Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

On the Merits of Moving On: Harper and Hunter Try to Make Nice

Harper-Hunter

Harper-Strickland: The Day After played out in San Francisco yesterday, and was noteworthy primarily for just how un-noteworthy it had become. It became that way because the players made it so. Retaliation was nowhere to be found on the field Tuesday at AT&T Park.

In the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Bryce Harper—fresh off receiving a four-an appeal-reduced three-game suspension—spoke about the hope that both sides could move on from worrying about the past, saying things like, “That’s gonna suck if I get hit again.”

On the Giants’ side, the conversation turned away from pitcher Hunter Strickland (himself suspended for six games) and toward somebody with significantly more effect on the team’s fortunes, a guy who through his own inaction managed to become a focal point of the story.

But Buster Posey didn’t want to talk about it.

His first comment to reporters was, “I just want to focus on playing the game.” Then he ended the interview.

With space to consider the implications, the more it seems that Posey’s actions were deliberate, not delinquent. If that’s so, the primary question becomes whether the catcher knew about Strickland’s intentions in advance, which leads to two primary scenarios:

  • If he did, Posey likely attempted to dissuade the pitcher from hitting Harper, and was subsequently disgusted when Strickland ignored his advice.
  • If he didn’t, Posey was shocked into inaction, less in a too-surprised-to-move sort of way than a let-dude-fix-his-own-mess sort of way.

In the aftermath of the fight Monday night, in the Giants’ postgame clubhouse, Posey sat facing his locker as Strickland approached from the side to talk to him. What they said was private, but Posey never once turned to look at his teammate. It did not lend an impression of understanding or warmth.

On Tuesday, Strickland tried to put it behind him, saying, “I never once questioned or had to question Buster or anyone on this team. We’re here to win ballgames and I don’t look at it any further than that.”

Discussing the fight itself, Harper expressed some relief that Giants players didn’t get to him more quickly, with particular appreciation for San Francisco first baseman Michael Morse, Harper’s teammate in Washington in 2012, Harper’s rookie year. “I’m thankful that Mikey Mo and [Jeff] Samardzija collided, because Samardzija saw blood a little bit, I thought,” he said

Harper used the phrase “I’m very thankful for Mikey Mo” twice more in the conversation.

As for Morse, he said his intention, had he not collided with his teammate (resulting in a concussion that landed him on the 7-day DL), was to grab Harper and pull him the hell away from the pile. He likes the guy—went out of his way to protect him, not hurt him. How that sits with guys like Strickland or Samardzija, both of whom did see blood a little bit, is unknown.

Ultimately, focus on the situation grew so absurd that Harper even went so far as to suggest that baseball might be better off were players more emotionally in-tune. “If [Strickland] did have a problem,” he told reporters, “he could have talked to me during BP about it, said, hey, I don’t like the way you went about it.”

Then, realizing the folly of his suggestion, he sighed, “That’s not human nature, I guess.”

Let’s leave the last word, though, to Posey, with a sentiment that was, literally, his last word before shooing the gathered media away from his locker before Tuesday’s game. “Funny world we live in, isn’t it?” he said.

Indeed.

Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

Hats Off To (Bryce) Harper: Ill-Considered HBP Spawns Ill-Considered Response to Ill-Considered Mound Charge

 

Harper charges

The guy to watch is Buster Posey.

In the wake of yesterday’s headline-grabbing free-for-all between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland, one can learn volumes by watching the Giants catcher.

Sure, Strickland drilled Harper in the hip with as intentional a fastball as can be thrown by a grudge-carrying pitcher.

Sure, his reason—Harper did some staring and some yelling after homering off of Strickland for the second time during the 2014 playoffs—was thin.

Sure, Harper acted like a punk in his own right, throwing his helmet at the pitcher before charging the mound, a decision made all the worse by his wild inaccuracy.

