Reds manager David Bell got to talking with reporters on Tuesday about his team’s Let-the-Kids-Play fight with the Pirates, for which he was ejected and ultimately suspended, and unfortunately for those following along, his comments didn’t make a whole lot of sense. All quotes from the Dayton Daily News:
- “[Derek] Dietrich clearly didn’t do anything wrong because he wasn’t ejected or suspended. If MLB has a problem with what Derek did then there needs to be a rule against what he did.”
There is a rule against what he did—it’s unwritten, and it’s been around for about as long as baseball itself. We have recently been lulled into thinking that it’s no longer enforced, which seemed to be fine until we realize that guys like Chris Archer still inhabit pitcher’s mounds. MLB promotional slogans aside, the reality is that some players still don’t appreciate showboating. Dietrich can pimp any homer any way he’d like; he just has to cop to the possibility that he’ll piss somebody off in the process.
To Bell’s other point, a lack of prohibition against a given act in the rulebook doesn’t automatically make that act acceptable. Had Dietrich, unprovoked, decided to approach the Pittsburgh bench and spit tobacco juice onto Clint Hurdle’s cleats, he wouldn’t have broken any rules. He’d still be an asshole, though.
- “I had one intention [in coming out to argue the call] and that was to defend our team and to defend our hitter and to get Archer ejected.”
Never mind that that’s technically three intentions. Trying to get Archer ejected without a warning for throwing a pitch that didn’t come close to hitting a batter is, to put it exceedingly mildly, a stretch.
- “I felt my only course of action was to get their pitcher ejected for intentionally trying to hurt our player.”
It’s unclear how throwing a ball below the belt and well behind a hitter in any way constitutes intent to injure. By this point in the conversation Bell is in full-fledged protect-my-guy mode, and appears to be spitting out whichever authoritarian argument reaches his brain first.
- “Whether they throw at their heads or their backs or their legs, it is all the same to me. For that to be OK, or even somewhat acceptable that it wasn’t at his head, to me that is a very dangerous approach.”
This is where Bell really goes off the rails, because drawing false equivalences can be downright dangerous. What Archer did was clearly not the same as throwing at an opponent’s head. What Archer did was not even the same as drilling a guy in the ribs. Any modern pitcher who intentionally rifles a ball above somebody’s shoulders becomes an automatic pariah among his peers, and rightly so. Chris Archer does not remotely fit that bill, at least to judge by his approach to Dietrich.
- “I don’t know what those [unwritten] rules are. All I know is this is pretty simple—our hitter hit a home run and didn’t do anything against major league rules or the umpire’s rule or anybody’s else’s rules. But everybody in the ballpark knew he was going to have to stand up there and possibly get hit with a fastball, maybe hit in the head and done damage.”
Waitaminute. If everybody in the ballpark knew that retaliation was imminent, Dietrich must have done something pretty obvious to inspire it. One needn’t approve of Archer’s response to acknowledge this reality.
David Bell is well respected around the sport, deservedly so, and I agree with him that pitchers have no business seeking physical retribution for an act so simple as showboating. But that’s an awfully high horse he’s decided to mount in Dietrich’s defense—so high that he appears to have lost all contact with what’s actually happening below. Defending his players is part of the guy’s job, but over the last couple of days Bell may have been throwing himself into his work with just a touch too much vigor.
So it seems that we’re now talking in matters of degrees. We’re going to let the kids play and flip themselves silly and celebrate in all sorts of ways that would have gotten them drilled by a previous generation of pitchers, and baseball is going to be better for it.
At least until somebody acts exactly like MLB has promoted in its own promotional campaigns and we’re reminded that red-assed pitchers maybe don’t watch too many commercials and somebody does something stupid and we’re right back to where we started.
We’re talking of course, about Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer in the role of the Red-Ass, and Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich in the role of the Kid (never mind that he’s 29, only six months younger than Archer—a marketing slogan is a marketing slogan), and Yasiel Puig as the enforcer of a player’s right to showboat. (Who better, amiright?)
A quick recap: In the second inning of yesterday’s game, Dietrich yammed a monster homer clear into the Allegheny, then stood in the box watching it for what even by let-the-kids-play standards seemed like an exceedingly long time.
