keyboard_arrow_uptop

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.”

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
dcj207
8/22
Hey - easy with the "lowly" description of Lehigh. I went there, and as any Engineer can tell you 15 > 2. Otherwise a great article. ;-)
adamsobsey
8/22
Ha! Good one. And Lehigh had the best player on the floor that night, C. J. McCollum.
edwinblume
8/22
casual reference to my favorite movie = great article
adamsobsey
8/22
Regarding athletes on Twitter, I neglected to add that Rhymes is one of the few who does have an interesting presence there, and not only because of his accidental provocation in last year's postseason. In the wee hours of the morning before the game discussed in this article, he tweeted this line from a Bright Eyes song: "The sorrowful midwest... I did my best to keep my head." After the game, again in the small hours--almost exactly 24 hours after the first Bright Eyes tweet--Rhymes tweeted the line again. It was almost as if the agitating events of the game--played in the midwest, of course--had Rhymes revisiting the line with a sort of prescient-in-hindsight reflectiveness.
Dubey89
8/22
Very much enjoyed this article. Thanks
Oleoay
8/22
Rhymes should get a guest spot here. Seems like a thoughtful guy.
rawagman
8/23
Love your work, Adam - you are a real writer's writer. And you are absolutely spot on about the milb website. Way too many clicks needed to do anything, inconsistent linkages. Just weak.
adamsobsey
8/24
Thank you very much! I don't know what the problem is at milb.com. Some of this year's tweaks have actually made the site *less* user-friendly.
drawbb
8/23
Once again: I'd like to ask the editorial staff to reconsider and provide a warning in the links of all articles discussing Twitter in a significant way as this one did. Thank you!
bornyank1
8/24
You're welcome to try to persuade me why this is necessary, but I still don't see any reason to do it. This article is 2000 words long. Only 200 of them have anything to do with Twitter. The tweet Adam embedded, and his discussion of it, is relevant to the rest of the story, since it supports the idea that Rhymes might hold some grudge against the Tigers that caused him to flip his bat after hitting the home run against Toledo. This story also contains an embedded video of an on-field incident from MiLB.com. It includes quotes from players. It includes statistics. It includes links to other articles. All of those things are used to make arguments and enrich the article, just as the tweet was. Should we provide warnings about all of those things, too? In a comment on Adam's last article, you called Twitter the "scourge of the world," so evidently you find any reference to it offensive and would prefer to have skipped this article entirely rather than read an embedded tweet. That's certainly not the view of our authors, almost all of whom are active on Twitter, and I doubt that many (if any) of our readers feel the same way. I'm willing to attach a warning to something that I think might alienate or offend a significant percentage of our readers, but I don't see how mentioning Twitter falls into that category.
drawbb
8/24
That's just it---I have the option to skip embedded video, I have the option to skip articles by a writer I don't like...I'm simply asking to have the same option on this subject. If I'm correct that you're like some websites and evaluate by the number of clicks on each article, then that's the very reason I want a warning: I don't want to inadvertently contribute to ancillary support of a topic I'd love to see die. On the other hand, if you don't evaluate by the number of clicks then it's not such a big deal.
bornyank1
8/24
But the topic of this article wasn't "Twitter." It was baseball's unwritten rules, and how we, and even the other people on the field, might not always understand what motivates a player. The tweet came toward the end and could have been skipped over just as easily as the video (though I don't know why presenting a quote from Twitter is any more distasteful than presenting a quote from a paper or an in-person interview--regardless of the source, it's something Rhymes said). Twitter is no more than a medium where people communicate with one another. If an article includes a tweet that I think some people might find offensive, I might include a warning about that, but I don't follow why the mere presence of a tweet, regardless of its content, merits a warning. If a reader asked me to put a "Warning: contains text about Barry Zito" notice on every article that mentions Barry Zito, just because they don't want to see any more articles that mention Barry Zito, I wouldn't be inclined to do that either.
drawbb
8/24
But then the author goes on to talk about Twitter, and should athletes even be on there, and his first comment is more about Twitter... If you think it's harmless, that's your business. I, on the other hand, see guys having to waste valuable time answering questions about Twitter instead of preparing for games. I won't even go into the lives and careers it's ruined, so let's leave it there. These are the reasons I don't want to do anything remotely supportive of that garbage. For example, I had to pull the plug entirely on ever listening to any more ESPN Radio because they started talking about Twitter more than the games themselves. There is a ton of content on this site, much of which I love and only a couple things I despise or find useless. The key is that the headlines and bylines should help me find and avoid the latter categories--however they may vary for each individual person. In your satirical Barry Zito example, you actually ARE doing that to a large degree even if that is someone's real-life pet peeve. Most articles' headlines typically let us know they focus on one player or one team when that's pertinent, so most of the time the Zito-phobe can avoid that content. I don't know anything about maintaining the graphic headlines for a website, but is it difficult to simply have a "T" or a "GIF" appended to the heading of each article?
