The Baseball Codes

RIP Tom Clark

champagne and baloneyI got the sad news this morning that poet Tom Clark has passed at age 77 after being hit by a car near his home in Berkeley. Clark was the poetry editor for the Paris Review for a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, and pertinently to my own work wrote Champagne & Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s, published in 1976. Clark was hardly an insider, didn’t have access similar to sportswriters of the era, but he loved baseball and had a keen eye for observation when it came to the A’s.

I encountered him randomly one day a few months back on Solano Avenue, about two blocks from his house and a half-mile from mine, and we struck up a conversation about the Swingin’ A’s, neither of us having any idea that the other had written a book on the subject. (I knew all about his book, of course, and that he lived nearby—it was just that until he introduced himself I no idea that the guy I was talking to was Tom Clark.)

He was Berkeley to the core, at least on the day we spoke, all mismatched patterns and textures and colors, his speech a patois of beat generation-meets-merry prankster, with an overt willingness to converse with whoever might cross his path. Every story offers a window, after all, and it was easy to see that he enjoyed the process of opening as many of them as he could. Despite the fact that I was running late, we must have talked for half an hour. As I raced home I figured that we could continue the discussion the next time we ran into each other in the neighborhood, now that I knew who to look for. I never saw him again.

Clark was part of a terrific generation of writers, the likes of which is becoming scarcer and scarcer. He will be missed.

 

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Acuna Drilled For Being Too Hot: When Will Baseball Be Through With Old-School Nonsense?

Acuna drilled

Jose Urena’s first-pitch assassination attempt on Ronald Acuna’s elbow yesterday brought to the fore an interesting tension for traditionalist lovers of old-school baseball, those who beat the drum loudest for playing the game “the right way” while calling for a return to the approach employed by previous generations of ballplayers. These fans yearn for a return to the time before prohibitions against collisions, when men were allowed to play with unbridled ferocity and vigor. Back then, of course, pitchers were allowed to throw the ball wherever the hell they wanted, with scant repercussion. In bygone eras, what Urena did yesterday was downright mainstream.

Acuna is the game’s hottest hitter, homering eight times in eight games prior to yesterday, including five straight, while leading off three in a row against the Marlins with longballs. Urena didn’t give him the chance for a fourth, planting a 97.5-mph fastball—the fastest first pitch he’s thrown all year, and in the 99th percentile of the 2,125 pitches he’s thrown overall, in terms of velocity—into Acuna’s elbow. It was unmistakably intentional.

There used to be a notion about drilling a hitter who was having too much success. The prevailing wisdom held that if a guy was seeing the ball well, that meant he was comfortable. And if a pitcher wants to get a guy out, part of his job is to remove as much of that comfort as he can. Any attention paid to avoiding baseballs, of course, is not attention paid to hitting them.

That’s more or less what Urena said after the game, when he told reporters in a rambling monologue that he was just trying to move Acuna’s feet—to make him less comfortable.

It was hogwash, of course. Urena led the league last year with 14 hit batters. Acuna was his 11th of this season. But the pitcher’s strategy was rooted in history.

In 1954, Joe Adcock set a record with 18 total bases, including four home runs, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. After he doubled again the next day, Clem Labine drilled him.

In 1969, Willie Stargell homered and singled in his first two at-bats against Bob Gibson, and was very intentionally drilled during his third. At least Gibson, probably the most notorious headhunter of the modern era, understood both sides of the dynamic. Once, when teammate Curt Flood demanded retaliation after Don Drysdale drilled him in the ribs, Gibson offered a simple response: “If you had eight hits in a row off me, roomie,” he said in a Newsday account, “I’d hit you, too.”

Hall of Famer Johnny Mize recalled getting hit in the head by pitchers Harry Gumbert and Harry Brecheen. “Were they throwing at me?” he speculated in the classic book, “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” “I don’t know. But one of them was a sinkerball pitcher; the other one was a control pitcher. And on each occasion I’d hit a home run the time before.”

During Don Baylor’s rookie year in 1972, he reached base in his first five at-bats against Andy Messersmith, including a double and a homer. In his sixth, Baylor told The New York Times, Messersmith “didn’t even look in to take a sign from the catcher. He just wound up and hit me in the back. As I’m walking to first, he calls over, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time?”

