Flipping out

Joe Posnanski: The craziest, silliest, weirdest, wildest, angriest, dumbest and funniest inning in the history of baseball began with a single by a guy named Rougned Odor.

I’m pretty sure that’s how my novel would start. Comedy is the field of my co-writer, Michael Schur, but I honestly cannot imagine a more perfect name to start this madness than Rougned Odor. It’s like Ignatius J. Reilly or Bugs Bunny or Michael Dukakis. I mean, Rougned Odor is a guy who had stories written about the drollness of his name TWO YEARS before he even made it to the big leagues.

Michael Schur: I believe I heard an announcer say, at some point in this series, that he is named Rougned because his father is named Rougned, and that he comes from a long line of Rougneds. I could easily look up whether this is true, but I don’t want to, on the off-chance it is not. I want to believe there is a massive, sprawling, Gabriel Garcia Marquez-novel-style intergenerational family in Venezuela where all of the men are named Rougned. And the women, too, for that matter.

Love in the Time of Rougned Odor. He cracks a single off a 99-mph Aaron Sanchez fastball, and, our journey begins. We don’t have time to pause for the obvious, but every single person in baseball now throws 99 mph including various sideline reporters. But enough preamble. This fifth game of the ALDS is tied 2-2. Up to this moment there has been no foreshadowing of what is to come. This has been a solid, tense, well-played elimination game between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Maybe this is the tip-off that something crazy was bound to happen. A “well-played elimination game between the Rangers and Blue Jays?” In what bizarro universe are we living when that is the situation?

We are in a universe where the Cubs are are not only in the playoffs, but they’re the ones WAITING to see who they get to play.

Fair enough.  Excellent point.

Anyway, you have this conventional game going on in Toronto, so with a runner on first, the Rangers are required by international law to blow an out and bunt over the runner, which Chris Gimenez ably does. Then Delino DeShields Jr., whose middle name is Diaab and who comes from a long line of Delinos, does the last boring thing of the entire inning. He hits a mundane slow roller to third. He’s out, Odor moves to third, Shin-Soo Choo’s at the plate. And at this point, I’m just sitting there, sort of watching, sort of thinking about other stuff, and I’m completely unaware that the next 45 minutes or so would be the craziest baseball-watching experience of my entire life.

There have been some bonkers postseason games in the last 30 or so years: the Joba Chamberlain bug swarm game, the Cubs-Marlins game where Moises Alou got angry at a fan for doing something entirely reasonable and then Alex Gonzalez and the rest of the team lost the game for them, and so on.  I believe the craziest postseason game I have ever seen was 2004 ALCS Game 6, which included Schilling’s bloody sock, Mark Bellhorn hitting an opposite-field, three-run homer (originally ruled a double but then correctly ruled a home run — pre-replay, mind you — by a group of umpires whom I will love, unconditionally, forever), and then A-Rod slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, which was (again) (correctly) overruled by those selfsame umpires. The fans in New York went berzerk and threw things on the field, the Sox had to pull their guys into the dugout, and in the ninth inning the foul lines were manned by police in riot gear.

The question for us, going forward, is: Was this game weirder?

And the clear answer is, yes, of course this game is weirder. Because nothing — not bloody socks, not poor Bartman getting yelled at for doing a human thing by moving his body as a ball came flying at him, not even a guy getting suspended because footballs may or may not have been deflated, not anything is as weird as what Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin did next.

You simply writing the word “deflated” caused my eyes to go black and I lost consciousness and when I came to, six minutes later, I had written a 27,000 word essay on DeflateGate. I won’t print it here, because this is neither the time nor the place, but if you want to read it let me know.

Yes, I was totally baiting you with that deflation reference. Russell Martin … it just seems so strange to me that in a game as ancient as baseball, players can still do things that stun you. I mean, shouldn’t we have seen it all by now? How often do any of us go to the movies — where writers and directors can do anything their imagination can invent and they have access to every sort of green screen magic they like — and say, “Huh, never saw anything like that before.”

I’m a screenwriter, Joe. I kind of feel like you’re trolling me.

