The Baseball Codes

The Little-Known Story Of Hank Greenberg’s 250th Home Run

A few years back I wrote a feature about Hank Greenberg’s war service for a website called The National Pastime Museum. The site no longer exists, but today is a good day to dust the story off. On Memorial Day, this is for those who have served our country so well.

The feting of Hank Greenberg at Tiger Stadium on May 6, 1941, had little to do with his winning the previous season’s American League Most Valuable Player Award, or that he’d led Detroit to the 1940 American League pennant. The man was a bona-fide superstar, all but ticketed for Cooperstown after only six full big league seasons, but this was not about that, either—not directly, anyway.

The U.S. military had only recently begun its conscription process prior to entering World War II. Based largely on his being unmarried, Greenberg was among the first prominent athletes to qualify. It was known when the season began that he likely wouldn’t make it until June as a civilian; even as the Tigers played Cleveland in their second game of the season, Michigan’s local Draft Board 23 announced a Class-1A rating for Greenberg on the basis of a medical examination earlier  in the day. “I’ll ask no deferment,” the slugger told the New York Times after the game, “and will be ready when called.”

Sure enough, Greenberg’s number 621 was called shortly thereafter. Thus did he find himself on May 6, playing in his final game of the season before reporting, amid significant fanfare. Before the game, the Tigers presented him with a gold watch featuring the inscribed names of his teammates. The Briggs Stadium grounds crew gave him a pen and pencil set.

For all anybody knew, it would be the final game of Greenberg’s career. At age 30, he clearly understood the finite nature of athletic endeavors. He was also sitting on 247 career home runs, a number that a month earlier he seemed all but certain to have surpassed by then.

Early-season struggles, however, intruded. Greenberg went 0-for-3 in the season opener on April 16, and did it again in the following game. After 10 games he was batting .188. By the end of April he’d accumulated only 10 hits, only two for extra bases—neither of them a home run.

May, however, began differently. In the four-game stretch leading up to May 6, Greenberg raised his batting average 34 points, going 5-for-13 with three doubles. Home runs, however, remained elusive. It appeared that he would decamp for his indefinite war leave short of 250.

Perhaps if he had been at 249, it would have bothered him more. Even at 248 the number might have been within reach, but for all of Greenberg’s fabled power—he’d paced the American League in home runs three times, and set a record for right-handed batters with 58 during the 1938 season—he had never once connected for three in a game. Thus did he content himself on the evening of May 5—at a private party thrown by the Tigers at the Franklin Hills Country Club, which included members of the visiting Yankees—with the idea that careers do not hinge on the accumulation of round numbers.

Then, in his first at-bat of his last game, Greenberg led off the second inning by pounding a Tiny Bonham fastball into the left field stands. Now he was only two away.

An inning later, he did it again, this time with a man aboard. It was the 28th time he had gone deep twice in the same game. Now he was one away.

As Greenberg stood in the outfield the following inning, he couldn’t help but consider his circumstance. It was only the fourth inning. He imagined the drama of his first three-homer game propelling him to 250 as he went off to war. “All of a sudden,” he said later, as reported in The Second Fireside Book of Baseball, “I was intensely interested in hammering one into the stands.”

Greenberg had always been an unintentional home-run hitter, seeking only hard contact and accepting whatever followed. Now, however, he had a goal and very little time to reach it. His next at-bat, in the fifth inning, came against reliever Atley Donald. The Tigers were ahead, 5-1, and Greenberg aimed for the fences.

He fell short, lofting a fly ball to Charlie Keller in medium-deep left field.

His next time up, in the seventh, he popped up to catcher Bill Dickey. Things weren’t going as planned.

When Greenberg stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth and the Tigers ahead, 6-4, he knew that it was almost certainly his final shot at the milestone. The bases were loaded, and Donald was still on the mound, in his fifth inning of work, pitching on fumes. The first three pitches to Greenberg sailed wide of the zone.

A walk was the outcome that nobody wanted. Taking the bat out of his hands with number 250 so close at hand, even unintentionally, would have been a profound letdown. “Even Bill Dickey was rooting for me,” Greenberg said later. “He kept pleading with his pitcher to whip in a fast one, letter high.”

