Bench Jockeying, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Staredown in the Twin Cities Reminds Us What Sensitive Creatures We’ve All Become

Donaldson stares

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.

 

Basepath Retaliation, Jose Bautista, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Does Anybody Even Know What Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are, Anymore?

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.

Sign stealing

Signing Off: Were the Jays’ Eyes Pryin’, or Was Cueto Battered Into Paranoia?

Cueto stares

They say that a poor workman blames his equipment after something goes wrong. On Tuesday, Johnny Cueto was as poor a workman as he has ever been, allowing six hits, four walks and eight earned runs over just two innings pitched. Afterward, he did the baseball equivalent of blaming his equipment.

As relayed by teammate Edinson Volquez, Cueto’s rationale for his meltdown had something to do with Toronto stealing signs, both from the basepaths and from the furthest reaches of the Rogers Centre. It’s convenient, anyway, because there’s some history there.

In 2011, the Yankees openly accused Toronto of hustling signs from beyond the outfield fence, going so far as to have their catcher flash complex, highly coded signals to the pitcher, even with the bases empty (a situation that, with no chance of a baserunner peering in, teams usually keep things simple). New York’s aggrieved catcher at the time was none other than Russell Martin, who is, of course, the current Blue Jays catcher, and who has not said anything about it of late.

About a month after that, ESPN’s Amy Nelson dropped a bombshell article in which various opposing players detailed what they suspected was a complex system to relay signs within the Rogers Centre. It hinged on a guy in a white shirt, who, from the center field bleachers, would put his arms over his head for any pitch but a fastball, tipping hitters off.

The following year, Baltimore’s Jason Hammel made similar insinuations.

Baseball’s Code, of course, stipulates that while any potential sign filching from within the field of play is acceptable (provided that a player knocks it off once he’s caught), any advantage gained from a telescopic lens beyond the outfield fence is strictly verboten. (This is also against baseball’s actual rules.) The accusations against Toronto have lain dormant for a while, although to go by Cueto, ballplayers have continued to be vigilant about the possibility when traveling north of the border. (For what it’s worth, Royals manager Ned Yost and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred both dismissed the likelihood of such shenanigans.)

Just as hitters swear the ability to discern when a pitcher has thrown at them intentionally, many pitchers claim to sense when things aren’t adding up during a given inning. “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture,” said former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper in The Baseball Codes.

Of course, when a pitcher struggles as much as Cueto did, he’ll seek to rationalize it almost by default. It’s the paradox of the battered pitcher: If one is going well, there’s no need to call out possible sign stealing, but when one gets one’s teeth kicked in, it looks like nothing so much as a desperate hunt for excuses.

Maybe Cueto was on to something. Then again, none of the Royals were complaining of stolen signs a day later, after winning, 14-2.

Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

On the Benefits of Embracing the Moment, or: Not All Bat Flips Are Created Equal

Bautista goes yard II

Jose Bautista’s bat flip yesterday was so powerful as to obscure the wildest game many of us have ever seen. It has drawn endless opinions, many of which consisted of little more than the notion, “Wow, wasn’t that something?”—the hallmark of any sporting act powerful enough to draw the attention of the non-sporting public. Pure, visceral response to a pure, visceral moment.

It was something. And it was magnificent.

It was an all-world player at the peak of his powers, unleashing as violent a swing as you will see from a man entirely under control, against a fastball approaching 100 mph, in an inning that had already yielded so much drama as to leave fans emotionally drained, in a game upon which the season hinged, for a team that had not played for anything so meaningful in nearly a quarter-century.

It was all that. It was more.

There are those who feel that such displays—a hitter staring at his handiwork until after the ball has settled into the seats, then tossing his lumber with intensity approaching that of his swing—are beneath the sanctity of the game. They claim it shows up an opponent, that it offers disrespect, that in a world where self-aggrandizement has taken over the sporting landscape, humility is a necessary attribute for our heroes. Yesterday, many of those voices resided in the Rangers’ postgame clubhouse.

They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

The moment would have carried no less gravity had Bautista simply laid down his bat and trotted around the bases. The hit would have been no less important. But the moment Bautista gave us was enduring, as physical a manifestation of pure emotion as will ever be seen on a baseball diamond. It was in every way a gift.

