Friday, July 13, 2012

LaMenting LaRue: Why La Russa Got It Right* (PART 1 of 2)

*even if he considers it an attack on his integrity to say so

Tonight, my hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals, is playing in Cincinnati against the Reds as the second half of the MLB season kicks off.  "Kicking" was also a popular subject before and during the All-Star break, also with regards to the divisional rivalry between the Cardinals and Reds.  Actually, "kicking" wasn't mentioned explicitly so much as the "incident" from a couple of years back when these teams engaged in an on-field brawl.  You can watch it here.

The most recent flare up of this rivalry started with Tony La Russa's team playing in the World Series last year. Even though he retired after the Series, he was invited back by Major League Baseball to manage this year's National League All-Star team (as per baseball tradition). Part of this job was picking (in conjunction with MLB) a handful of players to round out the roster after the fans and players have had their say.

La Russa did NOT pick either Brandon Phillips or Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds, though statistically either would have been fine selections. Dusty Baker, manager of the Reds, perceived these omissions as snubs, and egregious ones at that. So flabbergasted was Baker that he suggested La Russa snubbed Phillips and Cueto NOT because there were better options, but because La Russa is still holding a grudge against those two for their roles in the brawl of 2010.

La Russa responded: "The comments Dusty made clearly disappoint me and are attacking my integrity. The All-Star experience is too important to let anything stand in the way of a decision like that."

Some disclosure: I am a Cardinal fan, but am highly ambivalent about Tony La Russa.  He has had a lot of success as a MLB manager.  Double switches and pitching match-ups aside, word is that keeping a team motivated day-after-day is often the most challenging aspect of being a manager.  La Russa did that, and many of his best players swear by his tactics.  That said, I always wonder if he could have held on to what made him effective, but without coming across as such a self-important bully to the rest of the world.

His response to Baker's criticism is telling.  Aside from offhandedly overstating importance of the All-Star experience, it's La Russa who elevated Baker's critique to an attack on his integrity.  It's La Russa who effectively proclaimed, "How dare he?"  It's La Russa who almost certainly would have said the exact same thing if the roles had been reversed.

Baker, on the other hand, didn't do any favors to Phillips, Cueto, or himself by including Phillips and Cueto in the same paranoia-infused proclamation.  We'll get to Cueto in a second, but first a word on Brandon Phillips.  He's having a good year.  Maybe even a great year, at least for a second baseman.  But it's not a slam-dunk All-Star type of year.  Among qualified NL second baseman, he's 5th in OPS.  He's first in RBI and 3rd in HR.  He's also last in doubles (actually, worse than last, since he's been outdoubled by an unqualified second baseman) and has only 5 stolen bases.  All things considered, the top half-dozen or so second basemen in the NL are pretty closely grouped, and Phillips is one of those.  I'd probably rank him fourth.

Though not quite on par with the bawling mother who tells reporters that her just-convicted-of-murder son is "really a good boy", Baker's perspective on Phillips seems just a tad biased.  Pretty much any reasonable fan with access to an internet site with MLB stats would conclude that Phillips is a borderline All-Star who could have been chosen, and could have just as easily not been.  Even most unreasonable fans would conclude that there are at least 3 or 4 explanations less extreme than "the manager is out to get us" that explain Brandon Phillips' omission for this year's All-Star game.

All of this makes Dusty Baker look like a doofus, as paranoid and oblivious as La Russa is arrogant and defensive.  (People in the know say that these guys are something like friends away from the field--oh, to be a fly on the wall...)

Now, had Baker mentioned only Cueto, that would have been more interesting.  On paper, Cueto may very well be the second most effective starting pitcher in the National League of the first half of the season (though that whole "tightly grouped" thing still applies--he could also conceivably be ranked near 8 or 9).  He certainly looks like a full-fledged snub.

There are several reasons why La Russa may have overlooked Cueto, but apparently, to suggest that one of them was payback for Cueto's role in the brawl is to attack his integrity.  Presumably, the unwritten baseball code designates such behavior as "uncool" or something like that.

Here's another reaction to the possibility of La Russa intentionally snubbing Cueto for his role in the brawl: So what?

Cueto didn't just have a "role in a brawl".  Cueto propped himself up against the netting above the backstop, pretended Jason LaRue's face was the mat of a Dance Dance Revolution arcade game, and started singing "Maniac" by Michael Sambello in his head.  "Why, yes, those are metal spikes, and I'm not at all happy to see you."  LaRue was severely concussed, and had to stop playing professional baseball forever.

A couple of notes on the brawl and its aftermath:
-I once thought that LaRue retired because he was going to retire at the end of the season anyway.  In my research, I found no indication that this was a foregone conclusion.  Maybe he would have.  Maybe LaRue doesn't even know that.  What he did know was that in the weeks following the kicking, "he experienced painful headaches and nausea....  He was unable to drive or ride in a car, cook for himself or watch television.  His doctors, concerned that he was in no condition to care for himself, sent him home from St. Louis to his family in Texas."  (This quote is from here.)

