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Adam Wainwright follows the rules and pays the price

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source: Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Baseball has so many crazy unwritten rules that it’s really almost impossible to keep up. For instance, if you ask Hall of Famer Joe Morgan about a moment in baseball he really regrets, he will likely talk about the time he swung for the fences on a 3-0 pitch against an aging Jim Palmer with a seven-run lead. That’s not something you or I would have likely noticed, but the way Morgan sees it that just wasn’t respectful to a great pitcher. After the game, he apologized to Palmer, who Morgan says both understood and accepted the apology.

Here’s another one: One time, the legendary Stan Musial was picked off second base. Later he went over to the second baseman who tagged him out and said: “Don’t ever embarrass me like that again.”

And one more: Pete Rose had a 44-game hitting streak ended in a 16-4 loss against Atlanta. After the game, he ripped the Braves pitchers — particularly closer Gene Garber — for not throwing him fastballs. I’ve been stunned how many people I’ve talked to in baseball who think Rose actually had a point.

Yes, there are unwritten rules.

And so, when St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright threw a 91-mph fastball over the plate against Derek Jeter to lead off the All-Star Game Tuesday night in Minnesota, and Jeter cranked that pitch to right field, I immediately texted a friend: “He totally grooved that pitch.” Well, it seemed obvious. He was utterly following the unwritten rules of the game.

[ MORE: Wainwright admits grooving pitch to Derek Jeter ]

What was the point of this night, anyway? It was to celebrate the legend of Derek Jeter. It was respectful and joyous and over the top. Before the first pitch, the National League catcher and umpire backed away from home plate to give him the full stage. Cheers rained down, and he waved his helmet uncomfortably, and it lasted for a long time. Later, Jeter had another moment when he came off the field.

So what was Wainwright going to do for this game? Throw the curveball that embarrassed Carlos Beltran? No, he was going to throw a fastball over the plate. Now, before going any further into this, we should define what a major league “grooved fastball” really is. A grooved fastball is not a batting practice fastball. It’s not anything improper. It’s a style of pitching, something pitchers will do sometimes when they have a lead, something pitchers will do when they are trying to conserve pitches, something pitchers will often do when facing hitters at the bottom of the lineup. Pitchers know: It’s not that easy for someone to hit a 91-mph fastball.

All Wainwright was doing there, in my opinion, was pitching Jeter exactly as he should considering the moment and the game. Let’s face it: He wasn’t going to try and trick Jeter. He wasn’t going to try and break him down and strike him out. This was Derek Jeter’s last All-Star Game, and Wainwright (like any other pitcher, I suspect) was going to throw a 90-or-so mph fastball over the plate and see if Jeter could hit it.* On this night, it turns out, he could hit it for a double.

*It is worth noting that afterward Jeter called it a “98-mph two-seamer that stayed on really good.” It was actually a 91-mph four-seamer that stayed up. It’s always fun to see the way hitters describe the pitches they hit.

[ MORE: Watch Derek Jeter’s pregame speech to the AL All-Stars ]

As it turned out, Wainwright didn’t have it Tuesday night. He gave up a triple to Mike Trout — Jeter came around to score — and a home run to Miguel Cabrera. That was a three-run American League inning. The American League won the game by two runs, 5-3.

Anyway, that double was a cool moment for Jeter, for the fans, for baseball. He scorched a major league fastball to right, ran it out; hey, it’s the bleeping All-Star Game and that’s what this is supposed to be about.

Only two things happened that kind of created a minor mess.

One of those things happened Tuesday, shortly after the Jeter hit. Wainwright admitted he grooved the fastball. Wainwright’s a good guy, a stand-up guy, a thoughtful and fun guy –and it’s clear that he simply did not see how his comments would come out. “I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” he said, referring to pitches down-the-pipe. “I just thought he deserved it. I didn’t know he was going to hit a double or I would have changed my mind.”

Wainwright was doing what Wainwright does, just talking from gut, having a little fun, being self-deprecating. But this quote was about to go into the Twitterverse, and it was not going to look good there. Stripped of the context, the history, the way baseball turned the game into a Derek Jeter Love Fest, it sounded like Wainwright was saying that he purposely laid down. I don’t think he did that at all. He threw a fastball over the plate and challenged Jeter to hit it.

