Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Tony La Russa

PR Man Tony La Russa Would Like to Sell You on the Merits of Retaliation

La Russa watches

Tony La Russa is one of the most vengeful men baseball has ever known. An entire book, Buzz Bissinger’s “3 Nights in August,” went into great detail about his deliberative process as manager of the Cardinals when it came to figuring out which opponent to have drilled, and when.

On Tuesday, La Russa took a different avenue for retaliation.

It started when Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero popped two members of the Diamondbacks in the head—Jean Segura with a 96 mph fastball off the helmet, and Nick Ahmed with an 89 mph splitter off the chin. Both were almost certainly unintentional, and neither player was seriously injured. (In between, Arizona reliever Evan Mashall drilled Pittsburgh’s David Freese on the arm, leading to warnings for both benches, and Caminero’s ejection after hitting Ahmed. Watch it all here.)

In the Pirates broadcast booth, play-by-play man Greg Brown openly discussed La Russa’s history of retaliation, which was already more on the record than any manager in history. La Russa—now Arizona’s chief baseball officer—heard it, and invaded Pittsburgh’s booth to take direct issue. Brown directed the argument away from the microphones so that it would not be broadcast, and then opted against mention it on the air out of respect for La Russa. (Watch Brown discuss the incident here.)

La Russa blew that whole plan out of the water, however, by discussing the incident himself, with AZCentral. His goal was to explain why the Pirates were at fault, any lack of intent on their HBP’s be damned:

“A lot of guys who are pitching in don’t have the ability at this point to command it and it becomes very dangerous,” La Russa said in the article. “The reasoning you get from the other side is they didn’t mean to do it intentionally. If you don’t have command, then that’s intentionally careless.”

He was referring to Pittsburgh’s team philosophy, which has pitchers constantly working the inside edge, and has led the Pirates to leading baseball in hit batters from 2013 to 2015. Diamondbacks broadcasters repeatedly intoned a similar message during the game, decrying what they described as an institutionally reckless approach.

On Wednesday, Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale got right to the organizational talking points, echoing La Russa by telling reporters that Caminero was less at fault for the hit batters than Pittsburgh management.

“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” he said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”

The D’Backs have some history upon which to build their argument. In 2014, Pittsburgh closer Ernesto Frieri unintentionally broke Paul Goldschmidt’s hand with a pitch. (Arizona responded by drilling Andrew McCutchen in the back.) A year earlier, Pirates starter James McDonald hit Aaron Hill, breaking his hand.

La Russa’s response seems to be a new front in his retaliatory battle. A vengeance fastball to the ribcage might send a message to the opposing clubhouse, but a full-fronted PR battle against an opponent’s organizational philosophy? That’s a new one.

In case anybody doubts La Russa’s intentions, he went on the air with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Wednesday morning and discussed the situation further.

“So people are just telling them hey, you can’t just willy nilly throw the ball inside,” he said, via the station’s website. “It’s a real easy formula we’ve used for years: you can’t use us as targets, even if it’s unintentional. If you can’t command the ball inside, don’t throw it up and in — you’ve got to get the ball down. It’s really not that tough, it’s one that we try to enforce, and it’s one I think MLB could be more proactive in enforcing.”

Also, this: “They’ll just keep doing it to you, (and) pretty soon the guy the guy [who keeps getting hit] will not want to go to bat, and how do you win? So you’ve got to use common sense. It’s a competition and guys are going to anything they can to take something away from you.”

Adding that teammates are like family, La Russa said that if somebody slaps one of your family members, “you just slap back.”

Maybe La Russa’s canny, maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s both. The sport he loves is changing beneath his feet, moving away from the hard edges of intimidation and retribution, and toward the let’s-make-baseball-fun-again generation of bat flips and promo ops. Whether La Russa is willing to acknowledge these things is almost beside the point. Everything he’s said in recent days is based on inherent truths of competitive sports, regardless of whether the people hearing it agree with him.

The trick now is figuring out how to implement it all within the modern landscape. When it comes to guys like La Russa—at the top of his organizational food chain, who can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants—the question matters less on a day-to-day basis than in big-picture form. That’s why the messages he’s sending seem more a matter of selling the public on his approach. Yep, La Russa and his crew are waging a PR campaign on behalf of a team’s right to drill its opponents.