Pittsburgh catcher Francisco Cervelli was the first to express displeasure, waiting as Dietrich crossed the plate to deliver some words of rapprochement, to which the runner did not respond. (According to Puig, Cervelli also warned that retaliation was coming, which, if true, surely played no small part in what was to come.)
Archer continued his team’s messaging during Dietrich’s next at-bat, sending a pitch to the backstop, just behind the hitter’s rear end. Dietrich barely had to flinch to avoid it. Plate ump Jeff Kellogg immediately warned both benches. This is where things got interesting.
While Dietrich was downright passive in his response, Reds manager David Bell tore from the dugout to argue the warning, followed closely by a number of Reds players and coaches, notably Puig. Almost instantly, fists were thrown. (Again: notably Puig.) Cincinnati’s Bell, Puig and reliever Amir Garrett were ejected, as were Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela.
There’s a lot to unpack here. On one hand, Archer delivered a clear and harmless message, sent well behind the batter, below his belt. Annoying maybe, but hardly impactful. (“When someone is throwing at someone, they are trying to inflict pain or possibly hurt someone or send a message,” Dietrich said after the game, overblowing the details by a considerable margin.)
On the other hand, it was clear hypocrisy on Archer’s part, the idea being that a pitcher like him—a showboat in his own right—has no business getting angry when an opponent dishes out some of his own. And make no mistake: Archer’s emotional displays are prevalent to the point that his own team released a promo video about them before the game.
Or, take Bell, whose argument with Kellogg was that by acting so quickly, the umpire denied the Reds a chance to respond. Unless his argument was that Archer should have been ejected without warning. Either of which are nonsense, given that it was the Reds who started it, and that Pittsburgh’s answer didn’t even involve drilling a guy. What did Bell want to do? Escalate the situation by having one of his pitchers hit a Pirate? Send a similar message without fear of ejection? To what end?
Ultimately, of course, it won’t matter. If Bell or any member of his team is bent on responding, they’ll have no problem waiting until the next time the teams meet at the end of May. It’d be stupid, but that’s their prerogative.
There’s also the idea that, according to the unwritten rules, the aggrieved party in this type of situation dictates his team’s response. Had Dietrich made a mad dash for the mound, it would have made sense for his teammates to follow. But Dietrich didn’t do a thing. When Bell came out to argue, Puig seized the opportunity, vaulting the dugout rail to confront Archer on the field. Puig, of course, has never been much for the unwritten rules. This alone will earn him a suspension.
If you really want to get into the woods, examine the postgame sentiments of Vazquez, one of those ejected. “[Dietrich] shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a Pittsburgh-Post Gazette report. “That’s against the principles. If you do something like that you’re going to pay for it. We’re trying to play the game the right way by respecting it. Joey [Votto] can do it because he’s been here a long time. But a guy like him isn’t supposed to do that. He hasn’t earned the right. It was a little too much. We all knew it was going to be far but you’re not supposed to wait until the ball hits the ground to start running. You aren’t supposed to do that.”
The idea of veterans earning various rights not granted to their less-seasoned contemporaries is ages-old in baseball and, if expressed 20 years ago, wouldn’t be surprising. But in a landscape where an abundance of voices are calling for freer reign—to let the kids play—it’s an odd message. By Vazquez’s logic, the kids should be hamstrung, just like they always were, remaining reserved in their actions until such time as they’re sufficiently tenured to loosen up. That is, until they’re no longer kids.
Then again, Vazquez (née Rivero), as a Venezuelan national, is taking a decidedly counter approach to that espoused by a great many Latino players, who generally tend to default toward more celebratory practices, not fewer.
Ultimately, did Dietrich learn any lessons? To judge by the homer he hit six innings later, almost to the same spot as the first, no. He stood and admired that one, too.
The best thing to come out of this was @stormchasernick’s response to Cut4’s suggestion about art.
Reds-Pirates, May 27. Mark it on your calendars.
