Tag Archives: Oakland A’s

Never Too Foggy For Retaliation

ken-holtzmanIn support of my latest book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s — available March 7 at fine bookstores everywhere — I’ve been re-poring over old Oakland Tribunes and tweeting this-date-in updates for each of the team’s three championship seasons. Sign up at @DynasticBook to relive those magical seasons, one day at a time.

If you do, May 22 will bring you the bones of the following tale of retaliation, told in significantly more complete form here. From that day’s issue of the Oakland Tribune, 1972:

Ken Holtzman was sailing along with a 2-0 lead in the second inning when he grounded to Royals first baseman John Mayberry, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.

Mayberry took the ball, ambled over to the bag to make the third out, but stopped instead of crossing over toward the dugout. The 165-pound Holtzman, running full speed, crashed into Mayberry and went down as if knocked out by Joe Frazier.

When Lou Piniella led off the next inning, the still-shaken Holtzman threw the first ball over his hat.

“I don’t know where I was,” Holtzman said. “I was so dizzy and so mad, I thought Piniella was Mayberry so I threw the ball over his head. When I got back to the dugout they told me what I’d done.”

Piniella is shorter and doesn’t weigh as much as Mayberry. And not only is Piniella white and Mayberry black, but Piniella bats right and Mayberry left.

By the time Mayberry came up again, Holtzman’s head had cleared. He threw a ball over HIS head and then struck him out.

There’s nothing funny about concussions, of course, but Holtzman threw five more innings of one-run ball, then pitched complete games in five of his next seven starts without missing a turn. Seems like he was okay. And dedicated to sending a message.

Boy, was that a different time.

 

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On Workplace Sanctity and the Digging of Holes, or: Hey Coco Crisp, Keep Your Cleats to Yourself

After walking in the first inning yesterday, Oakland’s Coco Crisp dug himself a little foothold near first base, to get a better jump should he decide to take off for second. Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez immediately strolled over and rubbed it out with his cleat. (Watch it here.)

What in the name of Mo Vaughn was going on?

Ramirez may be all of 30 games into his initial season as a first baseman in 15 years as a pro, but he clearly has firm ideas about propriety surrounding his new position.

His reaction brings to mind the kerfuffle started by Alex Rodriguez in 2010, after he flied out against those selfsame A’s. On his way back to the visitors’ dugout at the Oakland Coliseum, he crossed atop the pitcher’s mound, a gesture that A’s starter Dallas Braden did not appreciate. The lefthander gave Rodriguez an earful as he trotted away.

The ensuing fallout was massive, the topic dominating national media conversation for weeks afterward—including the overwhelming sentiment that Braden had overreached, having little right to so much as notice Rodriguez’s actions, let alone grow irate over them.

I said then, and still believe, that Braden was justified. The mound is sacred space for a pitcher, and those who have no business atop it better treat it accordingly. Similarly, the area around first base is Hanley Ramirez’s office, and he’s entitled to enforce his own reasonable standards within its boundaries while on duty. Denying Crisp the slight advantage of digging a toehold falls well within those boundaries.

Had Crisp taken umbrage—had he gotten into Ramirez’s face and argued for his right to kick dirt around as he pleased—many more people would be paying attention right now. Instead, he laughed the whole thing off, and everybody moved right along.

Which is exactly as it should be.

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RIP Ron Bergman, the Best to Ever Cover the Oakland A’s

Mustache GangAs I put the finishing touches on the first draft of my upcoming book about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next March), I am once again appreciating how much easier—and how much more enjoyable—my work has been thanks to the exceptional skills of Ron Bergman. Bergman covered the team for the Oakland Tribune during its entire championship run, starting from the moment they moved to Oakland in 1968, and also wrote for The Sporting News during the championship years. His book about that era, “Mustache Gang,” remains the best of a quality crop of contemporary accounts. He was connected, insightful and so witty it makes one’s teeth ache, to borrow one of his own phrases.

Bergman passed away yesterday, at age 80. He’d been in failing health for some time, to the point that he was unable to speak to me during the process of my reporting. Once upon a time, however, I got to encounter him with some regularity in the press box at AT&T Park. It was the early 2000s, and I was just coming up through the Bay Area sportswriting ranks. He was a columnist on the verge of retirement. To my uninformed self he was little more than an old guy with a thing for outsized leather jackets. I had no idea about his history or his ability, which is, enduringly, my own loss.