Finally, Donald did, providing the meatball for which everybody was hoping. It was letter high, exactly where Greenberg wanted it. If ever there was a nod to history at the expense of personal statistics, this was it. Greenberg’s rocked back in his stance and uncorked his mightiest swing.

And missed.

At that point, Donald seemed entirely willing to accommodate the would-be war hero. His next pitch floated in as fat as the first. Again, Greenberg attacked. Again, he missed.

Now the count was full. Greenberg represented what was probably his team’s final out of the game. Unless he fouled it off, one more pitch was all he would get. Over the previous three seasons, only Red Ruffing had allowed more home runs than Donald among Yankees pitchers, and Ruffing was the defending league leader in the category. Greenberg knew exactly what he was going to get.

When Donald lolled another meatball toward the plate, served up to the slugger as if on a tee, Greenberg put everything he had into his swing, intent on giving himself and his fans the most sensational sendoff possible.

The ending, however, was familiar. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Greenberg had struck out. Number 250 would have to wait.

***

The next day at the United States Army induction center, Greenberg gave out upwards of 1,000 autographs and posed for newsreel cameras while a 13-piece WPA orchestra blared what an officer called “morale building” music. At 1:30 p.m. he boarded a train for Fort Custer, Mich., headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division. Thus began his transition from baseball’s highest-paid player to lowly private, trading his $55,000 annual salary for $5.25 per week.

Greenberg spent 13 weeks in basic training before being assigned to Camp Livingston, La., where he joined the 32nd Division. Before long he was promoted to private first class, then to corporal in charge of a five-man anti-tank gun crew, then to sergeant of the machine-gun company of the 11th Infantry. All the while, he had baseball on the brain.

“As soon as I get out of the Army I’ll play ball again,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

In November, the War Department issued a discharge order for selectees age 28 and older. Greenberg qualified. He’d be back with the Tigers before training camp opened.

He left the Army on Dec. 5, after 180 days of service. Heading home to New York, Greenberg told the Associated Press that he had little to do little but “wait for spring.”

Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Greenberg the decision was easy. He re-enlisted immediately. Under the new circumstances, he said, “baseball is out the window.”

Thus began a three-year journey that saw the outfielder emerge from officer candidate school as a second lieutenant, get promoted to director of physical training of the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command at Ft. Worth, Tex., and ultimately end up as administrative commanding officer for the first B-29 overseas base of the 20th Air Force, in China, in charge of the cutting-edge Superfortress bomber. When the plane crashed on the runway during a testing run, Greenberg was among those who raced toward the wreckage, and was blown backward from 100 yards away when half of the ship’s bomb load exploded. Undeterred, Greenberg’s company pressed on to rescue five crewmen who’d disembarked just before the explosion and were huddled in a nearby ditch. As Greenberg circled the plane looking for others, the other half of the bomber’s payload went off, followed by exploding ammunition. As pieces of the aircraft landed all around him, Greenberg was pinned to the ground. Once things settled, he found the six remaining members of the crew in a nearby rice patty. Somehow, nobody was seriously injured.

These were not the adventures of a pampered ballplayer but of a bona-fide military man, doing everything possible to help the cause.

***

On June 14, 1945, two months before Japan officially surrendered, Greenberg received an honorable discharge. A week later, he was working out with the Tigers. On July 1, he trotted out to left field in Briggs Stadium for a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.

The number 249 had been hanging from the slugger’s neck for more than four years, across continents and job descriptions and military ranks. As the war drew on and his return to baseball seemed less likely, it had threatened to become a permanent fixture on his record.

But there he was, at age 34, again trying to reach the mark—four years and a lifetime away from where he had been the last time he attempted the feat. Now, he did not swing for the fences. This time everything was different. He wanted only to feel the dirt beneath his cleats and the bat in his hand, to feel like he hadn’t felt in forever—like a ballplayer again. Greenberg’s approach was easy, his expectations minimal.

In his fourth at-bat, he planted a fastball from lefthander Charlie Gassaway 375 feet into the left-field bleachers. Greenberg had his number, solid proof, finally, that he was home.

Retaliation

Giancarlo Has A Long Memory, And Why The Hell Shouldn’t He?

Stanton flipped

Is there an unwritten rule for PTSD?

