Swinging 3-0, The Baseball Codes

Wayback Machine: Dealing With Code Violations in a Bygone Era

Darrel ThomasIn 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.)

 

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Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Jayson Werth, Swinging 3-0

Some Leads are Insurmountable; Others are Insurmountable Only for the Cubs

Opinions about when it is and isn’t appropriate to play aggressively—stealing bases, say, or swinging 3-0—vary widely. When you’re the Chicago Cubs and are in the midst of getting pummeled, repeatedly, by the best team in the National League, it only makes sense that sensitivities might be a bit raw.

The game in question was the capper following three straight Nationals victories over Chicago, by a cumulative score of 22-7—“one of the biggest butt-whippings” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said he’d ever received. Ultimately, it served mainly to add misery to a season which at that point had the Cubs on pace to lose 102 games.

In the series’ fourth game, on Thursday, it took only four innings for Washington to build another substantial lead, 7-2, so when Jayson Werth swung at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth, it was enough to officially drive Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk into an extreme state of annoyance.

From the dugout, he started “screaming out obscenities” toward Washington third-base coach Bo Porter, according to umpire Jerry Layne in the Chicago Tribune, a situation the umpire felt “was inappropriate” and “caused everything.”

“Everything” began with Porter approaching the Chicago bench and screaming right back at Quirk. That escalated to both dugouts emptying onto the field. (Watch it here.)

“You’re up 7-2,” said Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing 3-0.”

There’s truth to the statement, but its timing is straight out of the 1960s. The last time the fifth inning was utilized as a yardstick for when to stifle an attack, it was a pitcher’s league. They were the days of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, long before offenses exploded in a spate of expanded rosters and juiced balls and tiny ballparks and BALCO-fueled hitters. Today, the fifth inning sounds downright quaint.

Then again, this is the Cubs. The line for when to call off the dogs is malleable, depending on a team’s bench and bullpen, the freshness of its starting pitcher, the state of its offense. With the Cubs, for whom a two-run deficit might seem like an unbridgeable chasm, perhaps five runs, and only four innings to score them, is a  lot.

We’ve already established that their emotions are raw, which explains why reliever Lendy Castillo threw at Bryce Harper to lead off the the sixth. That set Harper off on his own shouting jag, and the dugouts emptied again. (Watch it here.)

Harper nailed it in his postgame comments, saying in the Tribune, “I’d be pretty ticked off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all week, too.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson proved to be tone deaf earlier this season when it came to a different facet of the game’s propriety, but on this particular issue he was pretty much spot-on.

“We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything,” he said in the Washington Post. “We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing. I don’t know why they’re getting on about swinging 3-0. Their first baseman [Anthony Rizzo] swung 3-0 in the first inning. What’s the difference with the bases loaded in the fifth with only a five-run lead and two outs?”

At this point in the game’s history, not much. “Only” a five-run lead is exactly that, even against the Cubs. One would hope that next time they display a bit more pride.