What Bergman did with those A’s was remarkable. He was so embedded that he became a regular in the bridge game run by pitchers Ken Holtzman and Rollie Fingers. He mined his sources with such authority that team owner Charlie Finley came to refer to him as “that little shit-stirrer”—a label that, even as it earned Bergman scant goodwill in the executive suite, garnered lasting respect from the rest of the press corps. (How far under Finley’s skin did he get? After Bergman wrote in The Sporting News that “In listening to the A’s play-by-play announcers you get the impression that there’s some sort of contest as to which one can make the most complimentary remarks about Charlie Finley,” the owner kicked him off the team’s charters and personally cancelled his hotel reservation for the next stop on the road trip.)

During the course of my reporting I read every issue of the Oakland Tribune between 1971 and 1976—a process that started out as “have to,” and ended up as “get to.” Bergie’s work made what could have been a mundane process insightful, educational and unforgettable. It seems only fitting to pull just a few highlights from my notes:

  • In response to the 62 transactions Finley made during the course of the 1972 season, and the fact that Oakland suited up 48 players on the year, Bergman wrote, “Once an Athletic, always an Athletic … or if not once an Athletic, then eventually an Athletic.”
  • He described Rollie Fingers during a hot streak as “on the verge of being declared unfair to hitters.”
  • Discussing the strength of Oakland’s reserves in comparison to Cincinnati during the 1972 World Series, he wrote, “The A’s have a great bench. Theirs is lowercase. The Reds’ Bench is tremendous. The Reds’ bench is underwhelming.”
  • Describing executive John Claiborne, who had just quit Oakland’s dysfunctional front office: “Unlike most office help hired by Finley in his baseball operations, Claiborne had some unusual handicaps. He wasn’t related by either blood or marriage to the owner. He had some baseball experience before joining the A’s. And he was competent.”

After the San Jose Mercury pulled its writers off the road in 1974, Bergman was the only one left traveling with the team. Said Jon Miller, one of the club’s broadcasters that season, “We would go into a city like New York, where they’d have eight or nine writers, and they’d come on the press box PA and say, ‘We want to welcome the Oakland press corps: Ron Bergman.’ He was it.”

He was it, in so many ways.

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Give a Man Some Pine Tar and He’ll Cheat for a Day; Show Him How to Cheat and He’ll Cheat for a Lifetime

Cheat to Win

So Dallas Braden says that not only did he use foreign substances while pitching, but the A’s had a full-blown cheating station in spring training, to show guys how it’s done, conveyor-belt style.

Both GM Billy Beane and pitching coach Curt Young denied any knowledge, of course, but those types of denials are part of their job descriptions. Until John Farrell’s call for a universally approved substance comes to fruition, a cheating station might serve the likes of Will Smith and Brian Matusz pretty well.

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On the Merits of Standing Up for One’s Teammates While Simultaneously Understanding When to Leave Well Enough the Hell Alone

Herrera's heat

You get your shot and then it’s done. This is a cornerstone tenet of baseball’s unwritten rules. If an opponent upends you—hits your batter, takes out your infielder—you have an opportunity to make things right. Singular. After that shot, hit or miss, you move on. That’s what makes baseball’s code functional, and its functionality is what has allowed it to persevere.

On Friday, Oakland’s Brett Lawrie took out Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar with a late, awkward—and, say some, dirty—slide. On Saturday, Yordano Ventura planted a 99 mph fastball into his ribs. Ventura had his shot, and it should have settled the score.

It didn’t.

Bad blood lingered in the Royals’ clubhouse, particularly from Escobar himself; the shortstop, day-to-day with a sprained and bruised knee, was outspoken in calling the play below board. (Lost in the errata of the aftermath was the fumbled text apology that Lawrie insists he sent to Escobar via a phone number given to him by Eric Hosmer, which Escobar just as firmly insists he never received. Who knew how differently things might have played out had Esco been appropriately placated to begin with.)

An aggrieved and injured player is enough to motivate disquiet in a clubhouse. The fact that to that point in the season the Royals had been hit by 13 pitches but had only hit three themselves could also have played a part.

There is no need for those numbers—hit batters on your side vs. how many your own team has hit— to be equitable, but a wild imbalance in that ratio can serve as an indicator for position players about whether their pitching staff is appropriately guarding their best interests. Were there ill will on the Royals in that regard, Ventura at least partially righted the ship with one blow.