That’s what it had to be, after Mike Fiers hit Giancarlo Stanton in the upper arm on Monday. It was obviously unintentional—runners were at the corners with one out in the third inning of a 1-1 game, and the right-hander had little interest in loading the bases for Gleyber Torres, who leads baseball’s best offensive team in slugging.

That the pitch didn’t hurt Stanton—it bounced off his arm shield—didn’t prevent some overt feelings on his part. It was Fiers, after all, who drilled Stanton in the face in September 2014, breaking bones and ending his season. Stanton has worn a face-guard extension on his helmet ever since.

So Stanton reacted with a response natural to somebody who’s been triggered: He got angry.

Lingering in the batter’s box, the slugger yelled, “Get it over the plate,” at Fiers, among other choice terms. Fiers, treating the incident as he would any other mistake pitch, wanted no part of unnecessary drama. He shouted something back about not meaning to do it, with the tension lasting just long enough to draw both teams to the edges of their dugouts before Stanton finally ambled down to first.

“I’m not trying to stir this up, that just is what it is, obviously,” Stanton said after the game in an MLB.com report. “Anything like that that happens, no matter how many years it is, I’m not going to be happy. I’m not going to just walk to first and be OK, but it is what it is.”

For his part, Fiers had been deeply apologetic after drilling Stanton the first time around, both to the media and via Twitter.

Monday, though, he was markedly less reticent.

“The way [Stanton] handled it, I think it was kind of childish,” the pitcher told reporters after the game. “Anybody knows I’m not throwing at him. He’s gonna act how he’s gonna act. It kind of shows his character, because obviously I wasn’t throwing at him.”

Rather than charge the mound, Stanton retaliated in the most effective fashion possible, waiting until the sixth inning, when he pounded an 0-2 Fiers curveball into the left field bleachers, punctuating the feat by taking four slow steps out of the batters box on his way to first, flipping his bat, then pointing at the mound upon crossing the plate.

Some memories die hard. Now we get to see how long Fiers’ last. The teams next play in late August.

 

Showing Players Up

Verlander Wins Word Battle, Then Wins Game

White Sox confusion

The idea of celebrating on a ballfield has gained significant traction over recent seasons, including just last week when we discussed the topic as pertains to Francisco Lindor.

Action picked up again on Friday, when White Sox third baseman Tim Anderson did some on-field celebrating to which Justin Verlander took exception. Generally speaking, this would paint Verlander as a crotchety old man (which, at age 35 he may well be), but as is the case with many things that happen under the Code, details matter.

As it turns out, Verlander was somewhat concerned about the unwritten rules, but more so about some inane baseball on the part of his opponent.

Anderson’s first celebration came after he broke up Verlander’s no-hitter in the fifth inning with a single through the left side of the infield. He clapped his hands and pointed toward his dugout upon reaching first base.

So far, so good. His team was down, 5-0, he was on base and trying to pump up his teammates. This is not unheard of in the modern era.

Then, on a 3-0 pitch to Omar Narvaez, Anderson broke for second, and celebrated again when he reached safely—never mind the fact that the pitch was ball four and the runner could have walked into second. (He was not credited with a steal.)

This is what irked Verlander.

“He steals on 3-0 in a 5-0 game, that’s probably not great baseball,” Verlander said afterward in a Houston Chronicle report, elucidating basic baseball concepts for reporters. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. But he celebrated that, though. And it’s like ‘Hey, I’m not worried about you right now. It’s 5-0, I’m giving a high leg kick, I know you can steal. If I don’t want you to steal, I’ll be a little bit more aware of you. But I’m trying to get this guy out at the plate.’ ”

 

Celebrating a good play is accepted behavior. What about celebrating a boneheaded play? Verlander had words for the runner, which he later said were aimed toward letting Anderson know he was being “a little overaggressive.” Some in the blogosphere have blasted Verlander’s sensitivity toward the Code; few have given him credit for strategy.

So prodded, Anderson took off for third on the 1-0 pitch to the next hitter, Adam Engel. Verlander picked him off with a throw to third, leading Anderson to backpedal toward second. Basepath confusion ensued, with two White Sox runners ending up at the base. Jose Altuve tagged Narvaez out.