Worse for Wainwright, though, in short form it also sounded like he was disrespecting Jeter, suggesting that Jeter is some kind of charity case whose greatness has earned him the right to have fastballs grooved to him in the All-Star Game. Again, I feel sure this wasn’t at all what Wainwright intended to say. But he said the words.

[ MORE: Derek Jeter’s final All-Star game ends in fourth inning ]

After that, he went on FOX to try and salvage something by backtracking and, unfortunately, by bashing social media. I felt terrible for him, but he knows as well as anyone that this is the world we live in. If you say what people see as the wrong thing at the wrong time, the backlash is fierce and it’s immediate. Wainwright knew that before Tuesday night.

The second thing that messed things up, though, actually happened a dozen years ago. That was the All-Star Game tie. It was such an embarrassment for the game that Bud Selig and company decided they had to do something drastic, something to make the All-Star Game count — “This Time It Counts” was even their slogan — and so they decided to give the league that won the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series.

On the surface, this wasn’t such a bad idea — after all, before the change home-field advantage was simply alternated — one year the American League would get it, the next year the National League would get it – and that’s obviously ridiculous. So, sure, tying it to the All-Star Game was random but no more random than the previous system.

Only, that’s wrong. It IS more random. The All-Star Game doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares who wins. Nobody plays to win. Nobody manages to win. Starting pitchers go one inning. The best players sit. Every team sends at least one player. You don’t have to say anything other than this: Derek Jeter started in the All-Star Game even though he has an anemic .322 slugging percentage this year. That’s because the All-Star Game is not a game. It’s a show, it’s a celebration, it’s for fun.

By throwing in this ridiculous home-field advantage twist, the game now is less fun. Adam Wainwright throws fastballs to Derek Jeter because it’s his last All-Star Game. Now, Game 7 of the World Series will be in Oakland or Detroit or Anaheim or Baltimore or Toronto or, dare I say it, Kansas City? How is that good for the game in any way? It would actually make MORE sense to have the game somewhere because it’s an even-numbered year.

Wainwright may have sparked the pipe-shot mess with what he said after he pitched. But he was just doing what baseball players have been doing forever — treating the great older players with respect they have earned. Bud Selig and the people of baseball caused the mess by attaching too much meaning to a game that doesn’t count, shouldn’t count and never will count.

Willie Mays gets a cable car named after him

Major League Baseball hall of famer  Willie Mays, who spent the majority of his career as a center fielder with the New York and San Francisco Giants, smiles as President Barack Obama honors the 2012 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants baseball team, Monday, July 29, 2013, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The team beat the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series, their second championship since the franchise moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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This is not exactly stunning news, but it’s Willie Mays’ 85th birthday today and any excuse to talk about Willie Mays is a good one. Happy Birthday, Willie!

The pretext is a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about how The Greatest Baseball Player of All Time (my view anyway) is getting an iconic cable car named after him. An icon named after an icon, I guess. The cable car is, appropriately, number 24.

Next month I’m taking my kids on vacation to California and we’re spending a few days in San Francisco. It’ll be a shame when I tell them we have to cancel half of a day’s plans while I make them wait for one particular cable car to come by so they can take my picture with it, but that’s just what they have to deal with given that I’m their dad.

Carlos Gomez calls out a hit piece-writing columnist

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez (30) reacts after hitting a double in the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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Yesterday I wrote about a column written by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. It was about Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez, who has had a poor start to the year.

The column, as I noted, was a hatchet job, blaming Gomez for the Astros’ problems despite the fact that Gomez is by far from the biggest of the Astros’ problems. It was particularly bad in that it presented an unedited bit of broken English from Gomez which seemed calculated to cast Gomez in a bad light. Many journalists were critical of Smith in this regard, noting that he could’ve used a translator, could have paraphrased or could’ve done some mild correction via brackets, as is often done with quotes from non-native English speakers.

