If it’s okay for a diving outfielder who traps a ball to act as if he caught it, what’s wrong with A.J. Pierzynski trying to do the same from behind the plate? Just asking.
The beauty of gamesmanship in baseball is the subtle and creative ways in which it can manifest. Wednesday in Chicago it was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who undertook a discussion he should not have been having, for longer than was necessary and in a location on the field—in front of home plate—that prevented White Sox closer David Robertson from keeping warm in the interim.
Erick Aybar led off the ninth inning of a game in which his team trailed, 2-1, by striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Aybar reacted as if Chicago catcher Tyler Flowers never tagged him (which appears in replays to have been the case) and ran to first base. Plate ump Fieldin Culbreth immediately ruled, however, that Flowers made the tag. The play went to review (which should never have happened, because Flowers’ lack of a throw to first was predicated entirely on Culbreth’s out call), and after the call was upheld Scioscia emerged to argue the point. He stood nearly atop the plate to do so. (Watch it here.) When Robertson finally resumed pitching he allowed two quick singles and an RBI groundout that tied a game the White Sox eventually won in 13.
This is a classic move, which, noted the White Sox broadcast, Billy Martin used to do all the time. And why not? If the Angels manager can easily put the opposition at a disadvantage, why wouldn’t he? I once saw a Scioscia-led Angels team let a warm-up ball escape the bullpen and onto the field of play in the late innings (it rolled to a stop near the plate), thoroughly disrupting the rhythm of a game in which they were struggling. Accident? Possibly. It was a minor moment, but baseball is a game of rhythms, and this was a clear disruption.
It’s also hardly unique.
One of the most noteworthy enactments of such tactics came in the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, when St. Louis pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander was called in from the bullpen to protect a 3-2 lead with the bases loaded and New York’s rookie shortstop, Tony Lazzeri, at the plate. Recognizing the antsiness of the young player, Alexander took his sweet time ambling to the mound, stopping to examine the gloves of center fielder Wattie Holm and shortstop Tommy Thevenow en route. Thoroughly disrupting Lazzeri’s rhythm, Alexander—39 years old and in his 16th big league season—struck him out and saved the victory for the Cardinals.
What Scioscia did on Wednesday was just as shrewd, and no less objectionable. Robertson called Scioscia “bush league” afterward, but if the White Sox are to take umbrage with anybody, it’s Culbreth, who could have ended the conversation before it began (arguing reviewed calls is grounds for ejection) or at least moved it away from the plate. Hell, either Robertson or Flowers could have requested as much. Scioscia even walked away from the plate for the second half of the discussion, and Robertson still didn’t throw a warmup.
The White Sox ended up winning the war, but that particular battle was all Mike Scioscia.
At first blush, it doesn’t look good. Former big leaguer Humberto Quintero, currently catching with Boston’s Triple-A team in Pawtucket, made a move to throw out a baserunner steaming toward third … except that’s not at all what he was doing. What he was doing was throwing the ball directly into the midsection of the hitter, Durham’s Luke Maile, who made no move to get out of his way in the right-handed batter’s box. The throw was from a distance of approximately six inches. Maile went down in a quick heap.
Quintero has been drawing heat for the act, and justifiably so. The batter is entitled to the box; while Maile did not try to avoid Quintero, neither did he impede him.
Quintero is 35 years old and spent a dozen years in the big leagues with five teams. He presumably knows the drill. If anything, this act smacks as the endpoint of a conversation, one in which requests have been lodged to correct some behavior that has not been corrected. Perhaps the Bulls have made a habit of impeding throws to third. Perhaps that’s why they’re running in the first place.
The move is so over-the-top—including Quintero continuing to beg for an interference call as Maile squirmed in the dirt—that more to the story is the only logical explanation. Otherwise, the catcher is just nuts.
In the late 1960s and early-’70s, Rico Carty hit exceedingly well against Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis—a .341 lifetime batting average with four homers in 41 at-bats. In response, Ellis tore a dollar bill in half and gave one part of it to a Braves clubhouse attendant to pass along to Carty. Ellis’ intention: Get another hit off me and I’ll give you the other half. That’s not how Carty took it. The slugger’s response, according to Ellis in Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball: “Rico said he was going to kill me, because I put the voodoo on him. I didn’t know. And dig this: I loaded the bases, and hit Rico on the hand, broke his finger, and he swore that was a voodoo!”
On Friday, Adrian Beltre handled a similar situation so much better. Beltre broke three bats while going a soft 0-for-3 against Angels right-hander Garrett Richards. Afterward, he sent the pitcher an invoice—a bill on an actual invoice form—for $300. At the bottom he wrote, “Cash only, no checks.”
A tickled Richards offered a signed bat in response, his inscription indicating hope that the token covered his obligation.
It wasn’t voodoo, but it was an instant classic.
Kevin Slowey quick-pitched Sean Rodriguez on Monday. Sean Rodriguez did not approve … especially after he struck out. He had words for Slowey after the inning, and then again at the start of the next inning.
The devil here is in the details. Rodriguez asked for time … but did so after Slowey had begun his windup. Plate ump Chad Fairchild did not grant it and called a strike on the pitch. That last fact has everything to do with the hitter’s poorly timed request—and Fairchild’s option to deny poorly timed requests—and little to do with Slowey. Hell, baseball seems desperate to speed up its games. Let’s celebrate the guys who appear willing to help. (Watch it all here.)
“If you want to take it out back, meet me in the parking lot,” Rodriguez told the pitcher, outing himself as a rock-headed bully. The quote was relayed in an MLB.com report by Phillies first base coach Juan Samuel, who was himself ejected, along with Pirates third base coach Rick Sofield, after the two got into their own shouting match following the altercation. Neither Slowey nor Rodriguez was tossed from the game.
