Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.


Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Unwritten-Rules

Let me Tell you About Back in the Day …

Gibson cardInteresting stuff up today over at Hardball Talk about the idea of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale becoming a crutch for people trying to express how players of bygone eras wouldn’t put up with the shenanigans of today, even though they hit far fewer batters than their modern reputations would suggest. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of this myself; each guy is an easy stand-in to illustrate points about player toughness and the kinds of things modern players get away with.

Still, how representative were they, really? Despite all the talk about Gibson’s intolerance, there’s little question that he and Drysdale were outliers, simply the meanest characters fronting the scariest trigger fingers of their era. Virtually nobody could match those two—less in terms of sheer body count than in putting the fear of God into batters via a steady stream of knockdown pitches. It’s why they’re still the faces of that particular franchise.

But then there’s this: During the 1968 World Series, in which Gibson played a significant part, Pee Wee Reese apparently bemoaned the lack of modern-day attention to the preponderance of showboating. It’s easy to forget that for all the “kids today are soft” conversations we may have, the previous generation had those same conversations about us, and their elders had the same conversations about them.

Change is inevitable, and, apart from seismic shifts in societal mores, rare is the person who thinks that things are better today than they used to be. Always has been, always will be.


On Successful Homecomings and Misread Grins: The Tale of the Trying Smile, by Ian Kinsler

GrinslerAh, respect. She is a vexing mistress.

Ian Kinsler, reluctantly departed from his career-long home in Arlington after an off-season trade with Detroit, returned for the first time yesterday as a member of the visiting team. He promptly took former Rangers teammate Colby Lewis deep.

And what did he do? He gave a little wave to his pals in the Rangers dugout. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he went around the bases. There was no animosity here; this was friendly stuff—a we’re-in-different-uniforms-but-I-still-like-you-mooks moment. To everybody, it seems, but Lewis. (Watch it here.)

Give the pitcher some leeway—he had just put his team in a first-inning hole and ended up taking the loss with a mediocre outing, and now boasts a 5.94 ERA on the season after missing all of last year due to elbow and hip injuries. His team has as many wins as the Astros. He deserves to be frustrated. But to take that personally? (If anybody possibly could, it would be Rangers GM Jon Daniels. But Lewis?)

“I guess ‘disappointed’ is the best word to describe it,” the pitcher said after the game in an MLive report.

There are lots of legitimate gripes in baseball about improper displays of respect, which can be dealt with in any number of time-tested ways. Lewis obviously wants other players, particularly those he knows personally, to be sensitive to his struggles. But Kinsler himself described the trip to Arlington as “my return home” (which was more than metaphor: his house and family are still there), and talked after the game about being “lucky enough to square one up.” If he lacks any respect for Lewis, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

There was no showboating here, nothing intended to call extra attention to Kinsler. It was just a guy soaking in a moment. Lewis should have let him have it.



Desmond Slams Bat, Wins Hearts and Minds With Response to Slamming Bat

Even as I have come to accept the new world order of bat flips and assorted other stylings, I now appreciate more than ever those who recognize their own decorum, even when—especially when—they haven’t done much of anything wrong. Ladies and gents, your anti-Machado: Ian Desmond.

Desmond, a home run away from the cycle last night in San Francisco, slammed his bat down in frustration after flying out to left field of Yusmerio Petit. Because the frustration was strictly personal—the Nats led 9-2 at the time—Desmond may have thought better of it, and apologized after the game.

“For the record, I probably shouldn’t have slammed my bat,” he said in a Washington Post report. “If Petit hears about this or sees this, I apologize. That was pretty bush league. But I was kind of caught up in the moment. You don’t get that opportunity often.”

Today’s lesson: A little cognizance goes a long way. Kudos to Desmond.

[Thanks to @lawrence_s for the tip.]

Retaliation, Unwritten-Rules

Machadope: On the Reckless Pursuit of Imaginary Justice

Machado swingsManny Machado is trying to rewrite the unwritten rulebook, virtually from cover to cover. One day the guy is inventing new things to get angry about, the next he’s figuring out new ways to retaliate for them.