But in freaking baseball, a 19th century game Civil War soldiers would teach to townspeople between bloody battles, Russell Martin in 2015 does something that left me feeling a word I’ve never once used before because it never quite fit: gobsmacked. Yeah, I was gobsmacked. Martin catches the ball, briefly checks the runner at third. Meanwhile Shin-Soo Choo is standing in the box because that’s baseball custom now, and he’s holding out his bat because that’s what he does for some reason.

Martin then casually throws the ball back to the pitcher … only it HITS THE BAT of Shin-Soo Choo and rolls away. Rougned Odor races home. Gobsmacked.

Because: NOBODY HAS EVER SEEN THIS BEFORE. One-hundred-fifty years of baseball, we’ve seen throws kill birds, we’ve seen relievers brought to the plate in little cars shaped like baseball caps, we’ve seen a pitcher throw a no-hitter on LSD, we’ve seen a 3-foot-7 person draw a walk, we’ve seen closers choke stars, but WE’VE NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE. And if someone is now emailing in to list off the times it’s happened before, I would advise: I HAVE MORE CAPITAL LETTERS THAN YOU DO.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq7zPVr_XeY%5D

The home-plate umpire, Dale Scott, calls time and tells Rougned to go back to third because HE HAS NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE. Then the umpires get together to talk and all look utterly confused because THEY HAVE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE. The crowd is going bonkers because, let’s face it, this is Canada, it goes without saying THEY HAVE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE.

This is the point where Tim Kurkjian should pop up and say what he always says: “That’s the beauty of baseball: every night you see something you’ve never seen before.” Except in this game, there were like eleven of those things in a row. Someone should check on Kurkjian. His head might have exploded.

Heads were exploding everywhere, even in the non-Kurkjian segments of America. The umpires talk about all of it forever, no doubt repeating to each other “Have you ever seen this before?” and then they decide the run has to count. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who was a freaking big league catcher, puts the game under protest because even HE HAS NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE.

I think Gibby knew he was screwed. He kind of half-heartedly argued the point and put the game under protest because he had to. But I think he knew the rule. You could see in his face what you saw in Joe Torre’s when A-Rod swiped Arroyo’s arm. He was dead in the water and he knew it. Catchers always know.

Yeah, you’re probably right. But let’s be bluntly honest: There’s no doubt at least a small part of Gibbons had to be thinking: “Um, Russell, love ya man, great leader, great catcher, great Canadian, but how about missing the bat when you throw the ball back to the pitcher?” Sure, I know, it’s a fluke, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing (literally — Martin said he’d never done it before). But, really … miss the bat.

I guess.  But think of the number of things that had to happen for him to hit the bat. Choo’s post-pitch, arm-extended ritual, Martin’s glance down to third to check on Odor (which caused him to not pay attention to Choo’s post-pitch, arm-extended ritual) … and before all of that, there had to be a baseball-wide emphasis on speeding up the game, which caused Choo to do his weird post-pitch, arm-extension ritual inside the batter’s box. It’s just one of those things, man.  

One of those awesome things. And here comes the best part: There’s an actual rule in baseball’s rulebook that covers this. I don’t mean there’s a vague rule that is sort of, kind of, squint-your-eyes applicable. I mean there is a rule that specifically and unequivocally covers what happened. The rule begins by saying that if the batter intentionally interferes with the throw back to the mound, he’s out. If the batter interferes by stepping out of the box, interference is the ruling.

Then comes the pertinent part:

“However, if the batter is standing in the batter’s box and he or his bat is struck by the catcher’s throw back to the pitcher (or throw in attempting to retire a runner) and, in the umpire’s judgment, there is no intent on the part of the batter to interfere with the throw, the ball is alive and in play.”

That is word-for-word what happened. Look at that rule. It’s a miracle. It’s like finding some scroll in the Dead Sea Scroll, opening it up and finding in Aramaic the lyrics of “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”*

* – Warning: This is a sad-old-guy-with-young-daughters’ effort at a hip reference.

