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August 22, 2012
The Hidden Complexities of Baseball's Unwritten Rules
On August 11 in Toledo, the Durham Bulls’ Will Rhymes hit a second-inning, two-run home run off of Toledo Mud Hens starter Drew Smyly. (If you watch the video above, you’ll see a replay of Rhymes’ homer partway through.)
The next batter was Nevin Ashley, and Symly drilled Ashley near the thigh with his next pitch. Message delivered, but not quite the right way: Smyly and Toledo’s manager, Phil Nevin, were ejected, and both benches were warned.
That should have ended the thing. But in the game’s final inning, Rhymes came to bat against hard-throwing Mud Hens’ reliever Bruce Rondon. As Ben Lindbergh detailed last week, Rondon is a very young (21 years old), highly regarded Tigers farmhand. His fastball can top 100 mph and was called by one evaluator, Baseball Prospect Nation’s Mark Anderson, an “absolutely elite pitch… that can be unhittable when thrown for strikes.”
Rondon was making just his third appearance at the Triple-A level, called up from Double-A when Mud Hens closer (and 2011 Durham Bull) Chris Bootcheck went down with a season-ending injury.
In addition to the “elite” fastball, Anderson called Rondon “still very wild,” and he wasn’t describing only Rondon’s pitches. Anderson also reported on Rondon’s “poor makeup. Lacks drive and desire. Frequently characterized as lazy. Lacks effort on the field and carries off-putting emotion on his sleeve.” Anderson isn’t the only observer to make assessments like these about Rondon.
So it wasn’t entirely a surprise that Rondon threw his first pitch, a 101-mph fastball, behind Rhymes. Rhymes took exception, and a few paces toward the mound, and Rondon likewise came toward Rhymes. Rondon is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, and all I can say about that is someone must have neglected to convert his weight to US dollars (or maybe even Singapore dollars). And of course it is now so common as to be passé to comment on Rhymes’ build. He is charitably referred to as “5-foot-9,” officially—for tax purposes, I assume. So this was developing into quite a little Fezzik-Vizzini type moment.
The benches emptied, although no tussle ensued and no punches were thrown. Rondon, like Smyly and Nevin before him, was tossed. (He was later suspended five games by the International League.) Toledo went on to win the game.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big deal for Rondon. With some stern attitude adjustment from the Tigers’ coaching staff and refinement of his command, he’s likely to develop into a very good or even great major-league pitcher. The Rhymes incident is probably just a speeding ticket on the way to major-league millions. As Woody Allen puts it in “A Twenties Memory”: “Picasso was then beginning on what was later to be known as his ‘blue period,’ but Gertrude Stein and I had coffee with him, and so he began it ten minutes later. It lasted four years, so the ten minutes did not really mean much.”
It’s pretty obvious what happened here. Baseball has its unwritten rules, and they weren’t followed properly by the parties involved. “If Smyly had a problem with me,” Rhymes told me about a week later, “the proper etiquette would have been to wait for me to come back up and then hit me in the ass.” Plus, had Smyly followed the protocol, he might not have been ejected—not only because he would have plunked the guy who hit the homer, thereby completing a tit-for-tat circuit, but also because some game time would have elapsed between Rhymes’ at-bats, and the umpire might have cooled off. (Umps have feelings too, I often have to remind myself; they make emotional decisions just like players do.)
As for Rondon, he was “totally out of line,” Rhymes said. “That’s just a blatant misunderstanding of how it works. He had about a week in Triple-A; maybe he was trying to prove something to his teammates.” Rhymes observed, however, that, on the contrary, Rondon’s actions invited retaliation and could have gotten his own teammates hurt. The Bulls did not retaliate because, according to Rhymes, both benches had been warned and an ejection would have automatically followed any further hit batsmen. “Our pitchers couldn’t do anything,” he said, although he was careful to avoid saying that they would have retaliated had ejection not awaited them. In any case, “it should have been over” after Ashley was hit, Rhymes said.
More importantly, in this particular situation, Rhymes added, “the pitch was 101 [mph]. When you throw that hard, basically you can’t throw at people, because you’re messing with people’s lives.”
You’ll notice that there’s something missing from the description in the first paragraph of Rhymes’ home run: the part where he showboats. That’s because he doesn’t. Sure, Rhymes watches the ball for a second or two and then puts a little bit of English on his bat toss. But “these days, that’s normal,” Rhymes said. If what he did is showboating, then what’s all this? Luxury cruising? David Ortiz and Prince Fielder showboat virtually every time they hit a bomb, and they don’t get hit after each one.
(The evident facts from the Rhymes/Smyly/Rondon video did not keep the Minor League Baseball web site, probably the worst designed site I visit on a regular basis—and why not? it’s minor-league—from captioning the video thus: “The benches clear after Bruce Rondon throws behind hitter Will Rhymes after showboating a home run earlier in the game.” Not only is the showboat call wrong, but, gee, I didn’t know Rondon had homered earlier in the game.)