Last night Gomez took to Twitter to call out Smith himself:

It’s possible to write a column about how a player hasn’t lived up to expectations without being an insensitive jackass. It’s possible to do so even in the sharpest of ways. Smith didn’t do that, however, and didn’t make an effort to try, it seems. Gomez is right to take issue with it. And I suspect that Gomez’s teammates and organization take issue with it too. Which likely doesn’t bode well for Smith getting cooperation from others in the Astros family.

Reminder: athletes are not heroes

Zack Greinke
Associated Press
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This is something of a “greatest hits” piece and it’s topic I’ve talked about here before, but I’m reminded of it again because of Facebook’s memories thing which tells me I wrote about it seven years ago today back when I was still doing stuff at my old Shysterball blog at the Hardball Times.

The topic: ballplayers as heroes. The subject of the 2009 post on the matter was Zack Greinke, who was then beginning his breakout year with the Kansas City Royals. A columnist talked about how uplifting Greinke’s story was, what with him having overcome some struggles with anxiety disorder which had caused him to leave the game for a brief period. In early 2009 he was back, baby, and better than ever and many wanted to turn him into something larger than just a ballplayer excelling at his craft.

In the post I wrote about how, while such an impulse was understandable, it was a dangerous one as athletes have been made into heroes for years and years and, so often, they end up disappointing. Because we built them up so high, however, we don’t see such instances as the mere exhibition of human fallibility. We see them as some greater failure or even a betrayal, which is both ridiculous and unfair to these men and women, even if they have failed in certain ways. They have worked hard all of their lives to be good at a particular sport. They did not promise us glory or inspiration, yet we assume that they owe us those things. Their failures, however they are manifested, are matched by our failures at expectation management.

But it’s even more pernicious than that. Because, as I wrote at the time, when we create heroes, we necessarily create the need for villains and we will go out of our way to find those too, justified or otherwise:

“Hero” is too strong and baggage-laden a word anyway. As [Bill] James notes, it places a heavy burden on young men, and these guys are under such scrutiny day-in and day-out that they really don’t need it. What’s more, the term hero it necessarily assumes its opposite — villain — and demands that we search them out too. You know, to restore balance to the universe and everything. Often — as in the case of A-Rod and Gooden and Bonds and all of the others — they’re the same people, just older . . . Hero creation, worship, and subsequently, destruction has long been a part of baseball. But it’s not an essential part, and in my mind not a desirable part.

Seven years later we’re still doing this. As Bill James noted in his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” “When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent.” Many of them, like Zack Greinke, will prove to continue to be fine older men, just as they were fine young men. Some will not. Would it not be better if we didn’t get so invested in how fine a young man any one of them is? Or, short of that, if we didn’t act so betrayed and victimized if they turn out not to be such a fine young man?

I like to hear a good story about a baseball player who, by all outward appearances, seems like a good person. But I’m content to give such a story a smile and leave it at that. If we require heroism, there are people who do truly heroic things in the world beyond throw baseballs.

Andrew McCutchen apologies to an official scorer he said should be fired

Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) watches from the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Pittsburgh. Detroit won 7-3.(AP Photo/Don Wright)
Associated Press
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Andrew McCutchen made an error on Wednesday night. He thought he shouldn’t have been charged with one on the play, however, and afterward said “whoever scored that an error should be fired. That’s unbelievable. I did everything I could to catch it.”

It was a dumb comment for two reasons. First, a player “doing everything he can” on a play doesn’t make a misplay not a misplay. The “e” ain’t about effort, man. I realize scoring has gotten somewhat lax in recent years and players are routinely not given errors if it looks like they really, really tried, but there is not an intent element to the crime of making errors on the playing field. If you muff one, you muff one.

It was a dumb comment for another reason, and that’s that it was just not very nice. As we noted when David Ortiz or some others have made publicly disparaging comments about official scorers, it’s the ultimate punching down. These are people who have other jobs, aren’t public figures, don’t get paid a lot and really, really don’t have it in for anyone. Publicly criticizing them is bad enough, publicly demanding their jobs is pretty low.

Thankfully, with a day’s worth of reflection, McCutchen realized that this was the case and apologized. There aren’t public words from McCutchen available, but the club said that he reached out to the scorer and personally apologized. As he should’ve.