Sports fandom, at its essence, is about embracing the weightiest moments, win or lose. About being fully invested in the outcome of a given play, able to devote one’s emotional energy toward joy or despair, depending upon whether things break your way. Those who criticize things like bat flipping and chest pounding and hand-signs to the dugout after hitting innocuous doubles, who decry them for subjugating key moments at the expense of stoking egos, are correct. Let the moments breathe. A player’s initial actions are inevitably more powerful than his ensuing reactions.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, however, someone transcends it all. Bautista’s display didn’t distract from the moment, or even highlight it—it was the moment, part of it, anyway, as inexorably intertwined with our collective memory as the pitch or the swing or the baserunners or the fans. More so, in many ways. What do we remember of the last greatest Blue Jays moment? Was it the swing Joe Carter put on that ball in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series? Or was it his joyous reaction as he literally leaped around the bases? Do we recall Dennis Eckersley’s backdoor slider, or Kirk Gibson’s fist pump after he deposited it in the bleachers? Would Carlton Fisk’s homer in 1975 mean half of what it does today had he simply rounded the bases instead of physically willing it fair?

This wasn’t some preplanned shtick in some minor moment, no pulling Sharpie from sock following a midseason touchdown. This was one of the game’s great players coming through as profoundly as possible in literally the biggest moment of his career, and responding as such. It was so powerful that Adrian Beltre simply could not keep his feet, taking a seat on the turf as Bautista rounded the bases.

Bautista deserved it. We deserved it. Save the indignation for the .220 hitter who tosses his bat some Tuesday in July. I may well join you. For now, though, I’m going to savor this for as long as I can.

Retaliation

Baseball in August: Same as in April, it Seems

Jays-RoyalsCheez. A fella heads out of the country for a few weeks, and everything goes straight to hell. A little distance can lend a lot of perspective, however, and coming home to a slew of drama pretty much confirms the points I’ve always made: In baseball, respect is paramount, safety is vital and red-assery is growing thinner—and more noteworthy—than ever.

Some takeaways:

  • Run-of-the-mill bat flips no longer count as showboating, which leaves no space for pitchers to get peeved in response. Although his behavior was marginally acceptable for sixth-graders, San Diego’s Dale Thayer was out of line in tossing his gum at Giants catcher Hector Sanchez following a pimp-heavy grand slam, and Padres reliever Shawn Kelly went full nutter by coming inside twice—with intention—to Sanchez three innings later in further response. (This wasn’t even the first gum-related incident between the teams this season.) Mainstream behavior can not, by definition, be taken personally. Get over it, pitchers.
  • This works in both directions for the Giants, as Madison Bumgarner—owner of perhaps the reddest ass in the big leagues—hollered at Delino Deshields for hollering at himself after he popped out against the lefthander. MadBum has a bit of history with this kind of thing. Fabricated drama is the worst kind of drama.
  • Style points count when it comes to retaliation. Under appropriate circumstances, there is a place for pitchers to retaliate on behalf of drilled teammates, but how they do it counts as much as anything. Rockies reliever Christian Friederich hitting Kolten Wong near his head in response to teammate D.J. LeMahieu being drilled by St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez was patently unacceptable. Like all pitchers, Friederich has some leeway in letting teammates know he has their welfare in mind, but doing it with such little regard for the opposition paints him as a goon. (At least when Arizona’s Dominic Leone drilled Christian Yellich in response for David Peralta being unintentionally hit in the head by Jose Fernandez, he did it appropriately, hitting him—however unnecessarily—in the posterior.)

All of this pales, of course, to Royals-Blue Jays. Because Royals-Blue Jays never disappoints. There was tit-for-tat retaliation, starting when Royals pitchers drilled Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki, and brushed back Donaldson in two different at-bats for good measure. Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in response, and was summarily ejected. (Watch it all here.) The Royals spent the early part of the season picking fights with seemingly everybody in the American League, but the particulars of the skirmish were far less interesting than the extracurriculars.

First was the back-and forth chirping. Donaldson said afterward that he was happy Volquez was not tossed, what with him being “pretty good hittin’.” Volquez said that Donaldson was “Crying like a baby.” It continued on Twitter, where Jose Bautista said he “lost a lot of respect” for Ned Yost, at which Yordano Ventura called Bautista “a nobody” in a since-deleted Tweet.

