MINNEAPOLIS — New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was livid, veins bulging in his neck, as he peppered home plate umpire Brian O’Nora with profanity after Boston’s Ryan Dempster hit Alex Rodriguez in the left elbow on a 3-0 pitch.
Red Sox fans proclaimed Dempster a hero and many folks wondered why Girardi would stand up so forcefully over the plunking of a player regarded by many as the scourge of baseball. Three days later, they got their answer.
In the span of just a few hours on Wednesday night, Jason Heyward’s jaw was broken by an errant pitch in a Braves-Mets game, and a floating knuckleball broke the left hand of Yankees infielder Jayson Nix. Neither pitcher in those instances earned a suspension like Dempster. But the accidental injuries underlined Girardi’s point about just how dangerous it can be when a pitcher decides to take matters into his own hands.
One little slip, one sweaty palm, one ill-timed flick of the wrist can mean the difference between some harmless chin music that can back off a hitter, and a whistling pellet that can end a career, or worse.
“Yeah, that’s my point,” Girardi said this week. “And obviously, Jason Heyward gets hit in the jaw, and you know that you’re not trying to hit someone in the face, but it happens. And it can change a player’s life. It can change a lot of things. It can change a season, and it’s something that I’m very adamant about.”
Whether a pitcher is trying to send a message – as Major League Baseball officials believe Dempster was doing – or simply has one get away from him while trying to establish control of the inside part of the plate, the results can sometimes be catastrophic.
Red Sox fans know all about that.
Beloved young star Tony Conigliaro was hit on the left cheekbone by a pitch from California’s Jack Hamilton in 1967. He was carried off the field on a stretcher in a frightening scene and suffered severe damage to his left orbital bone, retina and jaw. He had to retire early because of problems with his vision.
Cleveland’s Ray Chapman died after being hit in the head by a pitch from the Yankees’ Carl Mays in 1920. Mickey Cochrane’s skull was fractured and he was knocked unconscious after being hit by a pitch from Yankee Irving Hadley in 1937, ending the Hall of Famer’s career. The careers of Dickie Thon, Adam Greenberg and many others were altered after they were hit by pitches.
For hitters and pitchers alike, there is a conscious effort to block out the idea of baseball as a contact sport.
“It’s scary,” Marlins closer Steve Cishek said. “I’ve hit two guys in the head or the face in my career. Both times I did it, it was 0-2.
“You don’t want to do that. It’s part of the game,” he said. “For the most part it’s not on purpose. But it’s tough to bounce back from something like that. If you hit someone in the face, it’s the last thing you want to do. When I did it, it kind of got in my head a little bit.”
Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison physically shuddered when he saw replays of Heyward getting hit by the Mets. Heyward had surgery on his right jaw this week and could miss the rest of the regular season.
“It’s just one of those things where you hope it doesn’t happen to you,” Morrison said. “You’re trained so long to stay in there and see it until the last possible second. Hopefully, you can get out of the way.”
Unlike Dempster and A-Rod, Jonathon Niese wasn’t trying to hit Heyward.
“I wanted to elevate a fastball but it just kind of ran in on him. Obviously no intent,” Niese said. “I felt horrible. This game can be pretty dangerous.”
Especially when pitchers are trying to use the inside part of the plate. Many hitters crowd the plate, daring pitchers to throw the ball inside and risk putting them on base with an errant pitch. Many of the best pitchers refuse to back down, no matter the potential consequences.
“I’m not going to let some guy beat me because I’m scared to throw inside,” Blue Jays All-Star closer Brett Cecil said.
Niese won’t face a fine or a suspension for hitting Heyward. It was an accident, just like the knuckler from Toronto’s R.A. Dickey that landed Nix on the disabled list as the Yankees try to chase down a playoff spot.
The way Girardi sees it, there’s a difference between accidentally hitting a batter while trying to establish command of the inside part of the plate and throwing at someone on purpose three times before plunking him on the elbow. The way he sees it, it’s too easy for something to go wrong.
That’s why Girardi ranted to the point of ejection against the Red Sox last weekend. That’s why he lobbied so hard for Dempster’s suspension.
“You know, there’s a way to police the game the right way, but injuries happen when players get hit,” he said. “And you think about Nixy getting hit, I mean, the last thing you’re probably thinking is you’re going to have your hand broken by a knuckleball, but it hit just right. And I know that’s part of the game, but you worry about players.”