RIP

RIP Charlie Silvera

I want to take a moment to remember Charlie Silvera, best known as Yogi Berra’s backup on the Yankees, but known to me as the crusty old scout who I loved talking to over the years in the press box of Oracle Park. Charlie, who was already a notably old man when I first met him nearly 20 years ago, died on Saturday at age 94. On one hand, this is longer than any reasonable human could hope for, but on the other it is still shocking for a guy who I assumed would live forever.

“They hated the Yankees,” he once told me. “They respected us, but they hated us.” That hatred might have had something to do with the fact that New York won five championships during Silvera’s tenure with the team, including five straight from 1949 to 1954. (He was the final survivor of the dozen men who played on all five clubs.) He spent nine years with the Yankees, during which time he started only 114 games, accumulating 484 plate appearances and a single home run. (Berra, after all, rarely took days off.) After a single season with the Cubs (and 13 more games started), Silvera followed Billy Martin to three teams—the Twins, the Tigers and the Rangers—where he served as a coach under his former teammate.

Charlie was at the center of a wonderful story about friendship, which involved growing up in San Francisco and playing against two men at rival high schools who would one day be teammates in New York: Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown. Their relationship ended up spanning 70-odd years.

Charlie once told me the amazing story of Ralph “Pine Tar” Buxton being recruited for the Yankees by Casey Stengel based at least in part on his ability to teach pitchers on the staff how to cheat. That ended up in The Baseball Codes, as did Silvera’s classic quote about backup players receiving less-sought-after positions in the train’s sleeper car: “The stars, the starting lineup would have the middle of the car, and Charlie Silvera would spend his lifetime over the wheels. Bobby Brown says that anybody that rode over wheels for his whole career deserves whatever he got.”

Charlie also told a host of stories that didn’t make the final copy. Among them;

  • “I remember when Allie Reynolds hit Chico Carrasquel with a curveball. It was probably Chico’s first year, and he got all upset. Allie said, ‘You think that’s bad, I’m gonna hit you next time with a fastball.’ ”
  • “The only guy who ever threw at me was Early Wynn, and he would throw at his mother. But that was a way of testing you, to see if you hung in, if you were scared. And with no helmets!”
  • “Whitey Ford didn’t like to switch signs. He had the same signs—one finger for a fastball, two for a curve—with a man on second, or not. He wanted to get the ball and throw. He didn’t want to lose his concentration. [Vic] Raschi used a scoreboard sign: If [the numbers of the count, added together] were even, it was a fastball, odd was an automatic curveball. If you flapped, it changed them. They were tough signs to use, but Raschi wanted to use them.”
  • “[Eddie] Lopat, he had one sign, ‘wiggle finger,’ because he could see when he got to the top of the mound if the batter was going to move up. He was a slowball pitcher, but he could ride his fastball in. It was limited, but it was effective. That was it. Wiggle finger.”
  • “In Chicago, they had a light in the scoreboard, in the circle of the zero [in Sherm Lollar’s #10], that would flash for a curveball. In Cleveland, they would put guys out in center field. Eddie Bockman used to go out there and get the signs from center field. Dean Chance went out there. They used binoculars or a telescope. Chance said he was going to go out and be inconspicuous, then wore the brightest red shirt he could find. In the playoffs in Baltimore, when Minnesota was playing there, [George] Mitterwald was catching and [Johnny] Roseboro was out in our bullpen with binoculars, trying to get the signs, and they caught him. One of our pitchers turned him in, one of our own, because he said that was cheating.” [That pitcher, Al Worthington, is featured prominently in The Baseball Codes.]
  • [Under the heading of professional courtesy]: “Lew Brissie was shot up in World War II, had a bad leg and wore a protector over his shin. Phil Rizzuto still bunted on him, and Brissie would throw at Rizzuto because of this. He went after Phil, threw at his head. He felt that this was taking advantage of a wounded veteran. He was one guy we all knew not to bunt against.”
  • “When you joined the Yankees, you were told the do’s and don’ts about what to do and what not to do. When I joined the club, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio were in the service, so the four policemen on the team, the disciplinarians, were Tommy Henrich (age 33), Johnny Lindell (27), Snuffy Stirnweiss (29) and Billy Johnson (27). They were the ones that said, ‘You don’t get ’em tomorrow, you get ’em today.’ They said ‘Don’t fuck with our money’ to anybody who might be messing up during games.”
  • “[Catcher] Clint Courtney had been in the Yankee farm system, went to spring training with us, and then was traded to the Browns. [Gil] McDougald had played with him at Beaumont, and Courtney had him out in a play at the plate but McDougald kicked the ball out of his glove for the go-ahead run. So Courtney is the first hitter up in the bottom of the ninth, and he hit the first pitch off the screen, kept running and he jumped feet first into Rizzuto, who had the ball at second. Well, that’s the last time Courtney saw anybody friendly from our team, because he was just clobbered from all over. The retribution went on and on and on. Billy Martin tagged him on the face and knocked his glasses off. And Whitey Ford was jumping up and down, stomping on his glasses. Courtney had a little trouble finding his way home.”
  • “I was catching, with Ted Williams hitting and Bill McGowan umpiring. They called McGowan ‘Number One.’ He was a grouchy old bastard, but he was a good ball-and-strike umpire when he wanted to be, and generally, Yankees vs. Red Sox was something big. So we go to a two-and-one count, and the next pitch caught a lot of the plate. I said, ‘Jeez, Bill, that was a pretty good pitch.’ He said, ‘Throw the ball back, you bush bastard. They came here to see him hit, not you catch.’ ”

