This is what happens when catchers start talking to hitters about their retaliatory instincts.
The reason we don’t frequently hear about this situation is that most catchers, based upon some combination of smarts and seasoning, understand that such banter is rarely productive. The brainpower of Cubs catcher’s Willson Contreras is entirely speculative, but his lack of seasoning is beyond question—last night was only the 24-year-old’s 20th game as a big leaguer.
So when, in the eighth inning of Chicago’s game against Atlanta, Contreras followed an inside fastball from reliever Hector Rondon with a lecture to the hitter, Jeff Francoeur, things took a turn, and benches emptied. (Watch it here.)
It was a long night for Cubs hitters, with Chicago’s Kris Bryant twice being plunked by Lucas Harrell, on a full-count fastball in the fourth, and on a 1-2 curveball in the eighth. The latter, which hit Bryant on the knee and led to his precautionary removal from the game, was Harrell’s final pitch of the night.
Chicago’s problem, if Chicago had a problem, was that right-hander Hunter Cervenka, in relief of Harrell, drilled the first batter he faced, Anthony Rizzo. Every one of the hit batters came with Atlanta trying to protect a 2-0 lead. Intent did not appear to play a part in any of them.
The actual issue wasn’t that Rondon responded with a message pitch to Francouer in the bottom half of the frame—a pitch that, for not coming close to connecting with the hitter should have been entirely unobjectionable—but that Contreras decided to harp about it.
Nobody discussed what was actually said with reporters—the incident’s principals declined to talk, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon said only that “Francouer took exception, which he should not have”—but it’s clear from the video that Contreras had some things to get off his chest before allowing Francouer to get back to hitting.
The entire point of message pitches, as I’ve been led to believe, is that they’re just that: pitches that bear meaning. Francouer was not upset at Rondon’s inside heater, nor should he have been. It was only when the catcher, young buck that he is, decided to lecture him about it that things grew heated. (It’s possible, but far from certain, that Francouer would have accepted a lecture from a more seasoned player.)
Had Contreras let the pitches do the talking—which is, again, their purpose—all would likely have ended calmly. Another lesson in what’s certain to be a season full of them for a young player.
Two trains of thought here. One is that foreign substances—particularly of the tacky (as opposed to viscous) variety—are commonplace among the ranks of pitchers, used to increase grip on the baseball. It can help slightly with performance (more tightly spun breaking pitches), but also helps prevent balls from slipping out of the hand, which in turn means fewer inadvertently hit batters. Most hitters are willing to take that trade-off. With all that in mind, there is protocol for those who take exception to such practices. Verbal warnings are a start.
On the other hand, a pitcher so stupid as to wear the stuff right out in the open deserves whatever the hell he gets.
Debate is open whether Brewers reliever Will Smith deserved it on Thursday, but he certainly got it.
Smith entered the game in the seventh, with his team trailing Atlanta, 2-1, and promptly hit the first batter he faced, Pedro Ciriaco. Against his second batter, Jace Peterson, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez requested the pitcher be checked. Smith was subsequently ejected. (Watch it here.)
Was Gonzalez correct? He said that he had been aware of the substance from the start, but waited until he saw Smith go to it before alerting the umpires. Any history of Smith and/or the Brewers cheating against Atlanta has so far gone unreported; if it exists, Gonzalez had every right to do what he did. Otherwise, however, he’d have been better served to utilize less formal methods. The reality is that there are pitchers on Gonzalez’s own staff who turn to the tack (because there are pitchers on every staff who use the stuff), who now must exercise undue caution when playing Milwaukee.
This is hardly the first time this topic has come up over recent years.
When Boston’s Clay Buchholz was spotted with the stuff by a TV crew in 2013, it caused a stir, but his opponents that day, the Blue Jays, opted to say nothing. Being outed on TV is punishment enough; Buchholz had little choice but to dial back that vein of proclivities.
The best example comes from the 2006 World Series, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had the umpires request that Tigers starter Kenny Rogers clean an obvious patch of pine tar from his palm, but did not request that they check—and subsequently eject—the pitcher. In that case, a warning sufficed. Rogers cleaned his hand and everybody moved right along.