In the process, he’s proved himself to be among the most reckless, hard-headed and downright dangerous players in the game, and should be harshly suspended for Sunday’s action.

Machado’s aggravation with the A’s began on Friday, when he took issue with an ordinary tag by Josh Donaldson, who was later thrown at by O’s reliever Wei-Yin Chen. On Sunday, the young shorstop took it to a new level stratosphere.

Hitters will occasionally come into contact with catchers on a backswing. It happens. That said, it is rare and inadvertent, and because it puts catchers into no small degree of peril—a bat is connecting with their head—hitters who do it are immediately apologetic.

Not reckless Manny Machado.

Machado hit A’s catcher Derek Norris with a backswing early in Sunday’s game, then connected again with significant force on an exaggerated follow-through in the sixth, his bat cracking the top of Norris’ helmet. The catcher, stunned, was immediately pulled from the game. Was it intentional? Judge it by Machado’s reaction. The guy didn’t so much as turn around. In fact, as a dazed Norris was being led into the A’s clubhouse, the Baltimore shortstop was caught on camera smirking. (Watch it here.)

“Usually most guys, it’s a, ‘You all right?’ Something,” said Norris after the game, in an MLB.com report. “But, if anything, I might’ve caught him smiling one time, which is kinda bizarre. Not really much [courtesy] coming from his side today. I don’t need a guy to ask me if I feel all right to feel good about a situation, but I think it is courteous for one ballplayer to another to ask if they’re all right. But yeah, nothing.”

This action is beyond the pale. Pitchers who throw at opponents’ heads are shunned by their peers—even those peers who believe in retaliatory pitches. Every one of them cites the idea that aiming a fastball above a player’s shoulders is the quickest way to end a career. Norris is no Tony Conigliaro in terms of long-term impact (at least from the looks of things so far), but a trip to the disabled list to deal with late-manifesting concussion-related issues is not out of the question. That the blow was leveled intentionally, under the scope of game play, is shameful.

Machado backswing
A normal backswing? You be the judge.

Machado compounded matters in the eighth when A’s pitcher Fernando Abad, on to protect a 10-0 lead, threw an inside fastball toward Machado’s knees—almost certainly a response to the backswing, but a mild one. It was not a difficult pitch for the batter to avoid, and it passed unimpeded to the backstop.

Machado waited until the next pitch, then swung and let go his bat—ostensibly to fly at Abad, though it sailed harmlessly down the third base line. It was obvious enough for the Orioles own broadcast crew to proclaim, “Manny Machado thought he was thrown at, and on that swing he let that bat go, intending it to go to the mound.”

A minor pass is given for the fact that Machado is coming off of knee surgery, and is obviously protective of that part of his anatomy. Then again, the reaction fits perfectly with everything we’ve learned about him this weekend. The 21-year-old hothead with the big ego has put some personal and indecipherable code of ethics above the safety not just of his opponents (it appears he’d have been happy to have hit two Oakland players with bats), but his own teammates, should the A’s opt to retaliate at some point in the future. Machado hasn’t yet spoken publicly of some irrational need to be respected, but his actions are those of somebody who feels strongly that he is owed something, despite a decided lack of merit.

O’s manager Buck Showalter pased the buck after the game, saying in the Baltimore Sun that he preferred to let players take care of this kind of thing on their own, and adding that “I thought Manny handled it better than someone with some experience [would]. It was also a good experience for him to have. He cares. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

If it’s really a learning experience, Machado needs a voice of reason wearing orange and black telling him to knock it off. The Code dictates that one (or more) of Machado’s more senior teammates step in to corral what is looking increasingly like an out-of-control player. That said player is the most talented guy in Baltimore’s system complicates things, but not so much that the team’s veterans can’t bring their voices into the equation.

The A’s may well have a few things to say about the situation when the teams meet again in July, but if things haven’t been handled internally long before then, the Orioles will have far bigger things to worry about than Oakland.

