There’s a space right below the tip of a person’s nose and right above their chin that’s just about exactly the size of a baseball. That’s where Roger Clemens was throwing at Mike Piazza. Not exactly at Piazza, but rather where that part of Piazza’s face was when Clemens let go of the pitch. He expected Piazza to be gone by the time the ball got there. Was he throwing at him? Absolutely! Did he expect to hurt him? Probably not. Clemens’ only mistake was not checking on Piazza when he went down. But even that was more of a message. Clemens is not the dominating pitcher he once was, and needs to work inside to keep guys from loading up on him. Even his Yankee teammates called him a headhunter when he was with the Blue Jays.
A little warning, an old fashion message, a brush back. As old as the game itself, an inside pitch, especially around the head is always a reminder not to dig in to deep.
Over the past 10 years or so a few things have happened that have kept the brush back pitch at bay. Hitters have cried loud and hard about pitching inside. They say it puts them at risk. No kidding. That’s exactly why Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale worked the inside of the plate. Gain possession of the inside, and you’ve got the advantage. Some hitters have tried to combat the inside pitch by going to the plate with all sorts of armor. An ear flap, an elbow guard, a wrist pad, a back-of-the-hand pad, and a shin guard or some combination thereof can be seen on most major league hitters these days. What are they gladiators? If the ball’s approaching a bit inside, they just “turtle up” and it harmlessly glances off. Watch classic sports one day when they’re showing games from the 60’s and 70’s. Most hitters look like stick figures. Weight lifting was considered taboo in baseball at the time. Nobody at the plate is wearing anything but the league-mandated helmet, with no flap. They don’t ever wear batting gloves!
There’s also a theory of hitting that promotes moving toward the plate at the beginning of the swing. Some call it ‘diving’ into the pitch. That’s exactly what Piazza does. It’s his first move. In toward the plate, so a running fastball up and in hits him every time, probably just a few inches from being a strike.
After he wrote Ball Four Jim Bouton attempted a comeback in baseball, becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Ted Turner was a bit fascinated by it and took Bouton into the Braves’ minor league organization. In my first story ever as a broadcaster, I went to Savannah to see Bouton and talk about his return to baseball. He was still considered quite an outsider because of the content of his book, and I was surprised he agreed not only to talk with me, but also show some of his stuff at 40 years old by letting me take some swings against the knuckleball. I’ve played a bunch of baseball my whole life, and was excited at the opportunity.
Bouton was gracious at my arrival, showed me to a locker room to change into a uniform and said he’d see me on the field. William L. Grayson stadium was the home of the AA Savannah Braves, an old ballpark even then, providing the perfect backdrop for a story on an ex-Yankee’s return to the game.
On the mound in baseball “sleeves”, pants and no hat, Bouton asked if I was ready. I dug in and nodded. The first pitch was right at my head, a fastball with no movement. I dove for the dirt and without a glance to the mound, got back up and brushed myself off. Back in the batter’s box I took my stance, as the second pitch was a fastball, again right at my head, with no movement. Back in the dirt I went, brushed myself off and got back up. I knew exactly what was going on, but adhering to the “code” in baseball, I went on, without complaint. This went on for five straight pitches.
Finally I yelled to the mound.
“Hey Jim, you’re gonna need better control than that if you want to get to the majors.”
Bouton yelled back, “Look hairspray, part of batting is fear, fear of being hit by the ball.”
“Part of pitching is going to be fear,” I replied, “if I come out there and beat you upside the head with this bat!”
With that, the perfectly conditioned Bouton laughed and threw the ball over the plate. We got along famously afterwards, with Bouton saying he could tell I’d played a little baseball just by the way I put on my socks. But he had to test me, to see if I understood “the code.” Bouton and his knuckleball did make it back to the majors with the Braves. He pitched in five games for Atlanta with a 1-3 record and a 4.97 era in 1978.
Much of the press coverage of the Clemens/Piazza incident got off the track. All of the sports channels covered it, dealt with it and moved on. I was surfing the cable about four days later only to come across CNBA and (I never thought I’d write this name in a column) Geraldo Rivera conducting a debate on whether Clemens’ act contributed to the “violence” of the game. His panelists, sportscasters Warner Wolf and Len Berman, and a sportswriter from New Jersey had differing views, but all were perplexed at the uninformed Rivera’s questions about “how can this happen?”
Baseball in particular, and sports in general, has its own specific culture. It’s when people like Rivera, outside that culture, try to put their own values on what’s happening inside the sport that causes the media frenzy.
Stay out of it Geraldo. Go back to Capone’s vault and see if there are any baseballs inside.
But watch out for that high hard one.