Oversensitivity prevails when game has 'issues'
Ubaldo-Tulo incident latest case of making a lot out of a little
We stifled a laugh or quietly cackled when the late Clyde King, one-time Brooklyn pitcher, retold his tale of loading a baseball with well-chewed bubble gum and throwing a killer breaking ball to a Giants rookie named Willie Mays in 1951. We were offended, though, and we made no effort to disguise our disgust when Kenny Rogers was caught red-handed -- or was it brown-handed? -- while pine-tar pitching for the Tigers against the Cardinals in the World Series 55 years later.
Pete Rose merely was being Pete Rose, and therefore innocent of all wrongdoing, when he knocked catcher Ray Fosse into the ensuing week on the final play in the 1970 All-Star Game. But Scott Cousins was borderline immoral for turning Buster Posey's ankle into a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle last May.
And wasn't Eddie Stanky hailed, though not by his victim, when he kicked the ball from the glove of Phil Rizzuto during the 1951 World Series? But when Alex Rodriguez tried to slap the ball from the glove of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo during the 2004 ALCS, he was widely chastised, not because he had violated a rule, but for being unethical and childish. Stanky was doing what he could to win, they said at the time. A-Rod was only desperate.
Our self-righteousness quotient -- or our need to criticize -- certainly has escalated dramatically over the decades within and without the game. These days, we are routinely intolerant of incidents that, 25 years ago, went unreported, unnoticed or at least disregarded. We see so many occurrences as misdemeanors and felonies. Even the poorly chosen, poorly expressed words of Ozzie Guillen wouldn't have caused the outrage they did had they been spoken during the Reagan administration; though they would have been just as poorly conceived.
The point is that anything and everything effectively masquerades as news these days and is taken so much more seriously. Everything is characterized as hurtful and harmful. Whatever happened to stick and stones may break my bones? The most meager difference of opinion becomes a thorny issue once the drive-time alarmists touch it. The very word issue, standing without a modifier, has assumed a much harsher connotation. Any issue now is ominous and nasty.
This game is not immune to the overall evolution and seismic shift toward ultra-sensitivity. What better example of that than the Ubaldo-Tulo incident earlier this month that -- thankfully -- was put to rest before militias were called to arm? Stung by words spoken by his former Rockies teammate Troy Tulowitzki, Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez hit Tulowitzki with a pitch in a Spring Training game April 1. That was news news news! And it had extended shelf-life. Tulo was a tad ticked and Jimenez was fined, suspended and condemned -- 2012 would have mollified by nothing less.
Similar circumstances developed in 1968 when Bob Gibson stood taller on the mound than any man, and Bill White, Gibson's buddy and former Cardinals teammate, was batting for the Phillies. It was not the first time they had faced each other. Gibson intentionally hit his left-handed-hitting friend because White had ventured too far into Gibson's territory, aka the other side of the plate.
It came as no surprise and not because of Gibson's reputation. White had been warned by his buddy. And after he was hit, White made such a fuss about it that he and Gibson made plans to dine together the next time their schedules permitted.
Jimenez was fined and suspended.
Gibson broke bread with his attacker.
The difference is greater than the number of years separating the two episodes and as subtle as 98-mph chin music. Jimenez withdrew his appeal, a decision based in wisdom; the next time he and Tulo are 60-feet-6-inches apart won't happen for a while.
The only differences Gibson and White have about their episode these days are that each man claims he paid for the peace-pipe dinner and that White claims the pitch that struck him "didn't hurt as much he hoped it would."
"If it didn't hurt, why is he still whining?" Gibson says.
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"I didn't like getting hit, but he did warn me first, and I expected him to keep his promise," White said recently from his home in Upper Black Eddy, Pa. "I got over it quickly because pitching inside was part of the game. You were used to it. And I was a diver. I dove into pitches.
"The only thing that was surprising was that it didn't happen sooner. He had his chances."
White, a moderate man, eventually became the sheriff, judge and jury in HBP situations. He was the National League president from 1989 to 1994. His job was to defuse developments before they became issues. He was good at it. He applied the sensibilities of a tough former player and tempered them with what he learned from the people -- pitchers, hitters and umpires -- involved. Given his druthers, he would have preferred to allow the players settle things on the field as they did, more often than not, when he played.
But that laissez-faire practice already had been displaced by tighter discipline imposed by each league by the time White succeeded the late Bart Giamatti. And as revenue became even more of an overriding concern in the industry, the clubs wanted to protect their investments and their primary attractions.
"The owners told me they wanted fans to be able to see the stars of the game when they went to the ballpark or turned on the TV," White said. "They didn't want folks going to see Bench, Rose and Morgan and have two of them not play because they took one on the elbow or the wrist the night before.
"I told them, 'I can cut down the number of hitters getting hit by upping the ante.' So we fined them more."
Some pitchers did back off, surrendering the outside corner as Gibson never did. And if fines weren't enough of a deterrent, umpires stepped in with the warning system that fans of the game in the '50s and '60s now ridicule. Gradually, many pitchers -- with exceptions named Pedro, Nolie, Rocket, Zambrano (Carlos not Victor) and Verlander -- backed off and a generation of batters unaccustomed to tight pitches stood in the box with armor -- literally and figuratively -- and without trepidation.
Paul Blair, the Orioles' consummate center fielder in the '60s and '70s, was struck in the face by a pitch thrown by Ken Tatum of the Angels in 1970. His nose was broken, his batter's box comfort shattered. He came back quickly but later acknowledged a sense of fear in the box. After Mike Piazza, his brain bruised by a Roger Clemens fastball July 8, 2000, returned to play, Blair blamed Piazza for the HBP:
"He dives in. He's a great hitter, facing a great pitcher, but he dives in. If you hit a great pitcher the way Piazza hits Clemens, and you're diving, you should expect to get hit. I blame Mike more than I blame Roger."
How's that for a bona fide issue?
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.