Update (6-9-13): The talking to has happened, at least to some degree. Machado apologized via the team’s TV network.

Update (6-10-13): I can’t see any way this would actually happen, but the Orioles are presenting a serious front: Dan Duquette says that sending Machado to the minors is “an option.”

Update (6-10-13): Machado has been suspended five games, and will appeal. In a less sensible move, Abad has been fined for a pitch that did not hit a batter, after he was thrown out of a game for that same pitch, but only after throwing another, subsequent pitch.


Why all the Hate?: On the Nature of the Unwritten Rules

Rule policeYesterday over at Deadspin, former big league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst took aim at a recent ESPN feature, written by Tim Kurkjian, about the unwritten rules. Hayhurst savages both article and topic, calling it “piles of oblivious, hypocritical, contradictory bullshit.”

The man is clearly is not a fan of the unwritten rules. I am. Thing is, I agree with almost everything he says.

Kurkjian’s piece is well-reported and informative. It hits on many of the points laid out in The Baseball Codes, identifying actions forbidden on a baseball diamond for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual rulebook. Its points are supported through interviews and anecdotes. So far, so good.

What Kurkjian does not do, by and large, is account for the changing nature of the Code. This vital facet is referenced throughout The Baseball Codes, but even more so has been documented on this website over the four years since the book was published. As society changes, baseball changes. And as baseball changes, the attitudes within it change. And make no mistake—the sport’s unwritten rules are propped up by attitude.

I’ll take it a step farther: The fact that baseball’s unwritten rules are so malleable—flexible not just over time, but from league to league, team to team and even player to player—is what has kept them vital. The discussion never stops, not just about how they’re executed, but why. What motivates players to take offense to something somebody else does on a baseball diamond? When that discussion results in a critical mass agreeing that a rule is outdated or in some way wrong, that rule inevitably changes.

Step away from the ballpark for a moment and you’ll find little difference between the guy who gets upset at being inadvertently bumped in the supermarket and the pitcher who gets upset when an opponent digs in against him in the batter’s box. They’re both assholes; it’s just that one of them has a professional outlet with which to deliver his assholery.

But that guy is an outlier—a reason not to love the Code. He seizes on an institutional framework to further his own emotionally fragile goals, and becomes an easy target for critics.  Some players enforce things the wrong way, and some players get upset over things that should not realistically upset them, but that’s not so different than the rest of the world. The mainstream of players who abide by the Code do it properly, and with reservation. We are, after all, a society of reasonable people.

There are plenty of reasons to appreciate the unwritten rules—reasons that have to do with respect, and putting a check on players who are out of line (including the asshole above). Arguments are bound to ensue over the correct definition of “out of line,” but in the meantime, baseball is the last major sport to devolve into the chest-beating mentality that has all but consumed the NFL and NBA.

Among the points of his rant, Hayhurst bemoans the arbitrary nature of the sport’s unwritten rules:

It would be one thing if there were consistency across baseball—if everybody followed the same rules, then there’d be some de facto weight behind them. Instead it’s 30 different teams with 30 different unwritten rulebooks.

He’s correct. It’s the why of it with which I quibble. This is a moral code we’re dealing with, standards of behavior that govern the micro-society of the major leagues. As with any societal structure, the further one gets from the mainstream, the more arbitrary morals become. And many of the unwritten rules are not arbitrary: Anybody who throws at an opponents’ head will be roundly shunned, even by those who believe in similar forms of retaliation below the shoulders. Low-bridging a baserunner—wherein a middle infielder intentionally aims his double-play relay at the forehead of an incoming baserunner to force a premature slide—is similarly taboo. A couple generations ago, both these things were common practice.

Again: things change.

Those examples, of course, have to do directly with player safety. Annoyances—things like flipping a bat or crossing the pitcher’s mound—are viewed somewhat differently. (At which point I must point out Kurkjian’s error in stating that this latter rule was established only when Dallas Braden took offense at Alex Rodriguez doing that very thing; as has been discussed at some length within these pages, the rule is far older than that.)