The most intriguing part of the action came from plate ump Jim Wolf, who issued warnings after Donaldson was hit. Thing was, he opted not to eject anybody either time Donaldson was brushed back, or when Tulowitzki was hit—with the Blue Jays in the cross-hairs every time—but tossed Sanchez in the only instance of a Toronto pitcher coming too far inside all day. The Blue Jays went to lengths to elucidate that imbalance, but ultimately it was a matter of judgement calls, which, when it comes to the unwritten rules, is a key to quality umpiring. Grant Brisbee broke it down over at SBNation:

* Was Volquez really so mad at Donaldson that he was going to risk ejection in the third inning of a close game? If so, why didn’t he actually hit him after buzzing him around the head, if he had already committed to it? Probably not intentional, unless it he meant it in a move-him-off-the-plate kind of way, not a die-die-die kind of way.

* Why would Ryan Madson wait until the seventh pitch of an at-bat, with a two-strike count and a runner on second in a close game, to hit someone who was never involved? Probably not intentional.

* Madson’s 2-2 pitch to Donaldson in the next at-bat was timed poorly, to say the least. It buzzed his face again, but the situation again suggests it was a pitch that got away. Two runners already on, in a game the Royals still thought they could win? That’s not the place where pitchers want additional runners, especially if there’s a risk of ejection behind it. Especially considering the Blue Jays never retaliated to that point. Probably not intentional.

* Aaron Sanchez came in, waited until there were two outs and no one on, and plunked a Royal. Probably intentional, and he was tossed.

There’s value in umpires having the leeway to judge the merit of baseball actions. Viable strategy exists in making a hot hitter like Donaldson less comfortable in the box, and if a pitch thrown intentionally inside misses a bit and hits a guy, that’s a justifiable cost of doing business. Wolf deserves credit for recognizing this. The rest of his decisions can be similarly defended.

That said, tossing Volquez at the first incident after warnings were issued would have circumvented a lot of the ensuing drama—and there’s value in that, too. Hell, with the abundance of judgement calls going Kansas City’s way in this one, it may have been a preferable tactic from the outset. That’s only in retrospect, of course. In a vacuum,  ejecting a player for an unintentional (if poorly timed) pitch is of little benefit to anybody.

At the very least, it all made for entertaining reading once I returned to the home office. If the Royals and Blue Jays play each other again this season, it’ll be in the playoffs. But there are still nearly two months to go—plenty of time for some quality drama.

Bat tossing, Retaliation, Showboating

Bautista Proves that Grudge Homers are the Best Kind of Homers

With Yasiel Puig’s renunciation of bat flipping dominating the early-season talk about the subject, there’s another function of the tactic that has been largely overlooked—one that is less Look at me and more Look at yourself. It was illustrated to perfection on Tuesday by Jose Bautista.

With the Blue Jays leading 11-4 in the seventh inning, Baltimore right-hander Jason Garcia threw a fastball just behind the slugger, perhaps in response to the teams’ April 12 meeting in which Bautista homered off of Darren O’Day, then skipped toward first base. Garcia’s shot came so close that plate ump Mark Carlson warned both benches about further hostilities.

On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Bautista connected for his fourth home run of the season, a mammoth shot that scored Josh Donaldson ahead of him. Its no-doubt-about-it nature allowed the slugger to stand in the box and admire it before insouciantly flipping his bat away in disgust. It was a pure, cold message for Garcia. You want to play, he effectively asked the pitcher? This is how you play. (Watch it here.)

As he rounded the bases, Bautista got an earful from Orioles infielders, primarily Steve Pearce and Ryan Flaherty. He responded in kind. As he crossed the plate he took a moment to stare down the Baltimore bench.

Things grew further heated as Bautista trotted to his position at the start of the next inning. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones began hollering from alongside the dugout, at which point Bautista furiously pointed behind his back, reminding the Orioles how the whole thing started. (Watch it here.)

If anything, Bautista has proven adept at finishing things in a way that effectively gets under the skin of the opposition. His homer-‘n-skip act came in response to O’Day doing something similar after striking him out in 2013. His homer-‘n-pimp act came after Garcia’s near miss. The Orioles could barely stand either one.

Whether they take further action is yet to be seen, but if we judge the situation by what’s already happened, Baltimore’s response is almost beside the point. It seems certain that Bautista will get the last word.

[Gif via Baltimore Sports Report]