(Slowey, on the other hand, had this to say: “It surprises me to be that upset, and challenging somebody to a physical altercation hardly seems like the best way to resolve your frustrations. I was kind of taken by surprise at his animosity after his at-bat. I know the kind of guy that he purports to be. That surprised me that that would be his choice of words and reaction. I guess I understand the frustration of a singular failure. It’s a game of failures. But to react that way to me was very surprising.” Altercation. Animosity. Purports. Look at the big brain on Kevin. Bully? Who knows. Rock-head? Definitely not.)
Spring training is traditionally a time for players to settle old scores, under circumstances in which they feel free to drill opponents with relative impunity since the games do not count in the standings. It is not, however, an environment to invent new scores, especially ones that are probably your own fault to begin with.
Former AL MVP and longtime big league GM Al Rosen passed away Friday at age 91. Rosen offered one of my favorite interviews for The Baseball Codes, presenting a breakfast invitation to visit him at his country club in Rancho Mirage, just outside Palm Springs, where we dined on oatmeal and orange juice while he spun stories of Cleveland and Houston and New York. Everybody there called him “Mr. Rosen.” He smiled at all of them.
His MVP season in 1953 was noteworthy for his missing out on a triple crown, as The New York Times put it on Saturday, “by a step.” The batting race was so close that what may have been a blown call during Rosen’s final at-bat of the season gave the crown to Washington’s Mickey Vernon. There was more to the story, however, than one simple call. From The Baseball Codes:
Heading into the ﬁnal day of the season, Rosen already held a slight edge in the home-run race and had the RBI title locked up. His most precarious category was batting average, in which he was tied for the league lead with Senators ﬁrst baseman Mickey Vernon.
In Cleveland’s game against Detroit, the Tigers took a page from the Jack O’Connor playbook and positioned their inﬁeld very deep—an invitation for the well-liked Rosen to bunt.
Jack O’Connor was the manager of the St. Louis Browns, who, in 1910, gifted the AL batting title to Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie. Not wanting Ty Cobb to win it, he ordered his infielders to play remarkably deep on the season’s final day, allowing Lajoie to accumulate seven bunt singles over the course of a doubleheader and nearly close a sizable gap with Cobb. The crown was awarded to Lajoie decades later when a scorekeeping error was found to have credited Cobb with two extra hits on the season.
Rosen, however, harboring an abiding sense of fair play, chose instead to swing away and went 3-for-5 with two doubles.
In the Senators’ game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Vernon collected two hits in his ﬁrst four at-bats. Shortly thereafter, Rosen’s game in Cleveland ended, giving Vernon a razor-thin lead heading into his ﬁnal plate appearance. Having been notiﬁed of Rosen’s line, every player on the Washington bench understood the situation: A hit would cement the crown for Vernon, and an out would hand it to Rosen. The Senators decided to go with option three: Don’t give Vernon the chance.
The slugger was scheduled to bat fourth in the ninth inning, and when Washington catcher Mickey Grasso doubled with one out, it seemed like a certainty that Vernon would again reach the plate. Grasso, however, managed to get picked off at second, a development observers attributed to the fact that he more or less wandered away from the base. Kite Thomas followed with a single, but when he tried to stretch it to a double without beneﬁt of running hard, he was easily thrown out for the third out of the inning.
Whatever instincts Vernon may have had toward justice became irrelevant; he never made it to the plate and Rosen missed his triple crown by .0011 points.
Playing the game the right way was as great a legacy as Rosen could have hoped for. He will be missed.
Did A.J. Pierzynski flop? Of course A.J. Pierzynski flopped. Demean the guy’s character all you want, say that his motivation is outside the boundaries of baseball normalcy, but never say that this man isn’t at all times thinking about ways he could help his team.
The above image, taken during the second inning of Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NLCS, shows the catcher at his evil best. With Hunter Pence on first base and one out, the pitch bounced away from Pierzynski, and Pence advanced to second. The catcher, however, was cagey enough to note that the fortuitously timed backswing of Travis Ishikawa, which clipped him as he sprung up to corral the loose ball, could actually work to his advantage. The blow wasn’t hard enough to impede his progress, but after one step it occurred to him that falling to the ground might benefit his cause.
So Pierzynski tumbled onto his backside, flipping off his mask and helmet in the process in what looked like a belated attempt to make it appear as if they had been knocked off by Ishikawa. What he wanted: Plate ump Mark Carlson to decide that Pierzynski’s path to the ball had been impeded, rule batter’s interference, and send Pence back to first. What he got: Exactly that.
Shrewd. This is the guy who runs across the pitcher’s mound after being retired on the basepaths, just to try distracting the pitcher a smidge. He’ll intentionally get hit by a pitch and then bark at the pitcher, only to rile him up. He’ll act like he was hit by a pitch that didn’t hit him during a no-hitter. If there’s immediate benefit, great, but one gets the idea from looking at Pierzynski’s overall body of work that the guy’s primary goal is to needle his way under the skin of every one of his opponents until they’re thinking about what an asshole he is instead of paying attention to their jobs.
Still, who but an incredibly aware and overly wily player could even consider pulling off something like this, from the 2005 ALCS?:
(More on the fallout from that play here.)
Ultimately, it all makes Pierzynski an asset to whatever team he’s on, for reasons well beyond his ability to play baseball. There’s a reason that his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.” Hate him all you want, but give the guy some credit.
Update: As pointed out by reader RoadDogRuss, this was not even the first time Pierzynski fell down on the job.