That was Charlie in a nutshell. Humble, endearing, and salty enough to remain forever intriguing. It was at his house that I got to hold a game-used Ted Williams bat, one small piece among a wondrous array of memorabilia collected over a career spent paying attention to that kind of thing in ways that I wish more ballplayers would have done.

The guy was never a star, but he was baseball, through and through. He will be missed.

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Retaliation

Yankees-Rays Blood Feud Continues, With CC Sabathia At The Helm

Finally, we’re seeing retaliation for something other than bat flipping and the like. Agree with it or not, at least the reason feels somehow tangible.

On May 11 in Tampa, Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos drilled Yankees first baseman Luke Voit on the left arm with a 95-mph fastball, one batter after DJ LeMahieu had homered. Even if it was unintentional, the optics were terrible. It didn’t help that Chirinos hit Gary Sanchez two batters later, or that Gleyber Torres had been drilled the previous night. “It’s the same thing,” said CC Sabathia in the aftermath. “We hit a home run and they throw up and in. It’s stupid.”

Sabathia, of course, has some history with the Rays. He’s already been suspended this season for the way he closed the 2018 campaign, by drilling Tampa Bay’s Jesus Sucre in response to a Rays pitcher throwing behind the head of Austin Romine a half-inning earlier. Some grudges die hard.

Still, Sabathia’s ire didn’t seem to spread to his teammates. The Yankees had a small opening to respond later in the game, after the Rays opened up a 7-2 lead in the ninth, but did nothing. They had another chance the next day after New York scored four in the top of the ninth to build a 7-1 lead. Again, no action. This would likely have gone unnoticed for the fact that Sabathia has a long memory and a thirst for justice.  

On Friday, in the series opener against the Rays at Yankee Stadium, the lefthander threw a pitch that forced Rays DH Austin Meadows to jackknife out of the way. Afterward, Romine said that he didn’t think it was intentional—a stance that lasted until he saw the video, which left little to doubt:  While walking back to the dugout after ending the inning, Sabathia shouted, “I definitely was trying to hit his ass.” During a tie game.

An inning later, the pitcher yelled at the Rays dugout some more.

“You know CC, he’s been around a long time,” Meadows told reporters after watching the video. “He’s a competitor. He obviously wanted to take a shot there, but it is what it is. Obviously, we had a beef back and forth. It’s part of the game, honestly. Luckily I didn’t get hit. But it is what it is.”

