Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

Don’t Mess With Jackie

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: intimidation.

From Jules Tygiel’s book, “Baseball’s Great Experiment”:

According to a story told by [longtime minor league catcher Clay] Hopper, one southern opponent assisted Jackie Robinson in an unusual way. Paul Derringer, a thirty-nine-year-old former major league hurler who had won 223 games over his fifteen-year career, faced Robinson in an April exhibition game.

The Kentucky-born player told Hopper that he would test the black athlete. The first time Robinson came to the plate, Derringer hurled a fastball at his head. “He knocked him down all right,” said Hopper, “Forced him to put his chin right in the dirt.”

Robinson stepped back in and Derringer threw a second pitch that headed at him and then broke sharply over the inside corner. Robinson lashed the ball on a line over the third baseman’s head for a single.

Two innings later, Derringer again decked Robinson. This time the angry batter drove the next pitch into left-center for a triple. After the game Derringer confided to Hopper, one southerner to another, “Clay, your colored boy is going to do all right.”

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

Pete Rose Will Get You Any Way He Can

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: intimidation.

Rare is the player who can intimidate simply by the size of his personality, but when it happens, it’s something to behold. The master of this was Pete Rose, a man for whom size, strength and speed were less intrinsic to greatness than sheer intensity. Rose’s enthusiasm may have earned him the nickname Charlie Hustle, but an underappreciated facet of his particular genius was the ability to not just rattle an opponent, but to inspire doubt.

Take the 1978 All-Star Game in San Diego, where Rose went so far as to import to the National League clubhouse cases of Japanese baseballs—smaller and more tightly wound than their American counterparts, which caused them to carry farther. Working the locker room like a politician, he eventually garnered buy-in from his teammates on two counts: The National Leaguers agreed to use the balls during batting practice, and they also agreed that nobody would tell members of the American League team what was going on. Rose then sauntered over to the AL locker room and convinced many of the players to come out and watch their opponents take pre-game hacks.

Jack Murphy Stadium was vast in 1978, running 420 feet to center field, but Rose’s teammates for the day put on quite a show, hammering ball after ball over the fence’s deepest reaches. When they were done, the National Leaguers gathered all the balls and returned them to their locker room for safekeeping. Using standard major league baseballs in their own batting practice, the American Leaguers had a much rougher go of it.

It was a minor but thorough, and while it may not have been the deciding factor, neither did it hurt. The National League went on to win its seventh straight contest, 7-3.

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

‘How Far Did You Hit That One?’

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: intimidation.

Don Sutton came up with the Dodgers in 1966. Shortstop Zoilo Versalles joined the team in ’68, as a nine-year veteran. Versalles decided to have some fun before a game one day as the 23-year-old Sutton warmed up in the bullpen. “Zoilo grabbed a bat and acted like he was timing the pitch,” recalled Dodgers pitcher Joe Moeller. “He swung and said, ‘I hit that ball 390 feet!’ Sutton throws another pitch: ‘I hit that ball 410 feet.’

“Next pitch, Sutton drilled him and said, ‘How far did you hit that one?’ ”

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

Fitzsimmons Vs. Picklehead

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: intimidation.

During the pennant race of 1941, Brooklyn pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons was 39 years old and in his 17th season. He’d so used up his throwing arm over the course of the campaign that it was crooked, according to Leo Durocher. “He literally could not reach down and pick anything up,” wrote the Dodgers manager in Nice Guys Finish Last. “He had to bend from the knees.” This meant that the right-hander, still vital to the Dodgers’ chances, had to out-think opponents instead of overpowering them, to the point that the New York Times that year referred to him as “210 pounds of courage and pitching skill.” Part of his success came via his power of intimidation.

As Brooklyn battled St. Louis down the stretch, every game mattered. During one of these encounters, Fitzsimmons found himself facing Johnny Mize, on his way to a fifth straight 100-RBI campaign.

