Retaliation, Tag Appropriately

Is That Your Glove in my Gut, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Machado tagOpponent of baseball’s unwritten rules: The Code exists as a means of allowing overly sensitive players to exact nonsensical macho bullying on each other under institutional cover.

Counter to that argument: Friday evening at Camden yards.

A generation ago, infielders—primarily first basemen, in the process of fielding throws to first while trying to keep baserunners close to the bag—utilized hard tags as a weapon, a means of relaying to an opponent that issues were afoot. Runners, familiar with the framework, understood this and took it accordingly. Should the message skew out of line, they had their own means of response.

Today, nobody seems to know anything. This is the only explanation for a play in which a baserunner goes ballistic after having been put out by an entirely ordinary tag. In the third inning on Friday, Manny Machado, on second base following a single and fielder’s choice, tried to take third on Adam Jones’ groundball to Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson. Machado clearly did not expect the play; there were two outs and Donaldson could easily have thrown to first to end the inning. Instead, seeing Machado crossing his path, Donaldson stayed close to home.

In his surprise, Machado tried to jackknife out of the way. Donaldson thrust his glove at the evasive runner, his only intention being to make sure he did not miss.

The off-balance Oriole angrily spiked his helmet to the ground even as he was tumbling backward. Donaldson offered only a confused smile, wondering why the hell his opponent was upset in the first place. (Watch it here.)

“I was actually walking over there to pick his helmet up for him, and then he jumps up and starts yelling at me,” said Donaldson in an report. “I have nothing against the kid. I don’t understand where it came from.”

Which brings us to the point at which we offer a rebuttal to the sentiment in the first sentence of this post. Pick apart the Code all you want, but it’s impossible to see one of Machado’s forebears so much as blinking at this kind of play. It’s easy to criticize those who take things too far in the name of some imagined construct that dictates propriety on a ballfield, but that construct also serves to give players a baseline for knowing what is and isn’t appropriate. Had Machado been aware of this in the first place, he never would have reacted like he did.

As if to double down on the lunacy, the Orioles then backed Machado’s hissy fit as a team. In the seventh inning, pitcher Wei-Yin Chen first brushed Donaldson back with a pitch near his head, then hit him on his left forearm.

This, then, is the dark side of the unwritten rules (critics, cue the echo chamber): rogue justice meted out without regard for merit. But even in this (an act—hitting a batter out of anger—that is patently ridiculous) we can see some greater purpose. Chen was doing his duty as a teammate, backing backing one of his own, even if he did not agree with him, because that’s what teammates do. There’s no quicker way for a pitcher to build respect in his clubhouse. Still, the the Orioles would have been better served had a player with some seniority pulled the 21-year-old Machado aside and, rather than taking it out on the A’s, suggested forcefully that he check himself. And it’s possible that happened.

Warnings were not issued (perhaps to give Oakland a chance to retaliate for a lunatic outburst), and Donaldson had words for the Orioles dugout as he made his way to first base. The game was too close from that point for things to progress from there, and no response of note was seen on Saturday. If the A’s are smart, they’ll leave this one alone, knowing they have nothing to gain by prolonging hostilities. If the Orioles are smart, they’ll have already dealt with Machado themselves.




A.J. Pierzynski, Kelvim Escobar, Tag Appropriately

Escobar: Hello, N.Y; Goodbye Annoying Catcher

The Mets just signed Kelvim Escobar to a one-year deal. At least in the National League he won’t have to deal with A.J. Pierzynski.

The following is an excerpt from the “Tag Appropriately” chapter of The Baseball Codes that didn’t make the final cut. (All told, 250,000 words from the initial manuscript were trimmed to about 100,000 for the final edition.) This tale involves as its primary characters Escobar, Pierzynski and Pierzynski’s infuriating personality.

* * * * *

In the deciding contest of the 2005 American League Championship Series it seemed as if Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar disliked White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski more than he liked winning playoff games. In the eighth inning, with the game tied 3-3, two outs and a runner on first, Pierzynski hit a comebacker to Escobar, which ricocheted off the pitcher and toward the first-base line. The reliever pounced on the ball and tagged the runner . . . with an empty glove. The baseball, still in his throwing hand, never touched Pierzynski, who looked back at the pitcher as he ran past, as if to indicate that very point.

Escobar then threw to first in a futile attempt to make a play. After initially calling Pierzynski out, the umpiring crew deliberated, and decided he was safe after all. Joe Crede followed with a run-scoring single to give the White Sox the lead and, an inning later, the game and the series.

It was more than just a bone-headed move by Escobar, however. It was borne of equal parts anger and frustration with Chicago’s catcher.

“It had to be me in that situation,” said Pierzynski after the game in an Agence France Presse report, “because I’m the only person it would happen to.”

Pierzynski was the only person it would happen to at least in part because of his propensity for ending up in the middle of controversial plays that went the White Sox’s way.

During Game 2, in a 1-1 tie with two outs in the ninth inning, Escobar struck Pierzynski out, but umpires ruled that the ball hit the ground before Anaheim catcher Josh Paul caught it. Paul rolled the ball back to the mound and Pierzynski raced safely to first base as a stunned Angels defense looked on. Crede followed with a game-winning double that enabled Chicago to tie the series.

In Game 4, a second-inning Angels rally was killed when outfielder Steve Finley grounded into an inning-ending double play with runners on first and third. Pierzynski later admitted that his mitt tapped Finley’s bat, which should have been ruled catcher’s interference, sending Finley to first base and loading the bases for Adam Kennedy. It should have, but it involved Pierzynksi, and it wasn’t.

All of this might have been a bit more palatable for Escobar and the rest of the Angels had it been anyone but Pierzynski, whose frat-boy attitude and incessant chirping behind the plate made the catcher one of the least popular players in the league. (“If you play against him, you hate him,” said Pierzynski’s manager, Ozzie Guillen in ESPN the Magazine. “If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”)

Escobar was so angry that he tried to inflict a little physical pain in return for the collective emotional misery Pierzynski doled out to his team.

“Escobar wanted to hit him so hard that he forgot the ball was in the wrong hand,” said Guillen in Playboy. “If you look at the replay, you see he went after Pierzynski to hit him hard. If it were another player, it would have been different. He would have been tagged easy. But they want to beat the shit out of Pierzynski.”

– Jason