Not so in Atlanta. Smith insisted that the substance on his arm was a combination of rosin and sunscreen,a fairly typical concoction for pitchers. (The part where he said that he forgot to clean it off before entering the game holds less water.) Brewers manager Craig Counsell said on MLB.com that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he would call out an opponent in such a matter. “It happens everywhere in the league,” he said. “And it happens on his team, too.”
Ulitmately for Gonzalez—who himself admitted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “every pitcher does it”—it came down to conspicuousness. “Just hide it better next time,” he said.
Despite a pissed-off Smith, who left the field screaming curses at the Atlanta dugout, this incident does not merit retaliation in any way beyond possible eye-for-an-eye gamesmanship. Knowing that, Braves pitchers better make sure that for the six games remaining against Atlanta this season they’re on their best, and least tacky, behavior.
They’re getting squirrely in Miami—or so the Braves would have us believe.
As the Marlins touched Aaron Harang for nine runs on 10 hits Wednesday night, folks in the Atlanta dugout grew suspicious that something afoul might be afoot. Just a week earlier, after all, Harang struck out 11 of those same Marlins at Turner Field in six innings of one-run pitching.
The suspicion was that Miami players were being tipped to Harang’s repertoire by some sort of relay system within the stadium.
After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the tale in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report: “If you would have taken a look at our dugout at one point in the game, it was like the fourth or fifth inning, they were hitting balls everywhere, we got three guys looking at the scoreboard. You got two guys looking at their bullpen. I’m calling (bullpen coach) Eddie (Perez), ‘Eddie do you see anything?’ I’m looking at (catcher Evan) Gattis, thinking he’s maybe tipping his pitches. Carlos (Tosca) is looking in the bench over there, maybe somebody is whistling or something.”
This wasn’t just nervous energy from a manager whose team was getting hammered. Generally speaking, pitchers accept being beaten when things go poorly, and can live with the fact that even good pitches are occasionally hit well. But when everything’s working—good velocity and bite to one’s pitches, outstanding control—eyebrows tend to shoot up if the opposition begins consistently teeing off.
Gonzalez even laughingly referenced Mick Billmeyer, the former bullpen coach in Philadelphia who, four years ago, offered a sign-stealing lesson straight out of the Michael Pineda Subtlety in Cheating handbook.
Added to Gonzalez’s suspicions was the fact that left-hander Alex Wood brought a 1.54 ERA into Tuesday’s start, then gave up seven earned runs in five innings (more than in his previous five starts, combined). For what it’s worth, the Marlins are hitting .307 at home this year, but just .215 on the road. (Giancarlo Santon’s home/road split: .323/.200. Marcel Ozuna: .375/.208. Casey McGehee: .362/.234. Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .360/.194.)
None of this necessarily means anything, of course. Teams tend to do better at home than on the road. And Aaron Harang is, at the end of any given game, still Aaron Harang.
Even if something is afoot, sign stealing is generally accepted as a baseball practice … right up to the point that a team leaves the field of play to do it. Spyglasses and TV cameras are verboten by the Code (let alone the actual rulebook), and teams don’t take it lightly when suspicions are aroused.
Still, the Braves bench was able to find nothing amiss, going so far as to have their eyes on a guy in the bleachers wearing a red hat and orange shirt—an easily identifiable outfit for somebody signaling hitters—right up until he got up to visit a concession stand.
Regardless, Gonzalez has done his Code-related duty. By talking about the issue without leveling specific charges, he let the Marlins know that if anything is going on, the Braves are on to it and expect the practice to stop.
You can bet that the Dodgers, in town tonight for a three-game set, will be paying some attention of their own.
Research for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest concerns the 1972 All-Star Game, in which Hank Aaron touched Gaylord Perry for a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning. Because it’s Gaylord Perry, the topic is cheating (of course). From the Associated Press:
Hank Aaron, sitting on 659 career home runs, hit a two run homer in the sixth inning, putting the National League up, 2-1, in front of a hometown crowd in Atlanta Stadium. …
“The pitch I hit off him was a spitter. It wasn’t one of his best spitters, but it was a spitter,” Aaron said.
