The Baseball Codes

RIP Dave Nelson

Dave Nelson cardBrewers analyst Dave Nelson, who played in the big leagues for 10 years, was an All-Star in 1973, and served as a major league coach for 14 seasons, passed away today. Nelson was a firecracker of a player, stealing 94 bases between 1972 and 1973, but he was an even better interview. He was easily one of the most informative players I talked to for The Baseball Codes, spending the better part of an hour with me in the visitors’ dugout at AT&T Park before a Giants-Brewers game.

Herein are some of the best stories he told that day:

“I almost got into a fight in the major leagues one year because I stole home when we had a four-run lead in the seventh inning. It was against Blue Moon Odom, who was with the White Sox then. Paul Richards was their manager. I was playing for Kansas City, and Whitey Herzog was my manager. I stole home because Odom wasn’t paying attention, and he got all upset and said the next time he faced me he was going to hit me in the head. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. Did I do anything wrong?’ I was always taught was that managers would like to have at least a five-run lead going into the ninth inning, so at least they know a grand slam can’t beat them. We had a four-run lead, but this was the seventh inning and the White Sox had an awesome offensive team.

“So before the next game I was running in the outfield because we were getting ready to take batting practice. Their pitchers were running on the left field line. I’m running toward center from right, and Odom stopped running and began to yell at me, saying that he was going to hit me in the head. So I went up to him and asked, ‘Hey, what’s your problem?’ He said, ‘You showed up me and my team.’

“So I went over to Paul Richards, who was their manager, and I asked him, ‘Did I embarrass your team? Because I don’t think I did anything wrong.’ He said, ‘Dave, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was a great play on your part.’ I had already asked Whitey Herzog about it, and Whitey said it was a great play. But if Paul Richards thought it was a bad play, I was going to apologize to him. But he said, ‘No, that was great. It was Blue Moon’s fault for not paying attention to you. You can’t assume anything in this game.’

“We almost got into a fight over that. I always try to win, but I don’t want to do anything dirty to win.”

***

“One of my greatest thrills was playing against Mickey Mantle. By the time of my rookie year, Mantle was playing first base because his knees were bad. I’m leading off for the Indians in a game against the Yankees, and I push-bunt a ball between the pitcher and Mickey for a base hit. I was walking back, thinking, ‘Boy, what a great thing I did,’ and Johnny Lipon, our first base coach, says, ‘Dave, you don’t bunt on Mick out of respect.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right. He can’t move, but he’s a great player. So I’m standing on first base, and I’m thinking Mickey is going to say, ‘If you ever do that to me again I’m going to pinch your head off,’ or something like that. But he pats me on the butt and says, ‘Nice bunt, rook.’ I look at him and say, ‘Well, thanks, Mr. Mantle.’ Underneath my breath I said, I’ll never do that again. I was just thinking about how I want to get on base. I never thought about how revered this guy was.

“Later in the game he hits a bullet toward second base. I dive to field it and throw him out. He says, ‘Hey rook—give me a break, would you?’ ”

***

“In the old days, a manager would say, ‘I want you to knock this guy down. I want you to drill him.’ Billy Martin would say it. I remember in 1975, playing a game with the Rangers during spring training when Bill Virdon was managing the Yankees. Billy was our manager. We had hit Elliot Maddux, and I’m coming up to face a former teammate of mine, Denny Riddleberger. I just kind of knew that I was going to get drilled or knocked down because I was leading off the next inning. Well, the pitch came, and—boom!—knocked me down. It was good, old-fashioned chin music, and I hit the ground. So I said, okay, it’s all over and done with.

“Well, the next pitch—foom!—almost hit me in the head. I got up and I charged the mound. And Denny stood there and just looked at me and dropped his hands and said, ‘Dave, I’m sorry—I was ordered to do it.’ So what could I do? I can’t hit this guy. He’s my buddy, plus he was saying that he was ordered to do it. He had to save face. If your manager tells him to drill somebody or knock him down, then you’d better do it.

“So now there’s yelling and screaming going around, and Bill Virdon comes out and says, ‘That’s right, I told him to do it. How about that?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re the guy I ought to swing at!’ and I took a swing at him. He was a ways away from me, with some people between us, so I never made contact. He’d probably have tore me up. That guy was strong, boy.

“So I got kicked out of the game and all that stuff, but the funny thing about it was that later that year I had surgery on my ankle that was going to put me out until August. We had this charity golf tournament in Arlington Texas, and I was riding around in a golf cart. The Yankees had an off-day, and Bill Virdon was playing in that tournament. He sees me and says, ‘You’re a scrappy little guy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I just don’t like being thrown at. I have to defend myself, because if people throw at me and I don’t say anything about it, then they’re going to continue to do it. I just want people to know that I’m not going to take it.” He said, ‘Well, that’s the way to go.’ ”

***

“One time, playing against the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, Bob Coluccio was the hitter. He hits a double, the throw comes in to me at second base, I tag him and Bill Kunkel, the umpire, says, ‘Safe!’ I said to Bob, ‘Hey, why don’t you step off the bag and let me clean the dirt off of it.’ He steps off, and BOOM. It wasn’t the hidden ball trick or anything like that. He steps off the base, I tag him and the umpire calls him out. He kind of laughed about it, but when he went to the dugout, his manager, Del Crandall, jumped all over him.

