Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Unwritten Rules As Revenge: After Warnings Limit HBPs, Rizzo Steals While Up 8-0, Baez Watches Homer To Send Message

There were beanballs galore in Denver this week. On Monday, Rockies catcher Tony Wolters was drilled by Yu Darvish. Kris Bryant was plunked twice on Tuesday, perhaps spurring him to take Wednesday off. Despite Joe Maddon’s public insistence that he didn’t think Bryant’s beanings were intentional, the Cubs grew further steamed on Wednesday when a head-high fastball from Antonio Senzatela forced Javy Baez to the dirt in the top of the third. Intentional or not, that’s an awful lot of inside pitches in a short span of time, even for a team like the Rockies, known for working the inside corner. For Chicago starter Cole Hamels, it was the final straw.

In the bottom half of the frame, Hamels drilled Nolan Arenado near his left elbow, a blow that eventually forced the third baseman from the game. Arenado knew exactly what had happened, and got up steaming. “When we buzzed Baez’s tower …” he said after the game in an Athletic report, “I had a feeling it would be me.”

Though tensions were high, no warnings were issued. This made sense. Colorado had taken several shots, and Chicago responded. The circle appeared to be complete.

That lasted until the seventh inning, when Rockies reliever Brian Shaw plunked Hamels in the ankle. It had every hallmark of intention: Two outs, the bases were empty, and the Cubs led, 8-0. With that, hostilities resumed.

An inning later, Rockies reliever Phillip Diehl, in his second-ever big league appearance, drilled Anthony Rizzo in the backside, again with two outs and the bases empty. This was enough to finally draw warnings from plate ump Roberto Ortiz, which left the Cubs unable to respond directly—an especially unpalatable circumstance given that it was the final time the teams will face each other this season.

So the Cubs got creative. Enter the unwritten rules.

It started when Rizzo, on first after being drilled, stole second. This would have been a clear violation of the Code had not it so clearly born a message of discontent. (So uncontested was the steal—Rizzo was not even being held on by first baseman Mark Reynolds—that it was ruled defensive indifference.) Any other time, somebody choosing to run at such a point in a game with that kind of score would become a target. As it is, by the time these teams next meet, the play will hardly be remembered among the litany of everything else that went down.

Ultimately, Rizzo’s advancement didn’t make a bit of difference when Baez, blasted a 460-foot home run into the left field bleachers. Baez is known for his playfulness afield, but he took his time watching this one, and there was nothing playful about it. First, he stared down Diehl. Then he stared down the ball, lingering in the batter’s box before taking several slow, deliberate steps toward first in the early part of his trot. Between Baez and Rizzo, it was a pair of the most obvious messages of discontent one could imagine short of actually drilling somebody.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chicago reliever Brad Brach hit Wolters for the second time in the series, but somehow was allowed to remain in the game despite Ortiz’s prior warnings. Wolters ended up dishing out some Code-based lessons of his own, taking both second and third on defensive indifference before coming around to score on a groundout by Chris Iannetta. That only reduced Colorado’s deficit to 10-1, however, and even then, Baez, who fielded Iannatta’s ball, considered gunning Wolters out at the plate before making the smart play to first.

The final tally had six Cubs hit by pitches during the six games between the teams this season, the Rockies three. That’s on top of the 96-mph German Marquez fastball that hit Bryant in the helmet last season. (That Marquez hit Bryant again last week at Wrigley Field prior to Bryant’s two HBPs on Wednesday didn’t help matters.)

The only way these teams will see each other again in 2019 will be in the playoffs, which Arenado promised after the game “would be a spicy series.” Would it ever.

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Don't Steal with a Big Lead

Tropocolipse 2014: Red Sox Anoint Themselves Baseball’s New Code Police

Yuni points

Every day we see new evidence of the degradation of baseball’s unwritten rules, how past forms of moral governance have been swept away in favor of the far simpler ideal of simply letting boys be boys. The game’s few remaining old-school souls periodically remind us of this development, primarily through bursts of outrage at acts that, while once roundly condemnable, are barely even blip-worthy on the modern game’s radar.

Put another way: Baseball has its share of crotchety old men, sitting on the proverbial front porch and grousing about the way things used to be—and they will not be ignored.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you David Ross.

Sunday at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, Rays shortstop Yunel Ecobar stole third while his team held an 8-3 lead in the seventh inning. Five runs at that moderately late point in the game was once considered punishable with fines up to and including fastballs aimed at the noggin of the next hitter, or Escobar himself, or both.

The game, however, has changed considerably, as has its moral code. There is still gray area when it comes to running up the score, of course—questions about how much of a lead is enough, and when—but the last time anybody so much as blinked at something along the lines of Escobar’s steal, the Rays had “Devil” in front of their name … unless they hadn’t even come into existence yet.

That said, we’ll always have crotchety old men hanging desperately to outmoded morals as places upon which to park their high horses. As Escobar led off third, Ross started barking. Escobar responded in kind, at first with stunned confusion, then anger and finger pointing toward the Red Sox bench. A moment later Jonny Gomes raced in from right field, swings were swung and the scrum became official. (Watch it here.)