Sure, the fight was intense, at least by baseball standards, with Harper and Strickland getting in at least one shot each, even as Giants Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija cinematically tackled each other while going after Harper.

It all provided some darn good theater on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon. But the person to watch was Posey.

In situations like yesterday’s, a catcher’s primary role is fight-preventer, his duty being to bear-hug an angry batter from behind before damage can be done to the pitcher. Not Posey. Not yesterday.

Harper took four-and-a-half angry steps before deciding to charge the mound. He took five more, plus a whole bunch of pitter-pats, once he started to run. Also, he threw his helmet.

Yet it wasn’t until Harper and Strickland began trading punches that Posey thought to approach the fracas, far too late to stop anything, or to even slow it down. That’s him, mask on, on the outside of the scrum looking in.

Why didn’t Buster do anything from the outset? Probably because he was nearly as annoyed at Strickland as Harper was. Because Strickland was redressing an issue from three seasons ago, in which the only injury was to Strickland’s ego, during a series the Giants won. (“I don’t even think [Strickland] should be thinking about what happened in the first round [of the playoffs],” Harper said after yesterday’s game. “He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”)

Posey may have been upset because Strickland decided that the time to do something was in the eighth inning of a game in which the Giants trailed by only two runs. (Given Strickland’s short-relief role, he doubtless felt that he had to seize any available opportunity. Harper’s postseason homers off him in 2014 represented the first two times the players ever met. Monday’s was the third.)

Sure, two were out and the bases were empty, but following Harper in the batting order were Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon—not exactly the cast you want to face out of the stretch. Sure enough, singles by Zimmerman and Murphy brought home pinch-runner Brian Goodwin to extend the Nats’ lead.

It was foreseeable. Posey foresaw it. And he knew that if the Nationals are to respond at some point during the series, he will likely be the one wearing the target. And he wasn’t pleased. So he stood there.

“Those are some big guys tumbling around on the ground …” Posey explained after the game in a San Jose Mercury News report. “It’ll be a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.” Uh huh.

Posey had every right to be angry with Strickland. Drilling Harper was a stupid decision at a stupid time. Still, it comes down to this: players are obligated to protect their teammates, no matter how much they may disagree with said teammates’ actions. They can offer chastisement in private, of course (one can only hope that Posey took such a tack with Strickland), but over the course of a season, any decision that frays a ballclub’s brotherhood is markedly unhelpful. When it comes to fights, the prevailing notion is: Protect your guys and sort out the details later. 

To that end, Posey failed. He failed not only Strickland, but every other Giants pitcher who might one day wonder whether Buster might have his back when things get weird.

The thing is, Posey wasn’t even alone. Look at Brandon Crawford trotting in from shortstop in the above clip, as if trying to delay his arrival. Maybe Crawford’s just not a fighter. Or maybe it’s a collective anti-Strickland sentiment, almost as if the guy had been making clubhouse pronouncements about his intention to get Harper, even in the face of veteran teammates advising him against it.

Which, given Strickland’s reputation, wouldn’t be surprising.  It all jumbles together in one inane stew that, no matter which angle one chooses, doesn’t look good for the Giants.

Posey watches

Update (5/30): Fox’s Ken Rosenthal suggests that Posey and Strickland may have had an understanding wherein Posey intentionally lay back to let things play out. This would explain a lot of things. Still, it doesn’t account for Posey’s complete lack of movement (were he prepared to act engaged while not actually engaging, one would expect that he’d try to sell it at least a little), nor the fact that Harper’s charge was decidedly unlikely in the first place.

 

Deke Appropriately

On the Nature of Dekes and What Constitutes Underhanded Baseball

kang-dekes

In Pittsburgh on Sunday, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang saw Bryce Harper motoring toward third with a clean triple, even as the throw from right fielder Josh Bell soared above two relay men and wide of the base. Faced with the possibility of Harper scoring on the overthrow, Kang did what he thought necessary—he applied a phantom tag.