“So now he comes back out as I’m running off the field after the third out, and he says, ‘You embarrassed me and my team, and I’m going to kick your butt.’ He says, ‘You better watch out when I come in to second base.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t embarrass your team, you did—for being stupid enough to step off the base.’

You try to do anything you can to win, as long as it’s not trying to embarrass somebody or do something dirty. But that’s just . . . that’s just playing baseball.”

 

 

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The Baseball Codes

Rusty Staub, RIP

Rusty Staub

Rusty Staub, icon for both the Mets and Expos, passed today at age 73. He batted .423 in the 1973 World Series against Oakland, despite having injured his shoulder so severely in the NLCS that he was limited to pinch-hitting duty in Game 1 against the A’s, and had to underhand flip the ball back to the infield once he was finally able to take the field.

 

He made an appearance in The Baseball Codes, which served to illustrate Don Drysdale’s personality more than his own:

In the National League clubhouse prior to the 1968 All-Star Game, Dodgers catcher Tom Haller saw Hous­ton’s Rusty Staub rummaging through Drysdale’s shaving kit, ostensibly to find evidence of the long-whispered rumor that Drysdale doctored the ball.

Fifteen days later, Drysdale faced the Astros in Los Angeles. Trailing 1–0 with two outs and nobody on in the eighth inning, Drysdale—tipped off by his teammate—wasted little time in drilling Staub. “That’s for looking through my goddamn shaving kit,” he yelled as the hitter stum­bled toward first.

Staub might not have been the world’s best sleuth, but he was smart enough not to say a word in response.

One Staub story that didn’t make the book involved him paying the price for a deking ploy by Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills in 1970, despite the fact that Staub, then with the Expos, wasn’t the one fooled. With rookie Don Hahn on first base, Staub hit a gapper—but Hahn, running on the pitch, failed to follow the flight of the ball. So when Wills stared straight up into the sky and began to wave his arms and shout “I got it!” Hahn believed him, panicked, and spun back toward first.

Staub, meanwhile, had his sights set on third base and didn’t notice Hahn heading in the opposite direction until it was too late. Rather than end up with a possible triple, Staub was credited for a single and called out for passing the runner in front of him. (To make matters worse, when Hahn eventually realized where the ball was actually hit, he turned around again and tried to advance to third … where he was thrown out.)

Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.

***

On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.

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.

The Baseball Codes

Yordano Ventura, RIP

yordano-venturaYordano Ventura was killed over the weekend in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. On-field and off, this is tragic. The guy was 25 years old, with a lot of growing still to do.

The right-hander possessed some of the best stuff in baseball, but was still figuring out how to harness it, putting up ERAs over 4.00 in each of the last two seasons. When Ventura was right, though, he was nearly untouchable, highlighted by a 7-1 record with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his last 11 starts of 2015.

The thing about being able to throw 100 mph, though, is that people are going to take issue when that stuff comes too far inside. Which never seemed to bother Ventura very much. As such, he became a prominent face in an increasingly complex transition from whatever baseball’s Code was, to whatever it will be. He celebrated on the mound. He enjoined opponents in battles both verbal and physical. He seemed all too willing to get into it on the field for any reason. No clearer evidence of this exists than his record two Aprils back, when Ventura scrapped with Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie and Adam Eaton—three players on three teams in a span of four starts. Last year’s brawl with Manny Machado furthered the pitcher’s reputation.

Ventura undeniably brought excitement to the sport, but at the same time he gave opponents a blueprint for how to draw his focus away from the task at hand. A run-in with Blue Jays first-base coach Tim Leiper in the 2015 ALCS is a perfect example of a team knowing just how easy it was to get into Ventura’s head. The pitcher’s own teammates appeared to grow weary of his antics, publicly backing him less and less frequently as his rap sheet grew.

The thing about Ventura, though, was that we always wanted to see what came next. His talent was one thing—skill that, if ever fully harnessed, could have made him one of the game’s best pitchers—but to overlook his personality would sell the man short. He was a guy who asked into an area softball game a day after his team lost the World Series. He was a guy who took pleasure in visiting kids’ lemonade stands.

From a baseball standpoint, we’re left mostly with questions. The kid was just starting to mature into whatever he would have become, and getting to watch that process in a player is one of the great joys of baseball fandom. There might have been nobody more emblematic than that in all the sport. When Jose Fernandez passed away too soon, we had a pretty good idea of how great a pitcher he could be. With Yordano Ventura, we were just beginning to find out.