Fitzsimmons was overmatched and knew it, so he did the only thing he could. Gathering whatever he could from his damaged arm, he threw his best fastball toward Mize’s head, causing the first baseman to lose his footing as he ducked out of the way. “Get ready, Picklehead, you’re going down again,” Fitzsimmons yelled toward the plate. Then he put his second pitch in exactly the same location. Before his third pitch, he yelled, “Right at that thick picklehead skull of yours,” and knocked the future Hall of Famer to the ground one more time. The right-hander then managed to squeeze two strikes over the plate, and with a full count badly fooled a wary Mize with a curveball. “You picklehead,” screamed Fitzsimmons. “You never could hit me!”

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

No Pink Tea, And Mollycoddles Stay Out

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: intimidation.

One of Ty Cobb’s more famous marks was Hall-of-Fame third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker of the Philadelphia A’s, who had the misfortune of reaching down with his bare hand to apply a tag to Cobb during a game in 1909. Cobb’s high kick left spike imprints in Baker’s arm, a play that drew instant condemnation in Philadelphia and quickly became a national story, earning Cobb detractors around the country. “Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men,” said Cobb. “It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It’s a struggle for supremacy, survival of the fittest.”

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

Dave Paker Is Comin’ To Get You

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: intimidation.

When Dave Parker returned from a broken jaw in 1978, he wore specially fitted headgear for protection. “He would wear a football helmet, said longtime shortstop Chris Speier, describing what was actually a football facemask attached to Parker’s batting helmet. “Here’s a guy who was 6-foot-5, 240, with a fuckin’ mask on, huffing and puffing, yelling, ‘I’m comin’ to get you!’ … When you’ve got that ball at second and you turn and look and you see nothing but this massive man coming at you, can’t even see the first base bag … That feeling he put into you … Oh, god.”

Intimidation, Pandemic Baseball

Julian Javier Really Should Have Known Better

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: intimidation.

In 1962, Don Drysdale, on first base, steamed into second on what turned out to be a foul grounder by Maury Wills, and took out Cardinals second baseman Julian Javier with a hook slide to break up what he thought would be a double play. That made Javier angry.

On the following pitch, Wills hit a ball to shortstop Dal Maxvill, who fed Javier for the force. Drysdale, out by too much to even think about repeating his slide, veered out of the baseline to avoid the throw, which didn’t much matter to Javier.

“He aimed the ball directly at me,” said Drysdale. “I was well on the outside of the basepath, knowing I was already out, and Javier’s throw wound up hitting the auxiliary scoreboard in short right field—eighty feet from the bag, and in foul territory. He’d had no idea whatsoever of throwing to first base. He wanted to hit me in the head, and if I hadn’t ducked, he would have.” Without a word, Drysdale returned to the dugout. His turn would come.

The next time Javier stepped to the plate, Drysdale aimed a fastball at his chin. “He went down like he’d been shot out of a cannon,” wrote Drysdale in Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, “his helmet flying one way, his glasses going up in the air. When he got up, it looked like he’d been in a flour sack. He was filthy.” The Cardinals complained vociferously about what they felt was a bad slide, compounded by Drysdale’s decking of their player.

That was the game Drysdale played, though. He welcomed all shots, with the clear understanding that the final word would eventually be his. In this instance, the Cardinals didn’t tempt him further. They knew too well what might happen if they did.

Intimidation

Let’s Talk About What To Do When Teams Hit Too Many Home Runs In A Row

Shortly after The Baseball Codes came out, I was asked by a radio guy about my favorite unwritten rule. It was an odd but interesting question—one that somehow, through the five-year process of researching and writing the book, I had never considered. The rule that first popped into my head did so, I think, because it’s quaint and outdated, and paints the long-ago baseball landscape in which it existed as entirely foreign, like some pastoral English countryside. It holds that a player should not swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs. Given this week’s power barrage, it seems like an appropriate discussion point.

