Protect Teammates, Retaliation

Some Thoughts About Retaliation, What It Means For Clubhouse Standing, And The Kind Of Guys For Whom That Matters

We frequently talk about baseball’s unwritten retaliation rules as having become outdated, an artifact from another era. Which is largely accurate; guys intentionally drilling each other makes less sense today than it ever has.

But set aside that construct for a moment. Today, let’s view things from the viewpoint of a struggling pitcher, desperate to prolong his time in the major leagues. Let’s view things through Sean Nolin’s eyes.

Nolin is a left-hander who prior to this season has had three cups of coffee in the big leagues, each so short that he continues to maintain his rookie status. The last of those stints came in 2015.

The six intervening years have seen two seasons wiped out by shoulder issues, and time spent in Mexico, Japan and the independent Atlantic League. Nolin began this season with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, in the Washington Nationals system. He is now 31 years old.

On July 30, the Nats traded Max Scherzer to LA, Jon Lester to St. Louis and Daniel Hudson to San Diego, opening some spots on their pitching staff. Nolin made his debut for them on Aug. 12.

Sean Nolin is not anyone’s idea of a star. Before yesterday he had appeared in four games for Washington, all starts, going 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA. Whatever impression he made did not include much in the way of mound dominance.

Yesterday’s impression was different. Yesterday he defended a teammate.

Let’s go backward for a moment to Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, when Braves closer Will Smith drilled Juan Soto. Atlanta held a three-run lead with nobody on and one out in the ninth when it happened, and there’s enough history between the two to make it appear intentional.

In August of last season, Smith was taking his warm-up tosses after entering in the middle of the eighth inning, when Soto, the on-deck hitter, sidled behind the plate to get a better scouting angle. Smith cussed him out for it.

Soto came to bat an inning later, at which point he blasted Smith’s first pitch deep over the left-center field fence. He watched it. Then he watched the pitcher. Then Smith said something to him so unkind that Nationals manager Dave Martinez felt the need to intervene.

Since then, Smith has faced Soto six times. The first five came in games Atlanta led by two runs or fewer. On Tuesday the margin was three—enough wiggle room for the pitcher to take some liberties. With his second pitch, he drilled Soto in the small of the back.

Literally one pitch later the game was over, pushing Washington’s response, should they choose to make one, to yesterday. The man to shoulder that burden: Sean Nolin.

There is nothing to indicate that Nolin was ordered by management to take action. Indeed, such a thing is quite rare in the modern game. There is everything to indicate that Nolin had much more to gain by standing up for his young teammate than he had to lose by risking an early ejection.

Sure enough, in the first inning, Nolin—playing by the ages-old adage, “You drill my No. 3 hitter, I’ll drill your No. 3 hitter”—threw his first pitch to Freddy Freeman behind the hitter’s back. With his second pitch he drilled him, and was subsequently ejected.

There’s an essay to be written about the part of baseball’s code that gives Nolin one chance to even the score, and that once he’d missed Freeman accounts should have been considered settled. (Indeed, Freeman said later that he told plate ump Lance Barksdale, “That’s all he gets,” after the first pitch missed.) There’s also one about the class Freeman showed by going to the Washington dugout to talk things over with Martinez, and about how he and Soto took their drillings with grace. Those aren’t this essay, though.

This essay is about the clubhouse standing of a middle-aged man looking to do whatever he can to stick around the big leagues for as long as possible. Nolin’s baseball ability has proven to be a marginal commodity in this regard, placing him squarely inside the realm of ballplayers for whom being a good clubhouse guy might carry outsized importance when it comes to securing his next contract.

In this age of fungible pitching staffs, where the bottom three guys in any bullpen are shuffled back and forth to the minors on a weekly basis, there’s value in having a reputation as somebody willing to stand up for teammates, of a proven willingness to throw the kinds of darts from which some pitchers might shy away. Bottom-of-the-rotation guys must feel the need to prove their value every day, in any way they can.

Sean Nolin knows this. He proved it yesterday. It’s strange to think that a start lasting one-third of an inning might be consequential to somebody’s career prospects, but that may well be the case here. Sean Nolin’s counting on it.

Protect Teammates

Sabean Goes Off, People Freak Out

Wow. That’s pretty much the reaction du jour after Brian Sabean unleashed his verbal vengeance on Scott Cousins yesterday. Perhaps it’s that general managers don’t usually talk that way. Perhaps it’s that, more than a week after the incident in which Buster Posey was lost for the season, a guy in a position usually reserved for settling volatile situations has instead served to inflame this one.

