Cheating, Pine Tar

Pine Tar Gate 2.0: Ozzie Strikes Back

When Ozzie Guillen is positioned as a paragon of tact, it’s usually because one of two things has happened: we’ve entered bizarro world, or he’s being compared to somebody completely off the rails.

Sunday, it was the latter. Guillen’s managerial opponent was Davey Johnson of the Nationals, and the issue of the day was pine tar.

Apparently, Bryce Harper likes to use a lot of the stuff on his bats—more than the legal, 18-inch limit. The eyeball test puts that mark at about the bat’s logo, which makes the infraction relatively easy to spot from a distance.

Guillen noticed. Unlike Johnson, however—who just under a month ago got Rays pitcher Joel Perralta kicked out of a game and subsequently suspended for using the stuff—Guillen showed some restraint. After Harper’s first-inning at-bat, he quietly requested that the umpires make sure the problem was taken care of, in a way that nobody in the viewing audience would even notice.  (Short of embarrassing Harper, it’s largely a moot point; unlike Perralta’s situation, the worst penalty Harper could have incurred had he been officially checked was being forced to get a new bat, which is ultimately what he did, anyway. This is partly because pine tar on a bat has less effect than it does on a ball, the theory being that the extra tack could add backspin, leading to extra distance on flyballs.)

The umpires followed through, much to the disgruntlement of Washington’s young superstar. When the left-handed-hitting Harper came to the plate in the fourth inning, he pointed his new bat toward the third-base dugout—something he does as a matter of course when settling into his stance—which happened to be where Guillen and his team were sitting. This time, though, Harper stared daggers as he did it. It was a clear message, and Guillen took it as such, although because nobody’s really talking, the context remains muddled.

Guillen, clearly feeling disrespected after having gone out of his way to keep his initial criticism low-key, spent the next few moments informing Harper about new ways he could violate his own anatomy, while waving a bat of his own. Johnson shouted right back from Washington’s bench. (Watch Guillen taking his grievances to the umps here.)

“Ozzie complained that the pine tar was too high up on Harper’s bat, so we changed it,” said Johnson after the game in an MLB.com report. “Then, he was still chirping about it. It got on the umpire’s nerves. It got on my nerves.”

Davey Johnson as the voice of well-intentioned reason. Bizarro world, indeed.

Johnson guessed that Guillen was trying to intimidate Harper, which could well have been the case. Of course, he’d have to have willfully ignored the 19-year-old’s history with such tactics, lest he consider that Harper tends to respond to bullying by taking extra bases as a runner, then stealing home.

After the game, Harper rose above the fray. “Yeah, I switched bats,” he said, “but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the first one, so I moved to the second one.” (Also, this: “[Guillen] is a great manager to play for, and he’s going to battle for you no matter what. That’s a manager you want to play for.”)

Guillen, for perhaps the first time, kept some of the details to himself. “I was just telling him how cute he was,” he said.

Left to break it all down was Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison.

“Ozzie did it the right way,” he said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal about it,’ and he told him to watch out about that pine tar. . . . [Ozzie] did him a favor by not going out there and saying, ‘Hey, your pine tar is too high,’ to the umpire. . . . He did it in a way that wouldn’t show Harper up, and Harper showing him up was kind of a slap in the face, I guess.”

Ultimately, Morrison’s right. Fault Guillen for his response to Harper’s bat pointing, a display that seemed benign and would have been a simple matter to ignore, but when it came to handling the initial situation, he was the antithesis of Billy Martin having George Brett’s bat checked, or Johnson with Perralta’s glove. In other words, tone perfect.

Update (7-16): Guillen says that if Harper keeps this kind of thing up, “he might not make it.” I love Ozzie Guillen—love him—but from where I sit, however, Harper doesn’t have much to worry about in that regard, having consistently taken the high road through the course of whatever big league tests have come his way. Except for maybe his All-Star spikes. Not much humble-rookie about those.

Bryce Harper, Cole Hamels, Retaliation

All Quiet in Philly: Hamels-Harper Drama Reaches Accord

So the big showdown happened. Nearly three weeks after his drilling of Bryce Harper renewed baseball’s fascination with the unwritten rules, Cole Hamels stepped to the plate three times against Edwin Jackson, once with first base open, and didn’t even get brushed back.

People seem almost disappointed.

The Phillies, of course, got their retaliation back in the same game that Harper was first hit, when Jordan Zimmerman drilled Hamels in the leg. That effectively closed the book for both parties. There was a chance that Hamels’ after-the-fact admission could have earned him some extra attention, but that never came to pass.

Hamels said that it wasn’t “even in the back of my mind.”

Harper said everything was behind him, and that he didn’t think “anybody really cares about it anymore.”

Well, then. Movin’ on.

Bryce Harper, Rookie Etiquette

Harper Homers, High-Fives, Handles History

For a young player with a history of attitude, Bryce Harper did a lot right upon hitting his first home run Monday. After crushing a slider from Padres right-hander Tim Sauffer to dead center field, well beyond the 402 marker, Harper didn’t watch the ball, didn’t pirouette in the box, didn’t skip his way toward first and didn’t toss his bat.