Update, 4-09-19: Archer has been suspended for five games, Puig for two and Bell for one. The Archer penalty in particular, which will only force him to bump back a start for a day or two, shows that MLB viewed his actions as relatively inconsequential. Which makes sense, given that he didn’t come close to hitting anybody.
Update, 4-11-19: David Bell’s talking, but he’s not making much sense.
In an old-fashioned game of payback in Washington on Saturday, Joey Votto drew the short straw.
It began in the sixth inning, when Reds righty Austin Brice plunked Bryce Harper in the knee. It was completely unintentional, what with being an 82-mph curveball and all, and would have meant less had Harper not departed the following inning with a team-described “stinger.”
It would almost certainly have drawn less notice had Cincinnati’s next pitcher, Jesus Reyes, not opened the seventh by drilling Washington catcher Spencer Kieboom. This one was a 96-mph sinker, but was even more clearly unintentional than Brice’s pitch, given that it was Reyes’ big league debut and Kieboom was the first batter he’d ever faced.
Once, two of mine—even unintentionally—meant one of yours. It was showdown baseball, prevalent in a long-gone era when message pitches, even those aimed toward the head, were accepted tactics. That brand of baseball hasn’t been played in a long while, but it was revisited on Saturday by Nats reliever Ryan Madson, who responded to Brice and Reyes by drilling Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto, just above his right knee. The situation was perfect—there were two outs with nobody on, the Nationals led by four, and Votto presented an obvious target. Madson’s weapon: a 96-mph fastball.
Votto got up slowly, and had some words for the pitcher as he hobbled to first base. Madsen, who at least drilled the hitter below the belt, paid no attention, not even looking Votto’s way. Upon reaching first base, Votto amped up the volume, shouting some easily lip-readable epithets toward the mound.
Afterward, Madsen offered standard platitudes about the pitch being a mistake. He also said, believably, “I never want to hurt a guy, never.” Votto didn’t say anything, departing the ballpark before reporters were let into the clubhouse.
If there is to be a response, it didn’t happen on Sunday, in a game that never held more than a two-run differential—hardly an occasion to cede free baserunners. (Votto did finally comment on the situation, though, saying in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Getting hit is a part of the game. Once you step into that box, you accept that getting hit could very well be part of the process.”)
If either team wants to continue this, it’ll have to wait until next season.
Turnabout is fair play. The shoe’s on the other foot. Something about geese and ganders. When a player like Javier Baez takes exception to an opponent’s display of emotion on the field, one can’t help but think about such phrases. Also, hypocrisy.
On Saturday, Reds reliever Amir Garrett whiffed Baez to close out the top of the seventh, and grew somewhat animated on his way down the hill, loosing what Cubs manager Joe Maddon later called “a Lion King’s type of roar.”
There is, of course, some history. On May 18, 2017—one day short of one year earlier—Baez touched Garrett for a grand slam at Wrigley Field, and did just a touch of home run pimping.
As is the way of big leaguers, Garrett has a long memory and an overt willingness to respond in kind. Baez didn’t appreciate it. Following his strikeout, he and the pitcher had words, and benches emptied. The surprising part about it is that Baez, the guy behind this:
… and this:
… and oh hell yeah this:
… even took the time to consider his opponent’s reaction.
Baez (and some of his teammates) pointed out after the game that Cubs celebrations are strictly intramural, and not in any way directed at the opposition. So how about Garrett, a guy also known to occasionally show some emotion on the mound? Even if the pitcher’s Lion Kinging was directed at Baez (which it was probably was), there’s plenty of gray area when it comes to Baez’s own roaring. At some point, when a player is simply howling into the wind, it becomes difficult to draw too many distinctions.
Mostly, this seems like protracted frustration drawn quickly to the surface. At the time of the incident, Baez was 2-for-his-last-22, with nine strikeouts. The slugger has hit only .226 since April 26, watching his batting average fall from .310 to .265 in the process, with a meager .410 slugging percentage. He hasn’t drawn a walk since April 11. Suffice it to say that he’s in no mood for these types of shenanigans.
None of that, however, is particularly relevant. Javier Baez has rightly become a prominent face in the Let Ballplayers Celebrate movement, which is predicated on playing with emotion. Even if some of his points about Saturday’s game have merit, the overall optics of a guy like that calling out a response like Garrett’s doesn’t do much to further the cause.
