Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

Advertisements
Cheating, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, No-Hitter Etiquette, Pine Tar

Did Fiers Cheat? Should Anyone Care?

Fiers glove

Mike Fiers’ no-hitter on Friday was as notable for his opponents’ reactions as for the event itself. Any no-hitter offers a significant degree of intrigue, but this one gained steam when the television broadcast appeared to show a shiny substance on Fiers’ glove in the ninth inning, assumed to be pine tar.

Rather than bemoan their fate at the hands of a possible cheater, however, the Dodgers took the appropriate path, issuing credit where it was due and downplaying any semblance of controversy.

“I don’t want to take anything away from his night,” Carl Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. Don Mattingly said, “I think it sounds like you’re whining if you look at it and talk about it,” and added (without accusation) that pine tar use is more or less accepted unless it’s “blatantly obvious.” (Fiers, for his part, denied everything.)

Regardless of whether Fiers was using a banned substance, those in the Los Angeles clubhouse know that they have pitchers among their own ranks who do that very thing—as does every club in baseball. And if every club does it, it’s not such a catastrophe. And if it’s not such a catastrophe, why paint it as such? Mattingly respected Fiers’ feat for what it was, exactly as he should have done.

Well played, Dodgers.

No-Hitter Etiquette

So What’s an Inside Pitch Between Friends?

Scherzer no-noDid he or didn’t he? Is Jose Tabata a perfect-game-spoiling ruiner of all things good, or a baffled hitter in a long string of baffled hitters to face Max Scherzer on Saturday? Was he leaning into the pitch, or drawing away from the pitch? Is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?

These are questions based on intent and situation. Tabata, of course, was hit by a pitch with one out to go in Scherzer’s would-be perfect game. Does a batter do anything possible to reach base so late in a game—which, at 6-0, has been all but lost—in which his teammates had not really come close? Is getting hit by a pitch to break up a perfect game anything like bunting to break up a no-hitter?

The answer is easy: Of course it isn’t. Tabata didn’t lean into the pitch. He watched a breaking ball that didn’t break as expected, and drew back his elbow—into the path of the ball as it turned out—far too late to make a difference. (Watch it here.)

Far more interesting is the question of insertion. It is fair under certain circumstances to question a manager for inserting a top-flight player into a blowout game for the sole purpose of spoiling a no-hitter. Tabata was pinch-hitting, but in this case somebody had to—the spot in the order belonged to reliever Vance Worley. So, given that the Nationals were already the presumptive victors, was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle under any obligation to utilize a lesser bench player? Would it have been more appropriate to call upon somebody like Corey Hart, who has more at-bats than Tabata this season but is hitting 90 points lower?

Nope. Leave it to Hurdle’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland, to explain the situation. I spoke to him in 2010, when he was managing the Detroit Tigers, about his decision to pinch-hit Ramon Santiago with two outs in the ninth inning against Chicago’s Matt Garza, who was pitching his own no-hitter. Detroit was losing, 5-0, and Leyland admitted to me that winning the game no longer factored into his strategy. (Santiago flied out to end it. Detroit’s starting pitcher that day: Max Scherzer.)

Knowing you’re not going to win, at what point do you let the guy have his no-hitter?
I don’t think you ever say that. I don’t ever say that.

No matter what the score, you’d send up your pinch-hitters?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’ think you ever say, “Let the guy have his no-hitter.” That’s not the way the game is played. If I’m going to say that, I might as well go home. That sends the wrong message to the people who paid for a ticket. I learned that from my parents—you get what you earn.

We play every game and compete until the end. There are 27 outs in a game, and you try to utilize all of them. It doesn’t matter what the score is. You have to understand the situation. Even if it’s 10-1 in the ninth inning, you might send someone up there to save a guy a tough at-bat against a tough pitcher, or a bench guy might be playing in the game the next day, so you want to get him an at-bat to help him track the ball a little bit. A lot of things go into it—it’s not cut-and-dried.

And then:

We’re paid to compete until the last out, regardless. That’s what we do for a living. Garza pitched a no-hitter, and I tip my cap to him. But when Verlander pitched his no-hitter against Milwaukee, he earned it, and he was supposed to earn it. That’s just the way things go.

You don’t want a no-hitter pitched against you. Everybody’s talking about how you should just let him have it. Well, no you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be that team. Detroit hadn’t had a no-hitter pitched against it in years. I didn’t want to be the guy from Detroit who finally got no-hit.

All fair points. I take some issue with the idea of pinch-hitting for a position player at that point—when a loss is all but assured—in a potentially historic game. It’s a point at which everything reverts to the status quo. Defensive alignments should be left alone, as should lineups. Even umpires should shade their calls with an eye toward the feat at hand, ruling in the favor of history on plays close enough for debate. Jim Joyce blowing an out call at first base during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game is a prime example. Another came in 1972, when, with Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas 26 outs into his own perfect game, plate ump Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch, close enough to argue, was a ball. (Pappas retired the following batter to complete the no-hitter.) Unlike that instance, there was no space for interpretation with Scherzer’s HBP—there was only one call for the umpire to make.

In this case, sending up Tabata to hit for the pitcher was the right move. Hurdle played it properly, Tabata did nothing wrong (Scherzer admitted as much) and the baseball world was deprived of a historic feat under appropriate circumstances.

A.J. Pierzynski, No-Hitter Etiquette

Darvish Nearly Perfect From the Mound. The Guys Behind the Plate, Not So Much

AJP tossedDon’t change anything during the course of a no-hitter. By now, that much should be obvious. Players don’t change spots on the bench between innings. Managers don’t make unnecessary substitutions (except for those who do). The mere appearance of a reliever warming up in the bullpen can be enough to send the superstitious into fits of nervous twitching.

