Retaliation

Has Baseball Evolved? To Judge by the Response to Ham-Handed Intimidation Tactics, It’s At Least Getting There

Papelbon

By their inherent nature, sports are built to promote the concepts of good guys and bad guys. It’s them-vs.-us in tribal glory, where the opponent is the enemy simply by dint of wearing the wrong colors. This is why when we are provided an actual heel—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, John Rocker—we so revel in lambasting him.

The series of events that began on Wednesday with Jonathan Papelbon needlessly drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado had all the makings for just such a scenario. Papelbon, the crotchety closer who’s pissed off opponents and teammates alike with three clubs over the last five years, was perfectly positioned as the foil, serving up behavior so outlandish that his own right fielder, Bryce Harper, publicly groused that he’d probably be the one to take the fall for it.

And then Buck Showalter stepped in. Finally, somebody who not only sees ludicrous things for what they are, but refuses to buy into a system that all but mandates senseless violence as an acceptable response mechanism.

The quick beats:

  • Machado hit a go-ahead homer off Nationals starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday, and admired it for a moment longer than Papelbon thought appropriate. Or maybe it was his pointing afterward, to the heavens, to the grandstand. Papelbon didn’t say.
  • Machado’s next at-bat came in the ninth, with the closer on the mound. Papelbon threw his second pitch up near Machado’s head; after it missed he did it again. Had Machado stayed in his crouch the ball would likely have connected with his cheek or ear. Because he stood up and spun toward the backstop, it merely ricocheted off the top of his shoulder. Papelbon was ejected immediately. (Watch it here.)

This goes beyond the simple etiquette of the unwritten rules. Once upon a time somebody like Papelbon could have gotten away with that kind of message pitch, informing the opposition that styling—even styling so slight as to have almost entirely evaded the TV replay—will not be tolerated, at risk of great physical peril. But baseball has moved on from that mindset, almost universally for the better. Machado did nothing outside the mainstream, his actions offensive only to the red-assed among us who cry that old-school retaliation is the only way to curb such offensive behavior.

Manny n BuckThe fact that Papelbon took things a step further, throwing two pitches near Machado’s head, is on its own merits worthy of a considerable suspension.

Modern-day baseball has graduated from making emotional slights physical. It’s not that skins have grown thicker over the years; it’s that as celebrations have become commonplace, most players just stopped caring about them. The question is no longer who thinks them worthy of retaliation, but who even notices.

On the other hand, Papelbon’s attack—an actual, physical assault with a baseball upon Baltimore’s best hitter—is the kind of thing that cries out for response. It would be easy to justify; when somebody goes full-bore loony, there are proven methods of getting his attention. Papelbon gave just such an opening to the Orioles, spurring Harper to grouse that the closer’s actions are “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

With that comment, Harper all but validated whatever response Showalter had up his sleeve. People filled the ensuing hours with discussion about when and how and on what part of the body Harper might wear one. And then we were surprised.

Showalter demurred.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he said in a Baltimore Sun report. “The best retaliation would be to win another game, right? That’s usually how it works. … The greatest form of revenge is success, isn’t that what they say?”

Can it really be that simple? Yep. Thursday saw no retaliation of any sort, save for Machado calling Papelbon a coward. And sure enough, the Orioles won. Like Showalter himself said, “That hurts more, especially when you take the high ground.”

Showalter knows whereof he speaks. Machado himself spurred a similarly embarrassing affair only last year, and the O’s skipper appears to want no part in revisiting any part of that mindset. Wednesday, Papelbon proved himself again as a heel who it’s fun to root against, but that, in sports, is old hat.

In avoiding unnecessary conflict, Showalter gave us the opposite—not just somebody worth cheering, but somebody worth emulating, a clean-cut cat whose clear-eyed logic carried the day. With the Orioles still holding an outside shot at a wild-card spot, Showalter allowed his team to do the one thing that’s absolutely necessary for the good of its immediate future: concentrate on playing baseball.

Well played, Buck. Well played.

Update 9-25: Well, there it is: three games for Pap.

Unwritten-Rules

To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question

Hosmer

Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.

Cheating, Pine Tar

What’s a Little Pine Tar Between Friends?