Garrett himself said it perfectly after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report: “You dish it, you have to take it.”
In researching a project unrelated to baseball’s unwritten rules, I came across an item that was too good to not share.
May 25, 1979: In the sixth inning of a game against the Reds, Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes drilled a three-run homer. Trouble was, the Dodgers led by 12 runs at the time, and he swung at a 3-0 pitch to hit it. The blast gave Los Angeles a 17-2 lead.
This, of course, was a clear violation of the unwritten rules. From The Baseball Codes:
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 … 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.
There’s also the factor of rubbing it in while running up the score. In the modern game, of course, such actions are no longer universally seen as an unequivocal sign of disrespect. Baseball is entertainment, the thinking goes, and nothing is more entertaining than a well-struck ball. The rule still exists, but more players than ever opt out of recognizing it.
In 1979, however, such was not the case. Two innings after Lopes’ homer, Cincinnati reliever Dave Tomlin fed him four straight inside pitches. None of them connected, but after the fourth, Lopes, irate, threw his bat into the air and hollered toward the mound.
It was enough to draw players from both dugouts, even as Lopes angrily stalked toward first base. No fight appeared forthcoming until Dodgers utilityman Derrel Thomas—a perpetual wild card when it came to baseball propriety—decided to take a swing at Cincinnati’s Rick Auerbach, spurring numerous scuffles. This, far more than Lopes’ action, spurred the Reds to action.
Before the next day’s game, Cincinnati players decided to draw names of the Dodgers out of a hat, representing their assignments in the eventuality of another fight.
Every slip of paper said the same thing: Derrel Thomas.
(Thomas started the following day in center field, without incident.)
If you throw as hard as Aroldis Chapman, you must expect that your opponents will, on occasion, get squirrely. Should a ball get away from you and fly toward somebody’s head, this matter becomes especially prevalent. Should it happen twice in an inning—watch out.
Thursday, it happened twice to a single batter, Nate Schierholtz of the Cubs, and Chicago was not pleased. The pitches were obviously unintentional: The game was tied in the ninth inning, which is when closers pitch, which is why we so infrequently see closers carrying out any form of retaliation. The Cubs let Chapman know about it anyway, from the dugout at top volume. Things could have ended there, but for Chapman’s subsequent dismissal of the entire Chicago dugout—delivered with an insouciant wave of his glove toward their bench as he was leaving the field after recording the inning’s final out.
When Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took the field in the bottom half of the inning, it was time for the Reds dugout to weigh in. Rizzo had already been hit by a first-inning pitch from Homer Bailey, and was one of the primary Cubs to heap verbal abuse on Chapman. Somebody wearing Red said something with which he disagreed, and, throwing down cap and glove, he headed for the Cincy bench. Only a fool would have started a fight at that point, facing a line of guys in the other team’s uniform, and Rizzo is no fool. He did some shouting, however, and the Reds shouted back and the dugouts emptied. (Watch it here.)
It’s easy to ask what could have been done to avoid all this. It’s yet unknown what Cincinnati players yelled at Rizzo, but a ballplayer has little business approaching the opposing bench like that. It’s unknown what Cubs players yelled at Chapman, but he has to be aware enough to realize that multiple top-speed, head-high pitches at the same batter are going to elicit a response.
There’s something else at play here, as well: the disappearance of the quality bench jockey from the modern game. Once, players freely ragged each other from across the field in a back-and-forth patter designed to build unity on one side of the field and to get into players’ heads on the other. There were terrible aspects to the practice, such as what Jackie Robinson had to deal with on a fairly continual basis during the early part of his career, but there was also good to come from it. The patter between ballplayers took on a language of its own, and even as one side figured out just what to say to somebody in a given situation, players learned how to absorb the abuse without letting it get to them. The best bench jockeys performed verbal kung fu, turning the abusers’ words back on them with additional heft.
Stories of bench jockeys are ages old:
- Schoolboy Rowe, a newly married pitcher for the Tigers, made the mistake during the 1934 World Series of concluding a radio interview with a question for his wife: “How’m I doing, Edna?” The St. Louis Cardinals made sure that the phrase was heard continuously and at top volume through all seven games.