“Stealing third in a 5-0 game with two guys on in an inning where I was clearly struggling—I walked a guy on four pitches and went 1-0 to the next guy—and I pick you off on an inside move after the way he had kind of been jubilant about some other things, I was just as jubilant about that,” Verlander said. The pitcher made sure to thank Anderson for giving him an out, which further angered the Chicago infielder.

“I could care less,” Anderson said afterward about his confrontation. “I’m out just playing and having fun. If he took it to heart, so what?”

That’s a terrible answer. Go play slow-pitch softball to have fun. Show up to a major league ballpark and help your team win games, which involves holding focus. Celebrating an ill-considered stolen base while your team is down five runs falls under that heading. So does taking issue with one of the sport’s headiest pitchers, who has clearly and correctly called you out for employing some stupid strategy.

Point, Verlander.

Retaliation, Umpire Relations

Memo to Pitchers: ‘Kill the Ump’ is an Axiom, Not a Suggestion

Ump drilled

Shortly after Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and catcher James McCann were ejected by plate ump Quinn Walcott on Wednesday for arguing balls and strikes, Detroit pitcher Buck Farmer crossed up catcher John Hicks and drilled Wolcott in the chest with a fastball.

Cleveland TV broadcasters immediately implied that he did it on purpose.

Is intentionally hitting an umpire even a thing? There are many ways to think about this, primary among them being that no player wants to permanently find himself on the bad side of a given ump. Close calls can go either way, and just like their ballplaying counterparts, umpires have been known to carry grudges. To show up an umpire during an argument is one thing. To intentionally injure him is guaranteed to sour things not only with the umpire in question, but with the guy’s colleagues. Umpires are a tight-knit bunch, after all.

After the game, Hicks explained away the pitch as coincidental. “Obviously, it looks bad right after Brad and Mac get tossed, but it’s bases loaded, we’re trying to win a baseball game,” Hicks said in an MLB.com report. “Any thoughts of us trying to do that on purpose are just ridiculous.”

Ausmus, who heard the TV broadcast from the clubhouse after being ejected, agreed. “To imply that was intentional is, first of all, a lie,” Ausmus said. “If any player intentionally tried to hurt an umpire on this team, we’d deal with that severely. … But for anyone to imply that was intentional, it’s just completely wrong. And they’re out of line saying that, quite frankly.”

The denials from Detroit are likely valid, but there’s no getting around how bad it looks. Also, this kind of thing does happen from time to time.

In just one instance, from 1999, Tampa Bay was trailing the Angels 7-1 in the third inning, when Anaheim catcher Mike DiFelice failed to get his glove on a pitch that ended up rocketing into the facemask of plate ump John Shulock with such force that it bent the bars. It didn’t help that Tampa Bay’s starter, Wilson Alvarez, had been questioning Shulock’s calls all afternoon.

Shulock was irate, needing to be restrained from charging the mound by DiFelice.

“I know in my heart [he] meant to hit me, but I can’t prove it,” said the umpire after the game, in an AP report. “The catcher set up for a curveball outside, and he drilled me with a fastball inside. The more I think about it, I do think he did it intentionally.”

Alvarez, who was removed from the game immediately afterward, denied everything, because what else could he do?

“He’s going to get his,” Shulock said in the Los Angeles Times. “Things have a way of evening out in this game, and one of these days somebody is going to hit a line drive off the side of his head and I’ll be the first guy laughing.”

Shulock was certainly not the last guy laughing. Based on the fact that he had stormed the mound after being hit, and possibly because of his postgame comments, the umpire was suspended for three games.

Beyond that, there appears to be little aftermath. Alvarez injured his shoulder and missed the following two seasons, and never again had Shulock behind the plate for a start. (It’s interesting that during Shulock’s last season as an umpire, he worked the Tampa Bay-Oakland game the day before Alvarez pitched, and was immediately transferred to Arlington for a series against the Royals. The last game he called was on July 18 of that season.)

Buck Farmer’s pitch was far less suspicious than that, and Quinn Wolcott took it a lot better than Shulock did. That might be the end of things, but it’ll be interesting to see how and if Wolcott reacts the next time he calls balls and strikes against the Tigers.

