In a note only tangentially related to baseball’s Code, it seems fitting to recall Jose Fernandez, as so many have done over the last day or so, as a man whose passions ran deep. His joyful embrace of the game accentuated the drama of his arrival in this country, and his enthusiastic approach had the baseball world remembering him as one of the sport’s most exciting players.
In addition to all that’s been said since news of his passing broke, I have only to add that for all the kid’s bravado, he offered up the single best response to his own breach of baseball etiquette that I have seen since I began covering this beat.
In 2013, when Fernandez was a 21-year-old rookie, he behaved so egregiously in a game against Atlanta that he nearly came to blows with Braves catcher Brian McCann. I went into detail about it at the time, but the important point is what came afterward: Before players had so much as settled into the postgame clubhouse, Fernandez owned up to his mistakes, apologized and vowed to do better.
It was a refreshing dose of self-awareness and humility, the likes of which are seen all too infrequently in professional sports. For it to come from a kid who’d barely reached drinking age made it all the more impressive.
They say, with good reason, that athletes frequently serve as poor role models. On that day in 2013, however, Jose Fernandez set as good an example as possible about how to own your mistakes, and what can be done to try and make things better. He will be missed, for his baseball skills and so much more.
The headlines for yesterday’s action concern the clearing of the benches and the placement of fastballs near hitters’ heads. The intrigue, however, lies in the ability of a player or team to communicate, and what an effective approach in that regard might bring.
First, though, some details.
On its own, the eye-level inside fastball thrown by Atlanta’s Julio Teheran to Jose Fernandez in the fifth inning Wednesday was not enough to draw anger. Fernandez shrugged it off, literally, as he flashed a these-things-happen expression toward the mound.
But maybe Teheran meant to do it. Back in July, a three-game Braves-Marlins series saw eight HBPs, four by each team. (Oddly, two players absorbed seven of those plunkings—Miami left fielder Derek Dietrich was hit four times, Atlanta catcher Tyler Flowers three.)
Three of the HBPs Miami doled out came in the final game. Did that mean something?
Maybe that’s why Teheran drilled Martin Prado an inning later. (Or maybe he was just terrible. Prado was one of five batters Teheran faced in the sixth, four of whom scored before the pitcher was pulled.)
Still, if Atlanta was so hell-bent on response, wouldn’t the opening game of the current series, which took place on Monday, been a better place for it—especially when the Braves found themselves with a 7-0 lead in the third inning?
So if Teheran was looking for trouble, and if he failed to connect with Fernandez, and if he intended to hit Prado … well, it would be tough to fault the Marlins for taking issue. Which they did.
The bottom of the sixth presented Fernandez a perfect opportunity—bases empty with two outs—to respond. The guy at the plate, Nick Markakis, had already homered and flied out deep to right field. Somehow, after Teheran’s head-shot in the fifth and plunking of Prado in the sixth, warnings had not yet been issued.
Fernandez plunked Markakis in the backside. Agree or disagree with this as baseball methodology, things should have ended there. Somebody had been drilled from each team. It was time to move on.
But then—with plate ump Marvin Hudson still having failed to issue warnings—reliever Jose Ramirez became the second Atlanta pitcher of the day to throw at Fernandez’s head. It was a clear warning shot, sailing well behind the pitcher, but traveled 95 mph at eye level. (Watch it all here.)
A livid Fernandez took steps toward the mound and benches emptied, but no punches were thrown.
After the game, Fernandez did not hold back.
“Like everybody knows, I’m not known for hitting people,” he said in a Miami Herald report. “If you think it’s on purpose, and you want to hit me, go ahead. Hit me. I don’t mind getting hit. That’s part of the game. But you don’t throw at somebody’s head because I have a family.”
Not knowing whether July’s HBP-fest factored into any of this, and in advance of the team’s four-game series later this month, the question remains: Are things now settled? To that end, Fernandez must be given abundant credit: At the tail end of the dustup, before players returned to their dugouts, he tracked down Markakis and made sure they were square.
“I told him ‘Hey, man. I throw you one of the best breaking balls that I have, and you hit it out,’ ” he recounted after the game in an MLB.com report. “ ‘I threw you another one and you hit the [stuffing] out of it. That second at-bat, I threw some good fastballs in, he was late on it. Jam. Jam. I was hoping, 2-0, throw a fastball in, he hits a popup to second base. Obviously, that was not the case. The ball slipped out of my hands, and I hit him.”
By every indication, Markakis accepted this explanation.
Fernandez has done this kind of thing before, to great effect. Then, however, he had clearly been in the wrong during the leadup. Now he himself was aggrieved, and nonetheless took steps to right the ship.