In 1987, after Andre Dawson hit three homers and a double in two games against the Padres, Eric Show hit him in the cheek with a pitch, requiring 24 stitches. (The teams ended up brawling, and Cubs rookie Greg Maddux responded by drilling Padres catcher Benito Santiago. After Maddux was ejected, his replacement, Scott Sanderson, threw three pitches at Tony Gwynn, missing each time. “Today was the first time in my life that I’ve been scared to go to the plate,” Gwynn said afterward, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

After that game, Cubs manager Gene Michael typified the difference in attitude between baseball then and baseball now, saying, “Headhunting and drilling somebody are a big difference. When you risk careers and lives, it has no place in baseball.”

Those stories are fun, in part because they describe a game that is barely recognizable today. In the modern game, throwing at a hitter, even well below the shoulders, is always questionable. When the reason for it is as petty as Urena’s—Acuna was having too much success, so he had to go down—it’s downright unconscionable.

There are many reasons for this evolution, none more vital than the fact that, unlike in its heyday, baseball, lagging behind the NBA and NFL in youth demographics, is a sport that needs marketing. More than ever, MLB needs its young stars to do star-like things, and when one of the brightest of them, in the middle of the best run of his career, is senselessly cut down by a meathead pitcher, it diminishes the entire sport.

People who decry the sport’s unwritten rules as baseless and outdated fail to recognize that the Code shifts with the times—has always shifted with the times—and because something was once acceptable does not make it so today. For those like Keith Hernandez, who uttered the below inanity into a microphone that he knew was live …

… it’s time to realize that the sport you grew up playing is not the same sport that Major League Baseball is trying so carefully to cultivate today. Urena wasn’t playing by the modern version of the unwritten rules, he was playing against them.

There is simply no place in baseball for Jose Urena, or those like him. Suspension—real suspension, not some five-game nonsense under which Urena doesn’t even have to miss a start—is the best way to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. If Major League Baseball truly wants its players to recognize that times have changed in this regard, it has to start leading the charge.

Update (8-16): MLB has suspended Urena six games. Way to decidedly not make a stand, baseball.

 

Bat Flipping, The Baseball Codes

Oh, That Flip

Franco flips

Ladies and gentlemen, Maikel Franco:

And again:

And the best, from Cut4:

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Omerta Code, The Baseball Codes

Addition By Subtraction: Nationals Thin Out Bullpen Roster For Non-Baseball Reasons

Kintzler

The big news out of Washington at the trade deadline was that the Nationals opted against shipping Bryce Harper out of town for the final two months of his contract. The small news was that they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler—a 33-year-old with a 15-16 record over parts of nine seasons—to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a low-ceiling pitcher in Single-A.

More interesting than the trade itself is why it was made.

According to the Washington Post, Kintzler became a persona non grata around Nationals Park after speaking to the media about what came to be described as a “dysfunctional” Washington clubhouse. (What he actually said, or even whether he even said it, is less important than the team’s feelings about the situation.)

From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

“The clubhouse is a mess,” said one source, whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity out of fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly. While the sources pinpointed a number of causes for the internal acrimony, they agreed that it was not purely a function of the Nationals’ underachievement but something that has festered throughout the season.

Never mind that at least four people—the source and three corroborators—spoke to Passan. Kintzler seems to have been fingered as the fall guy.

The internal reaction to this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A sign that has hung in many big league clubhouses over the years reads: “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.” Excommunicating those who choose to ignore it is nothing new.

“Players who are foolish enough to discuss what went on in a closed clubhouse meeting, or reveal that two players almost killed each other after the game, often turn up on other teams the next year,” wrote former pitcher and coach Tom House in his 1989 book, The Jock’s Itch. “That kind of behavior just isn’t acceptable. You must be loyal to your teammates, even though you may hate every last one of them.”

The notion is pervasive. For just one example, in 2011, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who had led the franchise to its first championship since 1917, looked on as his son spilled a variety of clubhouse secrets via Twitter. Guillen didn’t make it through the ensuing season, and apart from an aborted run in Miami in 2012, hasn’t managed since.

“Everybody wants to know what the team meeting was about,” said Dusty Baker. “Well, that’s the team meeting. If you are on the team, we’ll tell you. It’s not being anti-press, it’s not being secretive, it’s just how it is.”

Washington’s party line is that the team has a stout back end of the bullpen even without Kintzler, and wants to give a shot to rookie Wander Suero. Maybe this is the case. Then again, GM Mike Rizzo also said this:

In semi-related news, Washington also designated reliever Shawn Kelly for assignment after his sub-Little League reaction to giving up a homer in a blowout win.