Both the most- and least-surprising aspect of that moment was that baseball has a rule for it. And, as you noted, the rule — rule 6.03a, as we learned — is literally an EXACT description of what happened. It was the most surprising aspect because, indeed, no one had ever seen it before. It was the least surprising aspect because of course baseball has a rule for this, it has a rule for everything.  And of course it was incredibly specific, because all of baseball’s rules are incredibly specific. Baseball rules are the opposite of football rules. Football rules are like …

“If a guy kind of grabs a pass but doesn’t really like totally like have it, and then he kind of maybe shimmies around but doesn’t make a like ‘football move,’ or maybe he doesn’t like seem to really like command the ball in a way that I can’t describe but it’s like pornography and I know it when I see it, or something, then let’s go ahead and say it isn’t a catch?”

Yes — football rules often end in question marks. Because not even the rule writers believe in them.  

Baseball rules are like: “There was an A’s-Yankees game in May of 1933 and this insane thing happened and we made a rule to cover that exact situation.” I’m actually surprised it didn’t say:

RULE 6.03a: If Russell Martin tries to throw a ball back to a relief pitcher in a tense 7th inning of a deciding playoff game and Shin-Soo Choo is doing that weird thing where he holds his bat out directly in front of him like a divining rod and Martin’s throw bonks off his bat and rolls away, Odor is allowed to score from third.”

This is part of your 27,000 word essay on DeflateGate isn’t it?

I might have taken and adapted for this piece a small section of the essay I wrote earlier, after you typed the word “deflate” and my eyes went black with rage, yes.

After the umpires finally made the right call — even though Dale Scott had sort of muddied the waters by calling timeout before Odor scored — there was an 18 or so minute descent into madness. The umpires called New York for unclear reasons, since the play was not technically reviewable. Players who weren’t even on the rosters were getting thrown out of the game. Canadians were throwing beer cans from the upper deck and hitting babies. It was like a Mad Max movie broke out.

It really was. The TV broadcast ceased to resemble a baseball game.  There were just long shots of the crowd, and stadium security, and moms clutching young children.  It was surreal.  It felt like you were watching the feed of a game between innings, when the commercials are running and the cameras are all being repositioned. The announcers were just sort of mumbling to themselves. It had a nightmare dreamscape quality that was very unsettling.

At that point it looked like the Texas Rangers were going to win the series based on this insane play and then Canada was going to invade America.

Then comes the bottom half of the inning … and it might have been even crazier.

“Might have been?”  You’re saying “might have been?”  Okay.  Sure.  Go with “might have been” crazier.

There’s too much hype in the world, OK? So, bottom of the inning, Russell Martin leads off — yes, Mike, how often do you see it, a catcher hits a bat with a throw back to the pitcher allowing a run to score thanks to a correct interpretation of Rule 6.03a and then leads off the next inning? …

It’s one of those baseball clichés that just always seems to hold up.

… and he hits a pretty routine ground ball up the middle that should make for a pretty easy out. Instead: Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus boots it. Premonition: That name Elvis Andrus will come up again.

A lot of this, when the dusts settles, is going to be pinned on Elvis Andrus, and rightly so. I remember people saying, when he signed that crazy contract, that it was mostly for his defense (and his age, which I think was 25 when he signed), and that his average offense plus insanely good defense would make it a good deal for Texas. But when I googled “Elvis Andrus defense” the first two articles that came up (one from 2014, one from 2015) were titled …

“Elvis Andrus is the Best SS in the AL Right Now”

… and …

“Stats Say Elvis Andrus is the Worst Shortstop in Baseball”

… so who knows? Maybe he’s gotten worse. But no one is happier than Elvis Andrus for all of the bonkers stuff that happened, because when you clear all that away, he made two inexplicable errors (and was unable to corral a tough but corral-able throw for the third error).

Right, but before we get to that, quick aside: After Andrus boots the grounder, announcer Harold Reynolds, whom I dearly love as a person, starts talking about how Russell Martin’s speed forced Andrus to hurry. I want to repeat that in case someone missed it: He credited Russell Martin’s speed for that play.