Baseball’s unwritten rules have abundant critics, many of whom offer sensible critiques. If more players handled their business like Fernandez, however, all the what-ifs enumerated above—every possible cause for motivation that leads players and public alike to wonder whether a given inside pitch was intended to be there—would be mitigated. Plays would be plays, not displays, and everybody could spend more time focusing on the game rather than on perceived anger and the ensuing response.
As it turns out, effective communication works. Nice job, Jose Fernandez.
Update 9-19: Ramirez suspended three games.
Maybe Andrew Cashner hates the Cardinals. Maybe he just struggles with command. But on July 21, pitching for San Diego, he drilled Matt Holliday in the nose, opening a nasty cut but doing no thorough damage. Yesterday, Cashner’s team had changed but his strategy had not.
In his first start after being traded to Miami, he got right back at it, running an inside fastball that hit Aledmys Diaz on the hand, an injury that eventually forced Diaz from the game.
It made no difference that Cashner was wearing a different uniform when he plunked Holliday. Patterns of abuse—even unintentional abuse—do not go unnoticed in organizations in which Tony La Russa has let his presence. A half-inning after the right-hander drilled Diaz, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez plunked Giancarlo Stanton in the back. Message sent.
With Cashner’s pitch to Holliday on July 21 having come in above the shoulders, dangerously close to doing real damage, it’s little surprise that the Cardinals—whether Martinez was acting on his own or nudged from above—chose to react. The sight of blood will do that, and it’s likely that some in the St. Louis clubhouse had considered retaliation even before Diaz was hit. (The pitch to Holliday a week-and-a-half earlier had been Cashner’s last of the game, in the final game of the series, and a one-run score never allowed for future response on the Cardinals’ part.)
Talking about it later in an MLB.com report, Cashner theorized that it’s “kind of the ‘Cardinal way’ over there.” (St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said he didn’t “have a thought or anything else” to offer about the exchange.)
The pertinent issue here involves which scores have been settled, because the Cardinals clearly have long memories when it comes to this type of thing.
It’s safe to assume that their response to Cashner wiped his slate clean. Is the same true when it comes to his ex-team, the Padres? We’ve already heard from La Russa that retaliation can be triggered merely by an opponent’s philosophy, if said philosophy involves pitching inside. (For what it’s worth, San Diego doesn’t appear to pitch inside more or less than anybody else, their collective HBPs hovering right around league average.) They don’t face the Cardinals again until next season.
If nothing else, we have one clear takeaway. When a club like St. Louis takes issue with a pitcher, a change of uniform or the removal of facial hair hardly provides sufficient disguise. If Cashner does something similar again the next time he faces the Cards, it won’t matter who he’s pitching for. Retaliation is all but assured.
As a concept, eye-for-an-eye hasn’t ruled baseball’s landscape for a number of years, laid victim to the evolution of the sport’s unwritten rules, which has seen them become significantly more lenient. Thursday, however, we saw just how prevalent the notion actually remains, as a response both for the severity of an act, and for the frequency. It’s out there—all it needs is a trigger.
The incident that got the most play, of course, was Giancarlo Stanton taking a Mike Fiers fastball off his face. The impact was severe, both literally and symbolically, as one of the game’s best hitters suffered extensive damage that will sideline him indefinitely. Adding to Miami’s, it was ruled that he swung at the pitch (negating the HBP), just as it was ruled moments later that Stanton’s mid-at-bat replacement, Reed Johnson, finished the sequence by striking out swinging at a pitch that ended up hitting him, too.
Never mind that Fiers seemed genuinely anguished over the incident, both in the clubhouse and on Twitter. (We’ve now come to the age of the virtual hospital visit.) Miami responded an inning later, reliever Anthony DeSclafani hitting Carlos Gomez in his left elbow.
In Arlington, Mike Trout was hit twice by the Rangers, and three times over a two-game span. All were likely accidental, but at some point response becomes mandatory. When the victim is one of the game’s best players, response time increases.
Angels reliever Joe Smith opened the ninth by hitting rookie Rangers catcher Tomas Telis in the waist.
There is no question that modern hair triggers are less hairy than ever, and that the game is a softer, gentler place than it ever has been, but even the most mild-mannered ballplayer or manager has a line someplace. Intentions can be irrelevant. Hit a star player too hard or too often, and you’re bound to find out exactly where it is.
They’re getting squirrely in Miami—or so the Braves would have us believe.
As the Marlins touched Aaron Harang for nine runs on 10 hits Wednesday night, folks in the Atlanta dugout grew suspicious that something afoul might be afoot. Just a week earlier, after all, Harang struck out 11 of those same Marlins at Turner Field in six innings of one-run pitching.
The suspicion was that Miami players were being tipped to Harang’s repertoire by some sort of relay system within the stadium.
