Which brings us to video of umpire Tom Hallion trying to cool the situation, and barely succeeding. (The clip came out last June, but is somehow making the rounds again now. Which is reason enough to dive in with gusto.)
Excellent clip of 1B umpire Tom Hallion mic'd up after Noah Syndergaard throws behind Chase Utley, 5/28/16. (Warning: Language 🤬) pic.twitter.com/5THhlU5FAp
The umpire seems to understand that baseball has a method for delivering retaliation, and even appears receptive to looking the other way. Except, he tells the pitcher, “that’s the wrong time to do it.”
This is where things get confusing. There was one out in the third inning of a scoreless game when Syndergaard threw his pitch well behind Utley. The right-hander had already faced him once, leading off the game, and struck him out. There was also the not-inconsequential detail that the Mets had faced Utley five times, covering 19 plate appearances—including five the previous day—since he’d injured Tejada without so much as a whiff of controversy. If Syndergaard’s timing was wrong, what timing would have been better?
When Terry Collins gets involved, he tells Hallion: “You gotta give us a shot!”
Hallion’s response: “You get your shot. You had your shot right there. … You know the situation, Terry.”
Collins was, of course, talking about a repercussion-free shot, not one in which one of his aces gets tossed in the third inning after throwing only 33 pitches. The best guess here is that Hallion didn’t mean a word he was saying, and was just trying to cool the situation as quickly as possible.
The most vital part of the conversation—and this cannot be understated—came when Hallion broke out the phrase that has since gained him infamy: “Our ass is in the jackpot.” Twice.
The situation is old, the insight is new, and spring training is in full swing. Welcome back to baseball, everybody.
When it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, it’s often imperative that umpires are apprised of any history that might play into potential confrontation between teams. Frequently this helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Wednesday fit into the “doesn’t” category.
As the Red Sox and Orioles took the field, everybody around baseball—fans, players, coaches and all levels of management—knew about what had gone down between them. Also, more importantly, what had the potential to go down.
Commissioner Rob Manfred was sufficiently concerned, arranging, along with MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, a pregame conference call with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter of the Orioles, and Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell of the Red Sox. In so doing, he put everybody on both sides on notice, and effectively provided plate umpire Sam Holbrook an extra-heavy mallet with which to hammer out the peace.
In an ideal world, the threat of action on the umpire’s part would have been enough. In retrospect, it might actually have sufficed, and yet we do not live in an ideal world. Because in the second inning, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman hit Xander Bogaerts.
In a vacuum, the play would barely have registered. Gausman had faced only five batters. He’d been erratic, throwing only eight of his 20 pitches on the day for strikes. The fateful pitch was a 76 mph curveball—the last weapon of choice for somebody with vengeance on his mind. Given that Gausman was working under the hottest lights imaginable for such a thing, Bogaerts could not have been hit less intenationally.
It made no difference. The game had, somewhat surprisingly, begun without warnings, and Holbrook opted against issuing one to Gausman. Instead, he ejected him from the game, in the process becoming the poster child for brain-locking umpires who make shortsightedly stupid calls.
Kevin Gausman ejected for hitting Xander Bogaerts with a 77 MPH curveball, the ump messed up here #Orioles
The Orioles were stunned. Gausman signaled furiously that it had been a breaking pitch that failed to break, and nothing more. Catcher Caleb Joseph spiked his mask and had to be physically separated from Holbrook. Adam Jones ventured all the way in from center field to protest, and was eventually tossed when he kept yapping following a fifth-inning at-bat.
Kevin Gausman said ejection was "complete bush league." Said Sale clearly had intent yesterday, yet he's ejected for curveball. #Orioles
So the Orioles had to go to their bullpen three outs into the game. Even though they were fortunate to squeeze seven innings out of Richard Bleier (making his first appearance of the season after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk) and Ubaldo Jimenez, they will be pitching shorthanded in the bullpen for days to come. Also, they lost, 4-2.
