It only happened once.
I was 18 years old. It was the summer following my senior year and one of my teammates had been hit hard in the back by the opposing pitcher. As my friend trotted down to first, this jerk of a pitcher decided to give my friend a head nod and blow him a kiss. What a punk. I don’t remember all the details about the game, but I remember losing and our whole team fuming. We went to Buffalo Wild Wings after pretty much every game, and that night we talked about what had transpired.
I was our team’s starting pitcher. My teammates, without much consent from me, elected that I plunk the kid the next time I faced him. I needed to respond on behalf of our mate. I agreed to the terms, but inside I was pretty apprehensive. Besides, I was way more worked up about avenging our loss with a win than I was about that kissyface pitcher.
Somehow, by the time we played them again, not only did my whole team know it was coming, but so did the other team and a decent number of our “fans.” There was a murmur in the crowd as the kid came to bat the first time. I still wasn’t certain whether I was going to go through with it.
He was leading off the inning. My catcher, Jim, dropped one finger and slapped his left thigh – fastball, inside. I turned the ball around in my glove as my index and ring finger found the seams. I nodded to Jim, wound up and delivered the pitch.
I hit him in the neck.
That was the only time I ever hit someone on purpose.
The Royals and the Athletics don’t like each other much right now. A series that was supposed to feature the celebratory homecoming of Billy Butler turned out to be as heated as a mid-April series can possibly be. The benches cleared in all three games, and according to most national media outlets, a new rivalry was born.
It all started with a reckless slide from Brett Lawrie on Friday night injuring Alcides Escobar. The slide looked questionable to say the least.
First of all, Lawrie would’ve been safe if he’d just gone straight to the bag, but he clearly goes far to the inside with his spikes up high. A major no-no. Lawrie’s left foot catches Escobar in the ankle and his right knee knocks into Escobar’s knee. Lawrie claims he was not intending to hurt Escober. I probably believe him. But he did. And it happened because he made a reckless and stupid decision. The Royals went on to win, 6-4.
On Saturday, the Royals teammates wanted to stand up for their fallen teammate by retaliating. Not only that, I think the Royals wanted to retaliate on a whole string of HBP injustice that had come their way. Throwing at Lawrie wouldn’t be a message simply to him, it would be a message to the entire league. We won’t just roll over for you. We’re here to fight back.
Surprisingly, Yordano Ventura chose not to throw at Lawrie the first time he faced him. Instead, he got him to ground out. It may have just been due to the game situation that he decided to not give him the pass to first base, but I was still happy about this turn of events. Despite the pressure to respond, Ventura might end up taking the high road, refusing to engage in such extracurricular shenanigans. Good for him.
Except then Yordano had somewhat of a meltdown. He gave up 5 runs in the 4th capped by a 3-run homer off the bat of Josh Reddic.k. Up next: Brett Lawrie. And with the game suddenly somewhat out of reach, it felt like it was going to happen. Sure enough, with his frustration mounting, Ventura threw a 99 mph fastball at Lawrie, plunking him hard on the elbow. Ventura was immediately ejected, and that was the only excitement the night had for us at The K. The Royals went quietly as the Athletics went on to win the game, 5-0.
I remember my dugout going bananas. The opposing coach came out to argue with the umpire that I be thrown out of the game. Kissyface rolled around on the ground for a moment, but wanting to look strong, he pulled himself up, rubbed his neck and started walking to first base. He tried to convince one of his coaches that he was fine as he walked. I’m sure he probably was, it’s not like my fastball was anything to behold.
Jim trotted out to me on the mound and handed me the baseball. He took off his catchers mask and told me something encouraging, but I don’t remember what. He patted my fanny and jogged back behind the plate. I turned around and stood on the mound staring away from the action and out toward the scoreboard trying to act unaware of the commotion behind me. I refused to engage more of the drama – not because I was above it, but because I knew I was guilty.
I was ashamed. The mound can be a pretty lonely place.
The Royals thought everything was square. Lawrie had taken out Escobar with an ugly slide. Ventura had responded by doinking him good. All done. Put a bow on it.
Apparently, Oakland thought differently.
Because Sunday, in the opening frame, Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain in the leg.