Lawrie took it in stride, ambling to first base without protest, even as the pitcher (already frustrated by having given up five runs in the inning) did his best to spark confrontation by following the runner down the line. Umpire Jim Joyce ejected Ventura on the spot. For the second day in a row the benches emptied. (Watch it here.)

Baseball’s code indicates that at this point the score was even, both teams debt-free. That’s not what happened.

In the first inning on Sunday, Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain in the foot. Both benches were warned, and Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were ejected for arguing the issue. (Watch it here.) Were the pitch intentional it would have been entirely out of line, and the fact that Kazmir’s control for the rest of the game was spot-on does not reflect well on him in this regard. Still, a foot is hardly the target of choice for a pitcher with retaliation on his mind, not to mention that there was little reason for Kazmir to extend hostilities.

Debate about Kazmir’s motivation lasted until the eighth inning, until Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera wiped away thought of everything that came before, with two pitches that became the talk of the afternoon. With two outs and nobody on—and with Oakland holding a 2-1 lead, no less—the right-hander started Lawrie high and tight with a 100 mph fastball. His second pitch was equally blinding, and sailed behind the batter so close that even on replay it is difficult to see where it missed. Like Ventura a day earlier, Herrera was tossed. As if there was any doubt about the pitcher’s intentions, he began walking toward the clubhouse almost before plate ump Greg Gibson tossed him. (Watch it here.)

It still wasn’t enough. On his way off the field, Herrera looked toward the A’s dugout and pointed at his head. He later said that he was trying to say Think about what happened, but many in the A’s clubhouse took it as a threat to come closer next time. There is no more clear-cut violation of the unwritten rules than to threaten to throw at a player’s head, and if there was anybody in green and gold willing to give the Royals the benefit of the doubt, Herrera’s pantomime effectively cemented their opinions in the opposite direction.

Things could have ended after Lawrie was drilled on Saturday. They could have ended early Sunday, had the Royals ignored Kazmir’s fastball of debatable intentions. Now, though, the bad blood between these teams will be front and center when they meet again in June. It’ll be interesting to note whether the Royals’ HBP ratio will have changed by that point, but it probably won’t matter; the A’s are an outlier to them, and vice versa, and no amount of Royals whispering by Billy Butler is going to change things. This one will play out on the field.

Update (4-21-15): And repercussions have been repercussed. Herrera gets five games, Ventura a fine.

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Down and Dirty: The Different Responses to a Takeout Slide

You hit my guy so I’ll hit your guy. Retaliation is the oldest story in baseball. Friday saw two similar events—middle infielders being taken out by aggressive slides—handled in different ways.

In Boston, Pablo Sandoval went out of his way to wipe out Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In Kansas City, Brett Lawrie did similarly with Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Both were trying to break up double plays. The primary difference was the response.

The Orioles stayed cool, and two innings later—during Sandoval’s next at-bat—their pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, planting a fastball into the third baseman’s shoulder blade. (Watch it here.) Jimenez took it upon himself to remind the aggressor that such actions have repercussions, and that taking liberties with an Oriole—any Oriole—carries repercussions. That kind of HBP may not deter Sandoval or the Red Sox from such actions in the future, but they will at the very least pause to consider it.

Lawrie’s takeout of Escobar with a late, awkward slide was a bit different in that Escobar was injured and had to be helped off the field. (It wasn’t even a good baseball play, as Lawrie would have been safe had he gone directly into the bag. Watch it here.) Rather than wait for a more formal response, benches cleared immediately, though no punches were thrown. That it was a tie game in the seventh inning precluded any notions a Royals pitcher may have had toward responding; similarly, Lawrie next batted in the ninth inning with the Royals protecting a two-run lead.

Headline fodder for the Jimenez incident was his immediate ejection by plate ump Jordan Baker, without warning and while having allowed no hits. The fact that it was only the fourth inning mitigates the latter item, but there is no way around the fact that Jimenez’s ejection was without merit. He handled a baseball play in a peer-vetted baseball way. A warning would have been more prudent, with Baker even holding the option to delay until Boston could itself respond. Regardless, the Orioles had their say, and both teams were able to move on.

In Missouri, things are far less clear. Escobar will likely miss several games, and while players and manager Ned Yost publicly agreed that there was likely nothing malicious in Lawrie’s slide, this will remain an item of potential contention until further notice.

[gifs, respectively, via Deadspin]

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Zen and the Art of No-Hitter Maintenance

Sonny Gray

Does Sonny Gray believe in the Baseball Gods? Sonny Gray does not believe in the Baseball Gods.

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