Sam Holbrook made a statement to pool reporter about ejecting Gausman: "I felt like an ejection was the right thing to do at the time." pic.twitter.com/UoUgNTnzMq
We’ve seen pitchers tossed for similarly little. We’ve seen instances in which clueless umpires didn’t do enough to staunch a potentially volatile situation. But as we learned Wednesday, it’s not just the information an umpire’s given, it’s how he uses it that matters.
Much of the conversation had to do with whether Syndergaard deserved to be ejected for throwing a pitch behind Chase Utley. The pitch, a fastball, flew so wide that Utley didn’t even flinch to try to avoid it. It was almost certainly a response to Utley’s devastating takeout of Ruben Tejada during last season’s playoffs. Also, it was entirely harmless, though plate ump Adam Hamari—who had clearly been prepped on preceding events—failed to see it that way.
Other parts of the conversation had to do with Utley’s handling of things. After finishing the at-bat against reliever Logan Verrett by striking out, he offered the best response possible—he homered twice, including a grand slam, in what became a 9-1 victory at Citi Field.
Retaliation? Noah Syndergaard threw behind Chase Utley & was ejected.
Which brings us back to timing. Saturday was the fifth meeting between the teams this year, and the eighth overall (counting the postseason) since Utley broke Tejada’s leg. This leaves us with an overarching question: why now?
Utley was omitted from the lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS, the one following the mishap, and New York pitchers opted against taking their frustrations out on other Dodgers. He pinch-hit in the deciding Game 5, but that was a one-run playoff game, which trumped any thoughts of retaliation.
This year’s meetings looked like this:
May 9: Utley gets two at-bats, both with the Mets trying to protect a 4-2 lead.
May 10: Every one of Utley’s four at-bats comes with the game tied.
May 11: Utley comes up four times, with the game tied or New York leading by no more than two runs.
May 12: Utley bats in the first inning with the game tied; in the second inning with the Dodgers leading, 4-0 (and hits a solo homer); and in the fifth and seventh innings with the Dodgers leading 5-0.
May 27: All of Utley’s at-bats come with the Mets holding no more than a three-run lead, until the eighth, when he hits in a 5-1 game (and strikes out).
May 28: Syndergaard drills him.
So what happened? If the Mets were inclined to retaliate, the obvious situations would have been on May 12 and one at-bat on May 27. There’s little chance that Terry Collins would order such a thing from on high (he’s already gone on the record against perpetuation of grudge matches), so deductive reasoning says that the pitchers Utley faced—Bartolo Colon and Sean Gilmartin in the former game, Jerry Blevins in the latter—simply had no stomach for this type of confrontation.
Deductive reasoning also says that Syndergaard probably did.
Still, there’s no getting around the duration between Utley’s perceived offense and Syndergaard’s response. The pitcher himself probably acknowledged as much with his weapon of choice—a non-contact fastball so far off its mark that Utley would have had a tough time throwing himself into it to earn an HBP.
In other words: perfect. Message sent, no harm done.
Except that Hamari refused to play along. Usually, we’re stuck with clueless umpires whose lack of boning up on prior history between teams leads to some tense moments. This was the opposite of that. Had Hamari taken even a moment to consider the events as they happened, he would have leveled a warning and both sides would have likely considered things even.
Chalk this one up as a win for the Dodgers, both literally and figuratively.
When Orioles starter Jason Hammel drilled Detroit’s Matt Tuiasosopo on Saturday, nobody on either team felt strongly that he did it on purpose. The fact that there is no such thing as an 82-mph purpose pitch—which is where Hammel’s fateful offering clocked in—did not dissuade plate ump Hunter Wendelstedt from ejecting the right-hander on the spot.
It being the first pitch after back-to-back-to-back home runs, not to mention its location up near the batter’s head, will put a ballpark in that kind of mindframe. After all, the reasoning goes, even if Hammel didn’t meanto drill Tuiasosopo, perhaps he should have—especially after Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila just went deep. When one’s strategy as a pitcher isn’t working out quite as one had hoped—and make no mistake, three straight bombs under any circumstance will make a pitcher question his strategy—the only prudent plan is to change things up.
