Roy Exum: Plunking And The Code

Thursday, August 22, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In Major League baseball, there is a rule book. Then there is also what is known as “the code.” The umpires handle the rule book and all the best players memorize it from front to back. But the players handle the code and all of the best players use it, among other things to police the game. Take last spring, for example, when the Washington Nationals first called up Bryce Harper, who was pretty brash and acting haughty when the Nationals first called up the kid.

Before the game, his new teammates told him to get ready because the Phillies were going to plunk him – hit him with a fastball – to teach a little respect.  Sure enough, in Harper’s first at-bat, Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels dusted the cocky sensation but not before the veterans had carefully warned Harper, “Do not rub where the ball hits … and don’t dare look at the pitcher!”

You see, that’s the code. You whine and they’ll plunk you ‘til you stop! And what made it more magical that very night was that Harper advanced bases as the angered Washington lineup hit Hamels. Harper, standing on third, promptly stole home plate (the hardest feat in baseball) and then gloriously became the first teenager to do it since 1964.

So there are all kinds of unwritten rules – never step in the batter’s circle before the opposing player takes the mound – and stuff like that. In the next game, a Washington pitcher plunked a Phillies batter to settle the score. That’s just how it works.

I think we saw the code enforced again on Sunday night but, ironically, when the Mets’ Jon Niece threw wildly and broke Jason Heyward’s jaw during a Wednesday night game, it was simply a tragic high ball that happened to run inside. It cost Heyward the rest of the season and the code is implicit – never aim at the head. Further, Niece was pitching well, smooth and sure, but just before he dropped Heyward he had come unglued, giving up four runs in the fateful inning alone.

We know that Niece feels awful about it, openly touching his glove to his chest to signal Heyward it was accidental and afterwards telling reporters. "It's every pitcher and hitter's worst nightmare," Niese said after the 4-1 loss. "I just hope he's OK. I felt horrible. Obviously, sometimes this game can be pretty dangerous. One minute you're playing and the next minute you're down. I felt terrible but at the same time, I had to try and regroup."

So the play everybody in “The Bigs” is still talking about is when Boston’s Ryan Dempster plunked the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez Sunday night because Dempster had just thrown behind A-Rod before he finally beaned the most embattled man in the game. Dempster said he wasn’t trying to hit A-Rod but the better thought is that he was sucked into the moment by the raucous Fenway Park crowd who gave the ousted pitcher a standing ovation once the bench-clearing brawl was contained between the long-time rivals.

Rodriguez disagrees, thinking Dempster’s pitch was meant to hit him. “Whether you like me or hate me, that was wrong,” Rodriguez told reporters after the incident. “That was unprofessional and silly.”

Make no mistake, A-Rod has clearly embarrassed baseball with the Biogenesis case, where he is appealing a 211-game suspension for his callous conduct with performance drugs. Many players, both past and present, have openly berated Rodriguez and for Dempster – or any other pitcher – to hit him with a pitch doesn’t sound unreasonable at all.

That is, unless you are Russ Springer.

On May 29, this seven years ago, the great pitcher out of LSU was on the mound for Houston when Barry Bonds, at the height of the BALCO mess, came to bat and Springer remembers everything about it. Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron and Barry was not popular with other players. Springer’s first four pitches were innocent but then it happened.  He threw a fastball behind Bonds, drawing a warning from the plate umpire and trailing 3-1 in the count.

“It was just kind of a thing that kind of snowballed,” Springer told USA Today earlier this week. “I got caught up in the moment. I remember getting a new ball from the umpire, the crowd is on their feet, and he’s looking at me funny. I looked at him, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s his problem?’ So I dropped him.

“I didn’t have intentions of policing the game. I didn’t want to injure him. I knew he’d go on to break all the records. But he wasn’t going to do it against me. It was the first time I was ever thrown out of a game,” he said from his home in Louisiana.

The minute his fastball struck Bonds, Springer knew it was wrong. “I wasn’t proud of it then and I’m not proud of it now. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t hit him. I didn’t like him, he didn’t have a reputation of being too nice to other players, but that’s not why I hit him. I wasn’t trying to defend the game against allegations he had against him for PEDs.

“I just knew the way everyone felt about him, and I just got caught up in the moment. So I hit him on purpose. Now, I have to live with that for the rest of my life.

“I mean, I’ve pitched in 740 games. I pitched for winning teams, playoff teams and in World Series games. I did so much in my career that I’m proud of. But the only thing I’m known for is that one pitch, on one night. That’s a weird deal.”

Bob Nightengale, the newspaper’s crackerjack baseball writer, asked the 18-year veteran if he even apologized. “I don’t think I would apologize,” Springer told the writer, “but I know I wouldn’t do the same thing again if I had to do it all over again. Too many kids saw it. It was a bad example for them to see.”

The ballpark crowd, of course, loved watching Bonds get beaned. He got a standing ovation, with some fans bowing, just like Dempster did on national TV on Sunday night. But Springer was immediately suspended for four games and remembered, “I deserved it.”

That’s not the code. It’s called “manning up. “ And somehow I hope Ryan Dempster, one of the classiest guys in the Majors, will bump into A-Rod some day and get the chance to talk face-to-face.

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