Anyway, as Rhymes pointed out, “If you watch the replay, [Smyly]’s not even watching me.” It’s true: Smyly, like Rhymes, is following the flight of the ball, his back to home plate. So Smyly may have taken umbrage at Rhymes, but he didn’t take it from Rhymes. (Interesting to note that Rhymes had obviously watched the video quite closely.)
Did Smyly take offense at Rhymes via his teammates, then, or from his manager and/or coaches? Potential clue: Rhymes was drafted by Detroit in 2005 and played in that organization his entire career up until 2012, when he became a free agent and signed with Tampa Bay. He played for Toledo in parts of four straight seasons from 2008-11. He knows many of the current Mud Hens, as well as Nevin and his coaching staff—although not Smyly or Rondon, both of whom are new to Toledo this season.
So was there some bad blood there? Rhymes said there was not. He thought Rondon probably did not know that Rhymes was a long-cooped Mud Hen until this season. He even said that “I talked to a couple of their guys, and no one really had a problem” with his little bat flip—which he did make. It’s not very flashy, but it is evident in the video, and Rhymes as much as admitted it.
Watching the clip before speaking with Rhymes about it, and knowing that he is a former Toledo Mud Hen, it initially seemed like his bat-flip fillip—which, brief and subtle as it is, demonstrates substantial relish and satisfaction on Rhymes’ part—was intended as a little message sent to his old mates, or perhaps coaches. But it was quite obvious that he was telling the truth when he said, “I left on really good terms with pretty much all the players and the coaches in Triple-A. I have nothing against them.”
So then what was motivating him? Just the rare pleasure of hitting a home run? Rhymes has hit 27 dingers in nearly 4,000 career plate appearances in the pros.
“There may have been some other stuff involved,” Rhymes said. “I know why they did it. It didn’t necessarily all have to do with what I did.”
He preferred to leave unsaid what it did have to do with, although he added, “If either of the guys involved [Smyly and Rondon] had known anything or talked to anyone else about all my history with Detroit, they would have thought that what I did was completely within reason.
“There was some water under the bridge with me and Detroit.”
Of course we’d like to know more about that water, but Rhymes has left it open to study. It is hard not to think he is referring to an event that took place during last year’s playoffs, one which requires a little backstory:
Rhymes made his big-league debut with Detroit on July 25, 2010. He was 27 years old. Rhymes stayed with the club for the rest of the season and, in 213 plate appearances, manufactured a respectable .277 TAv. On the strength of that showing (and on the weakness of the alternatives on the Tigers’ payroll), Rhymes was named Detroit’s Opening Day second baseman for 2011. But he wasn’t given much time to establish himself there. On May 1, after just 81 plate appearances, carrying a light .556 OPS (with just a solitary extra-base hit and a single stolen base), Rhymes was demoted to Toledo. He stayed there until late in the season, when he was recalled mostly for stretch-drive pinch-running and defensive substitution duties. He did not make the Tigers’ post-season roster.
In the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2011 American League Championship series, Jim Leyland sent Danny Worth in to pinch-run for Ramon Santiago. Watching from home or a place very like it, Rhymes tweeted:
Naturally, this was interpreted as criticism of Leyland’s judgment, and Rhymes heard it from the Twittersphere. He later tried to mollify folks by tweeting: "Some of you guys need to lighten up. It is so stressful for me watching these games, sometimes I just have to turn them off." Oh, Twitter. Should athletes even be on you? I covered the Duke basketball team this past season, and part of the melodrama constantly surrounding the team had to do with the players’ mid-season decision to abstain from Twitter. Did it help? Have anything to do with either their electrifying comeback win over archrival North Carolina in Chapel Hill or their shocking first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of lowly Lehigh?
Who really knows? Is Twitter worth all of this gnashing of teeth? Would it not be better for athletes just to leave the whole thing alone? How many of them really have anything interesting to say, anyway?
Coming from a player who might very well have been sent in to do Danny Worth’s pinch-running task had he made the post-season roster, Rhymes’ tweet might have sounded not only like strategic second-guessing of his own manager, but also sour grapes. The Tigers non-tendered him before year’s end, and in January he signed with the Rays. He has split his time this season between the majors and Triple-A (and is best known this year for having passed out after he was hit by a pitch—the best part of which was the post mortem, in which Rhymes said that the huge forearm bruise he sustained made him look “jacked.”)
One of the many things to love about baseball is its long memory. The Rhymes/Smyly/Rondon dustup is a reminder that this goes not just for on-field events—“Well, I threw him a 1-2 slider in that game in their place six years ago, so this time…”—but also for what happens off of it. Looking at the replay of Rhymes’ bat-flip now, a very different story suggests itself. It’s not showboating, and it’s certainly not showing up Smyly, a pitcher Rhymes had probably never even faced.
It doesn’t even look like provocation or score-settling. It looks, instead, like a player addressing an intimate of his past, one with whom his relationship ended uncomfortably, and saying, “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’m not angry, I’m doing okay—and I’ve still got it.”