After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the tale in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report: “If you would have taken a look at our dugout at one point in the game, it was like the fourth or fifth inning, they were hitting balls everywhere, we got three guys looking at the scoreboard. You got two guys looking at their bullpen. I’m calling (bullpen coach) Eddie (Perez), ‘Eddie do you see anything?’ I’m looking at (catcher Evan) Gattis, thinking he’s maybe tipping his pitches. Carlos (Tosca) is looking in the bench over there, maybe somebody is whistling or something.”
This wasn’t just nervous energy from a manager whose team was getting hammered. Generally speaking, pitchers accept being beaten when things go poorly, and can live with the fact that even good pitches are occasionally hit well. But when everything’s working—good velocity and bite to one’s pitches, outstanding control—eyebrows tend to shoot up if the opposition begins consistently teeing off.
Gonzalez even laughingly referenced Mick Billmeyer, the former bullpen coach in Philadelphia who, four years ago, offered a sign-stealing lesson straight out of the Michael Pineda Subtlety in Cheating handbook.
Added to Gonzalez’s suspicions was the fact that left-hander Alex Wood brought a 1.54 ERA into Tuesday’s start, then gave up seven earned runs in five innings (more than in his previous five starts, combined). For what it’s worth, the Marlins are hitting .307 at home this year, but just .215 on the road. (Giancarlo Santon’s home/road split: .323/.200. Marcel Ozuna: .375/.208. Casey McGehee: .362/.234. Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .360/.194.)
None of this necessarily means anything, of course. Teams tend to do better at home than on the road. And Aaron Harang is, at the end of any given game, still Aaron Harang.
Even if something is afoot, sign stealing is generally accepted as a baseball practice … right up to the point that a team leaves the field of play to do it. Spyglasses and TV cameras are verboten by the Code (let alone the actual rulebook), and teams don’t take it lightly when suspicions are aroused.
Still, the Braves bench was able to find nothing amiss, going so far as to have their eyes on a guy in the bleachers wearing a red hat and orange shirt—an easily identifiable outfit for somebody signaling hitters—right up until he got up to visit a concession stand.
Regardless, Gonzalez has done his Code-related duty. By talking about the issue without leveling specific charges, he let the Marlins know that if anything is going on, the Braves are on to it and expect the practice to stop.
You can bet that the Dodgers, in town tonight for a three-game set, will be paying some attention of their own.
Update (5-3): Saltalamacchia laughed it all off.
But for every instance that inspired reminders of the 21-year-old’s immaturity, he managed to recover as well as any player could hope to following a display such as his.
A small accounting:
It’s easy to quibble about overreaction and the unnecessary sensitivity of ballplayers, but there’s no mistaking the fact that messages of disrespect were delivered from both parties, and received as intended—none louder than Fernandez’s. That it came from a rookie only served to amplify things.
At this point, of course, Fernandez must be given credit for attempting to pacify the situation almost as soon as it came to a head, telling McCann during their confrontation that, “I’m sorry, the game got the best of me,” he recalled after the game in an MLB.com report.
“[McCann] was talking to me as a friend, or a dad, teaching a kid,” he said. “That’s how I felt.”
Fernandez later said that he was embarrassed by his actions, saying “it’s something that can’t happen. It’s not good for baseball.”
The incident also illustrated the importance of quality leadership, particularly on the part of Marlins manager Mike Redmond. “Tonight showed some immaturity on Jose’s part …” he said. “He got caught up in the emotions, but I’m not happy. It really ruined the night for me. I know that will never happen again. … We respect the game.”
Redmond took things a step further, making sure that Fernandez’s actions did not carry over. A meeting was set up in a hallway underneath Marlins Park, where Fernandez apologized personally to McCann and Minor.
This is unusual in baseball circles, but hardly precedent-setting. In 2006, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire led Torii Hunter across the ballpark to apologize to Red Sox brass for swinging hard at a 3-0 pitch while the Twins held an 8-1, eighth-inning lead.
Unlike the Fernandez situation, there was no disrespect intended on Hunter’s part. Precisely like the Fernandez situation, it did not matter—perception is everything. From The Baseball Codes:
After the game, Gardenhire took the outﬁelder to the visitors’ clubhouse to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.
“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player understands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”
“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper about the Hunter incident. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game.”
Fernandez’s mistake was considerably more profound, but his reaction was appropriate.
“I feel I don’t deserve to be here, because this isn’t high school no more,” he said after the game. “This is a professional game, and we should be professional players. I think that never should happen. I’m embarrassed, and hopefully that will never happen again.”
Wednesday was the final start of Fernandez’s season, with his team enforcing an innings limit on his young arm. The guy will probably go on to win Rookie of the Year, but, starting with his confrontation with McCann, he’s already begun to display the maturity of a veteran.