Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Midseason Form

To those who think baseball spring training games are just a way for ballclubs to shake off a little rust before hitting the golf course, I offer two words: Dusty Baker.  Oh, and two more: Kirk Gibson.

You may have heard that the two got into it at home plate while exchanging lineup cards before a Cactus League game. Seriously: before a Cactus League game.

What the heck? When you hear what ticked them off, it seems so petty: Baker's Reds were playing Gibson's Diamondbacks at the D-backs' Salt River Fields complex.  The location is important because that made the Diamondbacks the home team and gave them the option, under Cactus League rules, to use the designated hitter--or not.

And this is where things start to go off the rails. Typically, in the first couple of weeks of exhibition games, National League teams will use the DH, waiting until the last few games to give their pitchers a few at-bats. But Gibson has a new starter, Brandon McCarthy, who is not only imported from the American League but is also coming back from that skull fracture sustained when he was hit by a line drive.

So Gibson, understandably, wanted his guy to see some live pitching. Baker had his own issue: outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has a sore leg and Baker wanted to let him DH so he could avoid any extra wear-and-tear in the field.

Remember: it's Gibson's decision. He made it, notified the Reds, and the sparks flew when Baker produced a lineup card with a DH penciled in. A mild Scottsdale afternoon got ugly as the two exchanged unpleasantries. And Baker, who never met a grudge he couldn't carry, kept the flames burning. He ordered star pitcher Johnny Cueto to stand stock-still and take three strikes when he batted.

What do I think? I think Baker is still searching for a new nemesis now that the longtime burr under his saddle, Tony LaRussa, has retired (the two were frequent combatants as Baker managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds while LaRussa ran the Cardinals). And I think Gibson's hard-guy routine is designed to build some esprit de corps on a team struggling for identity in the Giant-and-Dodger-dominated NL West.

And I think I will make a note of June 21st: the first regular-season meeting between the Reds and D-backs this year.

By the way, Dusty: it's in Phoenix. And yes, the pitchers will hit.

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