Such a play, known as a deke (short for “decoy”), has long been a staple of major league baseball. In it, a fielder acts as if a play he has no chance of making is in front of him, so as to slow or stop a runner who might otherwise advance to the next base. The most prominent deke ever came during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch helped prevent Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith, at first base, from scoring on a double into the gap by pretending the blast never left the infield. Such a ploy can only work if the runner has no idea where the ball actually is, of course, but in that instance Smith did not. The run he failed to score cost his team dearly in a 1-0 loss. (The incident is discussed in depth in The Baseball Codes.)

The play was totally legit, and was likely the difference in Minnesota’s victory. However, it is not the type of deke we’re discussing today.

There is a difference between Knoblauch’s deke—and the panoply of plays like it that are seen around baseball all the time—and what Kang did to Harper. Smith paid no price outside of tarnished pride and a run off the scoreboard. Harper, however, was not so lucky. That’s because Kang’s decision to throw his glove down came so late in the play that the runner had no choice but to force himself into an ill-timed and awkward slide. (Watch it here.)

Such a play was described in The Baseball Codes:

A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Infielders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outfielder with the Pirates, was on first base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrel Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, flustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.

Sure enough, Harper jammed his thumb on the play, and left the game shortly thereafter.

Pertinent point: Gene Clines was a coach under Dusty Baker for six years in San Francisco and another four in Chicago. Now Baker manages the Nationals, and through his close friend knows all too well the dangers of a poorly thrown deke.

Washington pitcher A.J. Cole responded during Kang’s next at-bat by throwing a pitch well behind the hitter at shoulder-blade level. (Whether Baker ordered it is highly doubtful, based on his track record.)

Because Kang ducked as the pitch flew behind him, the pitch looked like it came in head-high. The Pirates took great and understandable exception to Cole’s message, and benches quickly emptied. (Watch it here.)

The dustup served to distract from the far more interesting discussion about the grey area of infield decoys. The clear difference between Kang’s tag and that of Derrel Thomas decades earlier is that there was clear benefit to Kang’s strategy—holding Harper at third. If he could have put down his deke in a timely fashion, giving Harper enough space to undertake a regular slide, it would have been fine.

Kang appeared to have had time to have done this, even after identifying the overthrow. Barring that, however, he still had another option:

Don’t do anything at all. Which is exactly what he should have done.

Update (9-27): Deking is wrong, but drilling is punishable. Cole just drew a five-gamer.

 

Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

Bryce Harper, Unwritten-Rules

Bryce Harper Hates Baseball’s Unwritten Rules. Like it or Not, He’s Also Their Standard-Bearer

 

Harper ESPN II

Bryce Harper is one with baseball’s unwritten rules. He understands them … and he disapproves. He’ll bend them and tousle with them and bunch them up and whack the league’s stodges over the head with them, smiling all the while.

Harper, though, is not like some of his celebrated—and celebratory—peers, whose blatant disregard for established baseball etiquette—Yasiel Puig’s bat flips, for example—seems as much a calculated an effort to increase their Q rating as anything else. For Harper, it’s more a function of his overall game, a bleeding at the edges of whatever it is that makes him great.

Harper is ESPN’s feature subject of the moment, in an excellent profile by Tim Keown. In it, he says this:

“Baseball’s tired. It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.

“Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”

In many ways, Harper is correct. This is no longer your father’s baseball league, wherein overt displays of emotion will earn a fastball to the earhole. Nolan Ryan has been retired for nearly a quarter of a century, and no standard-bearer has taken his place.

Puig, meanwhile, stands among an assortment of players who are more than happy to flip and grin and celebrate in ways that have traditionally been foreign to the major leagues. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s interesting that Harper referenced Jose Fernandez, though. The right-hander, among the game’s most exciting players, has earned wide latitude when it comes to displays of enthusiasm. His story, however, is one of maturation—much of which came during the course of a single game in September, 2013.

