June 1, 2006
You Could Look It Up
After Frank Robinson's wet remorse at the thought of removing Matt LeCroy from Thursday's game in mid-inning, a couple of readers wrote in to ask why this seemingly innocuous act would reduce a man who didn't cry even once out of the 198 times he was hit by pitches to a quivering, ruined hulk.
The simple answer is that baseball has always been a game concerned with manhood and appearances. A football coach will pull an underperforming quarterback in mid-series and no one makes a fuss. Pitchers who are being abused by the opposition generally hit the showers without complaining. Position players are in a different situation. To pull one from a game for non-performance would be to overtly acknowledge what is painfully apparent, but as long as it's done between innings it's pretended that no one has noticed. Doing it in front of the customers is felt to be humiliating.
For this reason, the mid-inning removal has almost always had disciplinary motives. Two famous examples: on July 30, 1969, the Mets were having a very bad time of their rainy twin-bill with the Houston Astros. They lost the first game 16-3, allowing 11 runs in the ninth and tying a record by giving up two grand slams in the inning (one to Denis Menke, the other to Jimmy Wynn). In the second game, a match-up of Larry Dierker for the Astros and Gary Gentry for the Mets, the Astros put up 10 runs in the third. All 10 runs came with two outs. In the midst of the seemingly endless onslaught, Houston catcher Johnny Edwards hit a double to left field off of Nolan Ryan. Cleon Jones, the Mets left fielder and #3 hitter that day, somewhat gingerly, tentatively, perhaps reluctantly made his way around the puddles in the outfield in going after the ball. "Jones, who had been running back and forth all day in the soggy, sloshy outfield, gave chase to Edwards' hit," wrote Jack Lang in The Sporting News, "but not quite the chase you'd expect from the All-Star left fielder. It was, to be kind, rather lackadaisical. Likewise, his return throw to the infield lacked an all-out effort."
That was how Hodges saw it too. He emerged from the dugout and began walking towards the pitcher's mound. Ryan figured he was through for the day. Hodges passed the mound and kept going. Shortstop Buddy Harrelson was trying to figure out what he had done to cause the manager to be angry at him, but Hodges, moving with excruciatingly deliberate strides, passed Harrelson and kept going. He continued his long, slow walk until he reached Jones in left field. The two spoke for a moment, and then Hodges turned and led Jones, who sullenly trailed behind him, back to the dugout. Ron Swoboda finished the game in left field.
After the game, the Mets claimed that Jones had suffered a pulled hamstring, but that seems to have been an alibi. Jones missed two days, spent two days pinch-hitting (he went 2-for-2) and was back in the lineup on the fifth day after the incident. As Robert Lypsyte wrote a few days later, "Hodges alternately refused to comment on or snickered at a trainer's report that Jones had pulled a hamstring muscle, an injury that often takes two weeks to heal."
For his part, Jones initially stuck to the hamstring story, saying he was embarrassed at being removed in that way because, "It looked like what you guys [the writers] thought it was." A later take seemed to imply that Hodges had had a point. "If I didn't respect what the man is trying to do," the Alabama native said, "I could very easily hate his guts. I was very belittled. I thought it could have been done the other way. I was upset and hurt about it." Jones was a very good player having his best season (.326 EqA), so Hodges took a significant risk by taking the action he did. Rather than feel alienated, though, the Mets seemed to get the message that they had to play hard at all times.
Not long before the incident, Hodges was asked the difference between the then-second place Mets and the team that finished ninth the year before. He cited the play of center fielder Tommy Agee, but added, "I say this with the full realization that we couldn't do it without Cleon Jones. It's just that you take Jones for granted. He is expected to the do the fine job he has been doing." After, Hodges restricted his comments on Jones to "I'm just trying to forget the whole thing."
I will relate the second incident in less detail because it was one of the most written-about incidents in the whole history of the Bronx Zoo-period Yankees and I expect that most of you will be quite familiar with it. In the sixth inning of the June 18, 1977 game at Fenway Park, a nationally televised affair, Jim Rice blooped what appeared to be a catchable fly ball to short right field. From appearances, Reggie Jackson didn't seem all that interested in catching it and it fell in. Jackson compounded matters by lazily lobbing the ball in to no one in particular, allowing Rice to go to second base.
In the dugout, manager Billy Martin literally exploded, showering Chicken Stanley with ragged chunks of skin that smelled like stale beer. After coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra had scraped him back together, Martin went to the pitcher's mound to make a pitching change. As he did, he ordered reserve outfielder Paul Blair to run out to right field and replace Jackson.
While the pitching exchange was being made, Jackson had turned his back to the field, so he was quite surprised to see Blair come running out to relieve him. Enraged, he ran back to the dugout where Martin was waiting for him. Cross words were exchanged, threats uttered. Martin lunged at his star slugger as Howard and Berra labored to keep the two apart--all in view of the television cameras.
As far as we know today, no one cried during, after, or as a result of either the Jones or Jackson incident. It would have been understandable if they had, of course, because being pulled in mid-inning is clearly a very emotional experience.
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