“Intimidation is an important part of sports,” he said on the radio. “People will try to intimidate you, if you back off you’re easier to beat. The game has a way of handling itself.”

Now we’re left to see how the rest of baseball responds.

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

La Russa’s All-Star Snubs Have Cincy Clubhouse Crying Foul

Johnny Cueto: Still not an All-Star.

Remember when Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals “little bitches,” and in the ensuing fight Johnny Cueto kicked Jason LaRue onto the disabled list for nearly the final two months of the 2010 season, effectively ending his career?

So does Tony La Russa, who proved Sunday that baseball retaliation can take myriad shapes.

There’s no way to prove it, of course, short of La Russa admitting as much, but the ex-manager, picking reserves for the National League All-Star team, conspicuously left Phillips and Cueto off the roster.

Both are worthy of inclusion; then again, the guys La Russa ended up picking are also fine choices. That wasn’t good enough for Reds manager Dusty Baker.

“A snub like that looks bad,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren’t there anymore are making some of the selections.”

Joey Votto chimed in as well, saying that he was “frustrated” and “disappointed.” Cueto took things a step further, adding “I don’t if know the manager of All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.” (Stay classy, Johnny Cueto.)

Snubs happen every year, of course—which is probably where this discussion would have ended had La Russa himself not spoken up, telling the Enquirer that Baker was “attacking my integrity” and that “no way am I going to penalize anybody for any kind of past history.”

Which would have been fine, except that La Russa then tried to justify his position by pointing out that Cueto will be pitching on the Sunday prior to the game. In 2010, MLB implemented a rule stating that pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star break are to be replaced on the roster. This year, they changed it a bit. From the new collective bargaining agreement, as reported by the Enquirer: Any pitcher who starts a game the Sunday prior to the All-Star Game “shall have the option to participate,” but “will not be permitted to pitch for more than one inning” and can set his own pitch count.

Well, then. It’s difficult to believe that La Russa was not made aware of this.

The manager is within his rights to pick whoever he wants, and to leave off those players he’d rather avoid over several days in Kansas City. But like the pitcher who admits to hitting a batter intentionally, La Russa now has more questions to answer than he would have otherwise.

Part of me thinks this is all intentional, and that La Russa’s just looking for a little extra excitement now that he’s retired. Either way, it’ll be difficult for any of the Reds to respond once he’s returned to his post-career life promoting animal welfare. Which is probably just how he wants it.

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

Yes, There’s a Chance that Tony La Russa, Baseball’s Resident Expert on Retaliation, May Soon Get Even More Verbose on the Topic

They say retirement softens people. It remains to be seen whether Tony La Russa might fall into this category, but in the short term, his newfound freedom seems to have loosened his lips.

While managing the Cardinals last season, La Russa was in no position to discuss the detailed merits of various incidents that were widely construed to be retaliation on the part of the St. Louis pitching staff. Now that he’s beyond repercussions from the commissioner’s office, however, state secrets may be beginning to spill.

It started Friday, when La Russa opened up a bit about a game last year in which Cardinals reliever Jason Motte drilled Ryan Braun, an inning after the Brewers had—unintentionally, by all indications—hit Albert Pujols. Looking back, the ex-manager said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that it had been his “responsibility” to respond.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising, really. Even at the time of the incident, La Russa pressed the boundaries of what he could get away with, saying, “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message. If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.” If anybody in baseball has a deeper love of eye-for-an-eye on-field justice, he has yet to be found.

Heck, an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August—is devoted to intricate detail about La Russa’s inner machinations as he pondered whether or not response was merited in various situations. To believe the book, the guy likes to ponder. A lot.

La Russa has yet to go into too much detail about anything untoward, and his consideration for a VP post within Major League Baseball could well change everything, but at the very least, Friday gave us an inkling about what it could be like should the reigning master of retaliation ever decide to truly speak freely on the topic.

We can only hope.

– Jason

Jason Motte, Retaliation, Ryan Braun, Tony La Russa

Hey Jered Weaver, this is Where Message Pitches are Meant to be Delivered

Ryan Braun: not happy with the way things played out.