It is easy for one side of the confrontation to decry the other: Ross for being too high strung, or, if it’s crotchety old men doing the decrying, Escobar for rubbing Boston’s noses in a sizeable lead. The argument that put it all to rest, however, was delivered by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after the game:

“They took umbrage with the fact that Escobar had stolen third base with a five-run lead in the seventh. So that’s not nearly as egregious as last year in the playoffs, correct? Last year in the playoffs, when they had an 8-2 lead in the eighth inning, when Ellsbury led off with a single and stole second base and they ended up winning 12-2. I think that was a little more egregious than their interpretation of tonight. … I didn’t take any exception when they stole on us last year in the eighth inning in the division series. … Our goal is to prevent them from scoring runs, their goal is to score runs—the whole game. That’s always been the goal within the game of baseball. Apparently some of the guys on their bench did not like that. I really wish they would roll back the tape and look at that more specifically. You have to keep your personal vendettas, your personal prejudices, your personal judgmental components in your back pocket. So before you start screaming regarding any of that, understand what happened just last year, and also understand that in this ballpark five-run leads can evaporate very quickly.

Indeed, in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, then-Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury led off the seventh inning with a single, and stole second while his team held a six-run lead. David Ross was a member of that team. If he ever came out publicly against his teammate’s actions, those comments have not been widely circulated.

Then again, last year the Red Sox were on their way to hoisting the World Series trophy. On Sunday they were nothing more than a club with championship aspirations in last place and on its way to losing its 10th straight. Things that slide when one is winning tend not to in the darker hours.

Nothing feeds hypocrisy, it seems, like a healthy dose of frustration.

Of course, Escobar broke an unwritten rule himself by doing the one thing that could trip him up most: He responded. Had he kept to himself and put up with the bench jockeying for just a few moments, all would likely have ended well. Instead he was tossed, Boston is even angrier than it was before, and bad blood between two teams with a considerable history of the stuff is built anew.

Boston manager John Farrell did what he was had to in protecting his player, saying afterward in an MLB.com report: “We’re down five in the seventh so it’s somewhat of a gray area when you shut down the running game.”

Which is completely accurate, except for the part about the gray area. Ross had no business getting involved with Escobar over that particular action; he’s a 13-year big leaguer and should know better.

Take away the punches and the insults and the misplaced claims of moral outrage, however, and we’re left with one thing: a stark example of the degree to which baseball’s Code has changed. Argue all you want whether that’s for better or for worse—just don’t deny that it exists.

 

 

 

Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Oakland A's

1975: Sending a Message in One Easy Step (Beanball Not Included)

Dick WilliamsResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Manager Dick Williams tells a tale of running up the score while at the helm of the California Angels, as a means of sending a message to A’s owner Charlie Finley—who had spent three seasons trying to keep his boot heel firmly affixed on the manager’s neck when Williams worked for him. From Williams’ autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

In April 1975, my Angels were leading the A’s 9-1 in the sixth inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Anaheim, and Mickey Rivers was on first base. I decided, up yours, Charlie. I sent Rivers to second base on a hit-and-run attempt. Our batter got a hit and Rivers scored all the way from first. And of course the A’s were angry. When you’re leading by a big margin, running like that is considered crass. Not just because you’re openly challenging the other team or making a comment on their ability to throw you out. Mostly, it’s because you don’t need to run. You’re winning by eight runs, you just need to keep your mouth shut and finish the game. You don’t need to run, and the losing team doesn’t appreciate it. You realize that more baseball fights start because of a needless steal than because of a stupid beanball.

I should mention here that it’s also considered crass for a team leading 9-1 to shout obscenities about the opposing team’s owner from the dugout. Particularly when the owner’s real name is being used, as in “Take that, Charlie, you son of a bitch!” Or perhaps even, “Fuck you, Charlie!” I must admit, that night I let a few such things slip. Was I looking for a fight? You decide. Oakland reliever Jim Todd thought so. He was already mad because, after not allowing an earned run all season, we had touched him up for five. Immediately after Rivers’ steal, Todd’s next pitch was directed at, and collided with, the top of Bruce Bochte’s head.

The first thing I did was run to home plate to check on Bochte. Every manager does that. I leaned down and saw that he still had both eyes. My job was done. Now I did something that most managers would not do. I charged the mound of a team I’d spent three wonderful years managing. I charged the mound and lunged at their 6-foot-2 pitcher, who was about 20 years younger than me but obviously without a gut in his body. He tried to run. I grabbed him by his belt and dragged him to the ground and started pounding on him. That’s right, I took on Jim Todd, and — you guessed it — soon I was rolling around with what seemed like 50 of my former players.

Anybody who knows Dick Williams and saw this scene would think, he’s a dead man. He’s lying on a pitching mound and is fair game for former players who truly are looking for his nuts with their cleats. But I guess the A’s liked me as much as I like them — or at least some of them did. My world darkened underneath a green and gold uniform, but the voice was friendly. “It’s Reggie,” the voice whispered. “I’m just going to lie here on you until this thing ends.” I laughed and he laughed, and we just lay there like two kids playing King of the Mountain while all hell was breaking loose on top of us.

Oakland center fielder Angel Mangual, with whom Williams had consistently feuded, did eventually sneak some kicks in to his former manager’s ribs, but it seems that, for Williams at least, all ended relatively well.