-Brawls are part of baseball.  They probably shouldn't be.  And maybe LaRue should have stayed in the dugout.  OK.  Instead, he stood around in the scrum, like 60 other guys on the field that day and hundreds of guys before him.  Maybe he was even "in the middle of it."  And then he got pushed and held until the next thing he saw was Johnny Cueto's spikes.  Did he "have it coming" for getting in the middle of things?  Mmm, I'd have a hard time saying that.  It didn't seem like he was trying to hurt or kill anyone.  Unlike, say...

-Johnny Cueto had an interesting explanation for his kickage.  Apparently, he was frightened.  Oh, just let him explain it: "When 15 people get over you, you get scared.  I did get nervous, a lot.  I put my feet up, trying to get out of the way.  I was trying to get up.  My back was against the wall and I was trying to get people out of the way so I could get up."

More disclosure: I'm one of those people who, when they heard Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers explain his elbow hitting James Hardin's head as an "unfortunate... unintentional elbow" and as an outpouring of "too much... erratic passion", sincerely thought, "Yeah, I can kind of see that."  So I'm someone who wants to believe ridiculous explanations for stupid behavior.

And I almost had that thought about Johnny Cueto's explanation.  Then I had a couple of other thoughts:
1.  His description of the incident just doesn't match the video.  I tried to watch the video with his explanation of it running through my head as a commentary, and it was like watching "Spider Man" with the audio from a "Batman" movie: "I guess this is the same genre, but the details just aren't matching."

2.  That "wall" Cueto was up against?  It was more like what most people would call "a net."  And it had a lot of "give."  I'm no physicist, but I don't think even the force of 15 men could have made Johnny Cueto go all Play-doh-spaghetti-factory on the fans of row 1.

3.  If Johnny Cueto was in genuine (or genuinely perceived) danger of being squished, sticking the feet up sideways like that would make some sense, as the legs of the squish-ee conceivably could be stronger than the force of the squish-ers.  But that protective leg power is significantly reduced when the squish-ee starts kicking like a Riverdancer!  If you're keeping someone at a safe distance by pushing them with your legs, "slow and steady when you're on the fence, 'cause fast and pokey makes no sense."

4.  Finally, let's grant for a moment that Johnny was truly overcome by nervousness, as he claimed; that his visions of soccer fans being crushed against chain-link fences by hundreds of other fans all trying to press in the same direction, that these visions were overcoming his vision of reality, which was 60 guys bumping around together with no particular target in a corner of a wide open expanse of a field while Johnny leaned up against a net-like barrier surrounded most immediately by people who had no interest in seeing him crushed.  Let's grant that he was truly and sincerely nervous, and was just trying to protect himself by "get[ting] people out of the way so [he] could get up."  If that was the case, why were no Reds punctured by his cleats?  There were plenty of them around.  If Johnny was so frightened that his "fight" defense overcame his reason and sportsmanship so drastically, could he possibly still be clearheaded enough to only puncture guys on the other team (Chris Carpenter also received some cleatage)?  Did Cueto just get lucky?

Or here's another way of wondering about this: If he HAD ended the career of a teammate--say, Scott Rolen (who was in kicking range)--would Rolen, or Brandon Phillips, or Dusty Baker have been all, "Well, he was nervous, and just trying to protect himself by 'getting up'.  Makes sense to me.  I mean, the man was nervous for goodness' sake!"  No, they would have been like, "Are you a freaking idiot?!"

And it would have been a fair question.  In fact, it's just as fair a question when the victim happened to be on the other team, because the explanation makes just as little sense.

To be fair to Johnny Cueto, his honest answer to the question "Are you a freaking idiot?" might actually be, "Yes."  But I have a hard time believing anyone is that idiotic.  A more believable (to me) answer is that, in those few seconds, Cueto saw an opportunity to stomp his spikes into Jason LaRue's face and get away with it.

(I was trying to find a clip online that actually shows the impact of Cueto's spikes into LaRue's face.  It was curiously difficult to find, even though I know the clip exists.  Maybe it's out there somewhere.  But while I was watching the broader-view replay on, the video paused several times to buffer.  Three separate times, the video paused at such a point where Cueto could clearly be seen hovering just beyond the center of the scuffle and let me tell you this:  His eyes sure as heck looked like the eyes of someone looking for a fight.  Watch for yourself.)

Fortunately, baseball has all sorts of ways of disciplining men who manifest the flaws of their character in such a violent manner.

Unfortunately, if you're Jason LaRue and the guy who slammed his metal cleats into your face is the ace of his team, those measures of discipline... well, let's just say they become more like a net, and less like a wall.

Jason LaRue, a backup catcher on the back end of his career, got kicked out of his livelihood.  Last week, Johnny Cueto's manager whined about Cueto not making the All-Star team.  In between, a lot of forces that could have doled out some measure of justice to Johnny Cueto have--to put it simply--not done so.

In PART 1.5 and PART 2, we'll look at how those forces dropped the ball of justice, and why La Russa was right to snub Cueto even if he won't admit it.

Until then...


No comments:

Post a Comment