Both benches were warned – which seems to note that the umpires thought everything was square too…if they hadn’t, Kazmir would’ve been tossed a la Yordano. Royals pitching coach, Dave Eiland hollered out at Kazmir from the dugout which got Eiland ejected. Ned Yost then went out to ask what had happened, and he got ejected. Play continued without the two Royals coaches, but Scott Kazmir was not ejected.
Danny Duffy, the Royals starter, didn’t seem rattled by the whole ordeal. He made short work of the Athletics in the 2nd inning, and it seemed that the Royals would just let the A’s have the last word and get back to winning baseball games. Who cares who retaliated last and whether or not teams are square? You win the game, and it doesn’t matter. Winning is the final blow, the last word, the ultimate silencer.
Which is why it was surprising Kazmir chose to hit Cain in the first place. Sure, the Royals retaliated to Lawrie’s initial gaffe, and if that didn’t make things square, surely Oakland coming away with the victory on Saturday was enough for both teams to move on and get back to baseball, right? Winning should’ve silenced it, even if the A’s felt Yordano’s retaliation was uncalled for.
Apparently that wasn’t the case, and Kazmir opened up a whole new can of worms.
In the 8th inning, with the Royals trailing 2-1, Kelvin Herrera decided the team needed to retaliate a second time. With Lawrie batting again, Herrera threw his first pitch way inside but it didn’t hit Lawrie. The second pitch didn’t either, but it didn’t matter. A 100 mph fastball, launched about 12 feet wide of the mark flew behind Lawrie’s back. Herrera was ejected. Headed into the dugout, Herrera pointed at Lawrie’s head. The HBP wasn’t successfully delivered, but the message certainly was. Benches cleared. Bullpens emptied. Acting manager and Royals bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, was ejected (twice?), and Alcides Escobar was ejected. Franklin Morales came in to finish the inning, getting Lawrie to pop up.
But from where I was sitting, the Royals looked really bad. Really really bad. They looked immature and whiney. Childish even. America’s Darling October Underdogs were suddenly looking like a bunch of cry babies shouting, “but he started it!” Being a good team will get you a lot of haters. It’s a natural thing. It makes sense. You beat a bunch of teams and suddenly you have a target on you. How a team responds to that hatred speaks volumes. I didn’t like that Herrera threw behind Lawrie. Not at all. It looked like a last ditch effort since the game was slipping away.
I was proud of Danny Duffy and the rest of the team for burying their emotions and getting back to playing the game. Don’t worry about Kazmir’s hit early, just play the game and get the last word by winning. But as the game went later, and the Royals were still down, I guess Herrera felt they needed to get their knocks in somehow. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I struggled to 100% back this team’s actions today. It was conflicting.
I remember the whole ordeal being pretty embarrassing and confusing.
I never really wanted to hit the kid, but I felt like if I didn’t then I’d be letting my team down. I didn’t feel like we needed to retaliate beyond letting the scoreboard do the talking, but I’d done the deed anyway. I had always been taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and to “turn the other cheek” and all that business. I felt like I had betrayed my moral philosophy, and now everyone was mad at me pointing fingers. Worse: I was pointing the finger at myself.
I didn’t get tossed. The umpire walked out to the mound and told me to get things under control or else I might be next time. Which was a relief, sure, but now I had a runner on first base with nobody out. Fantastic. Not only did it make things worse relationally, it put our team in a worse position to win the game, and everyone and Herm Edwards knows that winning the game is the point. Putting him on base felt completely nonsensical to me, but my teammates seemed to think I had performed admirably.
And now he was over on first base clapping his hands and begging me to throw over. I was in a worse position because I’d chosen to retaliate. Why would I do that to myself?! Instead of just trying to get him out, I had allowed the situation to escalate. I had a chance to respond by striking the kid out. Instead, he was threatening to steal second base.
My teammates seemed pleased – I had stood up for my teammate and held true to the code of baseball which embraces such a response – but then why did I feel so crummy about it? It was conflicting to say the least.
The ending of Sunday’s game was huge for the 2015 Royals.
Following Herrera’s ejection, there were two different outcomes. Either the Royals don’t score and the Athletics take the series in front of an angry home crowd and we all come off looking like a bunch of punks. Or, we wind up winning the game, take the series, and the Athletics can revisit their frustration when we see them next in June.
