Friday, April 07, 2006

One Hit (To the Body)

Game 3 – Mets

Mets 10, Nationals 5
Record: 2-1

It was a wild one at Shea last night – the kind of ballgame where the better team doesn’t always win. The Mets, however, seemed to take everything in stride and perform at precisely the proper moments. The game featured five beans, three big taters, a minor rhubarb, and a medley of strange plays. Plus, there was Nick Johnson’s facial hair, which we would label a “succotash.” Onions! (As an aside, Jose Lima got peppered in Norfolk’s opening game last night.)

The tension between the Nats and Mets had risen substantially the night prior, when Alfonso Soriano had gotten hit in the gourd. (That’s all, I promise.) Add in a couple of close finishes in the first two games, the excitement of the season-opening series, and the drama of an intra-divisional rivalry, and you need only a small spark to set these teams off. Enter Pedro “Zippo” Martinez.

Pedro clearly is not yet in his groove after an abbreviated spring, as evidenced by the lack of the pinpoint control for which he’s known. The extra zip on his fastball might never be seen ‘round these parts again, but there is reason to expect him to spot his pitches better in the not-too-distant future. As it was, there were flashes of the same old Pedro, most notably in his penchant for working the inner part of both the plate and the rib cage.

In truth, it really didn’t look like Martinez was trying to plunk the Nats. I know, I know, Pedro tendered his benefit of the doubt years ago, but it’s not that difficult to discern who’s going headhunting and who’s just wild out there. And Pedro simply looked wild.

Make no mistake – I’ve made no bones about my disdain for the false bravado that passes for loyalty and respect in baseball’s beanball lore. For as long as balls have been tossed to batters in this game, they’ve also been tossed at them. Hitting guys in retaliation is part of the game and can actually be a good measure to rein in aggressive pitchers and build camaraderie within a club. Like just about everything in baseball and beyond, it can be abused by know-nothings. In this case, there are teams of intense young men filled with excessive amounts of testosterone (either natural or injected) placed in competitive, high-pressure situations in a setting that permits them to take out their aggression dangerously while passing themselves off as safeguards of the game.

Just to be clear, here’s a little cheat sheet for HBP’s:


1. If it’s late in a close game with runners aboard, first base occupied, the pitcher’s walked five or more batsmen, and he hits you with a slow curveball in the elbow as you lean towards the plate, chances are good it was not intentional. Please take your base quietly.
2. If you homered last time up, first base is open, the game is getting out of hand, the pitcher’s been dead-on accurate all day, and on a 2-0 count he hits you in the back with a fastball, chances are good it was intentional. You may take your base after the trainer checks you out; you may choose to charge the mound, though chances are you will be ejected and suspended. By all means, however, leave the bat in the batter’s box. Remember also that a simple glare and a shake of the head as you trot to first may be a much more effective solution than getting your ass handed to you by 25 guys wearing spikes.
3. If your situation falls somewhere in between, gauge which is the more likely answer. The grayer the area is, the less acceptable fighting over it will be. Just remember that figuring this out is not rocket science.


4. If #1 has occurred, retaliation is not acceptable and will be treated as an instigatory #2 on its own. The exception will be if three or more #1’s occur within a nine-inning game, or if the opposing pitcher doubled over laughing after hitting someone.
5. If #2 has occurred, retaliation is acceptable under certain guidelines:
--- Fastballs at the face are never acceptable and are appropriately punishable by suspension, a beatdown, a trash-can stuffing, and a Melvin.
--- Aim for the body, give the man his base, and be done with it. Leave the histrionics to the fans, mascots, and Pedro Martinez.
--- Unprovoked #2’s deserve a retaliation against the infracting pitcher. There’s no reason the power-hitting third baseman deserves a welt on his hip because his teammate is a jackass. In the American League, of course, . . . the designated hitter should be abolished.
--- Once the retaliation has made teams “all square,” do not prolong the hostilities unnecessarily with more beanings. The business of winning the game should come first, and this subculture of the game at hand should be viewed as exactly that.
6. If a #3 has occurred, err on the side of caution. Remember, once a warning has been issued, all #1’s are considered #2’s by the umpiring crew, and this can work against your team’s chances of winning.

Corollary A: Fighting
A-1:Fighting is a dangerous undertaking and should be entered into seriously. Unlike most folks on the street, your entire livelihood could be affected in a brawl. Just ask Bill Lee.
A-2: If you absolutely must fight, fight. Duke it out one-on-one. No cheap shots, no ganging up, just you versus the man who hit you. Use your off-hand if you can. No karate, for Pete's sake.
A-3: Bullpens should remain in the bullpen. If you must vacate the pen, meet the other team’s bullpen somewhere in centerfield for a rumble, Jets vs. Sharks style. Singing is optional.

Corollary B: Pitching Inside
In many cases, there is a significant difference between pitching inside and headhunting. Occasionally, it’s merely a matter of a few inches and semantics, but it’s well within the rules of baseball and sportsmanship for a pitcher to throw inside. Moving hitters off the plate has been a tactic among the sport’s best arms since the days of wearing glorified gardener’s gloves. No mound should ever be charged for a brushback from the letters on down.

Corollary C: Posturing
C-1: Here’s a conversation that has yet to take place on a baseball field:
“Sorry about hitting you in the neck with that pitch.”
“That’s okay. It was an accident.”

This is another area where machismo and boys trying to be men but really being boys takes place. If you hit a guy, there is no rule that indicates you must be stoically indifferent or demonstrably affirmative. If one got away from you and you nearly put a guy into the medic ward, it’s okay to express remorse and actually make utterances as heart-wrenchingly emotional as “Sorry, dude.” Instead, we see guys deliver a post-plunk scowl as if to say “Damn right” in even the most inadvertent of HBP’s.

This all seems a little bit “Mr. Rogers meets Dr. Phil,” but these obvious concepts seem to elude ballplayers all the time. And with skippers like Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella preaching a gospel that goes beyond eye-for-an-eye, on-field incidents will continue to occur with regularity. I just hope what has passed for fighting of late sticks to the comical and avoids the injurious. The Mets have too much riding on this year to lose guys that way.

* * *

Anyway . . . after all of the fireworks, Pedro promptly surrendered a bomb to Nick Johnson to tie the game. It was then the Mets seemed to go into overdrive, a gear not available on previous models of the New York Metwagon.

Carlos Delgado hit a laser over the right-field wall; Carlos Beltran added a two-run job from the right side of the plate; Cliff Floyd doubled in a run; Jose Reyes recorded a stand-up triple with incredible ease. David Wright is playing brilliant ball out of the gate, as is Xavier Nady. Relievers Duaner Sanchez and Chad Bradford looked dominant, and the defense (minus a big error by Mr. Martinez) held fast. Meanwhile, the bounces continued to go the Mets’ way – little things like Pedro getting an RBI single and the ejections sticking to the Nats’ side despite the difference in hit batsmen.

There is still work to be done. Pedro’s second start, also slated to be against the Nats, is bound to feature more of the same distractions, but the Mets really need him to get into his groove. The bench/pinch-hitters, a huge bright spot for the Mets last year, seem to be a weakness thus far. And Anderson Hernandez still has yet to get a hit. I know it’s nitpicking, but eventually we are going to need one or two from him as the season wears on.

Wow, those are pretty paltry complaints at this early juncture. I guess 2-1 with the offense starting to roll isn’t such a bad place to be.

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