Of course, this was followed shortly by a pro forma denial.
“Man, don’t you know that pitch is illegal? I don’t have any such pitch in my arsenal,” Perry declared.
If ever it was possible to see somebody wink through a 40-year-old statement to the sporting media, this is it.
When it comes to matters of messaging, it’s all in the timing. On a ball field, that means an offended team waits for the appropriate moment to respond to the player who rubbed them the wrong way. This might mean waiting for an at-bat, for a game or for a season.
Brian McCann, it seems, is not much for waiting.
Carlos Gomez, the game’s second batter, homered against Paul Maholm Wednesday, then lingered in the batter’s box. Once he began to trot, his churn rate increased with every step; he shouted with increasing fervor at first baseman Freddie Freeman and Maholm even before reaching third.
Watching this, McCann decided to unload a few of his own notions on Gomez, and made sure that his message could not be ignored. The catcher planted himself about 15 feet up the third base line, completely blocking Gomez’s path to the plate. The runner would not pass without first getting an earful.
As it turned out, he would not pass at all. McCann shouted him down without ceding the baseline, players from both teams stormed the field, Reed Johnson landed a punch to Gomez’s noggin, and the ensuing scrum carried everybody to the backstop. Gomez was ejected shortly thereafter, and left the field without ever touching the plate. (The umps invoked Rule 7.06[a], which says that an “obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction,” and allowed him to score. Watch it all here.)
So what the hell happened? Start with the fact that, including the aforementioned at-bat, Gomez is hitting .450 against Maholm in 20 career at-bats. Add to that the June 23 incident in which Maholm drilled Gomez in the left knee with a fastball—a pitch that Gomez felt was deliberate. (This became clear when the outfielder pointed to his knee while yelling at Maholm as he rounded third base following his homer on Wednesday. He admitted as much after the game.)
It resulted in a pissed-off Dominican pimping his homer as an in-your-face means of taunting his antagonist.
McCann got into the act immediately, imploring Gomez, at top volume, to get his ass out of the batter’s box. It ended (for now) with the scrum at the plate. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my baseball career, whether it be the big leagues, Minor Leagues or little leagues,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
The moment was reminiscent of catcher Carlton Fisk’s reaction during a 1989 game, when Deion Sanders lingered in the batter’s box after popping up to shortstop. From The Baseball Codes:
Fisk was forty-two years old and entrenched at the time as one of the premier members of baseball’s old guard. Watching Sanders’s lackadaisical display, the future Hall of Famer could barely contain himself. “Run the fucking ball out, you piece of shit—that’s not the way we do things up here!” he screamed at the startled hitter, two decades his junior and playing in just his twenty-fourth big-league game. By that point, of course, it was too late; the ball was already settling into the shortstop’s glove, and Sanders had nowhere to go but back to the dugout.
When Neon Deion came to the plate two innings later, he took the time to inform Fisk that “the days of slavery are over.” The catcher responded in kind, and the dugouts quickly emptied. “I just told him I thought that there was a right way and a wrong way to play the game, and he was playing it wrong, because it offended guys like me,” said Fisk. “And if he didn’t care to play it right, let’s go at it, right here.”
That seemed to be the basis of McCann’s point as well. Remember, he delivered a similar message just two weeks earlier, to Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez. Unlike Gomez, Fernandez took it immediately as a learning experience.
To be fair, Gomez did as well, it just took him a bit longer. And he seems to be holding on to a bit more resentment.
“I did a little bit more [than I should have], and I apologize for this,” Gomez said in an MLB.com report. “But if you see the replay [from June], they hit me for no reason, and I tried to get it back today. It’s the only opportunity that I have, and that’s what I did.