Appropriate Retaliation, Retaliation

Dustup In D-Town Offers a Primer on a Host of Unwritten Rules

Cabrera-Romine

The Yankees-Tigers Brawl of the Century on Thursday presented a grab-bag for the ages of unwritten rules, some justified, some not, some executed to precision, some decidedly less so. Among the things we saw:

  • Hitting a guy in response to his success: In the fourth inning, Gary Sanchez blasted his fourth home run of the three-game series. In the fifth inning, Tigers starter Michael Fulmer drilled Sanchez with a 96-mph fastball. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that it was unintentional—Fulmer recently returned to action after recovering from ulnar neuritis that disrupted his touch, and was shaking his hand in discomfort after releasing the pitch, before the ball even connected. Sanchez did not appear inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, glaring toward the mound on his way to first base.
  • Responding to a hit teammate: When Miguel Cabrera stepped in to face reliever Tommy Kahnle in the sixth, the right-hander had already struck out the inning’s first two hitters. Cabrera, however, is Detroit’s biggest threat, and thus the surest target for a payback pitch in response to Fulmer. Kahnle delivered, sending a fastball behind Cabrera’s back. The intent was obvious; plate ump Carlos Torres ejected Kahnle without a prior warning. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was similarly tossed when he emerged to argue the decision.
  • History matters: On July 31 at Yankee Stadium, Kahnle hit Mikie Mahtook in the helmet. Though the pitch seemed unintentional, Fulmer responded by plunking Jacoby Ellsbury. Benches were warned and tempers remained calm … for the moment.
  • As goes the aggrieved party, so goes his team: Cabrera was not immediately agitated, but soon got into an animated conversation with Tigers catcher Austin Romine, which ended up in wild punches and both teams converging onto the field in brawling clusters. Cabrera and Romine were ejected.

  • Fight honorably: Every player is expected to appear on the field during a baseball fight, filling one of three acceptable roles: active combatant, peacemaker or bystander. Two actions are patently disallowed: remaining in the dugout and cheap-shotting an opponent. New York catcher Gary Sanchez, leaping from scrum to scrum, began punching Tigers who were helplessly wedged beneath piles of players. Nothing will sully a player’s reputation around the league quicker than this, and Sanchez is certain to feel its impact in the future—both in terms of impending suspension and treatment by the opposition.

  • Teammates protect each other: During the first fight, Detroit’s Victor Martinez actually cozied up to Sanchez. Normally this type of interaction between opponents would not be an issue, but this happened after Sanchez’s below-board tactics during the fight, about which multiple Tigers were aware. Castellanos attempted to explain this to Martinez in the Detroit dugout, with an assist from Justin Verlander. The pitcher said something Martinez didn’t like, then dismissively walked away. Martinez had to be restrained from going after him. After the game, comments were forthcoming from none of them.

  • Teammates protect each other, Part II: The rule mandating that everybody join the party includes relievers, which meant that the bullpens of each team got in some decent cardio on the day.

  • Keep retaliation below the shoulders: With the game tied 6-6 in the seventh, Yankees reliever Dellin Betances drilled James McCann in the helmet with a 98-mph fastball. The batter was not seriously hurt, but the Tigers were irate, and, even given the possibility that it was unintentional, benches again cleared. Betances was ejected, as was Yankees bench coach and acting manager Rob Thomson. Somehow, New York’s replacement pitcher, David Robertson, hit the very next batter, John Hicks, in the hand.
  • Never cop to anything: In the top of the eighth, Detroit’s Alex Wilson drilled Todd Frazier in the thigh. While Fulmer had been quick to deny intent about his own hit batter (“I’m not the type of guy who’d hit a guy for hitting a home run. Especially down one run. I have more dignity than that,” he said) Wilson was different. He told reporters after the game that he didn’t believe either Betances or Robertson had drilled anybody intentionally, but that he nonetheless felt the need to respond. It was “pretty obvious what had to happen,” he said in a Detroit Free Press report, adding, “You’ve got to take care of your teammates sometimes. With me, if hitting a guy in the leg is what I have to do, then that’s what I did. Fortunately for me, I know where my pitches are going and I hit a guy in the leg today to take care of my teammates and protect them. It is what it is.” Suspensions are likely for many of the day’s participants, and certain for Wilson.

