Thank you, Guillermo Mota.
With the Dodgers holding baseball’s best record and a widening chasm between sunny Chavez Ravine and the San Francisco Bay, with the Manny Ramirez fiasco turning into a routine fly ball and those trade-bait pitchers remaining on other teams, we’ve been in danger of slipping into cruise control until the playoffs.
Then along comes anger, redemption and a harking back to one of baseball’s great traditions: A fastball in the rump for a slider in the elbow. In this age of over-hype, let’s just call this the Great Beanball War of 2009.
It all began Tuesday, the Dodgers against the middling Milwaukee Brewers. The Dodgers kept stacking up runs; 17 of them, nearly a record. Along the way, in the seventh inning, the game already a formality, Ramirez trudged to the plate. A pitch came close, too close. It hit him, though not exactly hard.
Nobody could be surprised about what happened next. The Dodgers are still scarred by last year’s playoffs. By the gnashing of teeth over Chad Billingsley’s unwillingness to bust the Philadelphia Phillies in the chops after seemingly the entire roster of Dodgers’ hitters spent a disastrous Game 2 of the National League Championship Series bailing to the dirt, chased by fastballs.
So Tuesday, Mota proved a point: This time the Dodgers ain’t no chumps! In the ninth inning, Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder gets plunked by a Mota pitch in his ample backside.
But then after the game Fielder goes all MMA on us. He charges the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He yells and screams just a few paces from the Dodgers’ lockers, threatening to turn Mota into mincemeat. Never mind that he wouldn’t have gotten far, because Matt Kemp’s locker would be the first one he had to pass.
This was great entertainment, great theater, great posturing. This was a slice of chippy baseball tradition.
It delivered a nice jolt. On Wednesday at Chavez Ravine, you could feel the hum of a stadium electric with anticipation. What was going to happen? Would there be more inside nastiness and outsized anger? Would there be some sort of baseball beatdown?
If we’re to aspire to being a polite society, there’s probably no place in the game for hitting a guy with a pitch, even in his back pocket. We could go back and forth for hours on just this.
Back and forth with talk of how Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson never met an opponent they didn’t try to tattoo in the ribs. How, when men were men, hitters would get hit and never take offense. Now, say the old-timers, these modern ballplayers, why they’re just a bunch of overly sensitive pansies. Ready to charge the mound, if they are hit by even the shadow of a pitch.
The fans however don’t care. What they want is what they got Wednesday. Jason Schmidt throws a pitch that flies slightly inside, and the whole stadium goes “Whoa!”
On edge, everyone in the stadium leans forward in their seats, ready to see some pushing and shoving, maybe some headlocks and fists.
There was certainly plenty of tension Wednesday, even though before the game both teams tended to speak in code.
Mota wondered what all the fuss was about: wink, wink. Joe Torre gleamed when speaking about Gibson, of course.
Russell Martin was the one Dodger who didn’t talk like a politician. Before the game, he stood in front of a phalanx of security and a swarm of reporters. “You don’t want to be a team that is easily intimidated,” he said.
Tuesday’s plunk of Fielder and the resulting mayhem “proves a point.” We ain’t no chumps!
Obviously thinking of the lack of retribution against the Phillies, Martin said: “We don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
Meantime, when Brewers Manager Ken Macha spoke, he blamed the whole thing on the Dodgers and firmly accused Mota of trying to hurt his man.
“He hit him in the butt,” a reporter said. “Isn’t that fair game?”
Countered a fuming Macha: “What if he hit him in the elbow or the kneecap?”
Nothing much happened in Wednesday’s game. There were no fastballs to the ribs or players tossed, not with all of baseball’s code enforcers on high alert. But at least a game that otherwise would have been just a footnote in a series of footnotes, became a happening.
It woke the fans. Despite the 4-1 loss, it hopefully woke the Dodgers. They recently lumbered. Maybe this sparks a return to form later in the week. Maybe it helps shore up their identity, still fragile after Philadelphia.
Maybe it serves as some symbolic message: Chad Billingsley, come playoff time, do as Mota does.
We won’t know until October if this tough-guy identity will hold. But for one night in this slumbering stretch of the season, it was nice to have a little jolt.
Thank you, Guillermo.