Retaliation

What Price Respect?: CC Sabathia’s Half-Million-Dollar Pitch Speaks Volumes

CC drills 'em

In the world of pro sports, money frequently equates to respect. In major league baseball, a team coming up with big contract dollars for a player shows—in the eyes of an abundance of those players—that he is respected. Alternatively, if a team presents budget constraints during negotiations, it shows that they do not. Look no further than escalating salary clauses that guarantee a player will sit at a given rank among the highest-paid in his sport; they are less concerned with how much a player makes than that he rates highly among his peers. It’s an easy way to insure more money, of course, but it also insures respect.

Which is what makes CC Sabathia’s decision yesterday all the more remarkable. For a moment, anyway, money didn’t equal respect in baseball. Quite the opposite.

In the sixth inning, two frames from triggering a half-million-dollar contract bonus in his final start of the season, Sabathia opted to stand up for his teammates by drilling a member of the opposition. With warnings already in place from an earlier incident, the pitcher knew he’d be tossed for it. He didn’t care.

In question was a fastball thrown a half-inning earlier by Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge, at Yankees catcher Austin Romine—as obvious as a retaliatory pitch can be. It was ostensibly in response to the compounding numbers of Tampa Bay players being drilled by New York pitchers. On Tuesday, Luis Severino hit Tommy Pham. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka hit Kevin Kiermeir, fracturing his foot. Yesterday, one inning prior to Kittredge’s response, Sabathia hit Jake Bauers. None of those drillings appear to have been intentional—Sabathia’s pitch was an 87-mph two-seamer that broke in on the hitter’s hands—but at some point it’s tough to criticize a team for wanting to respond.

The primary problem with Kittredge’s pitch lay in its execution—it was a first-pitch fastball fired directly at the ear hole of the Romine’s helmet, which the hitter barely managed to avoid. Most ballplayers are willing to tolerate retaliatory tactics within certain parameters, none of which include pitches thrown above the shoulders; there is no more universally loathed tactic in all the sport. The offering was so blatant that plate ump Vic Carapazza immediately warned both benches.

This is what Sabathia had to consider as he stewed in the dugout while the Yankees batted.

It’s extremely rare that an athlete has such clear and diametrically opposed options available during the course of play. Sabathia could have ignored Kittredge’s pitch, or even just brushed a Rays hitter back in response, and still have been able to cash in. Instead, he followed what he considered to be the correct path. With the score 11-0, timing didn’t matter at all. This is why, with his first pitch of the following inning, Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the backside. He was immediately tossed, as he knew he would be, his bonus money all but forfeited on the spot.

CC Sabathia is 38 years old and an 18-year veteran. He came back to the Yankees this season on a one-year contract offered as much to secure his leadership as his pitching. With first-year manager Aaron Boone at the helm, the left-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.

This, then, is what leaders do.

Some people decry the idea of drilling a batter intentionally under any circumstance. In many instances—in response to some sort of celebration, for example, or whatever else can be considered as showing up an opponent—this is a majority opinion even within big league clubhouses. But when a pitcher deliberately puts one of your own in peril—and without question, that’s what Kittredge did to Romine—players demand response. There’s an element of macho posturing to it, but it’s more that. It is a tangible consequence of a team taking liberties with an opponent, a tactic that forces the offending squad to confront their conduct and, ideally, to act differently in the future. Hell, it’s the same thing that inspired Kittredge in the first place, except that unlike Sabathia his response was outside the boundaries of accepted behavior.

That Sabathia has earned more than $250 million over the course of his career in no way means that he sees $500,000 as anything less than a significant amount of money. It was a sacrifice on his part, made willingly and without complaint in the name of respect and clubhouse standing.

If the Yankees want to do the right thing, they’ll pay him anyway.

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Retaliation

Bumgarner Dots Braun, Gives Up Grand Slam, Makes Fans Wonder What The Hell’s Going On. Again.

MadBum-Braun

As if we didn’t already know it, Madison Bumgarner reminded us over the weekend that it’s probably best just to let him mutter like an insane person on the mound when he pitches. That’s because if you dare question his mutter-and-fussing, he will quickly transition from old-man-yelling-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch to old-man-throwing-baseballs-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch.

Just ask Ryan Braun.

In the sixth inning of Sunday’s game against the Brewers, MadBum threw a couple up and in to the former MVP. Given that Braun had already hit an RBI double against the lefty and sent another one to the wall in center, Bumgarner was in no mood for a response. When Braun suggested that the pitcher “just throw the ball,” it was more than enough motivation for Bumgarner to do just that.

His next pitch nicked Braun on the elbow. Message sent, I guess.

Then again, that message loaded the bases for the next hitter, Jonathan Schoop, who unloaded them with a grand slam. Given that the Giants led 2-1 before Braun’s at-bat, this was not an ideal outcome for Bumgarner. As the Brewers spilled from the dugout to greet Schoop, many of them took the opportunity to yell at the pitcher and had to be shooed off the field by ump Dan Bellino.