Matusz

People talked a lot about subterfuge last week, and how failing to hide one’s foreign substances crosses a pitcher’s line of demarcation between competitive behavior and outright cheating. On Monday, Orioles right-hander Brian Matusz was suspended eight games for “hiding” a foreign substance on his arm two days earlier against the Marlins. (Watch it here.) He was the second guy in a week to be so outed.

In so doing, Marlins manager Dan Jennings went against what has become an avalanche of everybody-does-it opinions, but don’t let his  lack of experience at the position belie the fact that there’s more to this scenario than tacky balls. Tighter grip means more control (which hitters like from a pitcher), but it also means tighter spin on breaking balls, which provides a distinct competitive advantage.

The prevailing theory of acceptability is that a pitcher who’s hidden a substance thoroughly on his body will go to it only when necessary—when he finds a given baseball particularly difficult to grip. When he puts the stuff right out in the open, however, it indicates something far more brazen. At that point, his behavior is a matter of course; instead of merely helping to maintain control, it becomes a prevailing method and a competitive advantage. Under those circumstances it needs to be tamped down. Which seems only reasonable.

Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Retaliation

Armando Benitez Drilled Tino Martinez 17 Years Ago Today. No, He Was Not Playing by the Unwritten Rules

Seventeen years ago today, Armando Benitez intentionally drilled Tino Martinez after the preceding batter, Bernie Williams, hit a dramatic three-run homer. The event was more noteworthy for the ensuing mayhem—the fight ended up spilling into a dugout and resulted in suspensions for five players—than for the deed itself.

The moment merits current notice for the fact that decriers of baseball’s unwritten rules—pundits like Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra—are using it to blame baseball’s Code for just how ludicrous this kind of behavior is. Referencing then AL President Gene Budig’s harsh words about Benitez when handing down the ensuing eight-game suspension for Benitez, Calcaterra wrote:

I do get the sense sometimes that no one inside the game thinks of throwing at guys as a bad thing in the sorts of terms Budig uses here. [Budig said, among other things, “The location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”] It’s all thought of as self-policing and part of the game and stuff. Maybe the violence is reduced because people don’t want to risk player health, but the idea that sometimes, well, you gotta throw at someone still lingers. It’s an odd little thing.

The point that is consistently overlooked by people who disagree with these methods of play is that Benitez’s strike wasn’t a product of the Code, it was directly contravening it. The unwritten rules aren’t set up to give license to guys who want to indiscriminately drill opponents whenever the mood strikes them. To the contrary, they present a framework for dealing with that type of thing when it happens.

You can disagree with Hideki Irabu responding on the Yankees’ behalf by plunking both Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson the next day, but the truth is that not only did he do it correctly (below the shoulders), but those Orioles were then within their rights to subsequently tell Benitez to knock off his shenanigans, because he was putting his teammates in harm’s way. Irabu gave the Yankees closure, and at the same time proactively dealt with Benitez’s future actions. (That latter note is strictly theoretical. The incident in question was actually the second time Benitez drilled Martinez following a teammate’s homer—the first occurred in 1995, when Martinez was with the Mariners—which does not speak well to the pitcher’s ability to listen or absorb.)

I have no problem with people criticizing a culture in which ballplayers throw baseballs at each other in anger. Usually I agree with them. All I ask is for a reasonable assessment before laying down judgement. The system can certainly be the problem, but sometimes it’s just a rogue player within it. Take the time to examine the difference.

Bat tossing, Retaliation, Showboating

Bautista Proves that Grudge Homers are the Best Kind of Homers

With Yasiel Puig’s renunciation of bat flipping dominating the early-season talk about the subject, there’s another function of the tactic that has been largely overlooked—one that is less Look at me and more Look at yourself. It was illustrated to perfection on Tuesday by Jose Bautista.

With the Blue Jays leading 11-4 in the seventh inning, Baltimore right-hander Jason Garcia threw a fastball just behind the slugger, perhaps in response to the teams’ April 12 meeting in which Bautista homered off of Darren O’Day, then skipped toward first base. Garcia’s shot came so close that plate ump Mark Carlson warned both benches about further hostilities.

