OK, so here's the deal: I get why pitchers sometimes throw at hitters. I'm not saying I approve of it or agree with it or even like it … but I get it. Baseball, despite its relatively peaceful rhythms, comes from a violent past. There are scores to settle, messages to send, players to intimidate. Throughout the game's history, there has been an understanding that pitchers can and will make specific points to their opponents by throwing inside.
Don't get too comfortable.
The inside of the plate belongs to me.
Don't hit my teammate with a pitch.
Don't show us up.
We're here to take you guys out.
And so on. The pitchers do not actually have to HIT the batter to send these messages, by the way. Quite often, they don't. Bob Gibson did not hit that many batters in his career -- he never even once led the league in hit-by-pitch, and over a career Jamie Moyer and Aaron Sele among dozens hit more batters than Gibby. But Gibson knocked down enough batters to push him to the top of any list of most intimidating pitchers. As Billy Williams once said: "He left you leaning a little bit away.*"
*Roger Kahn in the incomparable "Boys of Summer" tells the story of a particularly dangerous pitch. The Dodgers were playing the Giants, and that rivalry famous for its intensity, and at one point the Giants threw at Brooklyn's Joe Black, this after making numerous racial taunts. The next inning … well, I cannot top Kahn's description of the pitch Joe Black threw:
"The object, supposedly, is to frighten, not to maim. Against a journeyman white outfielder named George Washington Wilson, from Cherryville, North Carolina, Black drew the perfect line. Wilson, who batted left-handed, dug in his spikes, cocked his bat, and Black powered a fastball at the body, shoulder high. Wilson ducked, in absolute if understandable panic, pulling his head down with such force that his baseball cap came off. The pitch sailed through the narrow daylight, no more than a foot, between the cap and the cranium of George Washington Wilson. He got up quickly, utterly ashen, and popped up the next pitch, with a quarter swing. The Dodgers won, 10 to 2. The pennant was sure."
So, anyway, I get why pitchers throw at hitters. I think I often understand the unwritten rules of the game -- or anyway, I thought I did. But Sunday's game between the Tigers and Angels offered a moment that I have to admit entirely baffled me. There seems to have been a shift in baseball's code that happened when I wasn't watching. And a lot of other people seemed to get the memo, even if I did not.
OK, so best I understand it, here's what happened: Sunday, we had one of those awesome pitching matchups between Detroit's Justin Verlander and the Angels' Jered Weaver. I would say they are two of the three best pitchers in the league at the moment -- with CC Sabathia in the mix -- and they are pitching at a ludicrously high level at the moment. Weaver, as the announcers pointed out several times, had won eight straight decisions. His previous 12 starts, he was 8-0 with a 1.28 ERA and the league had hit .197 with two home runs in those 91 innings pitched. Absurd.
Verlander, in some ways, was even better. Since May 7 -- that was the day he threw his second career no-hitter -- the league had hit .176 against him and his strikeouts-to-walks was 127-to-19. Absurd. Sick. The guy was a no-hitter waiting to happen on any given day. And this looked like one of those days.
The performances lived up to the expectation. Verlander threw 7 2/3 no-hit innings and he threw some ridiculous pitches, absurd pitches, 101 mph fastballs, shell game sliders, The Matrix change-ups. Ridiculous. And Weaver, with his hard slider, his own bullet-defying change-up and his sheer intensity was almost as good. Almost. In the bottom of the third, in a scoreless game, Weaver started off Magglio Ordonez with a hanging slider, and even though Ordonez at age 37 is pretty much spent as a hitter, well, muscle memory kicked in. He crushed the ball over the left-field wall.
That's where the trouble began. Ordonez did walk slowly out of the box and watch the ball go over the fence … Ordonez has always seemed a classy player and so my own sense is that he was just watching the see if the ball went fair or foul. Weaver, in the heat of the moment, was not quite so forgiving in his assessment. He clearly thought Ordonez was trying to show him up. And he was also probably pretty ticked off that he threw a hanging slider. All of it led him to shout some rather course words at Ordonez, this in full view of the Tigers bench and the Tigers crowd and so on. OK. Put that in the memory bank.
