Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on June 15, 2001.
The Astros were on the receiving end of a terrible policy from Major League Baseball in their June 14 contest with the Minnesota Twins. After surrendering a leadoff double, Astros phenom Roy Oswalt hit Twinkie outfielder Torii Hunter with an inside fastball to put runners on first and second with a 2-1 lead. Hunter began an aggressive stare-down with Oswalt and advanced toward the Astro righty, resulting in a benches-clearing breathing match.
Hunter later admitted, “The pain, that’s what ticked me off. Dang, it was 96 miles per hour and in the ribs. Pain ticks me off. I knew he didn’t do it intentionally. After I cooled off, I understood the situation.” It’s also possible he was tense because of the embarrassment of playing his home games in a discarded set from the Jane Fonda classic Barbarella.
To his credit – and his manager Tom Kelly’s, who explained the situation to Hunter on the field in front of cameras, commentators, fans and the other team – the young outfielder came to understand his aggressiveness toward Oswalt was uncalled for. There was absolutely no reason Oswalt would intentionally plunk a batter at that time. It put the go-ahead run on base in that situation, and this was a team with which Houston has no rivalry and Oswalt has never seen before. There were no bad feelings and no cause for vengeance.
Then the umpires stepped in with an error in judgment. After the players had all been put back in their respective dugouts for a timeout, mister, the men in blue issued warnings to both benches. These warnings mean that if the umpires feel that a pitcher is throwing at a hitter they may eject him. No one has to actually be hit by a pitch – though that is a certain ejection, even if accidental – they just have to make the mistake of allowing one to go a little too far inside.
The problem here is not so much the policy itself, though it does seem to give the umpires a little too much leeway and change the nature of the game. It’s in the application – that the Houston bench was warned at all. That warning is a penalty of sorts; it governs pitching inside the rest of the game because the pitcher can then suffer immediate ejection for just that. Normally an umpire would need to see a batter hit, with cause, to eject a player. So rather than going with what was obvious even to the Twins, that Hunter was in error, the umps yellow-carded the Astros.
Torii Hunter caused the ridiculous disturbance, yet he was allowed to continue playing the game. He suffered no in-game penalty since batters do not get warnings and his team’s penalty was exactly equal to that of the Astros. That decision created the very real possibility that other players would later be ejected in light of Hunter’s actions while he remained on the field, which opens up serious cause for protest.
Torii Hunter revealed a very effective strategy if the rules are to be enforced this way. Whenever an Astros batter is hit, no matter the reason, he should glare toward the mound, maybe advance a few steps, and shout at the pitcher like a child. Who cares if the pitcher did nothing wrong? One just got away from him? So what. It’s time to go for the Oscar so the ump will warn the opposition. How pathetic. The last thing baseball needs is the Utah Jazz dynamic.
The point of this policy is supposed to be to prevent tense situations from escalating to altercations. But it is not mandatory to issue the warnings, and the umpires showed a distinct lack of judgment in doing so after the teams had already shown an understanding of what transpired. The situation was resolved; the additional onus of warnings on the players’ backs could easily have led to greater tension and created bad blood between the teams that was not there before. It’s when that feeling exists among teams that blood is eventually spilled on the field.
On May 24th, Brushback recommended Craig Biggio’s return to the leadoff role for the Astros. After getting swept in three games by Dodgers, Biggio and the Astros decided to give it a shot in San Diego. Since then the Astros have gone 8-7, 6-6 on the road and 2-1 at Enron in the brief Dodger visit. No big improvement revealed there, though that is a performance most teams would gladly take for 12 games on the road and 3 at home.
Biggio’s performance as leadoff man has been about what was expected. He has reached base safely in every game, scored 9 times in 14 games, and hit .310. He has stolen one base and been caught once. His lack of raw speed in the leadoff spot is reflective of the Astros overall approach. They are near the bottom of baseball with just 24 steals through 61 games, and they are the only team in the Major Leagues that has been caught stealing more often than they’ve been successful. They and the Cardinals are also the only two teams to have caught the opponents stealing more than they have allowed.
Speaking of Biggio, one recent article marveled at his influence with the Astros. The author affects shock that an All-Star veteran with deep community ties and 14 years of tenure with the same team is allowed to have any influence on his club, which contrasts interestingly with the affected shock registered by other authors when they claim Biggio is not a leader. Those stances do not seem to jibe very well.
Perhaps Biggio is highly influential. It’s been said for years that he led a faction that lobbied for Terry Collins’ tissue-free dismissal after a third consecutive second place finish in 1996. Mr. Biggio, I already owed you hearty thanks for your play. Your hard-nosed brand of playing the game right and showing up every day has brought me a great deal of enjoyment through the years. Now I add my thanks for whatever influence you wielded off the field that helped the Astros to three consecutive division titles.