- During his early playing days, Leo Durocher went through a rough patch during which he was accused of stealing the pocket watch of his teammate, Babe Ruth. When Durocher took over as manager of the Dodgers years later, players from the Giants began waving Walker Cooper’s watch at him, saying, “Leo, look at the watch. Look at Ruth’s watch.”
- The Washington Senators bench once rode Mickey Mantle so hard that he was distracted into thinking the fielder’s choice at second on a ball he hit was the inning’s third out, and didn’t even run to first to try to beat the double play.
- After the publication of Ball Four, Jim Bouton took an abundance of abuse from around the league, from players shocked that one of their own would begin spilling secrets. The Reds, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose in particular, were particularly vocal, saying things like, “Shakespeare, you no-good rat-fink. Put that in your fucking book,” wrote Bouton in his follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally. The pitcher’s favorite line came when the count got to ball three: “What’s the tile of your book?” Later, Bouton wrote, he sat near Johnny Bench at a banquet and catcher told him, “I read where you said Pete Rose and I got on you from the dugout worse than anybody. Well, I want you to know we really weren’t that upset about the book. Pete and I got on everybody. So don’t worry about it.”
- One of the most famous moments in baseball history, Babe Ruth’s called shot against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, was a result of bench jockeying. According to Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, Ruth wasn’t pointing to center field but responding, after two quick strikes, to the verbally abusive Cubs bench that he wasn’t yet finished hitting. His motion, said Herman, was to quiet Chicago pitcher Charlie Root, not to indicate where he intended to hit the ball.
Perhaps the best summation of the process came in a tale about none other than Leo Durocher, told in Sport Magazine in April 1947:
Once last summer (Durocher) was abusing Murry Dickson, Cardinal pitcher, from the coaching box so violently that umpire Lee Ballanfant begged him to lay off.
“Please, Leo,” pleaded Ballantfant, “he’s a nice kid …”
“I don’t doubt it,” interrupted Durocher, “and after the game, I’ll be willing to buy Dickson a steak diner with champagne trimmings and take him to a show. But right now I want to beat him any way I can, see?”
Bench jockeying more or less died out in the 1980s, the victim of an evolving game. “I don’t know if it was just the teams not being teams for a long period of time together, a lot of player movement, playing with a bunch of different people, not having that team chemistry like that,” said Chris Speier, whose 19-year career ended in 1989, and who put up with a lot of it early in his playing days. “I don’t know when it stopped, but it definitely has stopped.”
Baseball diamonds are a more genteel place now, in many ways for the better. Still, when something comes up like what came up in Cincinnati yesterday, the downside of the disappearing bench jockey becomes clear. Modern players simply have comparatively little idea about how to deal with this kind of adversity.
Take the story of another Reds player, pitcher Mario Soto, who in 1982, rattled by heckling from Phillies third base coach Dave Bristol, walked six and gave up seven runs over 3.2 innings. He was so mad that after the game he called Philadelphia’s clubhouse and challenged Bristol to a fight. His manager, Russ Nixon, offered a different perspective. “That’s just something Mario is going to have to learn to deal with,” he said.
It was just as simple as that.
The official Cincinnati Reds Twitter feed mentioned Homer Bailey‘s no-hitter 12 times before he completed it, not to mention a steady stream of references during the telecast by broadcaster Thom Brenneman. It was the second straight no-no in which Bailey was karmically messed with.
Somehow, he completed it, anyway. Go figure.
Head-high fastballs from Cincinnati pitchers were the order of the holiday weekend. First came Johnny Cueto on Sunday, riling up Chicago’s David DeJesus. A day later, Aroldis Chapman sent a 100 mph offering past—and well above—Nick Swisher, all the way to the screen. He followed that with an equally hot pitch that ran considerably closer to Swisher’s noggin.
Swisher can be seen on the telecast repeating the phrase, “Don’t do that” to the pitcher. After he flied out to left field, Swisher and Chapman exchanged words as he passed by the mound on his way back to the dugout. (Watch it all here.)
