From just before the break: The Blue Jays join Pedro Florimon in the 2018 pantheon of faking guys out of their damn socks.
For those decrying baseball’s unwritten rules in the wake of last week’s debacle over bunting in Baltimore comes a pleasant measure of where such things actually sit in the modern game. Before going into it, allow me, please, to paint a picture.
The hypothetical year is 1965. Bob Gibson has just given up a home run to Frank Robinson, and is stunned when, after crossing the plate, Robinson turns toward the St. Louis dugout and whistles in delight. Such a display of arrogance and disrespect is all but foreign to a major league ballfield, let alone Gibson’s ballfield.
There’s no way that Robinson avoids Gibson’s fastball in an ensuing at-bat.
Sure, Bob Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers ever to play the game, so maybe he’s not a great example. It could have been Mike Caldwell in 1982, or Preacher Roe in 1952, or Wes Ferrell in 1930—three guys picked more or less at random, who combined to pitch 812 innings in the years in question without hitting a single batter. Even then the hitter in question, should he have whistled in such a manner, would have invariably been knocked down, or drilled later by one of the pitcher’s teammates.
Why is this noteworthy? On April 2, Toronto’s Josh Donaldson played the role of Frank Robinson against the White Sox, homering against Reynaldo Lopez, then miming a whistle at the Chicago dugout while hopping back to his dugout. The most noteworthy part about it: The White Sox didn’t care.
There is, of course, some backstory.
White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston has for several years used an actual whistle to get the attention of his outfielders when he wants to reposition them from the dugout. He also toots it to celebrate good plays, behavior that has not gone unnoticed around the league. Before the game, Donaldson was talking to White Sox hitting coaches Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks, for whom he played in the A’s system, and mentioned that he’s not a particular fan of Boston’s whistle.
Of course, this information was relayed to the coach, and of course the coach responded via whistle—“a little peep-peep” is how Boston put it in a SportsNet report—at Donaldson when he stepped into the on-deck circle during the game.
So, after homering, Donaldson felt free to do what he did. And Boston loved it.
“I got a kick out it because I didn’t find it disrespectful at all,” the coach said. “The downside of it is I may have got caught on video laughing after us giving up a home run. That’s the one thing I felt bad about. But other than that, it’s all in fun.”
The following day, Donaldson used Too$hort’s “Blow the Whistle” as his walk-up song.
All in fun, indeed. There is still a place for players who hew to the serious business of respecting each other, but there are moments in the modern game like never before, when one can cut loose and simply have fun without fear of thin skin or repercussions. The Puerto Rico team showed us that implicitly in last year’s World Baseball Classic, and MLB appears to be following right along, to varying degrees.
Look no farther than Donaldson for evidence. “The whole time I was [blowing the whistle] to [Boston] he had the biggest smile on his face,” he said. “It was good and I’m glad—you always hear about these unwritten rules of baseball and all that jazz—well, I think you’re starting to see some of that change in a positive manner. Not to where I’m trying to disrespect them or they’re trying to disrespect me. We’re out there having fun and competing against each other.”
If there’s an actual quibble here, it’s with Boston, not Donaldson. Various members of the Kansas City Royals have already taken issue with his whistle practice, and it’s not beyond the pale to think that other opponents might also consider celebratory whistling to be juvenile and rude. Even in the modern embrace-the-celebration landscape, a coach with a whistle does seem a bit odd. Mostly, though, it serves to recall a story from The Baseball Codes, concerning the ability of former New York Yankees pitcher Bob Turley to quickly decipher an opposing catcher’s signs while stationed in the first-base coach’s box:
Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-ﬁrst home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)
Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the ﬁrst-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s ﬁrst pitch, a fastball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bunning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”
Because one can never have too much bat flip discussion, and because no bat flip discussion is complete without Jose Bautista, let’s start there.
On Wednesday, Bautista hit an angry home run against Atlanta. He was angry because earlier in the game, Toronto teammate Kevin Pillar, upset at having been struck out on a quick pitch from Jason Motte, shouted a homophobic slur toward the mound, causing benches to empty. (The slur, having violated the unwritten rules of society more than it did the unwritten rules of baseball, is not the point of this post.)
So when Bautista homered a bit later against Eric O’Flaherty, he did this:
As you can see, a bat flip was involved. Also as you can see, the moment was pointedly distinct from Bautista’s other noteworthy flip from the 2015 postseason, which was documented at some length within these pages.
The latter was an expression of joy—satisfaction at having succeeded, monumentally, at an important task.
The former consisted primarily of churlishness. There was little to celebrate—the Blue Jays were down 8-3 when Bautista swung the bat. He tried to stare down the pitcher. He did a weird skip around the bases. There is a difference.
Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki thought so. He had words for Bautista as the runner crossed the plate, and when Bautista stopped to enjoin him, benches emptied for the second time in the game. Afterward, O’Flaherty had some pointed comments. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“That’s something that’s making the game tough to watch lately. It’s just turned into look-at-me stuff, it’s not even about winning anymore. Guy wants to hit a home run in a five-run game, pimp it, throw the bat around – I mean, I don’t know. It’s frustrating as a pitcher. I didn’t see it at the time, but I saw the video – he looked at me, tried to make eye contact. It’s just tired. We’ve seen it from him, though.”
Add to that the fact that Toronto pitchers hit seven batters over the first three games of the series—one of which knocked Freddie Freeman out of action for 10 weeks with a broken hand—and Atlanta was left with an abundance of bad feelings. (The pitch to Freeman was clearly unintentional, a fastball that wasn’t all that far inside, which hit Freeman’s extended top hand as he tried to check his swing.)
Atlanta responded to it all on Thursday, Julio Teheran drilling Bautista in the hip two pitches into his first-inning at-bat. Warnings were issued and everybody moved on. (Allowing players to police their own business, in whatever reasonable form it took, served to diffuse the situation after that point. Bautista and the Jays made a statement of their own by scoring three runs in the inning en route to a 9-0 victory.)
There is something to be said for recent cries that baseball should embrace the passion of its players and allow them to more freely express themselves on the field when it comes to bat flips and other celebratory acts. Unfortunately, that same sentiment is also used to justify poor behavior from egotistical spotlight hogs.
A player exulting after a virtuous performance lends realism to the sport. Showboating out of petulance strips that realism away. Bautista has encapsulated both sides of that argument. On Wednesday, it wasn’t a good look for anybody.
Aaaaaand we’re back. After a flurry of retaliation talk surrounding the Red Sox and Orioles last week, we got some fireworks north of the border yesterday. Or at least a sparkler or two.
It started on Saturday, when Toronto’s Joe Miangini hit Rays outfielder Steven Souza in the hand with a pitch. It was almost certainly unintentional—a running, letter-high fastball that Souza failed to spin away from. The pitch was tight, but not egregiously so. Not to mention that the Jays led by only three, and with one out and the heart of Tampa Bay’s order coming up, it was no time to cede free baserunners.
That Souza had to be removed from the game on Saturday and then, despite X-rays coming back negative, sat out on Sunday, might have provided Archer’s motivation to respond. On Sunday, the right-hander threw a fastball behind Jose Bautista, hip high. From the looks of it, he could well have been aiming at the batter but missed his spot. (Watch it here.)
As retaliation is concerned, below the waist is the way to go … but was it remotely necessary? Miangini’s pitch was accidental and in no way reckless. He wasn’t taking unnecessary liberties with Tampa Bay players. His behavior did not merit addressing.
Which is the point of purpose pitches, even those that intentionally miss their targets. If Archer was trying to show teammates that he’s looking out for their well-being, a response to something actually nefarious, or at least willfully negligent, would be in order. What he gave us on Sunday was not that.
Bautista gave Archer a long staredown at the plate, then had some words for him after flying out to right field. Plate ump Jim Wolf issued a warning after the pitch, curtailing further such liberties.
Perhaps that was the end of it. Because Archer didn’t actually hit Bautista, that should be the end of it. But maybe we’re sliding into a new world order in baseball—which is actually an old world order in baseball—where retaliation for offenses that shouldn’t even register, a pendulum swing away from the influx of free-wheeling bat flippers, is the new way of doing business.
Maybe that’s the case, but hopefully not.
Yesterday we had a nice, nuanced discussion about the propriety of infield dekes, with multiple viewpoints weighing in on a play Jung Ho Kang made on Sunday. It was a reminder about why baseball’s unwritten rules are fun and valuable, and how they can affect the execution of the game on a very real level.
Then the Yankees and Blue Jays started throwing baseballs at each other, and all that goodwill went to hell.
It started with New York’s Luis Severino hitting Josh Donaldson in the first inning Monday with a clearly unintentional fastball that grazed the hitter’s elbow. Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ nonetheless responded an inning later by throwing a pitch behind Chase Headly, and then hit him in the hip with his next offering. (Watch it here.)
What was the point? For the Blue Jays to show that they will not abide pitchers coming inside to their MVP candidate? Even for those who see such a response as entirely justified, Happ had his chance and he missed. Hitting Headly at all is weak sauce, but to take another shot after the first one failed is even worse.
It also set some damaging precedent. Responding to Happ, Severino went after Justin Smoak in the bottom of the inning, but, like Happ, missed. Then, also like Happ, he finished the job a pitch later. (Watch it here.) All told, the events inspired two benches-clearing incidents in which punches were thrown. Severino and New York manager Joe Girardi were ejected.