Put another way: If a team is getting far too comfortable at the plate, make them less comfortable. Starting immediately. (Watch the drilling here. Watch the homers here.)
So when Hammel’s actions followed the script—even if, in retrospect, his intention appears to have been elsewhere—an umpire can hardly be faulted for ignoring the finer points of the situation. After all, there is plenty of historical precedent on which to build. A small sampling, culled from a long-ago post detailing four straight homers hit by the Diamondbacks (which focused more on the outdated unwritten rule of restraint from swinging at the first pitch after back-to-back—or more—home runs):
In 1944 Cardinals Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Marty Marion hit consecutive homers against Reds pitcher Clyde Shoun. The next hitter, Marty Marion, was knocked down.
In 1991,Angels pitcher Scott Bailes hit Randy Velarde of the Yankees after giving up consecutive home runs.
In 1996, after the Red Sox connected for three home runs against the Angels, reliever Shawn Boskie threw a pitch behind Jose Canseco’s back.
In 2003, Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds gave up three home runs to the Pirates, then put a pitch under the chin of Brian Giles.
Mike Hegan, addressing the mindframe if not the actual scenario: “In April of 1974, I hit behind Graig Nettles the whole month. Graig hit 11 home runs, and I was on my back 11 times. That’s the kind of thing that happened.”
Former reliever and longtime pitching coach Bob McClure put it this way, in an interview 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, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better—he was just going through them all. He called fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign—thumb swiped upward across index finger, indicating a knockdown] and I nod. So I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him.
He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and his bat was over there and he grabbed them and got right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first and is coming toward the mound, and I’m trying to get my glove off because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die, I’m getting the first punch in. [Kingman, one of the game’s premier power hitters, stood 6-foot-6, 210 pounds. McClure was 5-foot-10, 170.]
He came right up to the dirt, then went around it, pointed at me and said, “There’ll be another day, young man.” And he just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years later and asked him if he remembered that incident. He looked me right in the eye and said, no. Just like that.
All of which is a long way of saying that back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.
All of which goes toward the near certainty that Wendelstedt knew what he was going to do with Hammels in the case of a hit batter before the ball even left the pitcher’s hand.
“[Hammel] had probably 10 to 12 balls slip out of his hand today,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, defending his pitcher in the Baltimore Sun. [With a] breaking ball, it’s tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the major league offices. … I understand what the umpire’s trying to do, but it’s very tough for them to judge intent.”
“They claim there was no intent,” responded crew chief Jerry Layne. “Three home runs and a guy gets hit. You’re an umpire, what do you do?”
In many ways, the Code is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. But there are times when people—sometimes even against their better intentions—make sure that it stays at the forefront of people’s minds. Welcome to the milieu, Jason Hammels, even if you didn’t mean to be here.
Jonathan Sanchez insists that the fastball he threw Friday—which nearly hit Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig in the head—was accidental. Sanchez was pitching inside, he said, quoting verbatim from the unofficial handbook of pitcher denials. The ball rose, he said. That was all.
Sanchez opened Friday’s game against St. Louis by giving up back-to-back home runs to Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran, followed by a single by Matt Holliday. Sanchez sent his next pitch—apparently out of frustration—toward Craig’s head. (The ball ended up connecting with the spinning hitter’s shoulder.) Plate ump Tim Timmons didn’t hesitate, ejecting Sanchez without so much as a warning.
It was an abhorrent string of hitters in an abhorrent season of starts for Sanchez, who has thrown a total of only 11.3 innings over four outings, with a 12.71 ERA. Twenty-one hits and eight walks. He’s made it to the fifth inning only once. Well, of course he’s frustrated.
“You’ve got two home runs, and then you’ve got a line-drive single up the middle, and then the very first pitch is up around the shoulder and head area,” Timmons told a pool reporter at Busch Stadium. “He threw intentionally at him, and in that area I deemed that intentional, and he’s done. Very dangerous.”