That day, during the final start of Fernandez’s rookie season, he got into it with Atlanta, for reasons running directly counter to Harper’s recent assessment. The pitcher grinned widely when Juston Upton’s would-be homer was caught at the wall, but failed to offer similar leeway an inning later, when Evan Gattis intentionally pimped a home run in response. Fernandez one-upped Gattis after hitting his own home run, not only watching it from the box until he was certain the Braves had noticed, but going into a glacial trot around the bases before literally spitting toward third base as he rounded the bag.

None of this, save for Fernandez’s initial grin, had anything to do with celebrating the game.

Which is where Harper’s point hinges. Fernandez could have maintained his hackles and defended his actions afterward, claiming that the Braves started things and that he was only responding. Perhaps it was Atlanta catcher Brian McCann waiting for Fernandez to reach the plate before informing him that he needed to start acting like a big leaguer. Maybe a voice of authority in the pitcher’s own clubhouse set him straight. (Then-manager Mike Redmond went so far as to set up a meeting at which Fernandez apologized to McCann and Mike Minor, the pitcher against whom he homered.)

Either way, Fernandez came clean to reporters in the postgame clubhouse.

“This isn’t high school no more,” he said in an MLB.com report. “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.”

Fernandez was talking not about his joie de vivre—he continues to enjoy himself like a madman on the baseball diamond—but his blatant disrespect of the opposition. To his credit, we haven’t seen anything like that from him since then.

Which brings us back to Harper.

As a former teenage phenom, he’s been picked on by a variety of big league veterans (and even umpires). Sometimes his response has been fine, sometimes less so. Harper’s unprovoked actions have been mostly solid. The guy plays fiery, including his attitude from the sidelines, and teams around the league have come to accept that. Which is as it should be.

It’s a lesson that needs special reinforcement as the game slides further away from a hard line against celebrations: So long as players’ on-field displays are focused inward, guys like Harper and Fernandez should have relatively smooth sailing. Directed at the opposition, however (take Harper’s own scuffing of the Braves logo in 2014, or his behavior after homering off of Hunter Strickland during the playoffs later that season), are a different matter.

It’s an important distinction. There are strong feelings on both sides of the divide—traditionalists who want no part of emotion on the diamond, and those who decry the Code as ancient hokum, unfit for the modern game.

As is usually the case, the truth lies someplace in between. Celebrations are here to stay, but disrespect is as reviled now as it’s ever been. Trouble is, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, which is where much of the problem lies.

Baseball is an ever-changing game, as are its unwritten rules. The sport is still feeling its way through this, but with guys like Harper and Fernandez at the helm, it should all work out just fine.

 

 

Inter-Team Fighting, Veteran Status

Every Story Needs a Bad Guy; This One Has Him – But Not For the Reason You Might Think

Pap vs. Harp II

Turns out that Jonathan Papelbon’s old-school-vs.-new-school emotional crisis last week was only the beginning. At least then he was hitting members of the opposition.

In the aftermath of his physical assault on Bryce Harper Sunday, caught on TV for all to see, we’re left to digest the complex implications of not only what happened, but why.

After Harper failed to run out trotted slowly to first on an eighth-inning popup to left field (but still plenty fast enough to make it if the ball was dropped), Papelbon began railing on his lack of hustle before the guy even made it back to the dugout. When Harper failed to exhibit the kind of subservience one can only assume Papelbon expected a 22-year-old to pay a veteran of his stature, the closer went for his throat, literally. (Watch it here.)

Over at Fox, former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski makes the case, citing unnamed current and former big leaguers, that it was Harper in the wrong, that young players in baseball must pay emotional servitude to their seniors, as it is and as it has always been.