As acceptance of these lesser violations has softened over time (anybody who does not yet believe that Yasiel Puig is at the heart of a hang-loose revolution has their eyes completely closed), they have also become fertile ground on which the cranks among us can plant their flags. The unwritten rules offer the cranks a platform, too, which is sort of the point. Those voices screaming about Puig’s bat flips have been thoroughly drowned out by applause for the guy. Soon, the cranks will be quiet on this topic, too, and the Code will have shifted again.

The fringe that wants to hurt their opponents is low-hanging fruit for critics, but it is also an endangered species. A focus on those who want to make the game a better, more respectful place may draw fewer headlines, but to avoid the latter in favor of the former is to do the topic a disservice. We may disagree about methodology, but in that, at least, we can hopefully concur.




Take Cover Kids, Wild Thing’s in Town

BeanballSo it turns out that Mitch Williams is a horrible human being after all, if one is to believe the report out today on Deadspin.

The former closer and current MLB Network analyst reportedly spent some of his time at a baseball tournament in Aberdeen, Md., last weekend trying to get his kids to act like big leaguers … in all the worst ways.

After calling the opposing pitcher a pussy, according to witnesses, he instructed a 10-year-old on his team to drill the opposing pitcher.

There are discussions to be had about why actions like this may or may not be acceptable at the major league level, but there’s near unanimity of opinion on how baseball’s unwritten rules translate to youth and amateur leagues: they don’t. At least as far as things like retaliation and beanballs are concerned.

From The Baseball Codes:

A case in point can be taken from the angry response Giants broad­caster Mike Krukow received from a number of Bay Area parents after praising pitcher Tyler Walker on the air for launching a retaliatory strike against Mark Mulder after the A’s ace hit two Giants, including Barry Bonds. “They’re pissed off that they have Little Leaguers and I’m teach­ing them the wrong baseball,” Krukow said. “But I’m not teaching Little League baseball. Their fathers teach them Little League baseball. I’m explaining what goes on here at the major-league level.”

Mitch Williams has no such filter, apparently. He’s doing as much harm to the Code as those who decry its very existence. When one swings so a blunt mallet—pro or con, makes no difference—nuance is lost. And the sport’s unwritten rules are all about nuance.

If this is an example of the guy’s understanding of baseball, not only do I not want him within 500 yards of my kids’ ballfield, I’m not so sure I want him explaining it to me on TV, either.



Retaliation, Unwritten-Rules

A’s Push Back on Porter, Houston Pilot Pops


Porter tossed

Leave it to Bo Porter to show us how closely the Code can be  linked both to perspective and perception.

On Thursday, his pitcher, Paul Clemens, was ejected for drilling Oakland’s Jed Lowrie. The following night, he grew upset when A’s pitcher Fernando Abad received only a warning for hitting Houston’s Jason Castro. Both pitches were likely intentional. When Porter argued that point, he was tossed. (Watch it here.)

Those details, in a vacuum, place Porter pretty squarely in the role of aggrieved victim. Mix in a few pertinent facts, however, and it’s remarkable how much things change.

Lowrie was drilled because … well, it’s still not clear. Porter was obviously angry that the A’s shortstop bunted against the shift in the first inning of a game on April 18. Why he was angry is a point of some contention, which the manager has yet to explain with any sort of clarity. Still, he responded by apparently having Clemens throw at Lowry later in the game, and then had him drilled (again apparently, and again with Clemens on the mound) when the teams met again six days later. Plate ump Toby Basner knew the history, and tossed the pitcher for his actions.

On Friday, Oakland’s Brandon Moss bookended the ninth—another huge inning against the Astros in a season full of them—by getting hit twice. Neither appeared intentional: The first, from right-hander Josh Fields, barely grazed him. The second was a sailing cutter that had Anthony Bass, Houston’s sixth pitcher of the night, staring skyward in frustration after it found its mark.

