A Professional Hit

Thursday night in Atlanta, and everybody knew that at some point a Braves pitcher would throw a baseball directly at Jose Bautista. The umpires knew it. The fans knew it. The announcers knew it. Jose Bautista knew it.

The reasons for this were both complicated and very simple. The simple part was that Bautista had shown up the Braves the night before by flipping his bat after he hit a home run. The bat flip came at a particularly tender moment for Atlanta, shortly after their best player Freddie Freeman had his wrist fractured on a hit-by-pitch, and just an inning after Toronto’s Kevin Pillar had called Atlanta’s pitcher Jason Motte what has been reported as a “homophobic slur” for striking him out on a quick-pitch.

The inevitable plunking of Bautista would be a the Braves’ way of expressing general disapproval.

So the motivation is the simple part; the complicated part is how over 100-plus years of baseball this idea of throwing baseballs at players to settle scores, right wrongs and create balance in the Universe has evolved. What was so striking about Thursday’s plunking was how matter-of-fact it all was.

Bautista came up in the first inning, second batter. There was one out. The Braves Julio Teheran was the mound, and this needs to be said: Teheran is a guy who needs things to go right in order to pitch well. He doesn’t strike out a lot of guys. His control can be spotty. He gives up longballs. He’s also quite a bit less effective pitching out of the stretch. For Teheran to pitch well, he needs impeccable command and extreme movement, he needs hitters to chase, he needs to start off at-bats with strikes, he needs a little bit of defensive help.

First pitch to Bautista, he threw the ball way inside — but Bautista was easily able to elude the pitch. At this point, a lot of things COULD have happened. For instance: Umpire Paul Emmel could have warned both benches since everybody knew what Teheran felt like he had to do. But he did not.

And because he did not, Teheran threw inside again on the second pitch and this time got Bautista in the left thigh — the “right” place to hit a batter to prove a point.

Bautista took his medicine without complaint, reached down to take off his arm protector and jogged toward first base.

Emmel now did warn both benches.

“That was professionally done,” Chip Caray said in the Braves’ announcing booth.

And that was exactly right, it was a professional hit, the quote-unquote “proper” way by baseball’s unwritten rules to settle a score and move on from a nasty situation.

But here’s the baseball part of it: Julio Teheran absolutely did not need to be putting a runner on base in the first inning. He went to the stretch at which point the Blue Jays lit him up. A Kendrys Morales single followed by back-to-back doubles made it 3–0 Toronto before most people had made it through Atlanta traffic and to the ballpark.

Teheran never recored; he allowed nine runs in three innings. He’s now kind of a mess, which is not great for the ace of a Braves team that has two forty-somethings in the starting rotation. This is not to say that if he had pitched Bautista straight — maybe tried to get payback by actually getting him out — things would have turned out different. We don’t know. We do know that as it was, things turned out kind of lousy for Atlanta.

The hit was professionally done, Chip got it exactly right, and that’s kind of why it felt so weird. Teheran didn’t seem too interested in hitting Bautista, and Bautista, I imagine, wasn’t super excited about getting hit. The umpires made no real effort to stop it from happening. The players on both benches stayed put and just nodded like, “yeah, we knew that.” The announcers called it straight. It was entirely mechanical. Everybody just sort of felt like it had to be done, like writing thank you notes or calling your mom on Mother’s Day. All of this makes you wonder: What was the point?

Then Teheran gave up all those runs, including three home runs. Fortunately, there were no bat flips after any of the homers. That’s good. The Braves and Teheran really can’t afford to settle any more scores.

Happy Birthday Brooksie!

Thursday was Brooks Robinson’s 80th birthday — happy birthday to my father’s favorite player (and probably your father’s … or mother’s … or grandmother’s favorite player). There are so many great stories about Brooks Robinson’s charmed baseball life — here are two of them.

One, when Robinson was a kid he had a paper route in Little Rock, Arkansas. He delivered the Arkansas Gazette to roughly 150 homes, but one of them was special: One of the homes belonged to former Yankees great Bill Dickey.

“When I got to his house,” Brooksie likes to say, “I threw the paper a little bit harder.”

The second story comes from Game 5 of the 1970 World Series. Most great players have their seminal moment — and that World Series was Robinson’s. He was the greatest defensive third baseman in baseball history; everyone knows that. He was a generally OK hitter in a low-scoring era, but every now and again, like in 1964, he was a great hitter. And, more than anything, he was an inspiration to everyone, teammates, fans, even opponents.

And all of it was on display in that 1970 World Series. He was impossible to get out (he hit .429 with a couple of home runs). And he was a defensive marvel — making numerous incredible plays including this one, maybe the best in World Series history:

He completely dominated the series. After he won a car for being named World Series MVP, Pete Rose famously said: “If we knew he wanted a car so much, we’d have bought him one.”

Anyway, before Game 5 it was raining — the game was in doubt. Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren said, “Hey Brooksie, make it stop raining.”

Robinson looked up and smiled. Then he looked to the heavens: “Stop raining,” he said.

And it did.

The Counsell of Clouts

The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers are one of my favorite all-time teams. They were called Harvey’s Wall Bangers for their manager Harvey Kuenn and for the way that Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor would bang down walls. Maybe it was because I was 15 years old, a good age to begin forming views that would harden as the years go on, but I’ve always thought THAT is what Milwaukee baseball is supposed to be — a bunch of guys of different shapes and sizes, all wearing, that great Milwaukee Brewers hat, all launching baseballs.

And so this Brewers team has come along just in time. Sure, it’s too early to make any sort of definitive judgments about them. But one thing you can say: These Brewers are hitting some serious bombs. The focus has obviously been on Eric Thames, who has cooled off in the last week or so, but the truth is EVERYBODY is hitting bombs in Milwaukee. The Brewers’ 65 home runs are the most in the National League, and they have seven players in their lineup who have five home runs or more a quarter of the way through the season.

Travis Shaw is crushing the ball. Jeff Bandy is crushing the ball. Hernan Perez is crushing the ball. Heck, even 22-year-old Orlando Arcia is showing some pop already.

The Brewers go into Chicago for a three-game series, and while it’s ridiculous to call any series in May pivotal, this is another opportunity for Milwaukee to make a statement, build some confidence, and maybe hit a few more jaw-dropping homers at Wrigley Field. I maybe be alone on this, but I’m a believer in self-identification. That’s why I like nicknames, slogans, mottos and all that. One thing people forget about the 1982 Brewers is that they were playing kind of lousy, and they fired manager Buck Rodgers, and Kuenn came in, and before long the Harvey’s Wall Bangers nickname was coined. I don’t know if it made any difference at all but they had their identity. They had their mission. They kind of believed they would overpower teams with their home run muscle, and they did.

This Brewers team is still figuring things out. But if they keep hitting home runs like this, they really could contend.