What he did do: He put his head down, and he ran. (Watch it here.)

Perhaps it was the excitement of his first big league homer, but according to Tater Tot Tracker, the only guy this season to circle the bases faster than Harper’s 17.07 seconds was Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez, who ran a 16.46 primarily because he didn’t realize the ball had cleared the fence until he was already at third base.

“I don’t want to show up that pitcher,” Harper said in the Washington Post. “The only time I would do that [would be] if they were messing with my team.”

After a few moments in the dugout, Harper emerged for a curtain call. Some might take issue with a rookie taking such a liberty—especially after all of one career homer—but the crowd was clamoring and the Nationals’ broadcast crew called it “a for-sure curtain call” before Harper even made a move.

“Everyone started cheering and whatnot, and I was just standing there waiting like, should I go? Nah, I better not. Don’t do it,” said Harper in a MASNSports.com report. “Then (Jayson) Werth was like, ‘Go, get up there, kid.’ ”

All in all, well-played for the rookie, who didn’t even have to face the silent treatment in the dugout, unlike some other notable players of late. After taking the highest of high roads against Cole Hamels last week, this is another indication that, even though he’s only 19, this kid gets the game on pretty much every level.

Bryce Harper, Cole Hamels, Retaliation

Message Sent: Hamels Drills Harper, Floodgates Open

This is the Code, at its deepest and most ingrained levels. It is the confluence of ability and pride and hype and the concept that all men must earn their successes. It is the old guard welcoming the new—player and team alike—with an unmistakable challenge: Welcome to the big time. Let’s see if you can hack it.

It was Cole Hamels, burying a fastball into the small of Bryce Harper’s back in the first inning Sunday (watch it here), partly to warn the 19-year-old phenom that life at this level will be harder than expected, partly to provide a physical component to the opinion that the Nationals’ 18-win, 9-loss, NL East-leading start—5.5 games ahead of last-place Philadelphia—was still at least 75 victories short of actually meaning something.

Just in case there was any leeway in possible interpretations, Hamels made things clear after the game, telling the world that the pitch was laden with meaning.

“I was trying to hit him,” the left-hander said in a Philly.com report. “I mean, I’m not going to deny it. It’s something that I grew up watching. I’m just trying to continue old baseball, because I think some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything, because that’s the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not as that kind of old school, prestigious way of baseball.”

Whether Hamels was annoyed by Harper’s questioning the strike zone in an earlier game—even as the Phillies pitched around him—remains unclear; the pitcher declined to discuss the point at which he decided to plunk him. Little matter—this is how veterans handled rookies for generations, and was as retro an act as could be imagined in the modern game.

Frank Robinson was hit 20 times during his rookie season—the most of his career—a result, he said in the Sporting News, of “those guys . . . trying to test me. They were trying to see what I was made of.” Don Drysdale did much the same thing when he buzzed Orlando Cepeda in the future Hall of Famer’s first major league at-bat. In 1939, Browns manager Fred Haney ordered that Ted Williams be knocked down twice in a game, after the rookie had gone 7-for-16 against St. Louis over the previous four contests. Williams got up twice, and put a stop to the tactic with a homer, a double and six RBIs.

Which, to Harper’s credit, is not dissimilar from what Washington’s rookie ended up doing on Sunday. After Harper was drilled, he didn’t hesitate in taking third when the next batter, Jayson Werth, singled to left. The moment Hamels threw to first to keep Werth close, Harper broke for the plate, sliding in easily under the tag of Carlos Ruiz. (Watch it here.)

Harper’s skills have never been questioned. With displays like Sunday’s, his mental toughness will probably soon reach that point as well (if it hasn’t already). “If he continues to do that, he’s going to make a really good name for himself,” Hamels said afterward, admiringly.

The circle was closed in the top of the third, when Washington starter Jordan Zimmerman responded by hitting Hamels in the leg. (Unlike Hamels, Zimmerman denied intent. Also unlike Hamels, nobody believed him.) For his part, Hamels considered it an appropriate response.

“That’s the way it should work,” he said.

Hamels lost the battle but won the war. Harper aside, the Phillies’ left-hander shut down the Nationals over eight innings, allowing just five hits and Harper’s stolen run in a 9-3 victory. With as clear a message as Hamels delivered to the rookie, there appeared to be just as much intent toward an increasingly confident Nationals team that, Hunter Pence said in the Washington Post, was playing like they had “a chip on their shoulder.”