A brief recap. In an interview on Giants flagship KNBR yesterday, Sabean said the following:

  • “He chose to be a hero in my mind, and if that’s his flash of fame, that’s as good as it’s going to get, pal. We’ll have a long memory. Believe me, we’ve talked to (former catcher Mike) Matheny about how this game works. You can’t be that out-and-out overly aggressive. I’ll put it as politically as I can state it: There’s no love lost, and there shouldn’t be.”
  • “If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we’ll all be happy.”
  • “If you listen to the kid’s comments after the fact, he pretty much decided and it was premeditated that if he got a chance, he was going to blow up the catcher to dislodge the ball, And if you watch frame by frame from different angles, he does not take the path to the plate to try to score. He goes after Buster, right shoulder on right shoulder, and to me, that’s malicious.”

(Listen to the entire thing here.)

By referencing Matheny, Sabean was essentially promising retaliation. (Matheny, a catcher whose career was ended by a spate of concussions after too many collisions at the plate, was widely quoted as saying that situations such as this should be settled on the field.)

By calling the play malicious when it clearly was not, by wishing ill upon Cousins, by unleashing what by almost every account is an over-the-top tirade, Sabean has in the minds of most pundits gone too far.

Which may have been precisely his point.

The Giants don’t face the Marlins again until August, at which point Cousins—currently batting all of .159—might not even be on the team. Meanwhile, Sabean has sent an unequivocal message—not just a warning that one takes liberties with the Giants at one’s own risk, but that this type of play is drawing both notice and response.

Since the accident, Sabean has advocated for a reexamination of the rule that allows home plate collisions, especially those such as the one that injured Posey, in which the catcher cedes the baseline in an effort to avoid unnecessary contact. (Sabean, in fact, is not the first GM to get involved with the issue this week; Billy Beane has already instructed Kurt Suzuki to get out of the way and employ sweep tags.)

Baseball will probably opt against enacting any sort of rule change, at least in the short term, so the Giants’ GM is taking the law into his own hands. His volley was a clear message to would-be catcher stalkers: You better be damn sure that’s your only way of scoring, because if it’s not, we’ll be watching.

Sabean will likely be disciplined by MLB for his comments. Sabean likely does not care.

This issue is bigger than the Giants. In this regard, Sabean is taking one for the team—all those within baseball who share his views on the topic.

Did he go too far in his assessment? Absolutely. But did Sabean—who, while notoriously frank, is no dummy when it comes to public relations—feel that was the best way to get his message across?

Almost indisputably.

Update (June 3): The Giants just released this statement (note the explanation sans apology):

This is a very emotional time for the Giants organization and our fans. We lost for the season one of our best players to a serious injury and we are doing everything we can to support Buster Posey through this very difficult time. We appreciate Scott Cousins’ outreach to Buster Posey and to the Giants organization.

Brian Sabean’s comments yesterday were said out of frustration and out of true concern for Buster and were not meant to vilify Scott Cousins. Brian has been in contact with Florida Marlins General Manager Larry Beinfest to clarify his comments and to assure him that there is no ill-will toward the player. He has also reached out to Scott Cousins directly.

The issue of catcher safety is a complicated one. There are a number of differing opinions around the circumstances of last week’s collision and about what baseball should do to prevent serious injuries in the future. This issue goes far beyond last week’s incident as there have been a number of recent collision-involved injuries.

We have been in contact with Joe Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations, and have asked for a thorough examination of this issue for the health and safety of all players.

We intend to move beyond conversations about last week’s incident and focus our attention on Buster’s full recovery and on defending our World Series title.

– Jason

Francisco Rodriguez, Protect Teammates

Mets Players Compelled to Back K-Rod, Even as they Shake Their Heads in Disgust

By now, we all know what happened with Francisco Rodriguez—the fight with his father-in-law in the Mets’ family lounge at Citi Field; how he pummeled a much older man; his arrest and arraignment.

How does the Code play into it? Rodriguez is a member of the New York Mets, and his teammates are expected to stand up for him. Even if they can’t tolerate the guy, or what he did.