I know Harold Reynolds says some crazy things, but what if I told you that Russell Martin once beat Billy Hamilton in a footrace in 2009?  Would that surprise you?  I mean, he didn’t, I just made that up, but it would’ve surprised you, right?

Next, up is Kevin Pillar. This series has so many good names.

Kevin Pillar sounds like the name Kevin Millar gave to the cops when they caught him drinking a beer at a house party when he was 17. “I’m Kevin … Pillar.”

Kevin Pillar chops a grounder to first. Texas’ Mitch Moreland fields it cleanly, tries to get the lead runner, throws the ball in the dirt, and Elvis Andrus can’t scoop it up. Two plays. Two sure outs. Two errors. And, quick aside, Harold Reynolds, whom I dearly love as a person, starts talking about how Russell Martin’s shrewd baserunning cut the angle and made the throw harder on Moreland.  He really did say that.

I know Harold Reynolds says some crazy things, but would you be surprised if I told you that Maury Wills once called Russell Martin “the smartest baserunner I’ve ever seen?”  I mean, he didn’t call him that, I just made it up, but you would’ve been surprised, right?

Ryan Goins comes up. He obviously attempts a sacrifice bunt because, again, that’s international baseball law. Unfortunately for him, he lays that bunt down the third-base line toward Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. I’m going to take a moment here to say what needs to be said: Adrian Beltre is a Greek God. I do not mean that figuratively. He literally lived on Mount Olympus with Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and all the rest. He was the God of Third Base Defense, and everybody loved him except for Hermes, who was a total jerk anyway.

So, of course, Beltre gets to the Goins bunt in like 0.003 seconds. And of course he turns and throws perfectly to get the lead runner at third. It is breathtaking and it is the 1,948,834th greatest play he has made in his beautiful career. And that guy, Elvis Andrus, drops the ball. He bleeping drops the ball. He spills tomato juice on the Mona Lisa.

Three plays. Three sure outs. Three errors.

Adrian Beltre is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. There will be arguments against him, probably, for various dumb reasons, but he is going to be in the Hall of Fame, and when he is elected, someone is going to make a 30-minute video of his greatest fielding plays, and it is going to move me to tears because of its effortless beauty.  Also there is going to be a 20-minute video of people touching his head and him freaking out and I will watch it 1,000 times.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m52Tzwd3QoQ%5D

For the record, this this was the moment you knew the Rangers would lose: When Andrus made his second (the team’s third) error. Despite his team still leading, 3-2, Beltre had a look on his face like, “Well, it was a fun season, but it’s over now.”

My mind was too blown to hear if Harold Reynolds credited Russell Martin somehow, even though Dalton Pompey had come in to pinch-run for him.

“You know, Russell Martin’s father once played the Canadian National Anthem on his saxophone before a spring training game in Montreal. You have to think that might have gotten in Andrus’s head there a little bit.”

So now, it’s beyond lunacy. Sportswriters are writing Elvis impersonator lines. Canadians are hugging the people they just threw beer cans at. Texas fans are complaining about the Cowboys quarterback situation. I spent many harrowing years watching the horrendous Kansas City Royals back in the old days before they turned awesome. I’m pretty sure I never saw them or any other Major League Baseball team blow three easy plays in a row.

A great question for someone less lazy than me to figure out: How many times in baseball history have teams made three errors on three consecutive plays?

Yeah, I’m not looking that up either. So bases loaded, nobody out. Then the Rangers get a force out at home. And …

Hang on a second because I can’t believe you glossed over the fact that Dalton Pompey (not his real name, no way that’s his real name) who had pinch-run for Martin (“They’re pinch-running for Martin? But he’s the fastest runner in baseball or indeed any sport including Track and Field!” thought Harold Reynolds, presumably) slid into home and took out Rangers catcher Chris Giminez, preventing a possible 3-2-3 double play.  Jeff Banister came out of the dugout to claim interference, and the umps talked it over for a long time. Given how big a double play would’ve been at that moment, I honestly thought Banister was going to himself request the game be played under protest, making a double protest, and the fact that it didn’t happen (as far as I know) was somehow more surprising than if it had.