“The first one I saw go by and I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty quick,'” Swisher said in a USA Today report. “And then that second one was a little too close for comfort—100 mph at someone’s head? Let’s be honest. That’s not exactly the best thing.”
Reds manager Dusty Baker wrote it off to wildness—“Is that the first time you’ve seen Aroldis throw one to the screen?” he asked—but it’s also plausible that it was Chapman’s version of strategic intimidation. (Last season Chapman struck out 122 while walking 23. Wildness does not appear to be an integral part of his makeup.)
Yes, even guys with 100-mph fastballs like to give themselves an extracurricular edge now and again. Just ask Nolan Ryan.
The first game in which Bobby Grich ever faced the flame-throwing strikeout king, in 1973, he laced a ball down the right-field line and made the mistake of verbally urging it to stay fair. The ball went foul, however, and Ryan ensured that Grich remembered the at-bat by putting his next pitch, a Chapman-esque fastball, up near his head. “I got the message,” Grich said.
During his rookie season, B.J. Surhoff took a big swing against Ryan, and ended up on his back as a result of the right-hander’s next offering. Mike Devereaux, same thing. Mike Aldrete bunted against him and was subsequently knocked down on consecutive pitches. Milt Thompson bunted and was hit in the ribs. Doug Jennings faked a bunt and was drilled. After avoiding an inside pitch, Bert Campaneris motioned for the pitcher to throw it over the plate, and was rewarded by being hit in the knee. The list goes on and on.
The purpose, primarily, was to keep the opposition uncomfortably on its toes. “The intimidation factor,” said Chris Speier, who wracked up 45 plate appearances against Ryan over the years, “was so high.”
“Quite honestly, there were a lot of guys who wouldn’t even play against [Ryan],” said Jerry Remy. “They’d just bail out. It was funny when you saw the lineups—there were a couple guys who, when he was pitching, you knew would not be in that lineup. They’d come down with a mysterious illness. I think because he was the most intimidating pitcher in the league.”
Dusty Baker not only acknowledged that syndrome, but labeled it: “Ryanitis.” It’s still unclear whether his closer is trying to foster his own brand of Chapmanitis, but it’s as good an explanation as any.
The modern game, however, holds far less tolerance for those willing to place a ball near a hitter’s head than it did during Ryan’s era.
Swisher handled things well, not even moving his feet before re-setting after the first wild pitch, then responding to the second one by putting good wood on a ball that was ultimately caught at the wall. The Indians as a team comported themselves accordingly when interviewed after Monday’s game, and on Tuesday responded on the field, with starter Zach McAllister drilling Brandon Phillips in the ribs in the fifth inning, an apparent response to Chapman’s antics.
Intimidation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
“You’re only intimidated if you allow yourself to be,” said Andy Van Slyke, about his showdowns with Ryan. “It’s really that simple. If he hit me, I’d go take first base and steal second base and tell him to go fuck himself. That’s how you’ve got to play this game.”
The guy also possesses the unfortunate combination of thin skin and anger-management issues. The same man who kicked Jason LaRue into retirement with a ridiculous display during a fight in 2010 was at it again on Sunday. Apparently irked in the first inning by David DeJesus’ decision to step out of the batter’s box during an at-bat, Cueto responded by flinging a fastball over the outfielder’s head—like, three feet over his head—when he came to the plate five frames later. (Watch it here.)
Plate ump Bob Davidson quickly warned both benches, curtailing retaliatory activity for the rest of the game, but the discussion was just getting started. And most of it centered on baseball’s unwritten rules.
Start with Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, who lasted just four innings. His postgame diatribe to reporters was long and pointed. Excerpts, from a CSNChicago report:
- “I think that’s kind of immature on his part and totally uncalled for. He’s lucky that retaliation isn’t in our vocabulary here.”
- “That’s kind of BS on his part. Just totally immature. If he has something to say about it, he knows where to find my locker and definitely I’ll find his.”
- “If Cueto has any problem, he can throw at me and I’ll definitely return the favor. I didn’t like that one bit.”
- “I hope he hears this, because I really don’t care. If we want to retaliate, we could have and lost a bullpen guy, but we don’t need that. We play the game the right way.”