It was, of course, classic Bumgarner. (For previous examples of his exquisite red-assery, look here, here, here, here, here, here or here.)

The pitcher’s irascible farmer act is likeable, I guess, if you’re a Giants fan … except that I am a Giants fan, and this kind of thing rips me up. Stand your ground. Take no guff. Defend teammates. But when a pitcher has to invent conflict in order to motivate himself, and that conflict comes back to bite him and his team, it’s awfully hard to swallow.

Bumgarner’s act can play when he’s an ace. But when the velocity of his four-seamer has dropped nearly two miles per hour, and the pitch has gone from one he uses more than 40 percent of the time to one he uses .1 percent (that’s point one percent) of the time, and the spin rate has plummeted across his repertoire, and he’s given up 11 earned runs over his last two starts … well, when all that happens, these kinds of meltdowns don’t inspire much love from the base.

Pitch to Braun, not at Braun. Win baseball games, not arguments. Be a badass, not a bully. There is success to be found there, if only Bumgarner chooses to look.

 

Fights, Intra-Team Fights

Mariners Confrontation Nothing New In Clubhouse Annals

Reggie 'n Billy

Given the clubhouse confrontation between teammates Dee Gordon and Jean Segura in Seattle earlier this week—apparently over a dropped flyball in a game the Mariners eventually won—it’s only appropriate to reference the greatest group of brawlers that baseball has ever seen, for whom I hold a particular affinity (and for which this post is in no way related to the fact that the paperback was just released on Monday).

I’ve already disseminated, via Deadspin, the passage from Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic detailing Reggie Jackson’s 1972 fight with Mike Epstein. So here’s a different fight story about the Swingin’ A’s, from the book, about the culmination of a weeks-long feud between Jackson and outfielder Billy North in 1974:

Jackson spent the afternoon of June 5 at a hotel in downtown Detroit with NBA players Archie Clark, Charlie Scott and Lucius Allen. There are at least two versions of what happened next. In one, a lady called for one of the basketball players, and when she found out that Reggie was there, asked to speak to him. She was North’s girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend), who may or may not have been an airline stewardess, and, having heard that he and Reggie weren’t getting along, took the opportunity to prod Jackson for details. In another version the girl came on to Reggie at a bar some weeks earlier when North was not around, only to be rebuffed by the ballplayer. Both versions were told by Jackson at different times.

The way North reacted, there may well have been a third option. He arrived at Tiger Stadium a bit later than the rest of the team, already afire. At that point, the clubhouse—a tiny space, with lockers consisting of mesh metal frames sticking out at right angles from the white-tiled wall every three feet or so—was sedate. The scant area in the middle of the room contained a table where the team’s regular bridge players—Holtzman, Fingers, Green and Knowles—were mid-game. Ray Fosse sat nearby, looking on. Reggie, naked save for a towel, entered the clubhouse from the adjacent trainer’s room just as North arrived. The center fielder started in on him as soon as he walked through the doorway. “Superstar, my ass!” he shouted, striding toward Jackson. “You’re a fucking jerk, you know that?” When North got close enough, he reared back and punched Reggie in the face, twice. Jackson was stunned, but absorbed the blows without falling. Then he lowered his shoulder and charged. “It was surreal, like, ‘Is this shit really happening?’ ” said Herb Washington, who, having spent the afternoon with an increasingly irritated North, had a good idea of what was about to go down.

North and Jackson scuffled up one side of the room and down the other, ultimately falling hard to the concrete floor. The men playing bridge in the center of the room looked up disinterestedly and returned to their card game. “I had a slam bid I wanted to play, and damned if people were fighting,” said Green. “I still played it.” Fingers was even more blasé, saying, “They’re just going to fight later anyway if we break it up now.”

That meant that the only peacemakers on the scene were Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue (the same Odom and Blue who nearly fought each other in the same clubhouse following a playoff game two seasons earlier). With Blue scheduled to pitch that night, collateral damage became a real concern, so Fosse jumped up to help. By that time North was on top of Jackson. Blue pulled on North, Fosse pulled on Blue, and everybody fell backward, Fosse crashing into a locker divider on his way down.

Everything stopped. Fosse shakily picked himself up. Jackson and North scrambled to their feet, took some deep breaths, and eyed each other warily. The peace lasted about three minutes, until North began shouting (according to Reggie), “You know damn well what this is about! You’re trying to steal my girl from me is what this is about!”

Reggie did his best to settle his teammate. “Hey man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said. “I talked to a girl … that’s all. I didn’t ask her for a date. I didn’t ask for anything. I don’t want anything from her. I don’t want your girl. I don’t want anything from you.”

The only reason Reggie didn’t want her, taunted North, was because his sexual proclivities did not lean toward her gender. Jackson flashed and, still naked, went after him again. Again the pair stumbled across the floor. Reggie clipped a locker with his shoulder and fell awkwardly, and North leapt atop him and began swinging.

Across the room, Bando looked at Tenace. “What are you doing?” he said.