Monday, however, brought us something entirely new in the realm of not mixing things up, and it only makes sense that the delivery person was A.J. Pierzynski.

Yu Darvish, working on a perfect game in the sixth, threw a 2-2 breaking ball to Jonathan Villar, which Pierzynski thought was strike three, but which plate ump Ron Kulpa judged to be too low. The fact that the catcher leapt from his crouch and took a step toward the dugout before hearing Kulpa’s ruling earned him no favors.

Darvish walked Villar on the next pitch, giving the Astros their first baserunner, and Pierzynski was none too pleased. After the game, Kulpa explained what happened. As reported by MLB.com:

“Pierzynski didn’t like the pitch that I [called for a ball]. We had words about the [2-2] pitch. And then [Darvish] walked [Villar] on the very next pitch and [Pierzynski] continued to argue on the pitch before. And so he got ejected.” (Watch it here.)

Talk about changing things up. Game action was interrupted while Ron Washington came out to argue and backup catcher Geovany Soto raced to put on his gear. Suddenly Darvish was throwing to a different target. The right-hander denied that any of this had to do with the home run he gave up to catcher Carlos Corporan two frames later (indeed, Soto has caught 10 of Darvish’s 22 starts this season, so lack of familiarity is not a problem), but history is not on his side: Only twice has a pitcher thrown to more than one catcher during the course of a complete-game no-hitter—Ken Holtzman in 1969 and Larry Corcoran in 1880.

The question now becomes one of blame. Did Kulpa have too quick a trigger finger, especially considering the enormity of the situation? Should Pierzynski have played it cooler, knowing what was at stake?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Had either of them shown just a skosh more restraint, it’s possible that the baseball world would be celebrating Darvish right now even more than it already is.

“Absolutely, you feel bad for the guy,” said Pierzynski afterward. “You feel bad for the pitcher and you feel bad for everybody associated with it. Because they don’t happen a lot and when you get that close, you really want to try to get them done. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

(For what it’s worth, Darvish came within one batter of a perfect game at the same ballpark in April. Some feel he was jinxed in that one, too.)

Homer Bailey, No-Hitter Etiquette

What Jinx? Bailey Throws Into Doubt How Much the Baseball Gods Actually Care About Such Things

The official Cincinnati Reds Twitter feed mentioned Homer Bailey‘s no-hitter 12 times before he completed it, not to mention a steady stream of references during the telecast by broadcaster Thom Brenneman. It was the second straight no-no in which Bailey was karmically messed with.

Somehow, he completed it, anyway. Go figure.

Bailey nono

David Wells, No-Hitter Etiquette

Wells Was Perfect 15 Years Ago

David WellsIt’s the 15th anniversary of David Wells’ perfect game, and to celebrate, MLB has made the entire game video available on YouTube.

Seems only fitting to make some of my own copy available, as well. From The Baseball Codes, regarding that fateful day:

When David Wells was with the minor-league Syracuse Chiefs in 1987, he struck up a fifth-inning conver­sation with teammate Todd Stottlemyre, who was charting pitches on his off-day. That one of their teammates was in the process of throwing a no-hitter didn’t affect him a bit. “Hey, Stott,” he said, “how many walks does he have?” Stottlemyre replied that an opponent had yet to draw a base on balls. “Wow!” said Wells. “He’s throwing a perfect game!” Chiefs trainer Jon Woodworth recalled Stottlemyre looking “like he was going to kill” Wells. The left-hander’s defense: In his twenty-four years on the planet, five of them in professional baseball, he had somehow never before heard the rule prohibiting discussion of no-hitters. The very next inning, the Syracuse pitcher gave up a two-out bloop single.

It’s a lesson Wells didn’t need to learn twice. In fact, he went so far as to become an evangelist for the idea. In his book, Perfect I’m Not, the pitcher laid out in the starkest possible terms the rule of which he once claimed ignorance:

Rule number one in baseball is that you never, EVER mention that a guy’s throwing a perfect game or a no-hitter until it’s over. If you mention it during the game, it’s a major jinx, the ultimate whammy. The pitcher on the mound will give up a hit to the next batter, and it WILL be your fault—guaranteed.

Some people find religion; David Wells found superstition. Like Bert Blyleven before him, however, Wells held his view only in regard to other pitchers; he didn’t care a bit when it was him at the center of the mael­strom. During his perfect game in 1998, in fact, as Wells’s teammates on the Yankees edged farther away with each passing inning, he decided to take things into his own hands. Changing his undershirt in the clubhouse after the seventh inning, Wells saw David Cone, one of his best friends on the team. Highly in tune with the pressure of the moment, the left-hander approached his teammate, uncertain of what exactly he needed. “Can you believe what’s going on here?” he asked.

In retrospect, Cone feels that Wells simply wanted someone to talk to. In the moment, however, he was all too aware of the implications and at something of a loss for words—so he blurted out the first thing that came to mind, daring Wells to break out the knuckleball he liked to throw in practice but wouldn’t dare try in a game.

Wells laughed and returned to the dugout. After he finished his eighth perfect inning, Cone got on him again, this time in the dugout. “You showed me nothing,” he yelled as the nervous pitcher came off the field. “You didn’t use your knuckleball—you’ve got no guts!”

The tactic might have been taboo, but Cone knew his pal needed con­versation more than he needed tradition, and Wells went on to finish the fifteenth perfect game in big-league history. “To me, that kind of stuff is more important than some superstition that says you can’t get near the guy,” Cone said later.

(H/T Hardball Talk.)