Lesson of the Day, 1980 Edition: Don’t Swing at Pitches You’re Not Supposed to Swing At

mcgraw-lopesMore fun historical moments from my New Secret Project. (Try to pick up a pattern as items appear sporadically in this space.) This one’s from the New York Daily News, Aug. 27, 1980, and touches on a retaliation-worthy incident from a previous era:

Don’t invite Davey Lopes and Tug McGraw to the same party.

“There will be a day when McGraw hits,” Lopes said, “and he’ll be dead and you can put that in the newspapers.”

Okay, Dave.

After Dusty Baker’s ninth-inning single had snapped a 4-4 tie in a game the Dodgers went on to win 8-4 Monday night, Philadelphia’s McGraw was trying to intentionally walk Joe Ferguson to load the bases and set up a potential double play. Ferguson, however, had other plans. On the second pitch, he leaned across the plate and lined a two-run single to right.

McGraw was not happy and took out his frustration on shortstop Bill Russell, the next batter. His first three pitches were tight and the fourth one plunked Russell, who charged the mound, starting off baseball’s latest beanbrawl. Lopes was outraged that McGraw would stoop to such a level.

“That was bush,” Lopes said. “He’s got his day coming. I don’t care if it’s eight years from now. I thought he had a little more class. I guess he doesn’t.” …

“It was as plain as the nose on your face that he should have been thrown out and heavily fined,” Lasorda said. “What gives him the right to throw four balls at a guy who has nothing to do with [Ferguson’s hit]?

It should be noted that the Dodgers beat McGraw’s Phillies in the NLCS in both 1977 and 1978, so some degree of intolerance between the clubs would be only natural.

It’s also not surprising that Lopes—the most outspoken player on that Dodgers team—took up the cause with reporters after the game while Russell himself, notoriously reticent, kept quiet.

Also noteworthy is the comment from Lasorda. His outrage was no doubt genuine, but so was the hypocrisy; as a pitcher the guy was famous for knocking down opponents. Even once he became a manager he couldn’t stop getting into fights. As a Giants fan growing up, I hated that guy. As a baseball fan, though, it’s hard not to love him.



Have Fastball (and Passport), Will Travel for Retaliation

elias-sosaResearching a new project, I ran across a tale of a player waiting for revenge through multiple teams, multiple leagues and even multiple countries. It all ended with a fight … but not one that might have been expected.

From The Sporting News, Aug. 25, 1973:

Tommy Lasorda once managed pitcher Elias Sosa in the Dominican Republic winter league. Last winter, however, Lasorda helmed the Licey Tigers, which included eight young members of the Dodgers. Sosa, a member of the San Francisco Giants, pitching for the Escogido Lions, drilled Steve Garvey, then Von Joshua, and the Tigers rushed the field. Sosa retreated to right field to escape, but was subsequently drilled by Licey’s Pedro Borbon, of the Reds.

Accusing Lasorda of ordering the pitch, Sosa carried his grievance all the way to San Francisco the other night, where he threw one at the skull of Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith, who narrowly escaped. Sosa caught a verbal shot from Lasorda, who was told the next day by manager Charlie Fox to stop harassing his pitcher.

A shocking thing then happened. The two suddenly started throwing punches. Charlie grew up in the Irish section of the Bronx. The fight was slowed instantly when the stomachs of the two collided, but Lasorda claims to have landed pulverizing punches.
The windup, according to Lasorda, was a promise on the part of Sosa to get even with him in Santo Domingo, where Elias has friends.

Lasorda, of course, loved to fight and was never shy about retaliation, so maybe Sosa had a point. Of course, to exact revenge upon Lasorda in a different league, against a player who wasn’t even in the country when the first shot was fired, took things to an unprecedented level.

Sosa ended up pitching for Lasorda in Los Angeles in 1976 and 1977, so his feelings couldn’t have been too badly hurt.


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.

Rookie Hazing

No Drag For Rookies Is No Drag At All

the-hazingSo ballplayers won’t be dressing each other up like women anymore. Depending upon one’s perspective, the latest decree against this particular subset of rookie hazing is either outrageous or long overdue. We’ve heard many opinions since the news dropped, but for the most part they’ve ignored what I think is a vital piece of the equation: Why do it in the first place?

Rookies weren’t always made to dress like cheerleaders, of course. Like any facet of the sport’s unwritten rules, the practice had evolved over time.

Once, rookie hazing consisted mainly of failing to acknowledge a greenhorn player, sometimes to a nearly complete degree. Rookies were ignored among clubhouse conversations to the point that former Giants third baseman Jim Davenport estimated that a player in the 1950s had to accumulate at least four hundred at-bats before he was allowed so much as to speak up in the presence of veterans.