“It’s nothing against the organization, for the Braves. I respect everyone. I would do the same thing if I’m on the other side if a guy did like I did today. Defend my teammate. But they are not in my head and on my side—they hit me for no reason. If I do something to get hit, I put my head down and go to first. But I didn’t deserve to get hit by a pitch last time, [so] that’s what I did today.”
So who wins here? Maholm may well have drilled Gomez for the inadequate reason of protracted success, but comes out looking squeaky clean, relatively speaking. Gomez showed up Maholm and looked like a jerk in the process. McCann simply illustrated the fact that he may well be a crazy person. (A crazy person with deeply ingrained thoughts about propriety on a baseball diamond.)
Ultimately, it comes down to one overriding factor: Carlos Gomez just invited the Braves—and every other team in baseball—into his head for future appointments. The guy showed that he can be knocked off his game (and out of a game entirely) simply by being hit by a pitch. It’s not going to happen all the time, of course, but an underlying tenet of the Code is this: Put yourself in the best possible position to win. If all one needs to do to fracture the concentration of an opposing All-Star is hit him with a baseball, it seems only natural that, when the time is right, it will happen again … and again … and again—right up to the point that Gomez shows he can deal with it appropriately.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a player melt down so thoroughly in so short a time, but Jose Fernandez put on a show on Wednesday.
But for every instance that inspired reminders of the 21-year-old’s immaturity, he managed to recover as well as any player could hope to following a display such as his.
A small accounting:
Top of the fifth inning: Justin Upton blasts a ball to center field, which is tracked down by Justin Ruggiano. From the mound, Fernandez is all smiles.
Top of the sixth: Atlanta’s Evan Gattis responds after hitting a 96-mph fastball into the left field bleachers by admiring it for a moment while briefly staring down the pitcher. Fernandez notices. (Watch it here.)
Two hitters later, Chris Johnson and Fernandez exchange words after Johnson flies out to center field.
Bottom of the sixth: Fernandez blasts a nearly 400-foot drive off Braves left-hander Mike Minor for his first career homer, flips his bat away and—ostensibly in response to Gattis—stands to admire it. This is not an innocent would-be slugger in awe of his own unexpected power; the move is intended to disrespect the Braves, who take it precisely that way.
Fernandez begins an exceedingly slow trip around the bases—28.58 seconds, according to Tater Trot Tracker. (It would likely be among the five slowest in baseball this year if David Ortiz had taken up a profession other than baseball.) Minor stared him down much of the way.
As he rounds third—Johnson’s position—Fernandez spits toward the base.
When Fernandez crosses the plate, Braves catcher Brian McCann informs him of the ways in which he has behaved badly. “You’re a kid and you’re in the big leagues and you need to do what big leaguers do,” Fernandez recalled him saying in an MLB.com report. The players go nearly nose to nose.
Johnson sprints in from third (making you-talk-too-much motions with his hand), and the benches and bullpens empty.
In the aftermath, Fernandez paces the dugout, smiling. (Watch it all here.)
It’s easy to quibble about overreaction and the unnecessary sensitivity of ballplayers, but there’s no mistaking the fact that messages of disrespect were delivered from both parties, and received as intended—none louder than Fernandez’s. That it came from a rookie only served to amplify things.
At this point, of course, Fernandez must be given credit for attempting to pacify the situation almost as soon as it came to a head, telling McCann during their confrontation that, “I’m sorry, the game got the best of me,” he recalled after the game in an MLB.com report.
“[McCann] was talking to me as a friend, or a dad, teaching a kid,” he said. “That’s how I felt.”
Fernandez later said that he was embarrassed by his actions, saying “it’s something that can’t happen. It’s not good for baseball.”
The incident also illustrated the importance of quality leadership, particularly on the part of Marlins manager Mike Redmond. “Tonight showed some immaturity on Jose’s part …” he said. “He got caught up in the emotions, but I’m not happy. It really ruined the night for me. I know that will never happen again. … We respect the game.”
Redmond took things a step further, making sure that Fernandez’s actions did not carry over. A meeting was set up in a hallway underneath Marlins Park, where Fernandez apologized personally to McCann and Minor.
