Murphy’s law: Celebrate!

2019-06-14 TomLawless

Tom Lawless, the patron saint of bat flippers, starting his flip in Game Four, 1987 World Series . . .

The Fun Police have a new protester who played the game in an earlier era. And when Dale Murphy talks, it would be wise for the Fun Police to lend him their ears and not their billy clubs.

Murphy inaugurated his partial new life writing for The Athletic with a September 2018 essay in which he applauded doing away with throwing at batters on hot streaks. That was after the Marlins’ Jose Ureña was stupid enough to think the proper way to stop Ronald Acuna, Jr. from making mincemeat out of Marlins pitching was to open a game by drilling Acuna’s elbow.

The longtime Braves bombardier said then pitching inside is one thing but drilling hitters who offend you is something else entirely. “If Ureña thought he was being tough, he wasn’t. Good pitchers–and staffs–will take command of a situation before a guy is swatting home runs left and right. The Marlins kept throwing Acuña fastballs down the middle. Well, what did they think was going to happen? A light should have gone on. Hmm, maybe we should try something else.”

Now, Murphy wasn’t exactly amused when Madison Bumgarner barked at Max Muncy after Muncy drove one of Bumgarner’s offerings clean into McCovey’s Cove last week. Murphy was far more impressed not just that Muncy was sharp enough in spontaneity to hand Bumgarner a classic one-liner (I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean) that begat a classic troll shirt, but that Muncy had no qualms about even a lower-keyed celebration of, you know, achievement.

“Admiring a home run is OK,” Murphy writes in an essay published Friday. “Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged.” And he’s not limiting its encouragement to hitters alone, either. “Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out,” he writes. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.”

Last year, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle jumped onto the fun train. And he said he wanted more than just bat flips. “If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit,” he said. To which I myself added, “I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

“These are some of the best athletes in the world, competing against some of the other best athletes in the world, with generational wealth at stake,” writes Murphy. “Yet, they’re expected to play baseball like they’re doing calculus at afternoon tea.” My own expression was (and remains) that whereas Willie Stargell was right saying, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’,” if you want to play baseball like businessmen, take the field and check in at the plate in three-piece suits.

“In what other sport does this happen?” Murphy asks. “In what other sport is celebration considered disrespect? In football, guys plan celebrations. They choreograph them with teammates. They gesture when they get a first down. As far as I know, the world hasn’t ended.  Baseball is a strange place. It’s not OK to watch your home run, but it is OK for someone to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour at your head if you do.”

It’s still funny in anything but a ho-ho-ho way that when it’s free agency signing season the Old School wants us to remember they’re getting overpaid to play a game, for crying out loud . . . but when it’s time to actually play the game, God forbid the players look like they’re, you know, playing.

Murphy is careful not to say that those on the field who don’t like celebrating their achievements should be allowed not to like it, either. But he’s adamant that if they want to celebrate, they shouldn’t risk being decapitated the next time they bat against the pitcher they just took into the ocean. And, to Madison Bumgarner’s eternal credit, he didn’t even think about trying to flip Max Muncy when Muncy faced him the next time.

Neither did the arguable and unlikely father of the home run bat flip as we’ve come to know it face revenge.

I take you back to the 1987 World Series. The one in which no game was won on the road and the Twins won in seven. The one in which Tom Lawless—journeyman infielder, minus 2.1 wins above a replacement-level player, lifetime .521 OPS, lifetime hitter of two regular-season major league home runs, who hadn’t hit one out since 1984—squared up Frank Viola (a Cy Young Award winner the following season) with two on and nobody out, in the bottom of the fourth, in a tied-at-one Game Four, and hit a meaty fastball over the left field fence.

Lawless took ten leisurely steps out of the box up the first base line as the ball flew out. When it banged off a railing above and behind the fence, he flipped his bat about ten feet straight up into the Busch Stadium air before starting his home run trot. The crowd may have cheered as much for that flip as for the ball flying out in the first place.

“Look at this!” hollered then-ABC commentator Tim McCarver when showing it on a replay. McCarver and Al Michaels sounded absolutely exuberant. Viola didn’t exactly look thrilled to have just surrendered a tiebreaking three run homer, but he wasn’t exactly spitting fire or raging in the moment, either.

As Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler observes in Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, Viola never once retaliated for the Lawless flip. On 14 May 1989, Viola and Lawless met for the first time since that Series, with Lawless now a Blue Jay pinch hitting for Rob Ducey in the top of the fifth. Viola caught Lawless looking at a third strike in that pinch hit appearance. Lawless stayed in the game playing right field, of all places. He batted against Viola in the top of the eighth and grounded out to first.

Not once did Lawless face a knockdown or brushback.

It’s a shame someone didn’t teach that lesson to Hunter Strickland two years ago, when he opened against Bryce Harper by drilling Harper in the hip—over a couple of long, almost three-year-old postseason home runs the second of which Strickland thought Harper pimped, when the only thing Harper actually did was make sure the launch straight over the right field line and foul pole would fly out fair.

“I didn’t remember flipping it,” Lawless said after that ’87 Series game. “I’ve never been in a position like this before.” He never would be again, either. That blast was the only World Series hit of Lawless’s career, and he never played in the Series again.

In 2017, he told a Cardinals television broadcast interviewer, “I don’t have any idea why I did it. It just happened.” Spoilsport.


These foolish things

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins

Braves catcher Brian McCann with the ball that just zipped behind Jose Urena, squarely in his mitt, squarely behind Urena’s leg . . .