Unless there’s some backstory about which I’m unaware, there’s little place in the game anymore for Happ’s sort of reaction—brutality for brutality’s sake—to an unintentional HBP.
It was an old-school and outdated approach to Code enforcement, but at least we had Mark Teixeira to lend some new-school levity to the proceedings. After tying the game with a solo homer in the ninth, and celebrated like this:
He said later that it was the first time he’d ever flipped a bat.
It was the final meeting between the teams this season. Here’s hoping they’re able to start the 2017 season with fresh eyes.
Update (9-27): Looks like the Baseball Gods have spoken.
Blue Jays MVP Josh Donaldson—after getting targeted by pitches twice against the Twins over the weekend—garnered attention yesterday by decrying baseball’s unwritten rules as a matter of personal safety.
The direct quote, via SportsNet.ca:
“Major League Baseball has to do something about this. They say they’re trying to protect players. They make a rule that says you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catchers on slides into home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it. My manager comes out to ask what’s going on and he gets ejected for it. That’s what happens. I just don’t get the point. I don’t get what baseball’s trying to prove. If I’m a young kid watching these games, why would I want to play baseball? Why? If I do something well or if somebody doesn’t like something that I do, it’s, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna throw at you now.’ It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Donaldson’s issues started with the third pitch of Saturday’s game—a called strike with which he disagreed. When he grounded to short on the very next pitch, Donaldson slowed down before reaching first base, according to the Toronto Sun, at which point Twins bench coach Joe Vavra yelled “nice hustle.”
When Donaldson returned verbal fire, plate umpire Toby Basner, thinking the comment had been directed at him, ejected the third baseman.
In the first inning of Sunday’s game, Donaldson hit a mammoth home run to straightaway center field. Instead of immediately returning to his own dugout, however, he took a couple steps toward the Twins bench on the first base side of the field, staring daggers all the while. (Watch it here.) His explanation: “I looked right at the guy who chirped me yesterday and got me thrown out, I was letting him know I was coming to play today. Don’t comment on the way I play. It’s not your business how I play. I’m not on your team. If someone has a problem with the way I play, my manager or teammates will say something to me, not the other team.”
In the sixth inning, Minnesota’s Phil Hughes responded by throwing one pitch that just missed Donaldson’s hip, and another behind his back. The intent was obvious. Jays manager John Gibbons, after vigorously arguing for Hughes’ ejection, was instead ejected himself.
At the core of his argument, Donaldson has a legitimate beef. In the modern landscape, non-baseball activities—like, say, a few moments’ worth of dugout stare-down—virtually never merit physical retribution.
What Donaldson received, however, was decidedly not physical retribution. No pitch hit him, and, given that Donaldson himself used Hughes’ excellent control to support his claims of intent, things seemed to play out the way Hughes wanted them to.
There are a couple of takeaways here. One is that the incident that so upset Donaldson—Vavra riding him from the bench—illustrates just how thin ballplayers’ skin has grown over recent generations. Bench jockeying was once an art form, with insults hurled as much to distract the target as anything else.
In the 1922 World Series, Giants manager John McGraw’s dugout-borne insults distracted Babe Ruth into a 2-for-17 slide—his worst Fall Classic ever. Hell, even Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series was apparently a gesture meant to silence the bench jockeys in Chicago’s dugout, not to predict the homer he was about to hit.
Leo Durocher once rode opposing pitcher Claude Passeau so hard that upon being removed from the game, instead of handing the ball over to his manager, the pitcher fired it at Durocher, in the Brooklyn dugout.
No less a name than Mickey Mantle was so hounded by the Washington Senators that he failed to run out what became a double-play grounder, distracted to the point that he thought the lead out was the third of the inning.
Those, of course, are long-ago examples. Serious bench jockeying died out in the 1960s and ’70s. Still, “nice hustle” seems timid enough to ignore. Donaldson labeled it as the Twins “picking a fight from the bench,” but in reality, his decision to return fire—and subsequently getting tossed for it—is entirely on him. That’s precisely the result a good bench jockey is looking for.
The other part of the equation involves the pitches themselves.
“They’re putting my job in jeopardy,” Donaldson groused, invoking the gruesome face shot taken by Giancarlo Stanton in 2014. “What if he hits me in the neck right there? What if he hits me in the eye?”
Had Hughes hit him in the neck or the eye, Donaldson’s point would be unassailable. Even had Hughes drilled him in the time-tested fashion of planting one into his hip or thigh, or had he missed above the shoulders, Donaldson would have a legitimate gripe.
But a message pitch—even two of them—that fails to connect is not worth this level of vitriol. You mess with us, Hughes told Donaldson and the Toronto bench alike, and we’ll mess right back. It was a non-contact exchange of ideas, and that’s the sort of thing that helps keep baseball lively.