That’s how crazy this inning was — you’re glossing over that!

You’re right — this thing is like 5,000 words already, I was trying to speed it up a little. What do you think happens if the umpires rule double play there? I mean, at that point do people pour out of the stands wearing masks and carrying hockey sticks? I’m pretty sure the game would have been interrupted by an impromptu press conference from Barack Obama asking for cooler heads and international cooperation in this time of crisis. It also would have been the wrong call, and so I’m glad that didn’t happen.

The Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson then hits a fielder’s choice that only scores one run. So …

Here’s how crazy this game was: “a fielder’s choice that only scores one run” sounds like a boring baseball play. It was not.  It was a flare by Josh Donaldson that went over a drawn-in Rougned Odor’s head — basically, it was a hit, to the outfield — but Ben Revere, who was on first, thought Odor was going to catch it so he TURNED HIS BACK to the ball and ran back to first, then had to turn back around and try to scramble to second. Odor himself chased the ball down in right center and threw Revere out at second. That is insane! That is a crazy thing to happen, that a very fast runner was forced out at second on a single to the outfield that would rightly have been an easy pop-up out if the second baseman had been in a normal position.  And yet it’s like the 38th craziest thing that happened that inning.  It’s so comparably uncrazy that you didn’t even include it in your recap!

Six thousand words now. So the game is tied and it really looks like the Rangers might get out of this madness without any more damage, which is as illogical as every other part of this inning.

And up comes Jose Bautista.

Bat flip.

I love Jose Bautista … even more than I love Harold Reynolds. I have to tell his story. The guy was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round out of some place called Chipola College, which obviously isn’t a real place. That’s where Alvin and Theodore went to school (only Theodore graduated). The Pirates were terrible then, and even they didn’t want him so they left him unprotected for the 2003 Rule 5 draft. Baltimore took him. Baltimore was also terrible then.

Six months later, Baltimore released him and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — this was when they were still the Devil Rays and they were terrible — picked him.

Bat flip.

Three weeks later, the Devil Rays sell him to the Kansas City Royals, who were beyond terrible. Two days after that, the Royals trade him … back to Pittsburgh. And so, in a seven or so month span, the guy played on four terrible teams and ended up back in Pittsburgh.

Yeah, yeah.  Get to the bat flip.

I’m finishing this story. After three miserable years in Pittsburgh, where he is thoroughly unhappy, the Pirates trade him to Toronto for a player to be named later … and he pretty much stinks in Toronto, too. It looks over for him. Instead, with no warning whatsoever, he comes back to Toronto and hits 54 home runs. The next year he leads the league in slugging. And somewhere in there they literally started calling him Joey Bats. I mean, this is nutso, completely bonkers (fourth time the word “bonkers” has appeared in this story), one of the most bizarre and inspiring stories in the history of baseball.

Blah blah blah blah it’s an amazing story so inspiring my heart soars at the majesty of whatever talk about the bat flip.

All right, fine. Bautista steps up to the plate, and everybody’s spent from the ridiculousness of the previous half hour. The game is tied, the crowd has no idea what to even be feeling. Sam Dyson is pitching for the Rangers now — he actually started with the Blue Jays, but that’s one of those details that might become a storyline in a NORMAL game, not a circus like this one. On the third pitch of that at-bat. Dyson throws a 97-mph fastball that Jose Bautista detonates for a earth-shaking three-run homer.bautista

While the ball is in the air, Bautista offers up a perfect look, something between, “I am now emperor of this land!” and “Did you see what I just did there? Seriously, did you see that?” And then he unleashes what has to be the most insane bat throw ever recorded, one that sent death rays through television sets and smote 257 baseball traditionalists around the world. I can only hope C.J. Nitkowski survived.

First of all, it’s called a Bat Flip regardless of whether the bat rotates in the air, and regardless of whether he threw it or flipped it or anything. We all, as a society, have to agree on this. It is a Bat Flip.