The idea is one of courtesy. I’ll let Hal McRae explain:

“Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch. Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him, you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch it’s okay for you to do your job. . . . Don’t go up there and take a swing from your heels on the first pitch. Get in the box loosely. Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging. I know you’re out there trying to do a job. And I have to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Early on, the rule actually covered any home run, not only back-to-back jobs. These days, of course, it’s entirely off the table. Hitters swing freely at whatever they see, regardless of circumstance.

Take this week, for instance. We’ve already seen one team hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs, and another slug three in a row. As it turned out, of the four Nationals homers off of Padres reliever Craig Stammen on Sunday, the final three came on the reliever’s second pitch. Of the three Diamondbacks to take Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff deep to lead off their game Monday, all went deep into the count.

This is undoubtedly a matter of circumstance more than etiquette. It’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters considered the above rule. Hell, it’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters has heard of the above rule. Which is part of what makes it my favorite, the kind of thing left for discussion with old-timers.

That’s not the only thing at play here, though. Numerous teams have hit four straight home runs, but only rarely do they do so against one pitcher, without a reliever being summoned someplace along the way. In fact, Stammen was only the fourth hurler in big league history to bear that weight. “You want to dig a hole, crawl behind the mound and go in that hole and never return every time you give up a home run,” he said in an MLB.com report. “To give up four in a row, just times that by four. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s your job to go out there and make pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t do it today.”

The other unwritten rule that comes into play here—which seems nearly as outdated as not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back jobs—is the idea of making somebody uncomfortable at the plate. This is purely strategic, the power of an inside pitch that moves a hitter’s feet and backs him up in the box. The more a batter has to concentrate on the possibility of avoiding a baseball, after all, the less he can concentrate on hitting.

I discussed this in 2017, when the Nationals (none of them overlapping with the Washington quartet that recently did it again) hit four straight dongs off of Milwaukee’s Michael Blazek. I quoted longtime reliever Bob McClure telling his own story of similar frustration:

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

That tactic—not hitting a guy, but disrupting his concentration—might have served Stammen well had he chosen to employ it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead, of the 12 pitches the right-hander threw to the four homer hitters, only one—the second pitch of the entire sequence—ran inside. The Nats seem to have appreciated this.  

Similar advice could have been utilized by Dylan Bundy last season, or David Bush back in 2010.

Given the ever-increasing incidences of home-run barrages (Washington’s recent quartet came as part of a game that saw 13 longballs), this kind of strategy seems more necessary now than ever. Which doesn’t in any way mean that pitchers will use it, of course.

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Carlos Gomez Heard Somthing, Maybe, And Now He’s Mad at Collin McHugh

McHugh confused

Backstory plays an important part in most major league drama, and it’s possible that there’s some we don’t yet know about regarding Monday’s intra-Texas incident between the Astros and Rangers.

Then again, Carlos Gomez was at the center of things, so all bets are off.

Here’s what we do know: Gomez got angry at an inside pitch from Collin McHugh that didn’t come close to hitting him. He got angrier after the next pitch, a strike that he fouled off, staring down McHugh even while stumbling from the batter’s box on his swing. (Watch it here.)

Here’s what we also know: Back on Aug. 31, McHugh drilled Gomez with a first-pitch fastball. It was unintentional—Gomez was leading off the second inning of a 1-1 game—but the batter has apparently held on to it. Or maybe it was the Aug. 12 game, in which Gomez was hit by Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers. Or maybe it was that benches-clearing incident between the teams on May 1, when Mike Napoli overreacted to a Lance McCullers message pitch that didn’t come close to hitting him.

Or maybe it’s just that the Astros were busy knocking Texas out of the wild-card race. Whatever the answer, Gomez has been hit by 19 pitches this season, putting him on pace to lead the league in any category for the first time in his 11-year career. McHugh didn’t drill him on Monday. He didn’t come close.

According to Gomez’s postgame comments, it was all a game of telephone, with McHugh telling some guy with the Astros that he was going to drill Gomez, and that guy either telling Gomez about it, or telling someone else who told Gomez about it, and … aren’t these adults we’re talking about?