“It surprised me,” Sanchez said in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report. “(Timmons) said it was obvious I wanted to hit him. I said no, I just missed my spot.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was outraged at the quick hook, arguing vociferously enough to get tossed himself. After the game he said he was bringing his complaints to the commissioner’s office, although Sanchez’s ensuing suspension gave a pretty good indication about how much attention the commissioner was paying.
Any umpire who feels that a pitcher is intentionally head-hunting is justified in leveling ejections, with or without prior warnings. Timmons earned extra credit by keeping quiet after Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn later hit Pirates outfielder Starling Marte not once but twice—each almost certainly incidental—even after warnings were issued. (One barely clipped Marte’s hand, the other sailed into his arm, just off the plate; the hitter barely tried to avoid either one.)
Lynn himself was brushed back by Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes in the eighth, avoiding a pitch that, because he was squatting while squared to bunt, came in head-high. Lynn ducked backward out of the way, ending up on his back in the batter’s box. Again, Timmons let it slide.
In the eighth, Cardinals pitcher Mitchell Boggs drilled Gaby Sanchez in the back. (This, too, may have been unintentional, given Boggs’s recent struggles and the fact that all three hitters he faced reached base.)
Watch a compendium of the action here. (In an unrelated Code note, watch Pirates catcher Russell Martin jump to get between batter and pitcher in the first clip, as A.J. Elliswishes he had recently done.)
One takeaway from all this is that an umpire on top of his game can go a long way toward stemming future disturbances. Timmons and MLB seem to agree upon that even one head-hunting incident is too many, and there’s no better way to tamp down the practice than by making examples of pitchers who stray from the proscribed course.
By letting the rest of the game play out as it did—even what appeared to be an obvious message from Hughes to Lynn—Timmons further defused lingering resentment between the clubs. Neither of the weekend games between the team featured much of anything resembling Code-based drama, even with the ample opportunities presented by Pittsburgh’s 9-0 blowout on Sunday.
Ultimately, the situation appears to have been handled just right. The power of positive umpiring.
The minor leagues exist in part as a proving ground for young players, an off-spotlight platform where they can learn from their mistakes. Baseball fundamentals comprise a significant portion of this learning, but there’s also a place for figuring out the ways of the game—specifically to this item, retaliation, and what is and is not appropriate.
Take, as an example, Palm Beach Cardinals pitcher Brandon Creath. Pitching in the Florida State League (Class-A Advanced) on Sunday, he threw a pitch at the head of Fort Myers Mircale third baseman Miguel Sano. According to Miracle manager Doug Mientkiewicz, the pitch was in response to an incident in Tuesday’s game between the same teams, when Sano hit a seventh-inning grand slam in Fort Myers’ 7-4 win.
“They were running their mouths at him,” Mientkiewicz said in an MiLB.com report. “Miguel hit a grand slam and kinda flipped his bat, and they took it the wrong way. He hit a big home run.”
Mientkiewicz—one of the staunchest Code adherents in the game during his 12 seasons as a big league first baseman—did not appear to be taking issue with the fact that the Cardinals retaliated, but rather how it went down.
“Hit him in the back,” he said. “I won’t like it, but it’s part of the game. Throw at his head and it messes with his future and I have a problem with it. It’s an embarrassment to the game of baseball.”
Sano didn’t take long to offer his own response, homering later in the at-bat. In so doing, however, he set up a situation in which it became clear that Creath wasn’t the only person needing to brush up on his unwritten rulebook. Sano rounded the bases with a flurry of fist-pumps and shouts toward the Palm Beach dugout, and plate ump Fernando Rodriguez ejected him before he reached the plate.
“I think, personally, it’s garbage,” Mientkiewicz said. “[Sano] did nothing wrong. He locks in and hits a home run. That’s what makes him so special.”
(It’s worth noting that two Palm Beach batters had been hit earlier in the game, which Mientkiewicz dismissed as accidental, and incidental to what eventually went down.)
While the most pertinent item here is head-hunting, that rule almost goes without saying. There’s never a valid reason for it, and every ballplayer who doesn’t inherently recognize that will be taught a lesson the moment his ignorance surfaces.