Now, as they used to say on the old Notre Dame highlights show, we move to later action. It's the bottom of the seventh. Verlander has now thrown seven no-hit innings. The score is 2-0 Detroit. Weaver pitches to Carlos Guillen, who has been a fine player in his career but who has only played in 163 games the last three seasons combined -- this was only his 14th game of the year. Guillen turned on a 3-2 fastball … a big home run for many reasons.
And Guillen watches it go. And he watches. He takes a step. He then takes another step. He turns his head ever so slightly and looks at Weaver, then holds out his right arm and drops the bat dramatically. He fully turns to look at Weaver and hops. I haven't seen anyone try so hard to steal a scene since the last Mel Brooks movie I saw. If he could have, Guillen would tried to steal Weaver's girl, scratched Weaver's car, stolen Weaver's lunch and if he had access to a metal folding chair he probably would have tried to hit Weaver with it. It was as bush league as anything I can remember for a long time.
Or anyway, that's what I thought about it. And that's what I mean by the changing code. Because I was soon told by the good people of Twitter that Guillen's little act was not, in fact, bush league at all. No! Apparently, Guillen was "standing up for a teammate." I got this line over and over again from Tigers fans (and perhaps some neutral fans as well). This whole deal -- watching the ball, dropping the bat, staring at the pitcher -- was in some way supposed to be a punishment for Weaver yelling at Ordonez earlier in the game. Guillen was actually doing the RIGHT THING by acting like a jerk.
I couldn't believe my Twitter. Is this really where baseball has gone? Really? Retaliation by posing? But again and again, this was what people said. And then, when the game ended, GUILLEN actually said the same thing: "Somebody put down my teammate," he told Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press. "We're a team," he told MLB.com.
Well, I have to say: This was a new one on me. Showboating as revenge. Grandstanding to send a message. Taunting for the good of the team. People, at least some people, not only didn't BLAME Guillen, they praised him. Good for him. He backed up a teammate. He sent a message.
I didn't get it. I still don't get it. What message? Wasn't the HOME RUN the message? How does taunting the pitcher after hitting it send any message at all? A fastball into the side of the ribs, OK, I get the point. That hurts. But have we really reached a point in America where teams retaliate by sticking their thumbs in their ears, waving their fingers around and shouting "Nanny nanny boo boo?"
There was something else about Guillen's amateur hour act and the people who wanted to explain it away that bugged me … they said he was doing it to stand up for a teammate. Fine. But by doing it he had to KNOW that the next batter was going to get plunked. I mean there was never even a second of doubt that Weaver was going to throw at Alex Avila. The umpire knew it, which is why he walked out to warn Weaver and then warned both benches. The fans knew it. The announcers knew it. Everyone knew it. He was absolutely going to throw at Avila. How about what Guillen did for THAT teammate?
Weaver did throw a high fastball somewhere near Avila's head, which is an absolute no-no and he was rightfully tossed from the game and rightfully castigated by people. And I don't want in even the slightest way downplay that. But I have to say this -- and Tigers announcer Rod Allen said it at the time: I don't think Weaver had any intention of hitting Avila. The pitch had a clear purpose, but it was well over Avila's head (I don't think it would have hit Avila even if he had stood frozen like a statue), and Avila did not have go to the ground or anything like that. He bent down and the ball was probably three feet over his head. I'm not excusing it -- you can't throw the ball anywhere near anyone's head. And if your aim is even slightly off, you can kill somebody throwing a pitch up there. No excuse. Ever. But Weaver did not hit Avila and did not come especially close to hitting Avila and I honestly don't think he WANTED to hit Avila.
There are obviously no good guys in any of this … and it's a shame that it happened while Verlander was pitching a no-hitter. It seems to me that if Guillen wanted to be a good teammate, he would have hit the home run -- the sort of thing that used to send its own message -- and then run around the bases, and given his pitcher the best opportunity for a little history. But a lot of people disagree and think Guillen was doing something almost noble by showing up Jered Weaver. Hey, maybe they're right. Maybe that's what the unspoken rules say now. That's the great thing about baseball. You always learn something new.