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.

 

A method to Donaldson’s madness?

2019-06-11 JoshDonaldson

If Josh Donaldson was really furious over his jersey being brushed by an inside pitch, rather than the pitch actually hitting him, he’s baseball’s biggest crybaby. But if he was trying to rattle the Pirates into a starter’s ejection and an unexpected bullpen game when their pitching staff is already addled, he might be a genius . . . might . . .

Next to the question of former Red Sox bombardier David Ortiz’s prognosis following his being shot in a Santo Domingo ambush Sunday, baseball’s number one question Monday night just might have been, “Who whacked Josh Donaldson and Joe Musgrove with the stupid stick?” Don’t be sure anyone’s in a big hurry to claim responsibility for the deed.

Musgrove pitched to Donaldson in the bottom of the first with Dansby Swanson on third following a one-out double and a ground out advance. The Pirates righthander started Donaldson with a four-seam fastball inside. The ball grazed Donaldson’s jersey so obviously you could see it flap like a flag in the high wind.

It never touched the Braves’ third baseman.

Donaldson and Musgrove shared some glares as Donaldson began walking to first base. Pirates catcher Elmer Diaz stepped forward to try urging Donaldson toward first and Donaldson all but threw him to one side as if hoisting a sack of feed from a warehouse pallet.

Out came the benches. And out of the game went Donaldson and Musgrove, not to mention Pirates manager Clint Hurdle after he hustled to the umps to argue against Musgrove’s ejection.

Some thought Donaldson smirked at Musgrove as he stepped away from the batter’s box. Some thought Donaldson hollered words along the line of, “What the [fornicate] are you looking at, [female dog]?”

I can’t help wondering whether there wasn’t a little mischievious gamesmanship involved in the whole thing to begin with. Leo Durocher, Billy Martin, pick up the house phones. As a Pirates beat writer, Adam Berry, noted aboard Twitter, the Pirates at the moment didn’t have an actual starting pitcher to use for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games against the Braves. The last thing they needed Monday night was an unanticipated bullpen game to open the set.

But now Musgrove is likely to get the Thursday start, since he only worked two-thirds of an inning before the jersey brush. Except that he was originally scheduled to make his next start against the Marlins come Saturday. There goes that start. And though the Marlins normally make the Pirates resemble the Yankees, this year’s Fish have become known for making a few tough times for a few actual or alleged contenders now and then.

And for better or worse the Pirates seem to be the National League’s leading mound dusters this season. But the last thing they needed Monday was another pitching issue after sending Jordan Lyle to the injured list with a tightened hamstring.

“We’ve had no beef in the past until now,” Musgrove told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the game. “For him to act that way and I did nothing but stand my ground. I hit him with the pitch and he stared at me and tried to intimidate me and I’m not going to let that happen. I looked back at him and he had a few words to say. He crossed the line and came at me. I took my hat and glove off and got ready to fight. I don’t know what else you can do in that situation.”

Musgrove may have been ejected less for the pitch itself than for throwing his hat to the ground angrily as the teams began scrumming. Hurdle still wasn’t happy about his man getting the ho-heave. “The hard part is watching a man cross the line and push the catcher out of the way,” Hurdle said of Donaldson’s shoving Diaz. The pitcher drops his hat and glove and . . .

“Since the time we’ve been on the playground at six-year-old we’ve tried to find ways to stand our ground,” the skipper continued. “I understand that in a vacuum saying that you shouldn’t throw your hat down, but if you’ve played the game or been around sports there’s time when you drop your hat and glove. The hard part is if the batter goes to first none of this happens.”

Is it possible Donaldson was aware enough of that scenario that he was willing to take one for the team in order to leave the already-vulnerable Pirates staff completely at the potential mercy of the Braves’ swingers with their bullpen in earlier than hoped for? The 13-7 Braves win certainly makes it look that way.

Because even though the Braves ended up going calmly in the bottom of the first, and Braves starter Kevin Gausman kept it 1-0 after a leadoff base hit in the top of the second, the Braves broke out the cudgels in the bottom of the second: a leadoff hit batsman, a walk, a runner-advancing ground out, a strikeout that loaded the bases thanks to the passed ball on strike three, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. coming to the plate. Acuna turned on a hanging curve ball from Alex McRae and drove it halfway up the left field bleachers.

If only it was one of Gausman’s better nights. Starling Marte hit the first pitch he saw in the top of the third over the center field fence with Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds aboard and nobody out. Part of it was Gausman’s own fault, after he threw offline trying to force Newman (leadoff single) at second on Reynolds’s grounder back to the mound.

Now both teams were into each other’s bullpens. Ozzie Albies flattened McRae’s hanging changeup on 1-2 and sent it into the left center field bleachers in the bottom of the third. If McRae was trying to take one for his team, what he took was almost cruel and unusual punishment when he walked Swanson to open the Atlanta fourth and Freddie Freeman drove a 2-1 fastball not far from where Acuna’s salami landed.

Geoff Hartleib had the dubious pleasure of seeing the score swell to 9-4 when Nick Markakis drove home his 1,000th career run on a single up the pipe. His teammates toasted him after the game. “It just means I’m getting old,” Markakis cracked to reporters.

Albies made it 10-4 in the seventh with a solo over the center field fence. Marte saw him leading off the top of the eighth with a first pitch bomb off former Met Jerry Blevins. Later in the inning, with Dan Winkler having relieved Blevins, pinch hitter Corey Dickerson shot a two-run single to make it 10-7.

So, naturally, in the bottom of the eighth, Johan Comargo, who’d replaced Donaldson after the jersey brush, singled Swanson home before Markakis, apparently deciding he wasn’t getting that old, hit a two-run homer. And Jacob Webb shook off a two-out walk to sink the Pirates in the top of the ninth.

“Musgrove and Donaldson have no particular history, and these teams are not rivals,” wrote Deadspin‘s Chris Thompson, who called Musgrove and Donaldson steakheads for their trouble. “And the ball that ‘hit’ Donaldson didn’t actually hit him at all. There was no reason for anyone involved to feel proud or pissed or slighted or triumphant, at all.”

But maybe, just maybe, Donaldson wasn’t as much of a steakhead as he looked.