  • A manager’s role is to keep his players in line and restore order as quickly as possible: After the game, Joe Girardi accused Tigers manager Brad Ausmus of yelling “fuck you” at one of the Tigers, adding, “Come on, Brad, what is that?”

This was some ugly stuff. Whether or not Fulmer drilled Sanchez for riding a hot streak, it sure appeared that way. Cabrera appeared to accept that as Detroit’s best player, he was the one chosen to pay the price. Had either he or Romine been better able to keep their cool (oh, to know what was said that started it all), the entire affair would likely have failed to escalate.

Stuck in the middle was Andrew Romine, Austin’s brother, a bench player for the Yankees, who did his best to separate combatants on the field. (Oh, to know what was said at the family dinner after the game.)

Suspensions are certainly forthcoming, no player more deserving than Betances, for throwing all-world heat anywhere near a hitter’s head, or Sanchez, for dishonorable fighting.

The teams won’t meet again until next season. We’ll see then just how long some memories are.

 

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Bruce Rondon: Protector of the Code, or Just an Asshole?

Moose drilled

The scene: Tiger Stadium last Wednesday, the ninth inning of a blowout win by the Royals. Lorenzo Cain, on second base, races home on a single to left field by Eric Hosmer, making the score 14-2.

The problem? Baseball’s unwritten rules mandate that aggressive tactics be waylaid late in lopsided games. This means, among many other things, that baserunners play station-to-station ball, advancing one hit on a single, two on a double, etc.

Cain did not abide, and Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon responded by drilling the next guy, Mike Moustakas, in the thigh with a 99-mph fastball. Benches cleared, and Rondon was tossed by plate ump D.J. Reyburn.

Once, this type of response would have barely raised an eyebrow on the opposing bench, so clear-cut was the idea of holding one’s ground in a blowout. In the modern game, of course, things are different. It would not have been surprising had the Tigers overlooked such action entirely.

Not Rondon, though, who didn’t even offer a courtesy miss outside the zone in order to offer some plausible deniability before drilling Moustakas. His first pitch to the hitter ran inside. The second pitch nailed him. Moustakas was decidedly unhappy, not quite charging the mound but not going to first base either, as he lit into Rondon verbally.

There is yet a mitigating factor at play here. One segment of baseball intelligencia holds that station-to-station baseball in a blowout is a fine rule of thumb, but if there will be no play at a given base then a runner has every right to advance. Take it from no less an authority than former Rangers manager Ron Washington, who said: “If you have to slide, you don’t go. If you can go in standing up, then it’s okay. You don’t stop playing the game. That ain’t showing anybody up, playing the game.”

As an example, take another game played by the Royals, an inconsequential contest against Seattle in 2001. In the eighth inning, Royals third-base coach Dave Myers decided to hold speedster Charles Gipson at third base because KC held a nine-run lead. “I knew Gipson could score,” Myers theorized after the game, “but he’d have to slide to be safe. Had the right fielder bobbled the ball, then I would have sent Gipson. Then it would have been their fault that he scored.”

On Wednesday in Detroit, Cain scored standing up. Left fielder Justin Upton never even made a throw.

It’s possible that Rondon is a latent code-warrior, sticking up for moral propriety on the ballfield (even as he ignored the fact that Detroit had ceded the play). Or he could just be a hothead who let his temper get away from him. This is the guy who got sent home for “lack of effort” in 2015, a move widely supported by his teammates, and who got farmed out for several months this April. On Wednesday, Rondon was upset at being inserted into a blowout. He was upset at surrendering a single to Cain, and the subsequent balk call that allowed Cain to advance to second. He was upset at giving up another hit, to Hosmer. He was upset that his ERA was 10.50.

Maybe—maybe probably—the pitcher’s actions had nothing to do with the Code and everything to do with taking out his frustrations on whoever was unlucky enough to be standing in the batter’s box at the time. Royals pitcher Danny Duffy nailed it after the game when he said, in an MLB.com report, “If [Rondon] doesn’t want to compete in a situation that’s not sexy, they should just send his ass home.”

Two days later the pitcher gave up three runs in one-third of an inning to blow a lead against Houston. His ERA now stands at 12.41 and, with acts like the one Wednesday doing litttle to help Rondon’s cause, Duffy’s suggestion may well come to pass.

 

 

 

 

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”