There’s something to this. Rookies who watch quietly tend to absorb more than those whose energy is spent making their own voices heard. For generations, upstart rookies were not allowed to exist in a big league atmosphere; veterans worked tirelessly to tamp them down until they were no longer noisy. That’s no longer so. Part of it is top-tier signing bonuses that put many young players on comparable financial footing with veteran teammates. Part of it is players being rushed to the big leagues earlier and earlier, making them more prevalent to the overall culture than ever. Part of it is the collective realization that stifling one’s teammates is simply not a productive use of one’s time.

That, though, is not the real issue.

What Nitkowski fails to acknowledge in his treatise is that clubhouse standing is not based purely on seniority. Veteran status plays a part in it, of course, and by that measure Papelbon, with his 11 years in the big leagues and 34 years on the planet, has it all over Harper.

Production, however, trumps seniority. Harper has made three All-Star teams in his four years in the league, and has already earned more MVP votes than Papelbon ever did. He’s the best player not just on the Nationals but damn well in all of baseball.

Papelbon, on the other hand, has been with the Nationals for all of two months. If anybody gets traded over this incident, it’s not going to be Harper. By this measure—which is more real than whatever hokum Papelbon or his defenders want to spin about veteran status—Harper wins in a landslide.

That, though, isn’t the real issue, either.

Evidence points toward Papelbon’s anger stemming from Harper’s decision to go public with his frustration over the closer drilling Manny Machado last week, telling the press that the closer’s actions were “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

In that much Papelbon is correct: Those kinds of comments are better delivered behind closed doors than in a public forum. Had Harper sat Papelbon down for a heart-to-heart about the nature of baseball and how much it hurts to get drilled in retaliation for a teammate’s ill-considered actions, things between the two might never have reached the critical state they eventually did.

But even that is not the real issue.

For somebody sticking to his guns about the way things ought to be, Papelbon failed both himself and his old-school proponents. In drilling Machado for showboating, the closer could cite historical precedence; ballplayers of yore did it all the time, and by gum the game was better then, and etc. But even if we ignore the big picture that tells us that’s no longer the case—not to mention the fact that a reticence to evolve is one of the most damning characteristics a person or organization can foster—it’s impossible to miss Papelbon conveniently ignoring as solid a tenet as baseball’s unwritten rules contain: Don’t throw at a guy’s head.

Had Papelbon drilled Machado in the thigh or in the ass instead of sending two pitches above his shoulders, there’s a good chance that Harper would not have said anything at all. And had Harper not said anything, Papelbon would have had little reason to extend his vendetta to his own damn dugout. And therein we find the crux of the issue.

The hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy of players hiding behind semi-formed tenets of decorum while conveniently ignoring their own culpability in a given matter. (And never mind Papelbon’s postscript lip-service statement, “I’m in the wrong there,” delivered without a smidgen of guilt.)

The hypocrisy of meathead pitchers trying to leverage the unwritten rules to bolster their own macho need to exact a toll whenever they can, wherever they are, while claiming the moral high ground.

The hypocrisy of somebody shutting out every detail of a situation save for the ones that bolster his own point of view.

The American sporting public is a forgiving crowd, but only when we’re certain we’re not being played. Athletes are given second and third and fourth chances, provided they’re honest about whatever it was that plagued them in the first place. Jonathan Papelbon will never come out and say that he dislikes Bryce Harper for his combination of youth and ability and earning potential and clubhouse leadership at an age when Papelbon himself was pitching in the short-season Class-A league in Lowell, Mass.

Sure, Harper might be grating. Many stars are. Their status affords them that leeway. Papelbon, however, refuses to acknowledge that status, and couches it however he can to validate his actions.

It’s a weak mindset, and goes a long way toward explaining the abundance of burned bridges the closer has left in his wake. Most good stories need a hero to save the day. This one has only a villain, but at least it’s enough to keep things interesting.

Update, 9-28: The Nationals seem to agree, suspending Papelbon for what amounts to the duration of the season.