On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Bautista connected for his fourth home run of the season, a mammoth shot that scored Josh Donaldson ahead of him. Its no-doubt-about-it nature allowed the slugger to stand in the box and admire it before insouciantly flipping his bat away in disgust. It was a pure, cold message for Garcia. You want to play, he effectively asked the pitcher? This is how you play. (Watch it here.)

As he rounded the bases, Bautista got an earful from Orioles infielders, primarily Steve Pearce and Ryan Flaherty. He responded in kind. As he crossed the plate he took a moment to stare down the Baltimore bench.

Things grew further heated as Bautista trotted to his position at the start of the next inning. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones began hollering from alongside the dugout, at which point Bautista furiously pointed behind his back, reminding the Orioles how the whole thing started. (Watch it here.)

If anything, Bautista has proven adept at finishing things in a way that effectively gets under the skin of the opposition. His homer-‘n-skip act came in response to O’Day doing something similar after striking him out in 2013. His homer-‘n-pimp act came after Garcia’s near miss. The Orioles could barely stand either one.

Whether they take further action is yet to be seen, but if we judge the situation by what’s already happened, Baltimore’s response is almost beside the point. It seems certain that Bautista will get the last word.

[Gif via Baltimore Sports Report]

Retaliation, Slide properly

Down and Dirty: The Different Responses to a Takeout Slide

You hit my guy so I’ll hit your guy. Retaliation is the oldest story in baseball. Friday saw two similar events—middle infielders being taken out by aggressive slides—handled in different ways.

In Boston, Pablo Sandoval went out of his way to wipe out Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In Kansas City, Brett Lawrie did similarly with Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Both were trying to break up double plays. The primary difference was the response.

The Orioles stayed cool, and two innings later—during Sandoval’s next at-bat—their pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, planting a fastball into the third baseman’s shoulder blade. (Watch it here.) Jimenez took it upon himself to remind the aggressor that such actions have repercussions, and that taking liberties with an Oriole—any Oriole—carries repercussions. That kind of HBP may not deter Sandoval or the Red Sox from such actions in the future, but they will at the very least pause to consider it.

Lawrie’s takeout of Escobar with a late, awkward slide was a bit different in that Escobar was injured and had to be helped off the field. (It wasn’t even a good baseball play, as Lawrie would have been safe had he gone directly into the bag. Watch it here.) Rather than wait for a more formal response, benches cleared immediately, though no punches were thrown. That it was a tie game in the seventh inning precluded any notions a Royals pitcher may have had toward responding; similarly, Lawrie next batted in the ninth inning with the Royals protecting a two-run lead.

Headline fodder for the Jimenez incident was his immediate ejection by plate ump Jordan Baker, without warning and while having allowed no hits. The fact that it was only the fourth inning mitigates the latter item, but there is no way around the fact that Jimenez’s ejection was without merit. He handled a baseball play in a peer-vetted baseball way. A warning would have been more prudent, with Baker even holding the option to delay until Boston could itself respond. Regardless, the Orioles had their say, and both teams were able to move on.

In Missouri, things are far less clear. Escobar will likely miss several games, and while players and manager Ned Yost publicly agreed that there was likely nothing malicious in Lawrie’s slide, this will remain an item of potential contention until further notice.

[gifs, respectively, via Deadspin]

Retaliation

Things Get Real in Baltimore: Jays Rookie Hunts Heads, Draws Ire

Marcus Stroman needs to sit down for a while. A long while, probably.

The Blue Jays right-hander took a noble idea—standing up for one’s teammates, the mark of any good team player—and turned it ugly in a hurry on Monday. After Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph apparently stepped on Jose Reyes’ fingers during a bang-bang play at the plate in the fifth inning, Stroman responded during Joseph’s next at-bat, spinning a 92-MPH fastball just behind the hitter’s helmet.  (Watch it all here.)

Plate ump Ted Barrett immediately warned both benches. It was the wrong decision. On one hand, the warning removed Baltimore’s option to respond (in what would hopefully be a more reasoned manner). More importantly, tossing Stroman immediately might have obviated the need for any response at all. (O’s manager Buck Showalter came out to vociferously argue the latter point, as far as Stroman’s lack of ejection.)