It didn’t take even an eighth as long as it took Hunter Strickland to let Bryce Harper have it over a pair of monstrous postseason home runs. But it took long enough, and was just as stupid. The other difference is that the Braves’ Kevin Gausman threw behind, not into the Marlins’ Jose Urena in the second inning Friday night.

If you need to know what Gausman intended, you don’t remember what happened last 15 August. When Urena threw what ESPN Stats & Info determined was the hardest and fastest pitch he’d thrown all year to that point right into Braves Rookie of the Year in waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s elbow to lead off the first.

Urena simply didn’t like Acuna treating the Marlins like batting practise pitchers. If they couldn’t get him out, Urena was going to try to take him out. And the warnings were handed out immediately after the umpires then tossed Urena on the spot.

Friday night, there were no warnings issued going in, not until Gausman—who’d just surrendered the tying run on an infield ground out after hitting Marlins third baseman Jon Berti with a pitch—sailed one behind Urena’s thighs.

When Urena drilled Acuna last August, he was condemned almost universally but quite rightfully for hitting him after he’d put on a long distance show for two nights running. Gausman himself suggested there might be consequences for that after that game.

“I think he decided he was going to handle it a certain way,” Gausman said after that game, which the Braves went on to win 5-2. “I don’t agree with it, but it’s his career and he’s going to have to deal with the consequences.”

You might have thought the consequences would have come sooner than Friday night. Usually though not exclusively someone else in the Marlins lineup might have faced a message pitch. On the same night. Even despite the warnings.

But none went forth that night last August. Or, in the subsequent set between the Braves and the Marlins in Miami later that month, one of which games Gausman himself started. Urena got a six game suspension for drilling Acuna, which a lot of people thought was impossibly lenient in the circumstance, and didn’t face the Braves in that Miami set.

Having sort of telegraphed it after last August’s postgame remarks, Gausman didn’t exactly deny premeditation after the Braves banked their 7-2 win Friday night, either. “Obviously, the umpire thought that there was a reason behind it and decided to throw me out of the game,” the righthander told reporters. “Obviously, MLB’s going to look at it, investigate it, so I’m not going to really comment anything further than that.”

Obviously, too, Gausman had his chances to send the Marlins a message last August if he wanted to. He could have replied in kind when the Marlins batted in the top of the second after Acuna was drilled, despite the warnings, sending one up and in just enough to drop the hint.

If those warnings were too much for him to think about, he could have sent the message later that month when the Braves went to Miami and he started one of the games.

He didn’t do it either time. Whether it was a mutual agreement among the Braves’ pitchers to wait until they might face Urena himself again isn’t known as I write. Just as Urena looked to one and all as though committing a premeditated act last August, Gausman looked the same Friday night.

At least Urena got the start for the Marlins this time, a mere eight months after drilling Acuna. It’s not as though Gausman had three years to plot revenge.

But the late Don Newcombe had a policy of going after the opposition’s hottest lineup hand whenever he thought they needed an immediate message to be sent, whether it was over their pitcher knocking down or hitting a Dodger batter or—as he did once with the Phillies—silencing a bench coach throwing racial insults at the Dodgers’ early black players by dropping Del Ennis, at the time the Phillies’ hottest hitter.

When Cubs pitcher Bill Hands opened a critical September 1969 showdown with the onrushing Mets by knocking Tommie Agee down leading off, Mets starter Jerry Koosman—following Newcombe’s policy—sent one up and in tight to Hall of Famer Ron Santo in reply the next inning.

“I knew right away I was going to go after their best hitter,” Koosman said years later. (Santo led the National League with 112 runs batted in at the time.) “You mess with my hitters, I’m going after your best one. I’ll go after him twice if I have to.” Santo got hit on the wrist as he fell away from the chin music.

“If it didn’t hit his arm,” Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda said, “it would have hit him onside his head.” Mets bullpen coach Joe Pignatano had another verdict: “Koosman won the pennant for us that night.” (Agee didn’t exactly shrivel, either: when he faced Hands again in the third that night, he sent one over the fence.)

Urena looked cowardly drilling Acuna last August after Acuna’d been a wrecking crew at the Marlins’ expense. But Gausman had his chances to send the Marlins a message last year and he didn’t take a one of them. He doesn’t look all that much better than Urena did. And there’ll be those saying his possible five- or six-game suspension won’t be sufficient, either.

The old school, which is discredited often enough and with cause these days, says there do come times to take one for the team. Especially when the season is still young and you’re less likely to cost your team something critical that you would be down the stretch of a pennant race. The Braves may be lucky it happened the third night of May.

If you doubt Gausman’s or the Braves’ premeditation, be advised they called up pitcher Touki Toussaint before Friday night. Guess who went out to pitch for the Braves after Gausman got the ho-heave, stopped the second inning bleeding, and pitched four total innings of one-run, six-strikeout ball to give the Braves’ bullpen a respite.

“In the end, the biggest failure in this situation has to fall on the umpiring crew,” says Call to the Pen‘s David Hill. “Anyone who saw that the Braves called up Toussaint, and that Urena was the opposing starter, had to know what was going to happen. That both benches were not warned prior to the start of the game, or that Gausman was ejected after throwing that pitch, is entirely their mistake.”

Not theirs entirely.

“From the beginning, they were saying I did it on purpose,” said Urena about the Acuna drill and Friday night’s festivities, “but look at how they did it. That’s the way they claim they are professional?” Unfortunately, when it comes to professionalism, Urena isn’t exactly in any position to talk.