As far as retaliation goes, it was awkward, it was ugly and if it wasn’t embarrassing to more than one party, then by all rights it should have been.

But at least it got the job done, within the boundaries of reason.

In the bottom of the seventh inning last night, Cardinals reliever Jason Motte wanted to deliver a message to Milwaukee. Brewers reliever Takashi Saito had drilled Albert Pujols a half-inning earlier, in his tender left wrist. It was clearly unintentional, as the rising fastball hit Pujols only after the hitter pulled his hands in to his chest and was spinning toward the backstop.

Sometimes intent doesn’t make a lick of difference. When Pujols goes down, reparations are frequently in order.

Never mind that it was a 7-7 score; when Ryan Braun led off the home half of the inning, Motte got right to it. And whiffed. Braun evaded Motte’s 98 mph inside fastball, which should, for practical purposes, have ended the hostilities. The pitcher had his shot and missed his mark.

This was plate ump Rob Drake‘s moment to step in and put an end to things. Players frequently appreciate some leeway when it comes to umpires’ warnings, at least to the point that each side is allowed their due shot. Drake, however, missed that mark by a mile.

Allowed a second chance, Motte drilled Braun in the ribs with a 97 mph four-seamer. Braun looked stunned after the first effort; when the second one found purchase without a peep from Drake he was downright flabbergasted.

Even at that point, Motte failed to get booted. (He did end up hitting the showers, but only because Tony La Russamade a pitching change. Based on La Russa’s history with these things, it seems likely that Motte started the inning solely because has the best fastball on the team, with the plan being to pull him after one hit batter. “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message,” the skipper said afterward, in a semi-denial. “If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.”)

Only after Milwaukee skipper Ron Roenicke came out for a chat with Drake—presumably to fill the ump in on all he was missing—were warnings issued to both benches. (It was odd timing on Roenicke’s part; unless he was looking to get Motte retroactively bounced from the game, his discussion served little purpose beyond costing his own pitchers a chance to respond on Braun’s behalf.)

“That was ridiculous,” said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We didn’t hit Albert Pujols on purpose. Are you kidding me? In that situation? If we wanted to put him on base, we would have walked him. That’s ridiculous. . . . We shouldn’t get punished for something we weren’t trying to do on purpose. Look at the situation. If we were getting beat by a lot or we were beating them by a lot and that happens, maybe we did it on purpose.  I mean, come on. We weren’t trying to hit anybody. It’s unbelievable.”

Lucroy is entitled to his opinion, but it’s tough to fault a pitcher for protecting his superstar. That Milwaukee’s best player led off the next inning made the timing perfect. That Motte was given two chances by an apparently clueless ump, however, is worth getting ticked off about. If the situation has anything working in its favor, it’s that, unlike Jered Weaver and Carlos Carrasco, Motte came nowhere near his target’s head.

The teams meet again today, then again at the end of the month.

– Jason

Chris Carpenter, Nyjer Morgan, Retaliation, Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa Proves Again that his Memory is Better than Ours

Tony La Russa | SD Dirk/Flickr

Last season, Nyjer Morgan suffered one of the most protracted on-field meltdowns in recent baseball history, shifting his public perception from that of a garrulous, personable guy to somebody in genuine need of psychiatric help over the course of about two very rough weeks.

He’s learning this spring that repercussions can carry, and that a little reputation can take a player a long way. Sometimes in the wrong direction.

Monday, the Washington outfielder ran into Albert Pujols while trying to beat out a fifth-inning bunt against the Cardinals. It was hardly his fault that the throw from Cardinals catcher Gerald Laird tailed into him, forcing Pujols into contact, but the lasting image was of the all-everything first baseman trying to shake his wrist loose after the play, sufficiently dinged to elicit a visit by a trainer. (Pujols stayed in the game.)

Morgan’s true problem on the day, if it was really his problem at all, came from Tony La Russa.

It dates back to last August, when Morgan went out of his way to run into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson (one of the earlier incidents in the aforementioned meltdown).