Those two messages are drastically different. You don’t want to be known as a bunch of hotheads. You want to be known as a bunch of winners.
Thankfully, the Royals managed to respond in bottom of the 8th. Paulo Orlando walked. Moose moved him up with a ground out. Lorenzo Cain doubled, scoring Orlando. Cain stole third. Hosmer walked. Then Kendrys Morales hit a monster double to straight away center, scoring both Cain and Hosmer. The Royals went on to win 4-2.
Hitting players with pitches, to me, is rarely necessary. I understand that baseball has an unwritten code of retaliation. Pitchers are going to stand up for their hitters after they get plunked. It’s as old as baseball itself. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the right move. And I’m not sure the Royals didn’t come off as immature hotheads this weekend.
However, this has become a problem across the American League. Two of the Royals starting 9 are now injured due to questionable play on the part of their opponents. Along with Escobar, Alex Rios got hit in the hand (1 of the 14 Royals hit batsmen this young season) and is now on the 15-day DL. At a certain point, the Royals must send a message to the rest of the league stating that they refuse to allow teams to do things like that without repercussions. I think Ventura sent that message. After Sunday’s game, Brett Lawrie told CSN’s Joe Stiglich, “I can’t even get in the box and do my job without thinking, ‘he could miss with one up and in.'” This is a good thing. Other teams need to be aware that playing dirty against the Royals won’t be tolerated. We can’t let opponents pick off our players one by one. We must stay healthy if we’re going to succeed again this year.
That said, winning cures all sorrows, and if a team wants to get chippy with the Royals, fine. Because as long as Kansas City can hoist the “W” on the Hall of Fame, a different message is sent: it’s not that we don’t like you, we’re just better than you.
My take on this weekend’s happenings is this: even though I don’t like how Yordano Ventura went about it, I do think it’s important for us to declare to the league that if you mess with us, there may be a Yordano fastball headed at you soon. I think the HBP epidemic had hurt us enough that we needed to make that point clear. But…it could’ve and should’ve ended at that. I get that Kazmir started it back up again, but Herrera’s decision to throw at Lawrie was not remotely necessary. It was immature. The game was close and winning was still a possibility. The Royals would’ve looked much better having ended the conversation by just winning.
That last paragraph probably makes it seem like I’m flip flopping here, but I do think standing up for your players is important too. I just think 9 times out of 10 you can stand up by winning. Who cares what Oakland has to say, as long as they didn’t win?
They’re a good baseball team. They’re having fun, and other teams don’t like it. Well, the rest of the American League is going to have to get used to the Royals fun loving ways because it’s how they play the game. It might seem a bit off putting to some, but it’s genuine joy, and none of it has been mean spirited in the past. These guys are a family – it’s not about rubbing it in, it’s about celebrating their successes.
That late rally may have saved way more than we even know. Instead of ending frustrated, complaining about the opposing team, we ended with Lorenzo smiling and looking forward to the next series against the Minnesota Twins.
I think ultimately, the Royals had an opportunity to respond by winning. Don’t get caught up in the drama of retaliation. Retaliate by beating them. I felt like both times Oakland initiated – first with Lawrie’s slide, then with Kazmir’s pitch – we had an opportunity to respond by letting the game dictate the narrative. Then we got down 5-0 and Yordano snapped. Then we were down 2-1 and Herrera snapped.
But ultimately, we won the series, and got the last word. Unfortunately I think a lot of drama and heaped on hatred could’ve been avoided had we just stuck to playing to win. I get that the A’s were the initiators, but winning is the ultimate silencer.
We’re good. We know it. Let it speak for itself.
Looking back, I’m not proud of what I did as an 18 year old. I gave in to the pressure from my teammates and intentionally threw a baseball at another person. That’s not cool, and I regret doing it to this day. I came off looking like a punk kid trying to pick a fight.
We went on to win the game. In fact, the kid tried to steal second base on the next pitch and Jim threw him out by a wide margin. And after that happened, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. Let the game send the messages for you – especially if you’re the better team. On the drive to Buffalo Wild Wings that night I remember thinking that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d hit the kid or not after what ended up happening. We would’ve sent the same message anyway.
We had the last word – not because I hit the kid – because we won.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images, accessed here.