One extreme example: In 1949, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner so dominated his position that when a hotshot youngster who played the same position tried to take his rightful spot in batting practice, Keltner—abetted by various veteran teammates—chased him away. The same thing occurred when the kid grabbed a glove to work on fielding ground balls. At that point Keltner was a seven-time All-Star, and viewed the rookie as a direct threat to his job. The lockout repeated itself day after day, until the kid realized that his only way to practice was to show up early, hours before the rest of the team. Luckily for Al Rosen, a fellow rookie, Ray Boone, was willing to throw early BP for him. The following season Keltner’s fears were realized when Rosen supplanted him with a 37-homer season.

That kind of mindset has evolved, of course. With the advent of enormous signing bonuses came an increased premium on young players’ success. With the advent of enormous salaries for stars, teams are increasingly forced to lean on youngsters to fill out rosters. Once, a five-year minor league gestation period was status quo. Now, players shoot through the system in as few as one or two seasons.

So how to keep rookies in line while (mostly) avoiding the kind of overt tactics that could prove deleterious to their performance? Dressing them up was one answer. The tradition may have started with a shoe store in Atlanta that in the 1970s and ’80s sold garish footwear—wild colors and platform soles—that veterans took to foisting upon younger colleagues when passing through town. Before long, pant cuffs were cut to accentuate the shoes. Outrageous thrift-store clothes were integrated into the mix. Sixto Lezcano’s Brewers teammates dressed him all in green—suit, shirt, socks and shoes—for an entire West Coast swing. (“I looked like a fuckin’ grasshopper,” he said.) Now we see superheroes and cowboys in addition to Hooters waitresses. In 2007, Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka traveled to Toronto while dressed like a Teletubby.

What those decrying the new anti-drag decree seem to miss is that the act is in no way about women’s clothing. It’s about initiation, rites of passage that welcome new members into old clubs. It has no prescribed shape, only prescribed function. (At least that’s the way it should be. There’s no accounting for those who integrate sadism into the act.)

The real issues arise not when players dress up in whatever outfit is presented to them, but when they refuse. It’s an act of rebellion that, right or wrong, can fracture a player’s standing in the clubhouse. From The Baseball Codes:

After teammates on the Orioles replaced Armando Benitez’s clothes with a dress on getaway day, he refused to don the outfit and, scream­ing for the return of his wardrobe, pinned down a number of veterans against the far wall of the shower room with a steady barrage of baseballs picked out of a nearby bucket. In the end, the pitcher refused to capitu­late, even after being told that his clothes had been packed and were already en route to the airport. “He wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts on the frickin’ plane,” said one team member. “That didn’t sit too well with the veterans, I can tell you that.”

“The guys who make a big fuss about it, who get mad at it, they’re usu­ally the ones who don’t last too long,” said Doug Mientkiewicz, who was forced into female clothing by his Twins teammates as a rookie in 1998. “If you can’t be mentally strong enough to wear a dress for one day when every other rookie is, too, then you’re probably not going to be mentally strong enough to handle an 0-for-35 stretch in four different cities.”

Women’s clothes are leaving big league wardrobes, but they didn’t matter anyway. Effective methods exist to welcome new members into any club, and this particular one will soldier on without missing a beat. Anybody who insists otherwise just isn’t looking hard enough.



Earning respect, Umpire Relations

Rizzo Rapid to Render Respect


Whether or not one agrees with their implementation, the underlying nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—respect each other and the game at large—is difficult to quibble with. We saw one of its most basic elements yesterday, courtesy of Anthony Rizzo.

In an at-bat earlier in the game, Chicago’s first baseman had incorrectly assumed ball four from Pedro Baez, but as he was heading toward first base plate ump Angel Hernandez informed him that, no,  it was actually a strike.

There’s no indication that Hernandez was upset with Rizzo, but the hitter took it upon himself during his next at-bat, when the game paused for a mound conference, to make sure everything was square between himself and Hernandez. Watch for yourself:

On one hand, there’s self-preservation involved in the strategy. The more an umpire likes a player—or, more pertinently, the less he doesn’t like a player—the better the chances that close calls will go that player’s way. More important, however, is the basic decency of the gesture. There was a chance that Hernandez read something in Rizzo’s actions that Rizzo did not intend, so Rizzo took care of it as soon as he could.

“I don’t like showing up the umpires,” he said after the game. “They’re out here working their tails off 162 like we are. … I just let him know that, hey, my fault there. I probably should have waited a little longer and not just assumed that it was a ball.”

Turns out that a little bit of introspection suits ballplayers nicely.

[H/T Hardball Talk]



Sign stealing

Today’s Question: What to do With Spying Eyes?


According to the Dodgers, the Cubs are stealing signs. Also according to the Dodgers, the Dodgers don’t like it.

As evidence, Los Angeles catcher Yasmani Grandal pointed to the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS, when Ben Zobrist reached second base—the perfect location from which to peer in at the catcher’s hands—and Addison Russell’s at-bat changed considerably.

“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal said in a Los Angeles Times account. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”

The “it” to which Grandal referred was a continuous loop of sign changes and mound meetings, the better to stifle would-be thieves.

“We are literally paranoid when it comes to men on second and they are trying to get signs,” he added. “We know who is getting the signs. We know what they’re doing. We know what they do to get it. In the playoffs, one relayed sign could mean the difference between winning the World Series and not getting there.”