This is unusual in baseball circles, but hardly precedent-setting. In 2006, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire led Torii Hunter across the ballpark to apologize to Red Sox brass for swinging hard at a 3-0 pitch while the Twins held an 8-1, eighth-inning lead.
Unlike the Fernandez situation, there was no disrespect intended on Hunter’s part. Precisely like the Fernandez situation, it did not matter—perception is everything. From The Baseball Codes:
After the game, Gardenhire took the outﬁelder to the visitors’ clubhouse to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.
“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player understands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”
“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper about the Hunter incident. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game.”
Fernandez’s mistake was considerably more profound, but his reaction was appropriate.
“I feel I don’t deserve to be here, because this isn’t high school no more,” he said after the game. “This is a professional game, and we should be professional players. I think that never should happen. I’m embarrassed, and hopefully that will never happen again.”
Wednesday was the final start of Fernandez’s season, with his team enforcing an innings limit on his young arm. The guy will probably go on to win Rookie of the Year, but, starting with his confrontation with McCann, he’s already begun to display the maturity of a veteran.
Memories can be long when it comes to failures of the past, and old bitterness sometimes dies hard. There’s little question after Wednesday night’s Giants-Braves game that Melky Cabrera harbors some old bitterness.
He never found his groove during his lone season in Atlanta, in 2010, receiving scant affection from fans, media and the organization itself. Of course, much of it was deserved—he showed up out of shape, hit only four home runs, finished eighth among team regulars with a .255 batting average, and dead last in OBP, slugging and OPS. He feuded with manager Bobby Cox, and the team released him after the season.
When Cabrera returned to Atlanta for the first time since then this week, he wasted few opportunities to make his feelings known. On Tuesday, he gestured (some say rudely) toward fans in the left field bleachers after catching a fly ball, and acted as if he would toss balls to the stands before reversing course and holding on to them. He spent some time admiring his home run off of Mike Minor on Wednesday. (Tater Trot Tracker listed it as the day’s fifth slowest circuit, out of 39.) With Jason Heyward at second on Wednesday, Cabrera caught a flyball and waved at him with his glove as if urging him to test the outfielder’s arm. When Brandon Crawford hit what turned out to be the game-winning homer in the 11th inning on Wednesday, Cabrera left the dugout and skipped up the warning track.
Things had built to such a degree that after he and Gregor Blanco scored on Blanco’s 11th-inning home run Wednesday (shortly following Crawford’s), their standard pelvis-thrusting celebration was taken by many to be inflammatory.
The Braves noticed all of it.
In the eighth inning Wednesday, reliever Eric O’Flaherty threw a high, inside fastball to Carbrera, knocking him to the ground. The gesture elicited a smile from the outfielder.
“That’s Melky, and that’s why he’s not here anymore,” Chipper Jones told the Atlanta Journal Contstitution after the game. “He got a little happy when Blanco hit the home run. It won’t be forgotten.”
(Jones got his own measure of revenge when, after homering in the 11th, he took even longer than Cabrera to round the bases.)
Speculation had Tim Hudson, starting Thursday for the Braves, offering further retaliation, but the score was close throughout, and Cabrera ended up going 2-for-3 with a walk without being hit.
For his part, Cabrera claimed to CSN Bay Area (through interpreter Angel Pagan) that it was all in good fun.
“Just trying to play hard baseball,” he said. “Sometimes when the adrenaline is really high, something might happen. It’s not trying to embarrass anybody. It’s just trying to play hard and competitive.”
Difficult as that may be to believe, Giants manager Bruce Bochy defended his player—although some of it was clearly lip service.
“I don’t think Melky means to [taunt],” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “I’m not into trying to show up other clubs and the guys know it. If you know Melky, he’s quiet and goes about his business. It was more about having fun.”
It’s true that Cabrera has been nothing but quiet and professional to this point in his San Francisco tenure, but it’s tough to mistake much of what he did at Turner Field as anything to do with “having fun.”
Atlanta visits the Giants in late August. Mark your calendars.