No matter—after a time, enough is enough. It’s been said all week that Porter’s reckless behavior surrounding the Lowrie incident would eventually make targets out of his players, and on Friday it happened. Innocent as things may have been surrounding Moss, the tipping point had been reached. Castro was drilled, and Porter was irate.

Houston’s skipper has displayed no talent for instrospection to this point in the proceedings, but if he honestly assesses his role in this string of events, and wonders if he could have changed the outcome along the way with an even slightly cooler head, answers would be pretty easy to find.

Of course, chances are that—based on his exiting body of work, anyway—none of those answers would make him happy.

Porter’s go-to phrase through this entire affair has been “Baseball takes care of itself,” and in that, anyway, he is correct. On Friday, Oakland rolled a course correction into action. Here’s hoping that Porter views it with some clarity.


On the Importance of Baseball’s Unwritten Rules, or: Why So Much Fuss Over a Li’l Old Code?

rocking chairThe Code has taken a drubbing over recent days, thanks to Gerrit Cole and his sense of propriety. All because he called out Carlos Gomez for overacting on the field.

Primary among the critics is Fox Sports’ John Paul Morosi, who, after labeling Cole a “Special Baseball Ethics Instructor” yesterday, wrote:

Gomez needs to be celebrated — not discouraged — for what he brings to major league baseball. At a time when the sport’s message on instant replay and home-plate collisions has become muddled, Gomez illuminates an even greater concern: Why do major league players take exception to peers who have the audacity to enjoy themselves on a baseball field?

He then went cultural, wondering why Gomez—or Yasiel Puig or Jose Fernandez—shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate success the way they learned growing up in their various countries of origin.

Over at Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra, in agreement with Morosi, says to “ask yourself—honestly—why it’s so important to retain some century-old code of on-field stoicism and stifling of exuberance, style and—dare I say it—swag.”

At Deadspin, under the headline “Down With Baseball’s Fun Police,” a galled Barry Petchesky wrote that “Carlos Gomez [took his] time to admire what he thought was a home run. Words were exchanged, punches thrown, all over a little showmanship.”

Well, no. Punches were thrown because Gomez started throwing them. Cole did nothing more than verbally indicate that he did not appreciate Gomez’s act.

And I have asked myself—honestly—why baseball’s unwritten rules are important. I’ve also come up with some answers.

They’re important because playing sports the right way—with the understanding that my definition of “the right way” is not the only acceptable interpretation of the term—is important. I coach my daughter’s softball team and my son’s T-ball team, and I expect every player under my watch to be respectful of the opposition. I love celebrating great plays and victories, but it rubs me wrong when professional players treat commonplace success as if they’ve accomplished something remarkable. I am drawn to those who embrace the concept of team—an idea that is, by its very nature, subsumed by the look-at-me mentality of showboating.

I get that the game is changing, and support much of that change. (Hell, I all but cried uncle last year in the face of Puigmania.) After all, as standards change and celebrations become commonplace, they grow increasingly less about showing up the opposition and more about the simple act of beating one’s own chest. Fine.

No matter where one draws the line, however, there is still a line, and it behooves everybody to not just understand where it is, but why it exists. (To address Morosi’s point, this is especially true for players who are singled out for having come up in a Latin American system that has far looser controls on its expressions of exuberance than the professional game in the U.S.)

Gerrit Cole is not exactly a crusty veteran—he’s 23 years old and in his third year of pro ball—but he does have a sense of how the game should be played. Even if he doesn’t take personal offense to Gomez’s antics, he has every right to view them negatively in a larger context, and to comment in response.

I won’t try to explain Cole’s thinking, but I can tell you my own motivation had I been in his shoes:

I don’t want baseball to end up like football, where mediocre first-down runs are celebrated as if they were touchdowns.

I don’t want to see baseball players popping their jerseys or pointing backward with their thumbs to the name between their shoulderblades.