Umpires, however, have a more subtle task. Ball-strike-safe-out is the most prominent part of their job, but they also have a responsibility to understand recent events between the teams for which they’re responsible, in order to help them make informed judgments about whatever it is they’re seeing on the field.
Were Rodriguez up on his facts, he may well have ejected Creath, not Sano, and all of this would have been avoided.
On Saturday, Prince Fielder launched two home runs off of Boston’s Josh Beckett within the game’s first five innings. In the bottom of the seventh, he was hit on the calf by Red Sox reliever Matt Albers.
Phil Coke came out of the Detroit bullpen a half-inning later with the perfect opportunity to exact retribution: He faced Fielder’s first-base counterpart and fellow superstar, Adrian Gonzalez, with a 10-run lead. Instead of sending a message, however, he struck Gonzalez out.
There may be great power in hindsight for Phil Coke, or he may have had the finer points of the “We’ve seen enough of this crap” method of pitching explained to him by teammates or coaches after the game. That would explain his appearance on Sunday, when, in the seventh inning, the left-hander made up for opportunities lost. With Dustin Pedroia on second and two outs in a game the Tigers trailed 9-7, Coke—a day late—went gunning for his man.
His aim was as poor as his timing, however, as Coke’s pitch sailed up near Gonzalez’s head, without any real danger of hitting him. Which is where the umpiring at Comerica Park comes into question.
At this point, plate ump Dan Iassogna should have been all over Coke. Ejection would have been justified even without the previous day’s action, based only on the location of the pitch, but Iassogna did nothing. (In his defense, even Gonzalez didn’t take the pitch too seriously, joking with Iassogna and Tigers catcher Alex Avila about whether he should start to get scared.)
It might have been a good idea. With his next offering—and two bases open, after Pedroia took third on the previous pitch—Coke hit Gonzalez in the back. Bobby Valentine raced out for a chat involving, among other things, disbelief that the pitcher had not yet been ejected. It didn’t have much effect; only after crew chief Dale Scott consulted with Iassogna were warnings even issued. Coke remained in the game.
Iassogna has some history with this type of thing, having notably erred on the reactionary side earlier in his career, much to his own detriment. In 2002, before he had even reached full-time status with MLB, Iassogna was behind the plate for a game in which the Dodgers led the Reds 4-0 going into the ninth inning. After Los Angeles closer Eric Gagne gave up a bloop single and a two-run homer, he hit Adam Dunn with his next pitch. That was all Iassogna needed to see; he tossed Gagne on the spot.
The details of this particular story matter, however. Gagne’s pitch to Dunn was clearly unintentional; it only grazed the bottom of the slugger’s jersey, failing even to hit flesh. When Gagne was ejected, Dogers manager Jim Tracy lost his mind.
“I went crazy,” he said. “I’ve been very upset a few times as a big league manager, but that was maybe the most upset I’ve been on a baseball field, because of what I perceived to be as a lack of understanding as to exactly what it was that was going on. . . . I don’t know of any pitcher in baseball, after a home run has preceded the at-bat and you’re in the ninth inning trying to win, who’s going to hit the next guy and bring the tying run to the plate.”
Gagne and Tracey were both ejected, the Reds tied the game with two more runs off three more pitchers, and Cincinnati won it in the 13th against Omar Daal, who had been scheduled to start for the Dodgers the following day.
It’s enough to make an ump gun shy, which Iassogna might be these days. That certainly appeared to be the case on Sunday.
“They should’ve given a warning after the one at (Gonzalez’s) head, the first pitch,” said Valentine in the Boston Herald.
Gonzalez, too, worried about the lasting effects of the umpire’s decision.
“You know it’s going to happen,” he said of potential future retribution, in an ESPN Boston report. “We’ve all got seven more years here. It might not happen the next series, but eventually it’s going to happen. . . . I just think it’s a bad call on their end because now it’s putting Miggy’s (Miguel Cabrera) and Prince’s careers at risk. You know it’s going to happen eventually.”
Next chance: May 28, in Boston. No word yet on the whereabouts of Dan Iassogna that week.