Retaliation

Has Baseball Evolved? To Judge by the Response to Ham-Handed Intimidation Tactics, It’s At Least Getting There

Papelbon

By their inherent nature, sports are built to promote the concepts of good guys and bad guys. It’s them-vs.-us in tribal glory, where the opponent is the enemy simply by dint of wearing the wrong colors. This is why when we are provided an actual heel—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, John Rocker—we so revel in lambasting him.

The series of events that began on Wednesday with Jonathan Papelbon needlessly drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado had all the makings for just such a scenario. Papelbon, the crotchety closer who’s pissed off opponents and teammates alike with three clubs over the last five years, was perfectly positioned as the foil, serving up behavior so outlandish that his own right fielder, Bryce Harper, publicly groused that he’d probably be the one to take the fall for it.

And then Buck Showalter stepped in. Finally, somebody who not only sees ludicrous things for what they are, but refuses to buy into a system that all but mandates senseless violence as an acceptable response mechanism.

The quick beats:

  • Machado hit a go-ahead homer off Nationals starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday, and admired it for a moment longer than Papelbon thought appropriate. Or maybe it was his pointing afterward, to the heavens, to the grandstand. Papelbon didn’t say.
  • Machado’s next at-bat came in the ninth, with the closer on the mound. Papelbon threw his second pitch up near Machado’s head; after it missed he did it again. Had Machado stayed in his crouch the ball would likely have connected with his cheek or ear. Because he stood up and spun toward the backstop, it merely ricocheted off the top of his shoulder. Papelbon was ejected immediately. (Watch it here.)

This goes beyond the simple etiquette of the unwritten rules. Once upon a time somebody like Papelbon could have gotten away with that kind of message pitch, informing the opposition that styling—even styling so slight as to have almost entirely evaded the TV replay—will not be tolerated, at risk of great physical peril. But baseball has moved on from that mindset, almost universally for the better. Machado did nothing outside the mainstream, his actions offensive only to the red-assed among us who cry that old-school retaliation is the only way to curb such offensive behavior.

Manny n BuckThe fact that Papelbon took things a step further, throwing two pitches near Machado’s head, is on its own merits worthy of a considerable suspension.

Modern-day baseball has graduated from making emotional slights physical. It’s not that skins have grown thicker over the years; it’s that as celebrations have become commonplace, most players just stopped caring about them. The question is no longer who thinks them worthy of retaliation, but who even notices.

On the other hand, Papelbon’s attack—an actual, physical assault with a baseball upon Baltimore’s best hitter—is the kind of thing that cries out for response. It would be easy to justify; when somebody goes full-bore loony, there are proven methods of getting his attention. Papelbon gave just such an opening to the Orioles, spurring Harper to grouse that the closer’s actions are “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

With that comment, Harper all but validated whatever response Showalter had up his sleeve. People filled the ensuing hours with discussion about when and how and on what part of the body Harper might wear one. And then we were surprised.

Showalter demurred.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he said in a Baltimore Sun report. “The best retaliation would be to win another game, right? That’s usually how it works. … The greatest form of revenge is success, isn’t that what they say?”

Can it really be that simple? Yep. Thursday saw no retaliation of any sort, save for Machado calling Papelbon a coward. And sure enough, the Orioles won. Like Showalter himself said, “That hurts more, especially when you take the high ground.”

Showalter knows whereof he speaks. Machado himself spurred a similarly embarrassing affair only last year, and the O’s skipper appears to want no part in revisiting any part of that mindset. Wednesday, Papelbon proved himself again as a heel who it’s fun to root against, but that, in sports, is old hat.

In avoiding unnecessary conflict, Showalter gave us the opposite—not just somebody worth cheering, but somebody worth emulating, a clean-cut cat whose clear-eyed logic carried the day. With the Orioles still holding an outside shot at a wild-card spot, Showalter allowed his team to do the one thing that’s absolutely necessary for the good of its immediate future: concentrate on playing baseball.

Well played, Buck. Well played.

Update 9-25: Well, there it is: three games for Pap.