Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.

***

On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.

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Fights, Johnny Cueto, Retaliation

Hot-Headed Ways For Hot-Headed Men to Behave Like Hotheads

Cueto-DeJesusJohnny Cueto believes in responding should an opposing player disrespect him.

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.

A.J. Burnett, Retaliation

Reds Push Pirates, Pirates Bide Their Time. Slugfest in the NL Central, Anyone?

Clint has his say.

It’s on in Pittsburgh.

Friday, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman drilled Andrew McCutchen with a 101-mph fastball. (Watch it here. Note: No rubbing.) On Saturday, Reds starter Mike Leake hit Josh Harrison, then walked toward him to deliver a follow-up message. (Watch it here.)

Umpire Brian Gorman warned both benches after the latter incident, an unfortunate development that precluded—correction, delayed—any type of Pittsburgh response. (When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned the decision, Gorman promptly tossed him.) It was enough to lead Sunday’s starter, A.J. Burnett to point toward various Reds players from the dugout, the message being that accountability can sometimes be a painful thing, and he was willing to wait to enforce it.

Warnings may have been issued prior to Burnett’s Sunday start, or perhaps it was because it ended up being a close game until the ninth, or maybe it was because the Pirates had already dropped the first two games of the series to their NL Central rivals and were desperate for a victory, but the right-hander went 8 2/3, giving up only three hits and two runs in a 6-2 victory without hitting anybody (and despite two more Pirates, Rod Barajas and Starling Marte, getting hit themselves).

“No one in here has forgotten about what happened to ‘Cutch,” Burnett said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We needed a big ‘W’ today.”

“There is a time and a place for [retaliation],” added Barajas. “Today was the time to win. We got that done.”

Pittsburgh did figure out one warning-proof way to make a statement, however. On Saturday, 6-foot-7, 245-pound reliever Jared Hughes tagged out baserunner Dioner Navarro (all 5-foot-9 of him) with a marked shove—a move that Dusty Baker later called “a bully move” in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The notion of bullying is prominent in these teams’ shared history. It was raised Saturday by Pittsburgh bench coach Jeff Banister, who took over as manager after Hurdle’s ejection. “This is their turf, and they’re trying to bully us,” he said in an MLB.com report.

We’ve heard this story before. From The Baseball Codes:

[Dock Ellis] possessed a clear understanding of the power of intimidation, having seen it in action as his Pittsburgh Pirates teams terrorized the rest of the National League, bullying their way to three division titles and one World Series between 1970 and 1972. In ’73, though, things began to change—the Pirates inex­plicably lost their bravado and many more games than expected, finishing below .500 and in third place in the National League East. When they opened 1974 by lurching into last place with a 6-12 record, Ellis took it upon himself to spur a roster-wide attitude adjustment.

He chose as his victims the Cincinnati Reds, themselves coming off two straight division titles and on their way to ninety-eight wins. If Pittsburgh’s new timidity tipped the balance of swagger in the National League against them, the prime beneficiary was Cincinnati. Ellis wanted to reverse that trend.

“[Other teams used to] say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass.’ Like they give up,” said Ellis in Donald Hall’s book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. “That’s what our team was starting to do. When Cincinnati showed up in spring training, I saw all the ballplayers doing the same thing. They were running over, talking, laughing and hee-haw this and that. Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog.”

When Ellis took the mound against Cincinnati on May 1, 1974, he had only one strategy in mind: to drill every batter that stepped in against him. The first was Pete Rose, who ducked out of the way when a first-pitch fastball sailed toward his head, then jumped forward to avoid the second pitch, which flew behind him. The third pitch, aimed at his rib cage, found its mark. Man on first, nobody out.

The second batter, Joe Morgan, caught Ellis’s first pitch with his kid­ney. First and second, nobody out. Third up: Dan Driessen. Ellis’s open­ing shot sailed high and inside for a ball. The second pitch found the middle of Driessen’s back.

The bases were now loaded, but the pitcher was hardly deterred. Cincinnati’s cleanup hitter, Tony Perez, took stock of the carnage and realized his only possible salvation was to stay light on his feet. He pro­ceeded to dance around four straight offerings—including a near wild pitch that flew behind him and over his head—to draw a walk and force in the game’s first run. When Ellis went 2-0 to Johnny Bench, Pirates man­ager Danny Murtaugh couldn’t take any more and removed the pitcher from the game.

“[Ellis’s] point was not to hit batters,” wrote Hall. “His point was to kick Cincinnati ass.” His point was also to inspire his teammates, to instill a measure of toughness in a languor-prone Pittsburgh squad. It might be coincidence, but after that game—which the Reds won, 5–3—the Pirates went 82-62 and won the National League East for the fourth time in five years.

Trying to intimidate an upstart is hardly new in the pantheon of baseball—just ask Cole Hamels. How the upstart responds is what really matters.

The teams meet again for three in Cincinnati starting Sept. 10, and three more in Pittsburg two-and-a-half weeks later for the season’s final game. Mark your calendars.

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

La Russa’s All-Star Snubs Have Cincy Clubhouse Crying Foul

Johnny Cueto: Still not an All-Star.

Remember when Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals “little bitches,” and in the ensuing fight Johnny Cueto kicked Jason LaRue onto the disabled list for nearly the final two months of the 2010 season, effectively ending his career?

