Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Well, when you put it that way..."

[Note: This is not a Sunday post, but is a post about something that perturbs me in baseball, so other than creating a whole new label, I've just maintained "Sports Sunday." I do plan on posting Sunday's post at some point in the next 24 hours, but I can't help but add something like "knock on wood" to saying that, since I still see this as a large undertaking.]

I know tomorrow is the day I’ve designated for sports related affairs, but I don’t think I can put this post there. I’d like to somehow come off as the sports analyst that you see on TV now and then in those posts and this is just going to be a rant for all intensive purposes.

You know how they say that basketball is a non-contact sport and how that’s turned into as much an in-joke as any really comment to be made about the game? Well, in my opinion, baseball truly is about as close as you get to non-contact and that’s pretty much the way it should be. I understand the moves running the bases—sliding into the second baseman to break up a double play or the catcher in an attempt to score—but watching a batter get hit by a pitch, especially when it appears to be intentional, this kind of thing just rubs me the wrong way. It is one of those things that put everything into perspective and it really makes the whole sport look quite silly.

A man steps up to a plate with a club to defend himself from another guy who’s going to throw a hard ball at him that will probably come reasonably close to three digits in MPH. That sort of thing is just purely irrational. And what bothers me about it is that it is considered a respected part of the game.

I caution now that I am no pitcher and I watch enough MLB Network to understand that you have to pitch to a batter inside to throw him off track, you have to be able to throw things that he can’t predict, and you have to be able to keep him on his toes. And the unintentional hit by pitch is something I understand, something that doesn’t bother me for the most part. But a lot of these pitches are thrown blatantly at a batter and for no other reason than to hit him.

The other day, what was it? Friday? I’m watching MLB Network waiting for the Rays’ game to come on, since they’re playing in the northwest and puts their starting times near 10:00PM for the most part, or it might have been Thursday, their day off, when I see Vicente Padilla, a starter for the Rangers (who was recently designated for assignment, I’m pleased to add), hit Kurt Suzuki, because in a near-quote from Mitch Williams, “he gave up a home run earlier.” This kind of senseless violence is just the sort of narcissism that team sports are supposed to evaporate from our youth. And yet, stupidly and stubbornly, here they have held on.

Consider this: the pitcher is an even more removed character than the quarterback is in football. In the American League, the Junior Circuit, the one that includes the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics (the ones unfortunate to become the vented upon victims of someone like Padilla), the pitchers don’t even hit unless some traumatic course of action has forced them into the batters’ box. I’m never going to be a hitter in any sort of baseball game other than the one where a few people get together to play a few innings and even then I’d undoubtedly get picked last, but I think I can imagine the kind of fear you must feel coming up to the plate knowing the ball could be coming at you at any moment.

This Padilla to Suzuki (ironically the catcher for the As) HBP of course brought about the Oakland response in the form of hitting Texas star third baseman and starting All-Star (due to an infected cut in the hand of Evan Longoria, if I heard it right) Michael Young. What this brought about, in the long run, for someone like me, was vindication, in the form of a Suzuki home-run against Padilla after the Athletics’ retaliation forced warnings from the home plate umpire about the possibility of hitting batters and all but retired the inside pitch for the night.

This is, however, no isolated incident, and, sadly in my opinion, a very respected and continued part of the game of baseball. Even in the National League, where I think the pitchers who do hit people intentionally should be the ones to get pelted back, this same soreness leaks in quickly.

I think it was the day before when Manny Ramirez, the star player in Los Angeles, the one I would contend to say does not mean as much to the Dodgers as most people think, got hit by a pitch that it seemed like everyone, even Manny, saw as an innocent mistake by the pitcher. Well, maybe not so innocent, but an inside pitch that wasn’t meant to hit him. Like I’ve said, I’m more than willing to give you the benefit the doubt here, if you’re on the mound in a situation like this.

Guillermo Mota is the one who pissed me off in this game. Coming in the ninth inning of this smashing of the Milwaukee Brewers (the Dodgers lead at this time was by a score of something like 17-4), he hits one of Milwaukee’s star players (and one of the biggest guys in baseball), current Home Run Derby champion Prince Fielder in the foot. This was completely uncalled for and Prince showed himself to be heated at the time.

The story to hit SportsCenter was, of course, Fielder’s later attempt, after the game, to get into the Dodgers’ club house and get at Mota. To do what exactly, I’m not sure. Perhaps I am biased by a personal liking toward Fielder and the current Milwaukee team, but I can’t seem him beating Mota senseless. However, I can feel his hatred to some extent. It would seem like such an irrational play would strum up more than just personal anger toward the pitcher but also some disillusionment toward the game itself. Bobby Jenks, the Chicago White Sox closer who openly admitted to throwing behind a batter intentionally was fined a reported $750. Chump change to professional sports players in America, no matter what they play these days. And similar cases that have followed have done little to elevate this slap on the wrist.

And finally, on a somewhat more personal note, I would like to discuss the tale of Winston Abreu and the Cleveland Indians. The first bad taste from the Indians that I got this year was I believe game three of the four game series against the Rays at the Trop, here in Tampa. Kerry Wood, the relatively recent addition to Cleveland, a man with enough control to have struck out twenty batters in one game, was brought in with the apparent intention of hitting BJ Upton and no other goals in mind. Good luck for the Rays came in the form of two inside pitches that both barely missed their center fielder and the anger I felt for my team was obviously multiplied on the face of their manager, Joe Maddon, who was shown in uncharacteristic fashion, cursing from the dugout back towards the umpire.

This left a sour taste in my mouth in strict contrast with what was otherwise a very solid series, the Rays taking three of four from Cleveland. My team would fair much worse later on in Cleveland where they would get swept in four games, but the story I have to tell has to do with current Rays’ minor leaguer Winston Abreu.

Abreu was brought up only once, in my knowledge, by Tampa Bay, and would find his way to Cleveland. Remembering their earlier incident with Wood and Upton, consider my chagrin upon hearing that Abreu was fined and suspended (I think it was both), by MLB for throwing at a batter. Shortly thereafter Abreu was sent down to the minors by the Indians and was able to find his way back here to St. Petersburg, the part of the Tampa Bay area where the Rays play. Now, of course, he’s pitching with the Triple-A team in Durham, but please grant me poetic license.

And I got to thinking—that has to be a horrible life, strolling around the minor leagues, never being good enough to be kept around by a major league team, and only being called up to hit batters because you’re expendable. Playing a sport you love in a way that you’d most certainly hate.

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