“You let your emotions take over and all of a sudden someone’s lying at home plate in a pool of blood with a blow to the head,” said a disgusted Showalter after the game in a Baltimore Sun report. “How really manly do you feel? Was it really worth it?”

Even within baseball there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what shape retaliation should take when it’s in the offing. One thing everybody agrees on is that any liberties taken above the shoulders are squarely out of bounds. As former outfielder Dave Henderson said in The Baseball Codes: “I have a rule: You can drill me all you want. But if you throw at my face, it gets personal. I kill you first, then your grandpa, your grandma—I just go on down the list. It gets personal. Batters should get mad. The guys who get hit on the elbow and all that, I have no sympathy for them. Big deal, you got hit. I got hit in the head twice in my career; the other stuff didn’t count.”

Stroman is 23 and having a splendid rookie season for Toronto. As such, he probably feels the need earn his stripes with the veterans on his team, showing them that he has the convictions necessary to protect their collective flank. It’s been the dance of big league pitchers forever; what Stroman lacks is nuance. Never mind that Joseph did nothing wrong; there were still a dozen ways for Stroman to send a message about Reyes’ hurt fingers without putting anybody in harm’s way.

Whether the ball ended up where the pitcher wanted it to, or if it was a message pitch that came a little closer than intended is irrelevant. Showalter nailed it after the game when he said, “If you don’t have the command to throw the ball where you’re supposed to to deliver a message, then you shouldn’t be throwing at all there. It really pushed the hot button with all of us because it certainly wasn’t called for. That was obvious. It was borderline professionally embarrassing.”

Joseph himself clairified the complete disconnect between Stroman’s actions and the mores of the game when he said, “Yeah, there’s a code. Every baseball player knows there’s a code. I’m not the judge here to judge intent or any of that stuff. I’m just glad it didn’t hit me.”

In that, Joseph wasn’t just acting like a ballplayer. He was acting like a human being, which is something to which Marcus Stroman needs to pay some very close attention.

Update (9-17): MLB has ruled: Stroman will sit for six games, pending appeal.

Retaliation

The Fine Art of Negotiation, Baseball Edition: How to Keep Your Hitters From Getting Drilled

win-winBaseball retaliation is generally considered to be a you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy proposition, designed either to curtail unwanted activity from the other team or to make some sort of macho statement. Many decry it as unnecessary, and say that the game would be better if it didn’t exist.

Sunday we saw a story of what it takes for a pitcher—an old-school pitcher with retaliation on his mind—to not only acknowledge that point of view, but to agree with it. The story comes from FanGraphs’  David Laurila, who got it from Astros bench coach and former Orioles manager Dave Trembley.

It dates back to September 2007, and a game in which Baltimore pitcher Daniel Cabrera found himself distracted by Coco Crisp, dancing back and forth while taking his lead from third base. Distracted, Cabrera ended up balking the run home, then grew angry. The right-hander’s next pitch, to Dustin Pedroia, came in head high. This infuriated the Red Sox, and served to clear the dugouts.

When no retaliation occurred the next day under the watch of Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka (or the string of relievers who followed after he was knocked out in the third), Josh Beckett—Boston’s starter for the series finale—decided to take matters into his own hands.

“[Beckett] is old-school, and Cabrera popped Pedroia for no reason, so I knew one of our guys was going to get it,” said Trembley in Laurila’s account. “[Nick] Markakis, [Brian] Roberts … somebody was going to get it.”

Instead, Trembley approached Red Sox manager Terry Francona with a proposition. From FanGraphs:

“I called Tito,” he said. “I said, ‘If I tell you that I’m going to suspend Cabrera, will you tell me none of my guys are going to get thrown at?’ He said he’d get back to me. When he called back, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to suspend Cabrera?’ I said that I was. I’d talked to [general manager] Andy MacPhail and Cabrera was going to miss a start—we were going to take his money.

“Beckett pitched the next day and didn’t hit anybody. If I hadn’t called Tito, one of our guys would have gotten drilled, and deservedly so. Cabrera had a reputation and a problem with Boston and New York. Whenever they hit home runs against him, he’d hit somebody. To this day he’ll tell you he wasn’t throwing at Pedroia, but everybody on the team knew he did. An incident like that can get ugly.”

