Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2018

Not Just Another Plunking

If timing is everything, it’s fair to say that Jose Urena’s is exceptionally bad. Wednesday night the right-handed starting pitcher for Miami’s not-quite major league franchise took the mound at Marlins Park for a game against the visitors from Atlanta. Urena’s ostensible task was to help his team end an eight-game losing streak by holding the Atlanta lineup in check, no easy task against a team that ranked first in the National League in runs scored and slugging percentage as play began. A key contributor to Atlanta’s offensive might has been rookie leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr., who stepped into the batter’s box having hit eight home runs in as many games, including leadoff homers in each the three previous contests in the series against the Marlins.

In what can charitably be described as an unwise decision, Urena apparently concluded that the best way to make certain Acuna didn’t launch a fourth straight game-opening home run was to fire his very first pitch, a fastball clocked at 97.5 miles per hour, directly at the Atlanta leftfielder. The heater caught Acuna on his left elbow, doubling him over in obvious pain. It also caused both dugouts to empty, with some pushing and shoving between the two squads before the umpires restored order. Having done so the men in blue conferred and Urena was ejected, his one-pitch outing certain to be the shortest in his major league career. According to Stats.com, he is just the fourth pitcher in the live-ball era to face, and hit, a single batter, and the only one to do so on his very first pitch.

In the clubhouse Urena offered up the predictable excuse, saying “I missed my spot inside on the corner the way I wanted to start with him. I tried to get inside to move him.” But few were buying that line, and not just in the Atlanta dugout but across the Great Game. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay said “He clearly did it on purpose. I mean, in basketball, if a guy scores 40, do you punch him in the face? That’s just an awful part of baseball.” New York manager Aaron Boone concurred, saying “It seemed pretty blatant to me. You know, I hate that.” Michael Young, the retired infielder who played fourteen seasons for the Rangers, Phillies and Dodgers, suggested that “The whole ‘make them uncomfortable, move their feet, brush ‘em back’ thing is complete BS. It doesn’t work.” And ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted “The fact that Urena dropped his glove as the Braves’ bench emptied and seemed to beckon them forward tells you all you need to know about his intent.”

The prevailing thought was that Urena didn’t lose control of his pitch, but rather was following one of baseball’s unwritten rules and delivering a message to a hot rookie. What’s unclear was whether he was acting on his own or was following orders. Marlins manager Don Mattingly said after the game that “I would never want that kid getting hit and cause that kind of problem.” But he also told reporters that his advice to Urena before the contest had been “This kid is swinging the bat good. We’ve got to figure out how to get him out, right?” While obviously not a direct order, that’s the kind of language that could be construed in multiple ways even if Mattingly’s intent was innocent.

The good news is that both an X-ray and CT scan of Acuna’s elbow proved negative, and he is back in Atlanta’s lineup for a game against the Rockies, even as this is being written. But the story could have been far different. The history of the Great Game is littered with sad stories of careers irrevocably altered after a player was hit by a pitch, from Mickey Cochrane to Tony Conigliaro to Kirby Puckett. It’s going to happen. Pitches do get away, and with deliveries coming in at ever faster speeds, batters often have literally no chance to get out of the way. Indeed, critics of Urena were quick to note that his pitch to Acuna was the fastest first pitch the starter had thrown in his career, suggesting that was not a coincidence.

The better news is that on Thursday Joe Torre, MLB’s vice president for baseball operations, announced that Urena had been suspended for six games. While several pundits and even some players had called for a suspension, none of the three pitchers who previously hit the only batter they faced received such a punishment. But MLB’s action against Urena suggests that a new and decidedly more intelligent era may finally have arrived.

That won’t sit well with Keith Hernandez, the former player and current broadcaster for the New York Metropolitans. Hernandez, who last wore a uniform in 1990, is proudly old school, and Wednesday night during the Mets broadcast he endorsed Urena playing the role of enforcer. “You’ve lost three games, he’s hit three home runs, you’ve got to hit him,” he said, adding “I’m sorry. People are not going to like that. You’ve got to hit him or seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him.” At least Hernandez did later allow that pitchers shouldn’t throw at a batter’s head.

Hernandez’s idiotic opinion drew a quick rebuke from retired Atlanta star and brand-new Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who tweeted “So by this way of thinking, Jacob deGrom should get drilled cuz he’s the hottest pitcher on the planet? NO! I enjoy watching him pitch and I enjoy watching RAJ play the game. I’m old school just like this broadcaster, but these comments are waaay off base!”

While there will always be a Keith Hernandez out there, living in a fantasy world where a hundred mile an hour missile is just a friendly way of saying “hey young fella, don’t get too big for your britches,” the strong reaction to Acuna’s plunking throughout the Great Game, and MLB’s decisive action against Urena, are both positive signs that come at the best possible time. Yes, that’s right, Urena’s timing was horrible, and the response to his action timely. For today is August 16th, so it’s exactly 98 years since that late afternoon when a pitch from Carl Mays hit Ray Chapman in the head at the Polo Grounds. In the days before batting helmets, Chapman dropped like a stone, blood pouring out of his left ear. Twelve hours later, he was dead. Chapman remains the last baseball player to die as the immediate result of play on the field. Hopefully fans will still be able to say that in another 98 years.

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Responses

  1. The big wheel of History keeps turning, Mike. Sounds like a valuable lesson was learned in the last 98 years.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. As you well know, the Great Game changes slowly, but it does change!

      M-

      • Do you think Robo-umps will ever catch on for calling balls and strikes?
        Ω

      • Only when robots take the field Allan, an event that sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, perhaps a postscript to the late Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series.

        Thanks,
        M-

      • We have been to two games in the last few years where our local team, the Pacifics, teamed up with Eric Byrnes and FX Sports to robo-call the pitches at a game. It’s the same technology that the networks use to pick apart the umps, so why not use it? The game moved right along and the umps were available for on-field calls. It’s probably a case of too much tech too soon, but after a slew of games with questionable calls it looks like a good solution.
        Ω

      • Fair points Allan, thanks for making them. But my question is, a good solution to what? The fact that human umps miss calls? Or human fielders commit errors or human batters strike out with the bases loaded and their team one run down? My lifelong love of the Great Game is not because it reflects perfection, but because it mirrors humanity. A game in which a batter who fails 70% of the time, thus hitting .300, is a Hall of Fame candidate. That is life, even though I doubt I’m batting better than a journeyman’s .252 on that scale. I don’t drive down from New Hampshire to the Bronx several times every season expecting to see perfection (though I sure would love to sometime see a perfect game). I make the trip to see the ebb and flow, the quiet moments and sudden action, the great plays and yes, the missed calls (at least from my angle), so I can yell “hey blue, you suck!” That is how the game has always found its fans.

        Plus at the major league level the umpires union would be a major obstacle to robo-umps.

        Thanks,
        M-

      • Thanks for your reply, Mike. I guess it’s a case of Potato—Tomato. I’d like to see more accurate balls/strikes calls at the plate and let the rest of the game shake itself out. Have a good weekend.
        Ω


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