In a way, La Russa is a bit like Gaylord Perry. Perry played up his reputation as a greaseballer, fidgeting and wiping all over his body before each pitch, with the understanding that getting hitters to think he was loading up a baseball was nearly as valuable as actually doing so.

Similarly, La Russa revels in his reputation as a staunch defender of baseball decency, someone who will unflinchingly order his pitchers to retaliate in the name of on-field justice. Whether or not he actually does it is almost beside the point; whenever a Cardinals pitcher drills an opponent in any circumstance that can be even loosely construed as retaliatory, questions immediately emerge as to La Russa’s intentions. And any energy the other team expends stewing about the St. Louis manager is energy they’re not focusing on the game before them.

Which is a long way of saying that when Chris Carpenter hit Laynce Nix later in the frame, La Russa was quickly fingered as a prime source of inspiration.

Washington starter Livan Hernandez wasted no time settling the score, drilling Colby Rasmus in the bottom of the inning. La Russa, reported Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, “seemed to be glaring at the Nats’ dugout as Rasmus made his way to first.”

(Swayed perhaps by the low-key vibe of spring training, Hernandez violated a key unwritten rule in admitting the intent of his pitch to reporters after the game. Expect retribution of the official variety—suspension and/or fine—soon.)

Because La Russa is in charge of the Cardinals (or so we suspect, as far as this particular incident is concerned), St. Louis reliever Miguel Batista hit Ian Desmond in the back two innings later. (Batista actually retired Morgan before drilling Desmond, perhaps indicating that La Russa’s book on Morgan is finally closed.)

This was the tipping point.

Desmond had words, first for catcher Tony Cruz, then, upon reaching first, for Batista. Benches emptied, led by none other than Morgan (who was restrained by Nationals coach Trent Jewett). Nationals manager Jim Riggleman had to be held back when he approached La Russa with malice. Ultimately, no punches were thrown.

“There was no question in my mind that Batista was going to hit somebody,” said Riggleman after the game, in an AP report.

In a fascinating subplot that plays right into La Russa’s intrigue, Kilgore posited that Batista, on the bubble for a roster spot, “may have made the team” with his actions.

Apparently more savvy about this sort of thing than Livan Hernandez, both La Russa and Carpenter denied intent after the game.

“It’s the same story—it happens to us, it happens to them,” said La Russa after the game, in a very La Russa-like this-stuff-has-been-around-forever denial. “You get hit, you think it’s intentional. They hit you, it was accidental. It’s been 100 years of this stuff. It’s not going to go any farther. That’s it.”

One more unwritten rule was violated during the scrum, when it was pointed out that Carpenter—already in the clubhouse when the benches cleared—did not join his teammates on the field. He was in the process of talking to Brian Feldman from KMOV in St. Louis when the incident went down. Feldman reported the following:

Mar. 21, 3:18 p.m. -Was in the clubhouse talking to Carpenter when the benches cleared on the field. Batista was thrown out of the game for hitting a Nationals player…says he was told they believed he did it on purpose. It’s unclear whether he did or not.

Mar. 21, 3:20 p.m. -That beaning from Batista was in retaliation to Rasmus getting hit earlier. Apparently Tony was not happy at all when that happened. So its possible he told Batista to do it…but that’s anyone’s guess.

For his part, Carpenter claimed that once he understood the severity of the situation (including, according to the AP, hearing that “Washington players and coaches blamed him for igniting the fireworks and were questioning why he wasn’t on the field”), he beelined to the dugout.

“The most idiotic thing was that it was a spring training game. It was stupid,” he said. “If they think it’s my fault, I’ll go out there. I didn’t hit Laynce Nix on purpose.”

The quote of the day came from Desmond, who was a teammate of Batista in Washington last season.

“Yeah, it was intentional, but I mean Miggy throws like Miss Iowa,” he said with a laugh—a not-so-subtle reference to the flap Batista stirred last year with comments about the Hawkeye state’s beauty queen. “We were really trying to keep the fans around. Once (Albert) Pujols came out of the game and (Chris) Carpenter came out of the game we knew they were going to leave so we decided to add a little entertainment.”

The true entertainment value will be calculated next time these teams meet, on April 19.

– Jason