Which brings up one more possibility when dissecting Hamels’ mindset. The act brings to mind the time in 1974 when Dock Ellis tried to knock the swagger out of the upstart Cincinnati Reds, using the revolutionary tactic of hitting every batter he faced. Ellis opened the game by drilling Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession, then walked Tony Perez on four pitches after the first baseman—in clear recognition of imminent danger—bailed out as soon as each pitch was released. The right-hander was removed by befuddled Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh after going 2-0 on the next hitter, Johnny Bench, but by that point it didn’t matter—Ellis’ message had been sent. And here’s the key point: The most important recipients weren’t even members of the Reds, but Ellis’ own Pittsburgh teammates. Intimidating Cincinnati was an obvious bonus, but the pitcher’s primary goal was to jolt what he increasingly viewed as a complacent Pirates clubhouse.

It worked. Having won only six of 18 before the game, Pittsburgh went 82-62 the rest of the way and won the National League East for the fourth time in five years.

The Phillies, by contrast, have won the National League East five years running. Hamels hasn’t shared his views on his team’s toughness (or lack thereof), but as one of only two pitchers remaining from the beginning of that run (Kyle Kendrick is the other), it would not be surprising if Hamels wanted to send a message to a club struggling to maintain its position atop the National League’s pecking order.

Hamels’ act has drawn scorn from various circles, not least of them Washington’s front office. “I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chickenshit act in my 30 years in baseball,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo in the Washington Post. “[Hamels] is the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough.”

Rizzo continued: “He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”

In one capacity, at least, Rizzo is dead wrong. Hamels knows a lot about the guys he’s dealing with. At least the ones he’s dressing next to each day.

The pitcher’s message couldn’t have been more clear. Now it’s up to the rest of us to figure out its intended recipients.

 

Note: A version of this post just went up at Sports Illustrated.com.

Update (5/07): Hamels was just suspended for five games—a predictable result after his admission. He won’t appeal, which essentially just pushes him back a day, for a Sunday start.

Update II (5/07): Phils manager Charlie Manuel put into words what we all already knew (at least as it relates to punishment from the league): If nothing else, Hamels should have kept his mouth shut.

Update II (5/08): Jim Leyland has weighed in, and feels that Hamels’ suspension was too light. In a burst of counter-intuitive blogging, I tend to agree with him. The fact that he admitted it gave MLB little choice but to punish him. A five-game suspension for a starting pitcher, however, has negligible effect—especially when it comes, as it did for Hamels, immediately following a start. Specifics of this case aside, forcing a pitcher to miss action, rather than simply delaying his start by a day or two, would hold far more weight.

Update III (5/09): Apparently Hamels isn’t the only one who talks too much. Rizzo has picked up a fine for his comments.

Don't Showboat

Hey, Pitcher: Bryce Harper Sends his Love

At this point, the minor leagues are a mixed bag for Bryce Harper. On one hand, he has to deal with long bus rides and crappy clubhouse food.

On the other hand, accounts of the firestorm he ignited yesterday by blowing a kiss to the pitcher who had just served him up a home run are inevitably concluded with a caveat along the lines of, “It’s the minor leagues; this is all part of the learning process.”

(Of course, were he in the majors, the video of his little discrepancy wouldn’t be embeddable, and thus watched across countless Web pages this morning.)

After Harper smacked his homer against Greensboro’s Zach Neal, he stood in the box, then slowly—slooooowly—walked up the line as he watched it clear the fence. That alone would have earned him a drilling at the big league level, but as he crossed the plate he upped the ante, turning his head toward Neal and puckering his lips.

It was stupid. It was juvenile. But ultimately those caveats were right: it is what the minor leagues are for. Harper is 18 years old. His actions indicated neither class nor respect, but those things are not necessarily inherent in teenaged humans.

Duane Kuiper was on the radio in San Francisco yesterday, before this story broke, talking about the MLB draft. Had he signed a pro contract straight out of high school, he said, moving from his family’s Wisconsin farm directly to the minor leagues, he would have ended up right back on that farm inside of two seasons. Some kids are ready at that age to make such leap, but by his own admission, Kuiper (who ultimately graduated from Southern Illinois University) of was not one of them.

Harper might not be one of them, either. Going back to the farm, however, is not an option. The $9.9 million contract he signed has placed him higher on the food chain than peers and coaches alike. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, and has had his ass kissed on a fairly consistent basis for the bulk of his teenage life. This is not his fault (nor is it even necessarily a bad thing), but it hardly encourages appropriate development of socialization skills.

He’s clearly aware that a quick ascension to the big leagues is all but assured, no matter how boorish his behavior.

Greensboro’s response—in Harper’s next at-bat he was backed up by an inside fastball—had about as much teeth as anything else the guy will face as long as he’s the biggest fish (by a wide margin) in a comparatively small pond. He will become socialized some day—when veterans whose status and contracts exceed his own put him in his place.

“At some point the game itself, the competition on the field, is going to have to figure out a way to police this young man,” said Mike Schmidt on SportsCenter. “If indeed his manager won’t, the game will end up taking care of it.”

That’s the way of the Code. Until Harper reaches the big leagues, however, let’s see him for what he is: a clueless 18-year-old who deserves a chance to figure things out.

– Jason

Update (June 8): Oh, my. Now there’s this.