Fine. Bat Flip.

Second: I understand there are traditionalists and purists and whatever-ists who think that flipping a bat after you hit a home run is bad form, or disrespectful, or something. I disagree. I think it’s awesome, frankly, and if you can’t enjoy Joey Bats, who had that crazy itinerant baseball life and then found a home in Toronto, and who is the soul and beating heart of this team — a team which hasn’t been in the postseason in 22 years and which has brought sports life and sports relevance back to one of the world’s great cities — and whose team went down 0-2 at home to a clearly inferior team and then stormed back on the road and gutted out two big wins and then went back to Toronto, fell behind early, scratched their way back to even, then went down by a run on one of the weirdest plays in postseason history, then loaded the bases on three errors and had a guy forced at home and then only scored one run and had a guy thrown out at second on a single to the outfield … if you can’t enjoy Joey Bats flipping his bat towards his own dugout in a badass and life-affirming and glorious and barbaric yawp of baseball excellence after hitting a home run in that situation, then I feel bad for you.  Or you’re a Rangers fan, in which case, well, I still feel bad for you, because your team lost.

When Blake Griffin jumps 30 feet in the air and dunks, you want to watch him howl at the moon and strut up the court. When Serena Williams lunges and rips a cross-court winner you want to see her pump her fist and scream.  Same for Tiger draining a 30-footer, Brandi Chastain drilling a World Cup penalty, Tom Brady diving for a 1-yard TD. We’re fine with outward displays in every other sport. Why do we ask baseball players to bury their emotions like students in a seminary?

Yep. I mean, the Tom Brady part I disagree with, but the rest is dead on. Baseball is so quirky about this stuff. It is on the one hand a brutally tough sport, Ty Cobb’s sport, Cool Papa Bell’s sport, Pete Rose’s sport, 162 games, played every day, from spring to autumn, through preposterous heat and air soaked with humidity. You’re supposed to run out every ball, even fly balls you know are outs. You’re supposed to shake off getting hit by a pitch and take your walk. Bob Gibson throws inside. Cal Ripken plays thousands of games in a row. Adam Wainwright comes back from like 44 Tommy John surgeries. Tough as nails. There’s no crying in baseball.

And then, on the other hand, it’s like a dinner party in Downton Abbey — pinky out, silverware in order, keep the subjects light, don’t flip your bat, don’t look at your home run, don’t pump your fist when you get a strikeout, don’t do anything that might offend. I get that the Rangers and fans aren’t too thrilled seeing Bautista hammer-throw his bat after hitting a moon-shot homer that broke their spirit. I get that. But man if you can’t bat flip after THAT home run, seriously, why even play baseball.

If Neil Armstrong had played by baseball’s stupid unwritten rules of decorum, he would have whispered, “Yeah, I’m on the moon.”

“Act like you’ve been there before, Neil,” he said to himself, quietly, as he slowly descended onto the surface of an alien planet.

The final thing I’ll say is that after the home run, which effectively ended the game (no way the Rangers come back after that, no way, no how), Edwin Encarnacion took one of his impossibly hard swings and just barely topped a ball toward third, placing it so perfectly not even Beltre could make a play. He charged the ball, still, but when he got to it he just kind of kicked it, controlled it, with his instep, like a soccer ball. I saw that and thought, “Adrian Beltre is broken. He wishes he were playing soccer right now.”

It is sad to see Beltre broken. After the home run, there was a whole bunch more odd stuff, near fights, a moment where it looked like Josh Hamilton might try to get involved — like there was room in this game for a Josh Hamilton happening — but really it ended with the bat flip. There has never been an inning like it. This has been the zaniest off-season with the Cubs, and with the miracle that is Bartolo Colon, and with the Kansas City Royals’ absurd comeback, and with Clayton Kershaw having to stare down an actual curse. But that inning …

No other sport could have had an extended stretch of madness like that. I’ve said this so many times to people who call baseball boring: Sure: Baseball IS boring. Then it isn’t. That’s the magic of it.

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