Ignore for a moment whether there’s any difference between literal paranoia and figurative paranoia. Are the Dodgers so certain that Zobrist and the Cubs are spying on them? Zobrist assures us otherwise.

It seems likely that he’s obfuscating, if only because it doesn’t take a hardball savant—even somebody unable to decode a catcher’s signs—to signal location. Former infielder Randy Velarde once looked at me like I was half an idiot when I asked him about the ease of relaying stolen signs from second base. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m amazed that everybody doesn’t do it.”

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The barest suspicion of such chicanery should prompt the very response the Dodgers appear to be embracing—cloaking their signs in any way possible. What said response does not include is getting angry at the Cubs … and the Dodgers seem to be fine on that front, as well.

Changing signs can be as easy as swapping out the indicator, or the sign after which the actual sign takes effect. Maybe it’s the sign following the second signal for fastball. Maybe it’s based on the count (a 2-0 pitch would trigger the second sign in a series, while a 3-2 count would trigger the fifth, etc.). It could be the number of signs a catcher puts down rather than the signs themselves. The possibilities are limitless.

The only trick is to not make things so complicated that the pitcher gets confused. (Giants pitcher Sam Jones, for example, killed the National League in 1959, going 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA everywhere but Wrigley Field. In Chicago, of course, the Cubs’ practice of stealing signs from the scoreboard led to an 0-3 mark with for Jones with an 8.53 ERA. Why didn’t the Giants just switch up their signs like the Dodgers have recently done? Jones had trouble recognizing all but the simplest signals.)

Stealing signs from beyond the field of play is illegal, of course, not to mention frowned upon from a moral standpoint, while stealing signs from the basebaths—as Zobrist is accused of doing—is widely considered acceptable practice. (At least up until one is caught, at which point an increased degree of subtlety is expected). There are red-asses through the history of the game partial to on-field accusations (one example from spring training of this year seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs might really be into this type of thing), but the low-key approach Los Angeles is taking—calling it out in the press is a surefire way to make sure everybody’s paying attention—is the right one.

Ultimately, the Dodgers are also displaying another sort of best practice. The ultimate recourse available to a team whose signs have been pilfered is to switch ’em up, then go win ballgames. Which is exactly what Los Angeles is doing.

Unwritten Rules

The Commissioner Weighs in on the Unwritten Rules

rob-manfredPosition yourself for a moment as an old-school curmudgeon when it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, a defender of decorum, issuing proclamations about how it was better back before the current generation took over and started flipping bats all over the field and celebrating June victories like they’d just won the World Series.

Now imagine your head exploding when you hear that commissioner Rob Manfred, the man at the head of the food chain, tasked with shepherding baseball into its next golden era, said this in response to a question about on-field celebration:

I actually think players being more demonstrative on the field is a good thing for the game. I think it’s exciting.

It came during a media conference on Saturday and was easy to miss, being sandwiched between questions about minority representation in the sport and replay implementation. It seems, however, noteworthy. Is baseball’s head honcho actually advocating for more showboating within the sport?

Before we answer that question, take off the old-school cap I asked you to put on back in the first paragraph, and instead position yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum, as somebody who decries baseball’s unwritten rules as outdated and without function, serving mainly to suppress individuality and fun within the sport. You’re pretty happy with Manfred about now, aren’t you? So how do you feel about the very next thing that came out of his mouth?:

Overall, baseball has always had unwritten rules that kind of govern what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The way I think about the changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years, is that we have a really exciting new, young generation in the game. And just like the players 20 years ago, they are going to develop a set of unwritten rules as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Yep, it’s possible to walk both sides of the line without being in the least bit hypocritical. Manfred is absolutely correct in leaving it up to the players to determine what is appropriate and what is not. That’s been the rule since forever, and things have seemed to work out pretty well. Once, an act like digging into the batter’s box was considered retaliation-worthy. Then times changed. Now, bat flips are all but ignored, and occasionally encouraged. Because that’s the way the players (certain among their ranks—*cough, Bumgarner, cough*—excepted) want it.

It’s the very position I’ve advocated in this space from my very first blog post. My own feelings have little sway in whatever position I happen to be examining. The issue at question is about how a player’s actions mesh with the mores established by his peer group at large. If he’s in the mainstream, there should be little problem with whatever it is he’s done. Otherwise, let’s discuss it and, if need be, discuss it again.

Manfred closed his answer thusly: “I have great faith in our players; that they will use good judgment; that they will develop a set of rules that are respectful of the game, but also are reflective of the differences between these young players and the people that may be played a generation ago. I think we should all embrace that. I think it’s a good thing for the game.”

Honestly, no answer he could give to any question would convince me of his competence more than that one. At their core, the unwritten rules are about respect, and however the current crop of players ends up getting there is far less important than their getting there at all.

Ultimately, that’s all any defender of the sport’s code should care about. Manfred is about two years into his tenure; looks like we’re in good hands, baseball fans.