Today’s Hit and Run checks in on some badly behaving ballplayers (and umpires), including Will Smith becoming the latest pitcher to get the boot for doctoring a ball, Bryce Harper's showdown with umpire Marvin Hudson, and more.
1. Slick Willie
In an incident that's sure to spur the annual dance around the difference between the rule book and its application, Brewers reliever Will Smith was ejected in the seventh inning of Thursday night's game against the Braves for applying a foreign substance to the ball. Rather, he was ejected for doing it in such blatant fashion that the opposing manager and umpire chose not to ignore it, and now faces an eight-game suspension that's far out of proportion to the severity of the violation.
Smith entered the game with a glistening mixture of rosin and sunscreen on his right forearm, and after hitting the first batter he faced (Pedro Ciriaco) on a pitch that bounced in front of the plate to load the bases, he got ahead 0–2 on the second (Jace Peterson), at which point Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez asked the umpires to check him. Crew chief Jim Joyce quickly discovered the offending goo and tossed Smith, who claimed that he was using the mixture to get a better grip on the ball on a cool and windy night. Via the box score, first-pitch temperature was 74 degrees, but the Brewers' announcers remarked upon the conditions at the time the incident occurred:
Via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt, Smith claimed he wasn’t trying to get an advantage:
"It was chilly and kind of windy," Smith said. "I had sunscreen and rosin on my arm (while warming up in the bullpen). I just forgot to wipe it off before I went out and pitched. I had to kind of get ready in a hurry and just forgot."
…"You want to be able to feel the ball; that's it. It's just grip. It's not going to spin more; you're not going to throw harder. You've got what you've got."
For Gonzalez, the violation was simply too obvious:
"It's pretty blatant, really," Gonzalez said. "It's glistening through the lights. You could see it in the dugout. I never went out there until he went to (the substance). The whole time he pitched to (Pedro) Ciriaco he never went to his wrist, but the first or second pitch to Peterson he went to it.
"That's when I went out to the home plate umpire to check. I'm sure they got a better look than I did, but it didn't take them very long to eject him. When you try to be that blatant, sometimes you've just got to do what you have to do."
Brewers manager Craig Counsell and Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman both attested to the commonality of the practice, with Counsell saying, "It's very common … It goes on on the other side, I guarantee you. It's the rule. I think pitchers are using it but I guess you've got to be discreet about it." Added Freeman, "Every pitcher does it. As a hitter, you want them to do it so they'll have a better grip so we won't get hit in the head."
By now, this debate over the enforcement of Rule 8.02 regarding what a pitcher is allowed to do with a baseball is a familiar one. Doctoring the ball is a time-honored practice, part of an endless cat-and-mouse game between pitchers, managers and umps so long as it's done discreetly. Rarely does a manager call an opponent out because of the likelihood that someone on his own staff will be called out as well. Sometimes, the application of a substance is interpreted as a pitcher using something to gain a competitive advantage and he's hit with a long suspension, while other times, it's dismissed as merely a tool of the trade under adverse conditions and shrugged off. While that would make sense if the substance applied to the baseball were clearly a slick one that could alter the flight of the ball instead of a sticky one used for the purposes of gripping it, that hasn't been the case. Consider:
• Last April, the Yankees' Michael Pineda was suspended 10 games after pine tar was discovered on his neck. The Red Sox had spotted him using it—apparently to improve his grip in cold weather—in a start against them two weeks earlier, at which point Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz testified to the practice's ubiquity. The second time around was too blatant for Boston manager John Farrell's taste, and the league handed down a punishment that was longer than many pitchers get for intentionally hitting batters.
• Yet in the 2013 postseason, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester's use of pine tar on his glove—spotted by television cameras—was shrugged off by MLB vice president Joe Torre, because neither the Cardinals nor the umpires complained.
• Earlier in 2013, Boston's Clay Buchholzwas accused by Blue Jays announcers Dirk Hayhurst and Jack Morris, both former major league pitchers, of using what was apparently a mixture of rosin and sunscreen, though as no on-field complaint was made, he was never disciplined, either.