The connective tissue between these moves, other than that both players pitched for the Nationals, was that they were both seen as expendable. Nats closer Shawn Doolilttle may be the least likely guy in the league to throw his glove in such a manner, but if he did, or if he’d leaked things to the press, you’d better believe that the team would give him every opportunity to make things right.

Kintzler and Kelley are not on that level. And when it comes time to shake things up on an underperforming roster, they’re just the type of players who can be easily thrown into the line of fire.

 

Celebrations, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Lotta Staring, Lotta Talking, And Just A Touch Of Benches-Clearing Confrontation As Twins-Rays Close Out Season’s First Half

Dozier dances

Before we move into the season’s second half, let’s clear out some pre-All-Star business. Like, for example, what happened in Minnesota over the weekend. It started during Saturday’s game, with the Rays trailing 6-4 heading into the top of the seventh inning. They emerged, two walks, three singles, a triple and a wild pitch later, leading, 9-6. Tampa added five more in the eighth to build the lead to 14-6. It’s what happened in the ninth, though, that drew my attention.

With Minnesota’s rookie utility infielder Willians Astudillo on the mound to save a taxed bullpen, Tampa Bay’s first three hitters went homer, double, single. No problems yet. The Twins led by nine, and were playing station-to-station ball—advancing one base on a single, two on a double, etc.—as teams do in blowouts. (For all the disagreement about when a lead can officially be considered safe, nine runs in the ninth meets every definition … never mind that Minnesota had already cried uncle with the insertion of Astudillo.)

Kevin Kiermaier then scored Smith with a ground ball to first base that was initially mishandled by Ehire Adrianza, who recovered in time to get the out at first but had no hope of making the play at the plate. This was acceptable under the rule of thumb that if no play is imminent—if a runner can go into a base standing up—he should do so. Ten-run lead.

What came next, however, was curious. Daniel Robertson singled on a soft bouncer to center field, and Adeiny Hechavarria never hesitated from second, motoring home with Tampa Bay’s 17th run, taking an extra base when such tactics had long since become excessive. (The Rays’ 18th and 19th runs came shortly thereafter on Jake Bauers’ two-run homer.)

Maybe the Rays were excited by their late-game explosion. Or maybe, as was pointed out via e-mail by longtime reader and avid Rays fan Road Dog Russ, “the Rays don’t feel any lead they have is safe. (Hangs head and sighs.)”

Minnesota players refrained from commenting publicly about it as far as I’ve seen, but if we’ve learned anything about this year’s Twins, it’s that at least a few of them (step on up, Brian Dozier) take the unwritten rules to heart (sometimes in not such productive ways). If I noticed the play from my office in California, the Twins almost certainly noticed it from across the field.

Which leads us to Sunday. While it’s possible that Saturday’s incident is unrelated to what came next—I’ve seen no accounts linking them—carryover is always possible.

With the score tied 4-4 in the seventh and the Twins in a shift against batter Eduardo Escobar, the aforementioned Dozier took an enormous lead off of third base, and, in no danger of being picked off (what with the third baseman being stationed in the shortstop’s spot), began dancing back and forth like a lunatic. It was enough to distract rookie Rays reliever Diego Castillo into a balk, sending a jubilant, fist-pumping Dozier home with the lead run. The play was, by every indication, a response to Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, who had done something similar from third base on Saturday.

Castillo’s next pitch to Escobar came in at 101 miles per hour, low and inside, but not close enough to cause the hitter to so much as move his feet. When Escobar backed out of the box to collect himself, Twins third baseman Daniel Robertson yelled at him to step back in. That was pretty much that: Benches cleared, and hostilities were on. (As usual, no punches were thrown.)

 

“I wasn’t upset with the pitcher,” Escobar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I never said anything to the pitcher or the dugout. I got upset and frustrated with Robertson, the third baseman. I didn’t know why he was yelling at me. The previous pitch before everything happened, it was kind of close to me. I wasn’t upset about that either. Robertson just started opening his arm and yelling stuff at me, which I couldn’t hear very well. That’s why I got frustrated.”

Escobar had been hit by a pitch an inning earlier. According to various Rays, after Castillo’s inside pitch, Twins reliever Ryan Pressly began shouting from the dugout that Tampa Bay had put a target on Escobar. Rays manager Kevin Cash began heatedly shouting across the field for somebody in Minnesota’s to shut the fuck up.