Things continued in Sunday’s series finale, when New York starter Chad Green drilled Daniel Robertson in the head after giving up back-to-back homers. Chance Adams later hit Yandy Diaz in the wrist, knocking him from the game. Robertson said afterward that he did not believe Green’s pitch was intentional, but Diaz was not so certain, saying, in the New York Post, “Maybe it was because I hit two home runs off them [on May 11].”

During the 2000s, the Rays had an extended beef with Boston, eight years’ worth of back-and-forth sniping that led to multiple brawls (all of which was dissected in The Baseball Codes). Now it seems like they’ve picked a new AL East opponent with which to do this particular tango. (Take a look at the above link about Sabathia drilling Sucre to see a rundown of some thorough short-term HBP detritus.)

The teams next see each other June 17 in New York. It would be surprising if things ended here.

Cheating

More Pine Tar Found In New York. It Continues To Not Be Much Of An Issue

We have the season’s second incident of a pitcher being too brazen for his own good. In April, it was Noah Syndergaard. On Wednesday it was Seattle left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Their problem: not hiding pine tar well enough.

For Kikuchi, there was so much stuff slathered beneath the bill of his cap that fans in the second deck of Yankee Stadium were screaming for the umpire to check him. Fans, however, don’t have the power to make that request. Yankees manager Aaron Boone did, and opted against it.

Meanwhile, Kikuchi had a no-hitter through five innings and pitched into the eighth as the Mariners won, 10-1.

Pine tar, of course, adds grip for a pitcher. Where a slippery substance like Vaseline lends movement by removing spin from the baseball, pine tar can help (to lesser degrees) by increasing snapability. For somebody like Kikuchi, whose success depends on placement of breaking pitches, it can make a difference. The result of Wednesday’s game is evidence. (Whereas somebody like Syndergaard may have been tempted to use it during a frigid game in April, the Seattle Times informs us that Kikuchi might use it because he sweats a lot.)

So why didn’t the Yankees make a stink? Because, as we know by now, pitchers on virtually every team use pine tar—if not more nefarious substances—and rare is the manager who wants to get into an escalating battle of if-you-check-my-pitcher-then-I’ll-check-yours.

From my post about Syndergaard a few weeks back:

That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that  the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”

MLB didn’t even comment on the matter, let alone take action. Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin may as well have been speaking for everybody when he said after the game (via NJ.com). “Nobody noticed it, nobody said anything. We’ve got a lot bigger worries, trying to manufacture runs, trying to get on base, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.”

Kikuchi has been in the big leagues for less than two months. He clearly knows how to cheat. Now he just has to learn to be more subtle about it.

Retaliation

One Pitcher From Last Season’s Yanks-Rays HBP Flap Spared, And It’s Not Sabathia

CC yells

It was kind of a big deal last September when, in his final appearance of the regular season, CC Sabathia responded to a head-high fastball thrown at one of his teammates by drilling an opponent of his own. It was kind of a big deal because warnings had already been issued, and Sabathia knew that he’d be ejected for the action, two innings from triggering a $500,000 bonus clause in his contract. He considered it money well spent.

At the time, a number of critics (myself included) suggested that the Yankees should pay him anyway. In December, they did.

Now the other half of the equation—Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge, whose head-high fastball to Austin Romine, itself a response to various teammates being tagged by Yankees pitchers, initially triggered Sabathia—was similarly relieved of a burden. MLB suspended him for three games at the time, a penalty that it rescinded yesterday. This is especially pertinent since Kittredge has been outrighted off Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster, and a suspension—to be served whenever he returns to the big leagues—would obviate the necessity to call him up for short-term help.

Sabathia, meanwhile, is still saddled with a five-game suspension, which doesn’t mean much to a starter who can easily be slotted behind Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. Sabathia will likely get his first start bumped back by a day or two, and that will be that. At the very least, it will serve as a tangible reminder of the lengths he’s willing to go to to stand up for his teammates.

Pitch Tipping

Was Tipping Pitches To Blame For Severino’s Awful ALDS Start?