Because player safety is at stake and should be a top priority, one way or another, it's time for MLB, umpires and the players' union to clarify and codify what's accepted practice and what's out of bounds, and to agree on sensible punishments. If Pineda or Smith is losing as many as 10 games to pine tar while Cole Hamels is getting five for intentionally drilling Bryce Harper (as happened in 2012), or when Yordano Ventura is getting seven for instigating a benches-clearing brawl and Kelvin Herrerafive for throwing at Brett Lawrie, then the game's system of protecting players and meting out justice is way out of whack. As Cliff Corcoran suggested last year in the wake of the Pineda kerfuffle, it would make sense to adjust the rule, perhaps to allow managers to agree before a game that substances would be allowed in cold weather, or to allow substances to be accessed so long as a pitcher isn't on the rubber, or to make grip-aiding substances something less than an ejectable offense.
2. Heated Harper and Hudson
Speaking of Harper, while nobody in baseball is swinging a bat quite as hot as the 22-year-old phenom—.333/.472/.732, leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and homers (15)—home plate umpire Marvin Hudson sent him and Nationals manager Matt Williams for cold showers during Wednesday night's game. Both were ejected following a dispute involving a borderline pitch, some commentary from the Washington dugout, and Hudson's attempt to get Harper back in the batter's box.
In his third-inning at-bat against Adam Warren, Harper took a breaking ball for a strike, though the MASN on-screen graphic suggested it was below the bottom edge of the zone. Harper didn't like the call, and neither did Williams. The batter stepped out of the box as the umpire told the manager to cool it. When Hudson told Harper to get back in, he stuck his right toe in as if to say, "I was just there," and was then given the heave-ho. An irate Williams came out to argue and was tossed; he kicked dirt over the plate before departing. It made for an entertaining spectacle, to say the least:
It appeared to be an overreaction on the part of an umpire who missed a call and then stirred up trouble. Harper was in the box when Hudson removed his mask and began his exchange with Williams, but he seemed to take issue with his wandering away while the two continued. After the game, Hudson claimed that the ejection had nothing to do with the batter's box, the penalty for which is a merely a post-game warning for a first offense and then a fine for the second, not an ejection. Via the Washington Post's James Wagner, Hudson said, "He didn’t like the pitch and I let him have his say going and coming. The dugout didn’t like it, and one thing led to another and I had to run him. I had to eject him.”
MLB Network Radio analyst Jim Duquette wasn't buying that, saying on the air, "He was not telling the truth … It absolutely had everything to do with getting into the batter’s box at that point. It was the combination of both. He mouthed, ‘Get in the batter’s box,’ and then he tossed him. We have cameras here."
Here's what Harper had to say, via MLB.com's Bill Ladson:
"I feel like he was more mad at Matt than he was me," Harper said. "I was just standing there. He called the strike, and I didn't even care, really. I just looked off, pulled my head over and was just like, 'A little down.'
"And he told me to get in the box. I was already in the box. And then I was standing there, looking at the pitcher, and he took his mask off to talk to Matt. That's when I stepped out. I didn't need to be in the box when he was chirping at Matt. I was taking my time, and once I put my foot back in the box, I said, 'This is where I was.' He rung me."
..."I don't think 40,000 people came to watch him ump tonight."
Harper, who has history with Hudson, certainly has a point, though his exaggerated back-in-the-box gesture could be interpreted as inflammatory, and he might have taken better care not to stir the pot. Fortunately for him and the Nationals, they won anyway.
3. Don't do what Donaldson does
Rounding out the week in bad behavior is Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, who after striking out in the sixth inning of Monday's game against the Angels' Mike Morin—a K that was accompanied with the bat flying out of his hands and into the stands—delivered a stream of four-letter words and lewd gestures at the Angels' dugout, apparently in response to their chirping during his at-bat.
If you can read his lips, you know he's not praying. Home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez went out to the mound to talk to Morin after Donaldson's at-bat, then, during Jose Bautista's at-bat, approached the Angels' dugout to tell pitching coach Mike Butcher to "knock it off" (see here via Deadspin) and wound up jawing with manager Mike Scioscia:
While MLB is looking into the incident, which caused a brief delay but no ejection, no discipline has been handed down at this writing. Donaldson conceded after the game that he was just riled up in the heat of the moment against a team he clashed with often as a member of the Athletics. Said Butcher: "Nobody was talking him to him at first.... Literally, I was just sitting there at first and he started cursing, yelling back. He went back to the dugout. I guess he was trying to get somebody's attention [and] asked the coach next to him, 'Who's that?' They told him who it was, and he said his profanities and made a classless gesture. I guess that's just part of what he is.”
Expect some wallets to be lightened by the league office sooner or later.