A Look Inside the Grudge and Payback Culture in Baseball

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A Look Inside the Grudge and Payback Culture in Baseball
Jake Roth/USA Today

It's hard to hit a batter. Honest.

As big as some of them are, it's still hard for a pitcher, who has trained his entire life to hit that down-and-away location, to suddenly defy his muscle memory and sink five and a quarter ounces of white leather into a hitter’s kidney—even if you really want to.

Hell, one time in the minors, I missed a hitter on four straight pitches, walked him, then beaned the next guy in line while I was trying to throw down-and-away!

When today's pro pitchers started out all those years ago, twenty-five percent of each practice bullpen session was not dedicated to throwing at a human shaped diagram—with all the juicy parts divided up and labeled with different point values.

Though throwing inside intentionally is efficacious, it’s still a ball, and the practice of throwing balls is something coaches tend to steer pitchers away from.

Besides, most young pitchers busting into the Bigs throw hard with nasty enough stuff that they only need be sure they locate down to get the job done.

Pitchers are not trained assassins—even when they want you to believe they are. When they get the reputation for being a head-hunter, it's far more likely that they're simply liberal with throwing up in the zone: a mysterious place that is, by default, close to a hitter’s head—though it is not on the menu.

Most pitchers won’t climb the ladder inside because most don't need to do it. Those that do will often shy away because, should they make a mistake, it can set off baseball's version of Hammurabi's code.

I never wanted to hit a batter when I was pitching. I never wanted to see my own teammates get drilled just because one got away from me and the other team thought it was a prosecutable offense. Conversely, I didn’t want to drill an opposing player just because a pitch got away from their pitcher and my own team demanded frontier justice.

But what I wanted had often little to do with it. What's intended by a pitcher’s result isn't as important as what's perceived by the batter taking a fastball off their scapula.

In 2009, I beaned Hanley Ramirez on an inside fastball. It was my second time in the big leagues after an absolutely horrible debut with the Padres wherein I posted a near 10.00 ERA. I was lucky to be back in 'The Show' at all, and the last thing I wanted to do was give away free bases. Beaning Hanley was completely unintentional.

John Froschauer

After the game, though, Hanley told the media that it was 100 percent intentional. He said I was tasked with doing it because he was hitting so well that we Jays were sending a message to put him in his place.

Just in case you'd like to read his exact comments, here they are courtesy of Juan C. Rodriguez of The Sun Sentinel:

Ramirez had no doubt it was on purpose. 'Everybody knows,' Ramirez said, to a group of reporters at his locker. 'I think Fredi knows it. [Josh Johnson] knows it. [Hayhurst] was throwing strikes.'

Approached again and asked if the team has to defend him in that situation, Ramirez cemented his point in Spanish, saying: 'You know, incredible. There’s going to come a point where I’m not going to feel protected. I’m going to be scared to hit a home run because I know I’m going to get hit.'

Ramirez added the team was 'obligated' to retaliate. Hayhurst also hit Jeremy Hermida two innings earlier.

Though no message was trying to be sent, after the Jays' pitching staff read Hanley’s comments, they decided he not only deserved what he got, but also could use a few extra messages to really drive the point home. Next time we matched up, he’d get all his Blue Jay fan mail.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Every so often, you’ll see a situation like this get defused by an on-field apology. I could have probably taken the spite out of Hanley’s mouth if I would have offered him one myself.

But the act of contrition flies in the face of baseball law. I’ve always been taught that if you make a mistake and bean someone, that you should never let on that it was a mistake.

Own it. You meant to do it.

Never look like you’re not in control. Let them get rattled to the point of plunking your entire multi-million dollar line up. THIS IS YOUR BASEBALL FIELD!

This is how a lot of team-on-team fires get started; something that wasn't intentional smacks into an ego that insists it was, with no clarification offered other than the smug smile of purpose. The next thing you know—because teams always have each others' backs unless it’s A-Rod—an eye for an eye makes the whole team go on the DL.

Dodgers on Diamondbacks, Yankees on Red Sox, Hatfields on McCoys, Greeks on Romans —it doesn’t matter. Competitive egos and human error have been setting the world on fire since the dawn of time.

It's unfortunate that pitching inside is often the catalyst for this kind of nonsense, because pitching inside is really a fantastic place to work.

Later in my career, after arm surgery took the rest of the already limited zip I had on my fastball, I had to start throwing up and in more often.

The high-and-tight fastball is a purpose pitch. You know it's going to be a ball out of your hand, but you also know that if you don't throw it throughout the game, hitters will make the adjustment and hit your down-and-away fastball hard. This is often why you hear pitchers say (usually when asked to explain how the brawl started), "I was just trying to keep him honest."

The batter may think, "He wanted to keep me honest because, what, he thinks I'm cheating him? I’m glad I charged him now." But keeping him honest is just insider jargon for, I wanted to keep the batter’s eyes at the default position; the one that, statistically speaking, has trouble with the down-and-away pitch I make my living with.

The softer you throw, the easier a hitter can track your pitch. It may be a split-second longer, but, for a person who's trained all his life to make split-second decisions, that's a lot. You can use this against him by letting him take a good look at an 85 mph heater up around his shoulders.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When a pitcher fires one across the bow of a hitter, he will hold onto the mental vision and subconsciously react to the violation of personal space. Summation: He'll back off your outside corner, or get so pumped full of adrenaline he won't be able to wait on that change up; the pitch he can track longest of all.

This is how baseball works, and has worked for hundreds of years—players pressing weak spots, moving feet, and trying to make each other uncomfortable. Odd then, isn’t it, that so many think this practice is broken, and use it as an excuse to "teach those guys how to play the game the right way?"

Certainly sounds a lot more like satisfying egos rather than respecting the game. 

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