I don’t want to see professional players dogging it, even if they’re on the opposing team, because they drag the entire sport down with them.

Baseball is individual enough as it is. I have come to accept increasing levels of showmanship every year. I largely agree with those who decry intentionally hitting batters as a form of outdated brutality. I do believe there are those who take the unwritten rules—and themselves—far too seriously.

But to call Code proponents “the fun police” is to miss the point. I believe that sport and team—any sport and any team—hold far more importance than the individual players on the rosters. I appreciate humility in a highlight-driven world. I want to know players for doing their jobs, not for how they respond to doing their jobs.

So bring on new methods of celebration. But be neither surprised nor offended when some people recoil in response.



Brave New World, Courtesy of an Exuberant 22-Year-Old

Puig celebratesIt’s been a long week of Dodgers-inspired discussion of the unwritten rules. This is what happens when the team with a laid-back attitude toward the Code butts heads with the direct heir to Tony La Russa. Comparisons are bound to be drawn, and opinions will fly:

The Dodgers’ approach is shameful. Let boys be boys. Celebration is fine. Celebration is disrespectful. Yasiel Puig is precisely what a stodgy game needs—unless he should instead grow up and shape up.

There is little question that the game’s acceptance of on-field merriment has grown more lenient. The celebratory scrum that is now de facto after walk-off wins was, only recently, limited to games in which a team clinched a playoff series. Hand gestures that have become common— Texas’ antlers, Milwaukee’s beast mode, Hanley Ramirez’ goggles—that once they inspired discussions about propriety now barely make a ripple.

Once these things become integrated into baseball culture, after all, they become just another means of celebration. And when something becomes institutionalized, it becomes a whole lot harder for the opposition to take it personally.

That said, these Dodgers seem hell bent on pushing the boundaries. Racing across the diamond at Chase Field to frolic in the pool upon clinching the National League West. Going so far, according to reports, to treat it like a urinal.

Puig’s arms-raised celebratory home run pimp on a ball that didn’t leave the park in Game 3 was all the more amusing because he still ended up with a stand-up triple. Whereupon he did an arms-raised celebratory triple pimp.

Carlos Beltran had an opinion on this, saying “As a player, I just think [Puig] doesn’t know [how to act]. That’s what I think. He really doesn’t know. He must think that he’s still playing somewhere else. He has a lot of passion, no doubt about that—great ability, great talent. I think with time he’ll learn that you’ve got to act with a little bit more calm.”

Adam Wainwright said that in Game 3 of the NLCS, Adrian Gonzalez was heckling him from third base as he tried to pitch. He called it “Mickey Mouse stuff.” Gonzalez at first denied it, then offered the most Dodger response possible, making Mickey Mouse ears when returning to the dugout after a Game 5 home run.

To those who took offense, the counterpoint offered by bloggers and columnists everywhere held opinions along the line of “baseball can learn a thing or two,” and that it’s just jealousy” and “shut up.”

Ultimately, it comes to this: Baseball changes very slowly, but it does change. Puig is the youngest, freshest face that the sport has, and he does not have to be universally loved to affect change. Few transformative figures do.

The idea of the Code—an enforced system of respect, displayed through proscribed on-field behavior—becomes more difficult to maintain every year, as old-school adherents retire and are replaced by those who never cared much for it in the first place. Enter the attention given somebody like Puig—who does not disdain the Code so much as revel in the fact that he never learned it in the first place—and we’re looking at a sea change.

Celebrations—be they directed at seasons, games or individual feats—are now commonplace. Puig may represent the crass end of that spectrum, but he is on the spectrum nonetheless, and is pushing the window of what is acceptable toward a place that makes purists howl.

Then again, howling is what purists tend to do when their reality changes from beneath them.

The Dodgers running roughshod as a team over the Arizona ballpark was simply a bad idea, but it shouldn’t distract from the rest of this conversation. Love it or hate it, the game’s unwritten rules have taken a body blow this month. Get used to it: We’re looking at less of an outlier and more of the norm.