Carlos Beltran is a prime example. Talking to ESPN New York, he detailed this exact dilemma in clear terms:

It’s disappointing, man. You don’t want to see no one go through that. But it is what it is. Now he has to deal with that situation. Us, as players, as teammates, even though we don’t agree with what he did, we have to support him. He’s part of the ballclub. He’s going to come here and do his thing.

“You always protect your teammate, from management or the front office, even if they are wrong,” Jose Rijo told me a few years back. “They are your teammates, and you hate to see anything happen to them. Your teammate is like your girlfriend—once you get to know them, you love them no matter what.”

A more appropriate metaphor is teammates as brothers. Clubhouse fights are hardly uncommon, but the quickest way to get over them and build instant cohesion is for somebody wearing a different uniform to step in with an opinion on the matter.

Former Indians third baseman Al Rosen, a Jew, told a story about some vicious insults hurled his way from the dugout of the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s.

“Today they don’t allow bench jockeying, but in those days it was prevalent,” he said. “There was a lot of brutal stuff that went on. They tried to get to a player, and obviously a racial or religious epithet will do it. I went into the dugout at Comisky Park one time looking for the guy who had been on me for games and games. I looked right down the bench and said, ‘The son of a bitch who’s been saying that come on out.’ Nobody would.

Saul Rogovin, who was Jewish and pitched for them, knew who it was, and he told me later on, ‘Al, I wanted to tell you who it was, but I was a teammate of his.’ He was put in that spot, and he couldn’t get out of it.”

As reported by Buster Olney, Francisco Rodriguez has far too big a contract to serve as reasonable trade bait for pretty much anybody (if his option kicks in, the Mets will be paying him $17.5 million by 2012), meaning he’ll likely be in New York for the long run.

If they haven’t already, his teammates should begin preparing their “no comments” right now.

– Jason

Derek Jeter, Protect Teammates

Nuptuals Iminent for Jeter. Welcome to Another Section of the Code

News came out over the weekend that Derek Jeter will end his status as baseball’s most eligible bachelor. The Yankees shortstop will wed actress Minka Kelly on Nov. 5, according to Newsday.

Jeter might be a newby to the wedding game, but he won’t be blindsided when it comes to monitoring his wife’s interactions with his teammates. This is part of the clubhouse code, in which players protect each other from forces outside the clubhouse: management, media . . . and women.

The rule in question is designed to keep the worlds of wives and girlfriends at a safe distance, especially among players who have a toe in each pool. It’s the basis for wives and girlfriends having their own seating sections in a given ballpark, the better to reduce chances that they’ll inadvertently run into each other.

This isn’t to say that Jeter will be anything but faithful, but at the very least he’ll know enough to protect teammates who might not measure up to that standard. It is, after all, an unwritten rule.

The following excerpt from The Baseball Codes has more.

For ballplayers, protecting teammates from the women in their lives can be complex, especially when it comes to possible trysts on the road. The crux of the problem with this particular endeavor is that it involves ballplayers—the most visible people in virtually any public environment—trying to stay as invisible as possible. The bond between players is strong, however, and they do what they can to maintain each others’ anonymity.

It’s why players whose wives show up during road trips make clear to their teammates where on the town they’ll be that night, to avoid the chance of running into a married player on a “date” with someone other than his wife. (Mets pitcher Doug Sisk was once guilty of this when he brought his wife Lisa to the team’s hotel bar, where she saw a number of his married teammates getting friendly with strange ladies.)

This is why some players implement an ignorance rule at home. “My policy with my wife is this: don’t ask me,” said one longtime pitcher who vowed fidelity but didn’t want to incriminate his teammates. “First of all, I don’t want to lie to you. Second of all, I don’t want to tell you that this guy’s cheating on his wife. You’re her friend, you’re going to be sitting next to her at games, your heart will be breaking for her—you can’t do it. Please, just don’t ask me. Don’t ask me, because I don’t want to put you in that situation.”

Not everybody is so virtuous. Players have been known to prattle to their wives about the extra-marital adventures of their teammates in an effort to mask their own infidelities. Wives inevitably talk to each other, and when word gets out about where it all started, clubhouses can fracture. When a player is inexplicably traded over the off-season for less than full value, there’s a reasonable chance that he betrayed his teammates in this or another regard (or, in turn, that he was betrayed by a less-expendable star).

The best story we found on this topic was told by Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil. But we don’t want to give too much away here. You’ll have to wait for that one until the book comes out.

– Jason