We’ll get to questions about propriety and merit and the very nature of baseball’s unwritten rules in good time.
First, though, why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?
Before the season started, the enduring questions regarding the rivalry between Texas and the Blue Jays had to do with the Rangers’ response to Jose Bautista’s world-beating bat flip during the teams’ ALDS showdown last October, and whether retaliation was imminent.
Matters seemed to be settled after the teams went an entire series at Toronto’s Rogers Centre in early May without so much as a peep. In the series finale, Bautista came to bat—twice—with his team leading 11-1. Let sit for a moment whether retaliation was even merited; if ever there was a place to enact it, it was right there, with no concern about an extra baserunner affecting the game’s outcome.
Bautista emerged unscathed. That should have closed the book on the incident. Should have, but didn’t.
On Sunday, Rangers reliever Matt Bush—making only his second big league appearance after a decade-long career nosedive—may have been trying to earn credibility points with his new teammates when he planted a fastball into Bautista’s ribcage.
It makes little sense why that pitch would bear any degree of intent. Texas had its chances back in Toronto. Bush was not with the Rangers at the time of Bautista’s perceived slight. The score was 7-6, and Bautista, leading off the top of the eighth, represented the tying run. And yet.
It was the final meeting of the season between the teams, and likely Bautista’s final at-bat of the game. Drilling him then left virtually no chance for recourse. “To me, it was gutless,” said Jays manager John Gibbons afterward, in an ESPN report. “The other 29 teams, they come at you right away, but to wait until the end, it just sort of tells you something.”
At that point, Bautista’s primary tool was the one he ended up using: a message-laden slide.
Forced to run by Justin Smoak’s grounder, Bautista launched himself late, at the legs of second baseman Rougned Odor. It was textbook, Bautista landing on the base instead of in front of it, undercutting Odor’s feet. According to the Code, it was clean—spikes down and centered. A million guys have made a million similar retaliatory slides over the years, the vast majority of which have been accepted by the opposition as nothing more than the price of doing business.
We are, however, in a new era, even beyond the rise of the Let’s Make Baseball Fun Again generation. It is a time of basepath sanity, where fielders’ safety is the subject of rulebook legislation. Bautista’s slide had nothing to do with fielders’ safety.
It probably didn’t matter either way to Odor, who would likely have come up swinging, regardless.
The rest of the story involves details, mostly:
- Bautista absorbed a solid right hook from Odor, definitely in the 99th percentile of effective baseball punches, but still managed to keep his feet.
- It turns out that Odor is quietly (or not so quietly) one of the premiere red-asses in the game.
- Ejections for Bautista, Odor, Josh Donaldson, and Rangers coach Steve Bueschele.
- Bush was allowed to remain in the game, but when asked afterward about the pitch in question, offered a telling no-comment.
- Toronto exacted retaliation of its own in the bottom half of the inning with the time-tested tactic of drilling Bautista’s counterpart on the Rangers, Prince Fielder. Again the benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.
- Subsequent ejections for Toronto pitcher Jesse Chavez and coach DeMarlo Hale.
In the aftermath of it all, we’re left with numerous questions. Most pertinent to this space has to do with the unwritten rules themselves. Although Bautista’s slide fell well within the boundaries of traditional Code tactics, it’s difficult to tell anymore whether traditional Code tactics—especially as they pertain to takeout slides—are even viable. Before, it was primarily middle infielders who didn’t appreciate them. Now, the league office has officially taken steps to legislate them out of the game. This likely means that baserunners are going to have to find new methods of conveying their grievances … or, more pragmatically, will have to learn to get over their grievances more quietly.
There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at hand. In the game’s aftermath, Bautista unloaded with both barrels at Rangers management, saying in the Toronto Star that “It shows a little bit of the apparent lack of leadership that they have over there when it comes to playing baseball the right way.”
Only last October, Bautista himself sparked a play-the-right-way controversy, only then he was on the other side of the debate, baseball traditionalists decrying his bat flip and its ensuing acclaim. To play both sides like that—to demand propriety only when it suits you—seems disingenuous.
There is, however, more to it. “Baseball plays are supposed to be taken care of by baseball plays,” Bautista also said yesterday. And he’s correct. A bat flip is not a baseball play. Drilling a batter is. So is taking out a fielder. The latest version of the Code mandates that non-baseball plays are largely exempt from retaliation. This is not what happened on Sunday.
Perhaps we’re facing another sea change with all of this, which is something we won’t know until we see players’ responses to coming contentions. Water has a way of finding its level.
Ultimately, amid the philosophical hand-wringing, we’re left with one primary concrete question: Why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?
Update (5/17): Odor’s been clipped for eight games and outed as a hypocrite.