After the game, Robertson explained that he felt Escobar was trying to stare down the pitcher, and had done the same to reliever Ryan Yarbrough following an inside pitch earlier in the game. The fact that he also called Escobar “a good dude,” and pointed out that they both like to eat at Fogo de Chao doesn’t much mask the fact that getting upset over the way a player looks at somebody is ridiculous. Brazilian-style meat may build bridges, but this ain’t that.

(Robertson’s exact explanation: “When Castillo went down and low on [Escobar’s] ankles, he stared at him again. There was already a lot of chatter going on as far as the balk that happened right before that. Everyone was yelling at each other. He was looking back up at our pitcher again, and I just told him, ‘Hey, quit staring at our pitcher. Nobody’s trying to hit you; just get back in the box and hit.’ That’s about it, man. Then he kind of came back at me.”)

Escobar struck out on the next pitch, at which point Robertson was still talking. The hitter again took exception, this time as he walked past the Twins dugout, and again benches cleared. This time Escobar was ejected.

There’s a lot of fault to go around. Dozier did a mess of hollering all the way down the line as he was sent home on that balk, but he never directed it toward the pitcher or Tampa Bay’s dugout. If the Rays don’t like stuff like that, their best bet is to avoid balking in runs.

If Escobar was rattled by an inside pitch that was closer to being a strike than it was to hitting him, he’ll either need to fix that mentality or find a new line of work.

Kevin Cash decided that it was a good idea to repeatedly curse at his opponents. If he’s legitimately wondering why things got heated, there are a number of people he can see about that.

If David Robertson is really able to get bench-clearingly annoyed at the way an opponent looks at his teammate, he’d make an awesome nightclub bouncer, but might be a touch too sensitive for his sport of choice.

Also, don’t score from second on a single while up by double digits in the ninth. Who knows? That might have solved everything right there.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Mark Canha: Unrepentant Bat Flipper

Canha flips

That Mark Canha flipped his bat after homering against the Giants in San Francisco on Saturday night was hardly noteworthy. It was a small affair, more toss than flip. The Giants did not appear to notice, at least so much as they let on.

It was Canha’s response to the flip, much more than the flip itself, that truly reflected the modern game.

“Growing up in San Jose and being a Giants fan and coming to all those games as a kid, it was nice to finally pop one and, given the situation, I was excited,” the Oakland outfielder told the media after the game. “So I got on Twitter and got out in front of this a little bit. I’m sure a lot of San Franciscans are offended by that, and I’m sorry.”

That wasn’t the good part. The good part is what came next.

“You know what, people getting offended by bat flips is so silly,” Canha continued. “I’m not sorry. I’m not really sorry. It’s part of our game. Everybody does it. If someone is going to throw at me because of it, I’ve got thrown at in the past this season for bat flipping. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson. If you’re offended by that, I don’t care.”

Now we’re cooking.

We’ve seen comments like these before, usually from Latin America-born players, who have tried for years to explain how celebratory displays are part of the baseball they grew up with, and how they make the game better. For a certain subset of critics, however, those guys are too other for traditional tastesforeign voices that have no business telling Americans how their sport should be played.

Mark Canha was born and raised a Giants fan in Northern California. He went to U.C. Berkeley. He now plays for the A’s. There are few better examples of a Bay Area baseball kid made good. (And, okay, maybe some of those same critics who decry foreign voices will now dismiss Canha as a West Coast liberal, as if that has anything to do with anything, never mind that the guy’s politics are closeted to the point that I have no idea what they are.)

The point isn’t that Mark Canha is trying to move the needle. It’s that he’s being honest about the fact that the needle has already moved. This is Major League Baseball, 2018, and Canha is simply a product of it.

***

Also intriguing is Canha’s claim that he’s been thrown at this season in response to bat flipping. There are no direct tiesseries in which he homered and was subsequently drilled. The best bet is a flip against Seattle, on May 2, of which you can catch a fleeting glimpse here.) Canha skated through the next day’s game unscathed, but was drilled by Mariners starter Mike Leake the next time the teams met, on May 22.

Then again, Canha said only that he was thrown at, not hit, in which case all box-score divination is moot. I’ll be sure to ask him about it next time I’m in the A’s clubhouse.

 

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.”