Oleoay
8/24
Hey, I hate Fox News and think a good chunk of its television channel should be sandblasted into CandyLand.. but if someone says something on Fox News, it's still a public record of a statement made, and thus, it's evidence that can be used to substantiate/validate an article. Same thing with Twitter. Many celebrities communicate with their fans via Twitter, so, a record of what they say on Twitter can help give insight as to what is going on in the Twitterer's mind. That being said, yeah, Twitter is a waste of time and personally, I think a few too many tweets are on This Week in Quotes. But, on the other hand, I like the idea that BP isn't ignoring a widely used system of information.
bornyank1
8/24
I don't know--I see what you're saying, but I wouldn't blame Twitter for the ill-advised things that people say on Twitter. Plenty of people have had to waste valuable time answering questions about, or had their careers ruined by, things they've said to another person directly, or in the papers, or on the radio, or on TV. People say stupid things. Twitter makes it more easy for those stupid things to be publicized, I suppose, but the people still have to say them. Fortunately, there are a lot of people on Twitter saying smart, funny, insightful things that I wouldn't want to miss. I agree that an article that focuses on Barry Zito would probably say something about Zito in the headline or the summary, but an article that merely mentions Zito while focusing on something else probably wouldn't. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one recent BP article in which Twitter could have been said to be the subject of the article (something Michael Bates wrote about C.J. Wilson). Otherwise, it's just an aside, as it was in this article, or just something that's cited like any other source. I don't want to make your BP browsing experience more unpleasant, but given that Twitter is almost never the focus of one of our articles, and since I haven't heard this request from any other subscriber, I don't think adding a "T" (which would probably confuse people) to mark any article that mentions Twitter makes sense.
Oleoay
8/24
He could select the article in IE/FireFox/Chrome, copy all, paste to notepad (which removes the Twitter gifs), then do a find/replace for any paragraphs that mention Twitter and replace it with the word "email". Basically that's what Twitter is, mini-mass emails.
drawbb
8/24
Thanks for responding again. Just a few points and I'll relinquish this subject hereafter. First, I DO blame Twitter for dramatically accelerating America down a path we were already headed...in which anything said becomes fact merely by having been said at all...in which whatever final few shreds of journalistic integrity still remained were strewn to the dustbin of history once and for all...in which the pressure to keep up with this dangerous trend has quite likely been the cause of a fairly significant number of its disastrous consequences. The new problem Twitter brought to the table was that this instrumentality proliferated so rapidly and so thoroughly that we've now passed the point of no return. The other is that its very existence totally ruined any chance sports journalism had of ever reclaiming its dignity. Newspapers were already a dying industry, and we all get why that happened. Transitioning to the next phase isn't such a big deal on its own, but when that next thing involves the writers literally being pressured to amass X number of Twitter followers in order to retain a job...well, it doesn't take long to figure out the fastest way to do that. Does anybody think the gossipy TMZ-ization of sports that engulfed ESPN is a good thing? Twitter is highly culpable in that. Seriously, when did highlight shows start taking time away from showing highlights and use it instead to show tweets and talk about tweets? Believe me, the last thing sports writers needed was something which they both must use and which makes their relationship with athletes worse. On another level, the whole thing itself is so juvenile: "Look how many followers I have!"...begging to be re-tweeted...people actually saying "hashtag (subject)" aloud in conversation. If you think all these are just my personal concerns, they aren't. I know of at least two people way over my station who share my identical viewpoints on Twitter, but who feel pressured to keep up with the fact that it's currently dominating the industry and are on there even though they desperately don't want to be. The game needs an environment in which the manager can tell a player in person that he's being optioned before a guy hears it on Twitter first or in which you can talk about baseball in clubhouse meetings and not Twitter. Thanks for the consideration again, Ben. I'll move on now. Just don't be surprised by anything that arises in the future where this is concerned.
bornyank1
8/24
I can certainly see why Twitter would be an inconvenience to a team--it's just another way for players to get themselves in trouble and cause distractions, or to read about rumors without any substance, or to read about real news before hearing it their manager or GM. And I can certainly see why someone whose job depended on racking up followers would resent that. I'm rarely on Twitter when I'm writing, because I do find it distracting. That said, I think teams and writers can also treat it as an opportunity to build an audience and interact with fans. And more importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, most of our readers don't care if Twitter makes life more difficult for baseball operations execs, team support staff, or certain members of the media. That's not their problem. For them, it's a way to keep up with news, learn from people whose work they enjoy, come across work they've been missing, and enhance their enjoyment of watching games and following a team. I think those are positive things.
Oleoay
8/24
Just as a further note, I do think Twitter helps provide witnesses and cuts back a bit on the "unnamed" sources. Sure, someone might be tweeting about an anonymous source but at least it's easier to backtrack to who reported it. The example of a manager optioning a player to AAA being kept private really hasn't happened in the last twenty years and Twitter hasn't been around that line.
drawbb
8/25
You are mistaken about that last sentence. I'd never seen it happen once in two decades until that existed.