Then again, Gomez is the guy who got into it with current Astro and then-Brave Brian McCann, and with Gerritt Cole. It’s also not the first time he pissed off a team for which he used to play. It clearly doesn’t take much to set him off.

It could even have started here:

Ultimately, it’s difficult to ascribe wide-reaching unwritten-rules themes to somebody who has repeatedly gone off his rocker over the years. Is Carlos Gomez a bit nutty? Probably. Does he have legitimate beef with Collin McHugh? Who knows?

The Rangers close their series with Houston tonight, and end their season on Sunday. Gomez’s contract with the Texas expires after this season, and for all we know he’ll re-sign with Houston.

Don’t count on it, though.

 

 

Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Brewers Never Answer the Question: How Many Homers is Too Many Homers?

Harper mashesOnce upon a time, in a different era of baseball, pitchers thought nothing of throwing at hitters’ heads. That’s changed.

In a different era of baseball, pitchers would drill a guy not only for his own success, but for the success of his teammates. The player in front of you hits a homer? Expect to wear one. That, too, has changed.

Both of those developments are unequivocally for the better.

But then we have something like last night, when four members of the Washington Nationals went deep in the span of five batters—four of them in a row—during a single inning, part of an eight-homer day. It was a ridiculous show of firepower, and the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t do a thing to slow it down.

Before proceeding, I offer a snippet from an interview with former Brewers pitcher and current Phillies hitting coach Bob McClure, conducted years ago for The Baseball Codes:

We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

McClure was not trying to hit Kingman, or to hurt him. He was trying to disrupt his comfort in the batter’s box. Be clear about that distinction, because it could have done Brewers pitcher Michael Blazek—who gave up every one of Washington’s fifth-inning homers yesterday—a bit of good. The Nationals were clearly relaxed in the batter’s box. Utilizing inside pitches—not to hit anyone, but to move their feet, back them off the plate and make them consider the possibilities—could have disrupted that comfort. It did not appear to have any place in Milwaukee’s game plan, and the assault continued.

Historically, the most glaring example of this type of thing came from Paul Foytack, the first of the four pitchers (including Blazek) ever to give up four straight homers. While with the Los Angeles Angels in 1963, against Cleveland, Foytack surrendered three straight—to Woodie Held, pitcher Pedro Ramos (batting a robust .109 at the time) and Tito Francona—and set out to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. Even that didn’t go quite as planned, as Brown ended up hitting his first career home run. “That shows you what kind of control I had,” Foytack told reporters later.

The modern game, however, has eschewed inside pitching to such a degree that the idea never appeared to cross Blazek’s mind, nor—given that it was the pitcher’s first-ever big league start—that of his manager, Craig Counsell. What we’re left with is a record-tying performance that Blazek would rather have no part of.

***

Those four homers gave us another example of the evolution of the unwritten rules, which had more to do with the hitters than with Blazek. A generation ago, the code dictated that a batter would take the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. It was a courtesy offered a struggling opponent.

Take it from three-time All-Star Hal McRae: “Someone would pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch.’ Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch, it’s okay for you to do your job.”

Yesterday, Blazek’s first pitches to Wilmer Difo and Bryce Harper—the second and third of the quartet of consecutive-homer hitters—were out of the strike zone, and taken. His first pitch to the fourth member of that group, Ryan Zimmerman, was down the pipe, and blasted over the left-center field fence.

The interesting part of this is not that the Nationals didn’t observe an obscure unwritten rule, but the extreme probability that nobody in their clubhouse apart from manager Dusty Baker and perhaps a coach or two has even heard of it. The idea of sacrificing statistics for a bit of kindness to an opponent is so beyond the pale in the modern game (and, frankly, has been that way since the 1980s), that it’s almost beyond comprehension.

It does serve, however, as a marker for how far the game has come, and the extreme evolution of its moral compass.