So does Tony La Russa, who proved Sunday that baseball retaliation can take myriad shapes.

There’s no way to prove it, of course, short of La Russa admitting as much, but the ex-manager, picking reserves for the National League All-Star team, conspicuously left Phillips and Cueto off the roster.

Both are worthy of inclusion; then again, the guys La Russa ended up picking are also fine choices. That wasn’t good enough for Reds manager Dusty Baker.

“A snub like that looks bad,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren’t there anymore are making some of the selections.”

Joey Votto chimed in as well, saying that he was “frustrated” and “disappointed.” Cueto took things a step further, adding “I don’t if know the manager of All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.” (Stay classy, Johnny Cueto.)

Snubs happen every year, of course—which is probably where this discussion would have ended had La Russa himself not spoken up, telling the Enquirer that Baker was “attacking my integrity” and that “no way am I going to penalize anybody for any kind of past history.”

Which would have been fine, except that La Russa then tried to justify his position by pointing out that Cueto will be pitching on the Sunday prior to the game. In 2010, MLB implemented a rule stating that pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star break are to be replaced on the roster. This year, they changed it a bit. From the new collective bargaining agreement, as reported by the Enquirer: Any pitcher who starts a game the Sunday prior to the All-Star Game “shall have the option to participate,” but “will not be permitted to pitch for more than one inning” and can set his own pitch count.

Well, then. It’s difficult to believe that La Russa was not made aware of this.

The manager is within his rights to pick whoever he wants, and to leave off those players he’d rather avoid over several days in Kansas City. But like the pitcher who admits to hitting a batter intentionally, La Russa now has more questions to answer than he would have otherwise.

Part of me thinks this is all intentional, and that La Russa’s just looking for a little extra excitement now that he’s retired. Either way, it’ll be difficult for any of the Reds to respond once he’s returned to his post-career life promoting animal welfare. Which is probably just how he wants it.

Derek Lowe, Dusty Baker, Retaliation

Baker-Lowe Feud Exposes Long-Seated Rift, Hints at Wild Accusations, Spurs Mutomboeque Finger Wag

While people are fixating on Dusty Baker‘s explosive charge that Derek Lowe may have been drinking at the ballpark four years ago, the first thing that jumped out at me from the newly rekindled feud between the two, which has just now grabbed headlines some four years after it allegedly started, was this: Managers still order their pitchers to retaliate?

Apparently, yes.

Sure, most expect to see it when appropriate and applaud when it happens, but from the hundreds of interviews I’ve done on the subject, the overwhelming sentiment is that direct orders in that regard are a thing of bygone eras.

Not according to Baker.

“I told [Reds starter Mat] Latos to buzz [Lowe] and make him feel uncomfortable,” he said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a moment in Wednesday’s game.

Come again?

Baker said specifically that while he didn’t order a drilling, he did instruct his pitcher to send an obvious message. Suffice it to say, that message was received. Following Latos’ brushback, Lowe pointed his bat toward the Reds dugout, where he saw Baker wagging his finger at him. (Lowe initially thought it was a signal of denial; Baker corrected him by telling the Plain Dealer that “[Dikembe] Mutombo didn’t shake his finger to say, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with it.’ That means, ‘Don’t mess with me or my team.’ That’s what that means. So he better learn the sign lanugage.”)

Brandon Phillips reacts to drilling.

A half-inning later, Lowe drilled Brandon Phillips in response. (Watch it here.) As an apparently amused Phillips grinned toward his dugout, plate ump Paul Nauert responded by warning both benches.

The origins of this feud are, at this point, pure speculation. Lowe offered only vague details.

“This goes back to my last year with the Dodgers [in 2008],” he said in a Cincinnati Enquirer report. “[Baker] made up some story. A lot of people got involved. People almost got fired over it. You can go ask him right now and he’ll say he has no idea what you’re talking about.”

Baker suggested that Lowe’s drilling of Joey Votto in 2009 was motivated by the mystery circumstance. In response to the pitcher saying he had no respect for him, Baker said this, again from the Enquirer: “Man, I don’t care. A lot of people don’t respect me. He don’t respect himself. The word was whatever he did and said probably there was a good chance he was drinking at the ballpark and he don’t remember what he said or what he did. OK.”

Baker and his team had a chance to retaliate for Votto’s drilling in ’09—Lowe, then with Atlanta, faced the Reds once more that season, and emerged unscathed. (The final score of that follow-up game was 3-1, Cincinnati, a margin perhaps too thin for Baker to be settling scores. Then again, a brushback like Latos ultimately delivered hardly matters in that regard.)

Either because it’s personal and not team-related, or because Lowe handled things sufficiently on his own, there was no follow-up action from the Indians when the teams played on Thursday.

Baker has been known to possess a long memory when it comes to this type of thing; in an interview for The Baseball Codes, he said, “You can’t carry stuff over unless you’ve got a long history with a guy.” This certainly qualifies as long history, but without details there’s little point even in speculating about the cause.

In the end, I keep coming back to the same question: Managers really order retaliation from their pitchers in 2012? Like many of the details in this particular drama, it merits further exploration. Ultimately, of course, we’re only going to find out as much as people are willing to talk about, which has already been more than we’re used to. Stay tuned.