- “He needs to cut it out, because I’ll stop it.”
This from a guy who claims to have no personal history with Cueto. The message was, essentially, play the game the right way, or we’ll take care of it—the right way, via the Code. Problem was, Garza’s use of the media to address Cueto was itself against the Code, and served to puzzle one of the unwritten rules’ greatest practitioners, Cueto’s manager on the Reds, Dusty Baker.
Cueto hasn’t spoken to reporters since the incident, but Baker quickly picked up the slack. Rather than limit the scope of his conversation to on-field retaliation (perhaps spurred by Garza’s “find my locker” comment), he took things straight to the back alley.
“Take care of it then,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I mean, [Cueto] couldn’t hit Wilt Chamberlain with that pitch. … You got something to say, you go over there and tell him. Johnny ain’t running. Know what I mean? A guy can say what he wants to say, but it’s better if you go over and say it to his face.”
The most interesting part of the situation was when Baker recalled how, during his own playing days, situations were resolved a bit more directly.
“I just wish, just put them in a room, let them box and let it be over with, know what I mean?” he said. “I always said this. Let it be like hockey. Let them fight, somebody hits the ground and then it’ll be over with. I’m serious about that. I come from a different school. Guys didn’t talk as much. You just did it.”
He wasn’t just talking, either. As a player, was at the center of just such a situation. During a game against Pittsburgh in 1981, his Dodgers teammate, Reggie Smith, grew increasingly riled over the inside pitching of rookie Pascual Perez (despite the fact that Smith wasn’t even playing, due to a shoulder injury). When Perez hit Bill Russell with a pitch in the sixth inning, then hit Baker four batters later, Smith really started barking.
Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock motioned to Smith as if to say that he’d have to get through him to reach the pitcher, but Perez was not looking for protection. After striking out Steve Garvey to end the inning, Perez pointed first at Smith, then toward the grandstand. The two quickly retreated to the tunnels of Three Rivers Stadium to settle things, followed closely by teammates and managers.
As the 16,000 fans in attendance watched a vacant ballfield, puzzled, and umpires raced in an effort to intervene, a baseball fight broke out. Which is to say that, for all the dramatic build-up, tempers quickly cooled and peacemakers in the crowd broke it up before a punch, apparently, could be thrown.
The ultimate point, however, said Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, was that there was no carry-over. “It was taken care of,” he said.
If that incident somehow did not meet Baker’s criteria of guys not talking as much, another of his teams was involved in an off-field fight—this one in which fighting actually occurred, with punches and everything. Except instead of involving opposing teams, it featured only participants from his own roster. It was 1973, and Baker played for the Atlanta Braves, under manager Eddie Matthews. From The Baseball Codes:
The way Davey Johnson, then a star second baseman for the Braves, tells it, after an initial verbal disagreement with Matthews, the manager invited him into his room and challenged him to a fight. Johnson, reluctant at first, changed his mind when Matthews wound up for a roundhouse punch, then knocked the older man down. Matthews charged back, and as the sounds of the scrape flooded the hallway, players converged on the scene. In the process of breaking things up, several peacemakers were soon bearing welts of their own.
“The next day at the ballpark we looked like we had just returned from the Revolutionary War,” wrote Tom House (a member of the team, who, true to the code of silence, left all names out of his published account). “Everybody had at least one black eye, puffed-up lips, scraped elbows, and sore hands. It had been a real knockdown battle.”
This was something that couldn’t be hidden from the press. Matthews called the team together, and as a unit they came up with a story about a game that got carried away, in which guys took good-natured beatings. Flimsy? Maybe. Accepted? Absolutely.
“You can ask Hank Aaron and others on that team,” Johnson said, laughing. “Eddie said his biggest regret [in his baseball career] was not having it out with me again. That one never got out. It never made the papers.”
The Cueto-Garza-DeJesus situation will probably never come close to that. But that’s kind of the point. The call-and-response nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—taking care of things on the field, as it were—exists to prevent this sort of thing. And, save for the occasional below-decks brawl every few decades or so, it works pretty well in that regard.