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” asked Tenace.

“Why are we letting it go on like this?” asked Bando.

“Did you see what happened to the last guy who tried to break it up?” said Tenace, referring to the still-woozy Fosse. “I ain’t going to be a stinking statistic.”

“Get over here,” said Bando, pulling his teammate toward the players. Bando grabbed North, Tenace grabbed Reggie. Alou, Campaneris and Washington raced in for damage control.

Once the fisticuffs ended, Jackson decamped to find ice for his aching shoulder and North stomped off to change into his uniform. Bando looked around and clapped his hands in mock satisfaction. “Well, that’s it,” he said. “We’re definitely going to win big tonight.”

The A’s did win that night, 9-1 over the Tigers, but Jackson hurt his shoulder in the scuffle, precipitating a protracted slump. Hurt even worse was catcher Ray Fosse, who in an effort to break things up injured two vertebrae and ended up missing most of the rest of the season.

By all accounts, things weren’t that bad between Gordon and Segura in Seattle (or between broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen in Detroit).

Then again, the A’s went on to win the World Series that year, something that seems decidedly unlikely for the Mariners or Tigers.

Cheating

Todd Frazier, Master Magician, Makes Baseballs Appear Out Of Thin Air

Frazer dives

On Monday in Los Angeles, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier barreled into the stands along the third base line to make a spectacular catch of a foul ball. He returned to the field, held it aloft, absorbed the “out” call from umpire Mark Wegner, and tossed the ball into the stands.

It was, of course, a sham. Frazier muffed the catch as he hit the seats, out of view of both Wegner and the TV cameras, but had the wherewithal to grab another ball nearby, made of white rubber, which he subsequently displayed as proof of his catch. Upon returning it to the crowd, Frazier effectively erased all evidence of his malfeasance. Only through the crack reporting of SportsNet New York were we even able to discern that something untoward had taken place.

So: Was Frazier cheating? In baseball, where this kind of ploy has longstanding history, the answer is an unqualified no. George Bamberger summed it up neatly when he said, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

There is plenty a competitor can do to fool an umpire. Outfielders hold aloft balls they know they’ve trapped. Batters who haven’t been hit by inside pitches jump back in feigned pain. Even Frazier’s tactic of switching baseballs isn’t original.

During the second inning of a spring training game in 1966, San Francisco’s Jim Ray Hart smashed a drive to the wall at Phoenix Municipal Stadium; in trying to chase it down, Cubs center fielder Byron Browne crashed into the wall. Despite the ball having bounced far away from the collapsed fielder, Browne somehow—without moving from his spot—picked it up and threw it to shortstop Don Kessinger, who relayed it to third base ahead of the hard-charging Hart. Umpire Mel Steiner called the runner out.

Players in the Giants dugout found the play to be curious. Willie Mays, paying close attention, quickly identified the problem. “He threw the wrong ball!” he yelled. “The wrong ball!”

In fact, Browne had gathered up a ball that had somehow gone uncollected from the outfield after batting practice, which happened to lie within arm’s reach of where he’d landed. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps he wouldn’t have attempted this. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps his teammates wouldn’t have tried quite so hard to cover it up. As it was, left fielder George Altman, while running over to check on Browne, pocketed the real ball.

At the behest of Giants manager Herman Franks, the umpires began a search of Cubs players. Behind his back, Altman passed the ball to second baseman Glenn Beckert, who in turn shoved it into the pocket of trainer Joe Proski.

When plate ump Stan Landes compared the grass-stained practice ball with which the putout was made with the spotless white one that was eventually confiscated from Proski, he sent Hart back to second with a ground-rule double.

“All I know is that I hit the fence and bounced away and there was a ball right there, so I threw it,” Browne said after the game in an AP report. Altman similarly admitted to his coverup with the real baseball, telling reporters that “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it in my pocket.”

As for the current imbroglio, Frazier admitted on Wednesday to his indiscretion, calling it “unbelievable.”

“I was flabbergasted that I even got away with it,” he told reporters. “It was one of those things where any third baseman—or any player—trying to win, if there’s a ball in front of you, you try to play it out. You do it as a little kid with your dad and mom, or your buddy down the street.”

Or in front of a stadium full of people and TV cameras. Either way, that’s baseball.

 

 

 

No-Hitter Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Softball Coach Cares Little For The Code

softball
                                                                                                                                                           Ms. Phoenix

Maybe it’s a softball thing.

Check that, given the abundance of baseball players who have done similar things, it’s more universal than that.

In Jefferson City, MO, a softball coach threw decorum out the window, and freely discussed the no-hitter his pitcher was throwing with the pitcher herself, while she was throwing it. Luckily, the pitcher in question, Lauren Howell, doesn’t appear to be much for superstition, shutting down the opposing Battle Spartans—the Battle Spartans!—the rest of the way in a 6-0 victory.

Maybe the softball gods are no more concerned about this kind of thing than the baseball gods.

 

 

 

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.