dad and Bob Gibson—and this bully I had in elementary school. But I grew bigger than him, and he stopped bullying me.”

The two eventually met and settled things, but it didn’t take long for their history to bubble to the surface yesterday.

* * *

Another unwritten rule was broken in the middle of the crowd of players, when Cueto, backed up against the backstop by a pile of humanity, opted to kick his way free.

There are rules to any fight; in the Code-driven world of professional baseball, this is especially true. It’s why Izzy Alcantara has gained such notoriety, and why Chan Ho Park’s attempted drop kick of Tim Belcher in 1999 continues to be replayed.

Square up and hit a guy, if you must, but the unwritten rules stipulate that kicking a player as means of attack is less than manly; something even for little bitches, if you will.

Cueto’s spikes landed, apparently repeatedly, on the face of St. Louis catcher Jason LaRue, who suffered a concussion and bruised ribs, and has been ruled out of playing today—and possibly much longer.

“He could have done some real damage (on LaRue),” said Chris Carpenter in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He got him in the side of his eye, he got him in his nose, he got him in his face. Totally unprofessional. Unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that. He got kicked square in the side of the face with spikes. C’mon, give me a break.”

Cueto was on the mound for the Reds yesterday, but batted first with two runners on, and later during a 2-2 game. Neither situation was appropriate for retaliation.

The teams meet again in early September. This time, on-field payback—should that be the route the Cardinals choose to take, and with La Russa at the helm, it’s a good bet—will be entirely appropriate.

Buckle in.

Update (Aug. 12): Cuteo has been suspended for seven games—effectively, two starts—for his part in the brawl. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll appeal in an effort to delay his punishment until just before the Reds visit St. Louis on Sept. 3.

– Jason