For somebody to work within the system as Trembley did is both remarkable and honorable, not to mention pragmatic. It leads one to wonder why more managers don’t take that tack.

Then again, maybe some of them do, but we just don’t hear about it. Trembley’s story is not so dissimilar from another incident involving Francona and the Red Sox, which was featured in The Baseball Codes. Pick up the action in a 2006 game between Boston and the Twins, which Minnesota led 8-1 in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs and nobody on base, the batter was Torii Hunter, who worked the count against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez to 3-0:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0, as it did with Hunter, it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s influence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t fly by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.

“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embar­rass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”

It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competi­tive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can suffice.

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.”

Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the final frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the mem­bers of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no bean­balls were thrown the following day.

“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “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. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a vet­eran, but he had to do it.”

[Thanks to reader Shawn Y. for the heads-up.]

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.

Retaliation, Tag Appropriately

Is That Your Glove in my Gut, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Machado tagOpponent of baseball’s unwritten rules: The Code exists as a means of allowing overly sensitive players to exact nonsensical macho bullying on each other under institutional cover.

Counter to that argument: Friday evening at Camden yards.

A generation ago, infielders—primarily first basemen, in the process of fielding throws to first while trying to keep baserunners close to the bag—utilized hard tags as a weapon, a means of relaying to an opponent that issues were afoot. Runners, familiar with the framework, understood this and took it accordingly. Should the message skew out of line, they had their own means of response.

Today, nobody seems to know anything. This is the only explanation for a play in which a baserunner goes ballistic after having been put out by an entirely ordinary tag. In the third inning on Friday, Manny Machado, on second base following a single and fielder’s choice, tried to take third on Adam Jones’ groundball to Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson. Machado clearly did not expect the play; there were two outs and Donaldson could easily have thrown to first to end the inning. Instead, seeing Machado crossing his path, Donaldson stayed close to home.

In his surprise, Machado tried to jackknife out of the way. Donaldson thrust his glove at the evasive runner, his only intention being to make sure he did not miss.

The off-balance Oriole angrily spiked his helmet to the ground even as he was tumbling backward. Donaldson offered only a confused smile, wondering why the hell his opponent was upset in the first place. (Watch it here.)

“I was actually walking over there to pick his helmet up for him, and then he jumps up and starts yelling at me,” said Donaldson in an MLB.com report. “I have nothing against the kid. I don’t understand where it came from.”

Which brings us to the point at which we offer a rebuttal to the sentiment in the first sentence of this post. Pick apart the Code all you want, but it’s impossible to see one of Machado’s forebears so much as blinking at this kind of play. It’s easy to criticize those who take things too far in the name of some imagined construct that dictates propriety on a ballfield, but that construct also serves to give players a baseline for knowing what is and isn’t appropriate. Had Machado been aware of this in the first place, he never would have reacted like he did.

As if to double down on the lunacy, the Orioles then backed Machado’s hissy fit as a team. In the seventh inning, pitcher Wei-Yin Chen first brushed Donaldson back with a pitch near his head, then hit him on his left forearm.

This, then, is the dark side of the unwritten rules (critics, cue the echo chamber): rogue justice meted out without regard for merit. But even in this (an act—hitting a batter out of anger—that is patently ridiculous) we can see some greater purpose. Chen was doing his duty as a teammate, backing backing one of his own, even if he did not agree with him, because that’s what teammates do. There’s no quicker way for a pitcher to build respect in his clubhouse. Still, the the Orioles would have been better served had a player with some seniority pulled the 21-year-old Machado aside and, rather than taking it out on the A’s, suggested forcefully that he check himself. And it’s possible that happened.

Warnings were not issued (perhaps to give Oakland a chance to retaliate for a lunatic outburst), and Donaldson had words for the Orioles dugout as he made his way to first base. The game was too close from that point for things to progress from there, and no response of note was seen on Saturday. If the A’s are smart, they’ll leave this one alone, knowing they have nothing to gain by prolonging hostilities. If the Orioles are smart, they’ll have already dealt with Machado themselves.