Severino

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. We’ve covered the topic in this space before, regarding Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and Matt Moore, among other instances. The Baseball Codes itself has an entire section on pitch tipping, including the following passage:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

If this is true it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone. On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record. But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking, and neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of, however, is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

Retaliation

What Price Respect?: CC Sabathia’s Half-Million-Dollar Pitch Speaks Volumes

CC drills 'em

In the world of pro sports, money frequently equates to respect. In major league baseball, a team coming up with big contract dollars for a player shows—in the eyes of an abundance of those players—that he is respected. Alternatively, if a team presents budget constraints during negotiations, it shows that they do not. Look no further than escalating salary clauses that guarantee a player will sit at a given rank among the highest-paid in his sport; they are less concerned with how much a player makes than that he rates highly among his peers. It’s an easy way to insure more money, of course, but it also insures respect.

Which is what makes CC Sabathia’s decision yesterday all the more remarkable. For a moment, anyway, money didn’t equal respect in baseball. Quite the opposite.

In the sixth inning, two frames from triggering a half-million-dollar contract bonus in his final start of the season, Sabathia opted to stand up for his teammates by drilling a member of the opposition. With warnings already in place from an earlier incident, the pitcher knew he’d be tossed for it. He didn’t care.

In question was a fastball thrown a half-inning earlier by Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge, at Yankees catcher Austin Romine—as obvious as a retaliatory pitch can be. It was ostensibly in response to the compounding numbers of Tampa Bay players being drilled by New York pitchers. On Tuesday, Luis Severino hit Tommy Pham. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka hit Kevin Kiermeir, fracturing his foot. Yesterday, one inning prior to Kittredge’s response, Sabathia hit Jake Bauers. None of those drillings appear to have been intentional—Sabathia’s pitch was an 87-mph two-seamer that broke in on the hitter’s hands—but at some point it’s tough to criticize a team for wanting to respond.

The primary problem with Kittredge’s pitch lay in its execution—it was a first-pitch fastball fired directly at the ear hole of the Romine’s helmet, which the hitter barely managed to avoid. Most ballplayers are willing to tolerate retaliatory tactics within certain parameters, none of which include pitches thrown above the shoulders; there is no more universally loathed tactic in all the sport. The offering was so blatant that plate ump Vic Carapazza immediately warned both benches.

This is what Sabathia had to consider as he stewed in the dugout while the Yankees batted.

It’s extremely rare that an athlete has such clear and diametrically opposed options available during the course of play. Sabathia could have ignored Kittredge’s pitch, or even just brushed a Rays hitter back in response, and still have been able to cash in. Instead, he followed what he considered to be the correct path. With the score 11-0, timing didn’t matter at all. This is why, with his first pitch of the following inning, Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the backside. He was immediately tossed, as he knew he would be, his bonus money all but forfeited on the spot.

CC Sabathia is 38 years old and an 18-year veteran. He came back to the Yankees this season on a one-year contract offered as much to secure his leadership as his pitching. With first-year manager Aaron Boone at the helm, the left-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.

This, then, is what leaders do.

Some people decry the idea of drilling a batter intentionally under any circumstance. In many instances—in response to some sort of celebration, for example, or whatever else can be considered as showing up an opponent—this is a majority opinion even within big league clubhouses. But when a pitcher deliberately puts one of your own in peril—and without question, that’s what Kittredge did to Romine—players demand response. There’s an element of macho posturing to it, but there’s more to it than that. It is a tangible consequence of a team taking liberties with an opponent, a tactic that forces the offending squad to confront its own conduct and, ideally, to act differently in the future. Hell, it’s the same thing that inspired Kittredge in the first place, except that unlike Sabathia, his response was outside the boundaries of accepted behavior.

That Sabathia has earned more than $250 million over the course of his career in no way means that he sees $500,000 as anything less than a significant amount of money. It was a sacrifice on his part, made willingly and without complaint in the name of respect and clubhouse standing.

If the Yankees want to do the right thing, they’ll pay him anyway.