Message-sending still acceptable to players
Changing attitudes, though, make for more emotional reactions
Dusty Baker was talking about the way it used to be. In the early 1970s, fearsome Cardinals right-hander Bob Gibson, nearing the end of his career, had hit the Mets' John Milner with a pitch in the game that day.
In a Spring Training game.
That evening, Baker went to dinner with Hank Aaron and Gibson. Aaron asked the pitcher why he had he had thrown at Milner.
"Gibson said he heard [Milner] could hit and wanted to get him in line," the Reds manager related. "I was hoping he hadn't heard much about me, because I could hit more than Milner."
And that's the way it was.
But is that the way it still is?
And should it be?
Those questions surfaced once again in the wake of Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels nailing Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper in the small of the back with a 93-mph fastball Sunday night ... and then admitting that he'd done it on purpose, earning a five-game suspension.
A quick survey by MLB.com revealed a strong acceptance of the notion that pitchers have to be able to work inside and that occasionally sending a message with a pitch that will leave a bruise is a given. Criticism of Hamels focused not on what he did, but the fact that he was candid about his motivations afterward.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who is as old-school as can be, got worked up about it on his pregame radio show.
"Personally, if I was making that vote, it would be a 15-game suspension, at least," he said. "I don't know Cole Hamels, so I certainly don't have any qualms with Cole Hamels. I know he's a very good pitcher, a very talented guy, but when you come out and admit it like that -- that ball could have missed, hit him in the head or something else like that -- and you come out and admit that ... I would expect that if that was my pitcher. If my pitcher went out and, almost in a braggadocious way, talked about hitting a guy and [said] 'I did it on purpose' [I'd feel the same way]."
Added Cubs reliever James Russell: "There are absolutely times when it's necessary, [but] I don't think you need to go out and tell people, 'Hey, I did it on purpose,' and brag about it. That's kind of stupid and immature. It's part of the game. You're supposed to just do it and keep your mouth shut about it, not go tell everybody about it."
Obviously, there's no place in baseball for intentionally trying to hurt another player. Along those lines, throwing near somebody's head is universally frowned upon. Beyond that, however, is a large gray area.
"You don't ever have to hit somebody, but there are a lot of times where it warrants something like that," Braves right-hander Tim Hudson said. "It depends on what happens. You should never hit somebody just because you don't like them or the way somebody plays. That's personal. [But] if somebody crosses one of the unwritten rules of baseball, sometimes things have to be done. I think pretty much everybody would agree there are certain things that happen that are no-nos in the game and something has to be done."
Dave Hollins -- who in a 12-year career with the Phillies, Red Sox, Twins, Mariners, Angels, Blue Jays and Indians was hit by pitches 66 times, including a league-leading 19 in 1992 -- broke down some reasons why a pitcher might be justified in knocking down a batter, or even hitting him.
"A lot of times it was maybe a guy was absolutely tearing it up," Hollins said. "He's on top of the plate and they can't get him out. So they're going to pitch inside to try to get him off the plate and maybe put a little thought in his head so maybe he's not so comfortable in there. That's one that always warranted it, if you can't find a way to get him out, you've got to try to pound the inner half. And if you miss and hit him, so what? And if you don't, you're pitching inside to see if he can handle the hard stuff in.
"Other than that, it's more like a cheap slide, trying to hurt somebody. Did you show up a pitcher after a big hit, standing there too long staring at a home run? Too long of a trot around the bases? Those are the kinds of things that would warrant the guys in your own dugout expecting you to get plunked, you know?"
Another example of showing up a pitcher is swinging away on a 3-0 count when your team has a big lead in the late innings.
"You have to be able to pitch in," said ESPN analyst Terry Francona, the former big league manager who worked Sunday night's game. "The problem is sometimes pitchers don't know how to pitch in and the hitters are diving and that's when things can get bad."
Referring specifically to Harper, Hudson added: "Don't hate him because he's pretty hyped up. He hadn't done anything to disrespect anybody. He's got some flair. But just about every kid now when they get called up just about does. It goes back to the whole travel-ball era. The kids now are treated like big leaguers when they are 12 or when they hit their first homer."
Baker agreed that hitters today tend to react more strongly to getting buzzed than hitters of his generation.
"It used to be more appropriate. It used to be very appropriate," he said. "That's probably the thing that's changed the most in baseball. There's very little intimidation allowed. Before, when I came in, they'd see if you could hit a fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, and then they'd see if they could affect you by knocking you down. There were some that were affected. There are some affected now, even if the ball is just close to them.
"I remember talking to Willie Mays and those guys. Mays said Don Drysdale used to knock him down every at-bat. I asked [Aaron] one time, 'Hank, why do they keep knocking me down?' Hank said, 'If they knock you down, it's a sign of respect that you can hit.' They didn't try to knock down guys that couldn't hit. Those were out men."
In his 2009 book, "The Complete Game," Mets announcer Ron Darling, a big league pitcher from 1983-95, discussed the topic.
"Retaliation has always been a part of baseball," he wrote. "It was a much bigger part in my day than it is now, but it's so deeply woven into the fabric of the game that it will never go away entirely. ... It's expected. And, in its own way, it's accepted."
Hollins, who retired 10 years ago, also noted how much the approach has changed.
"The game is different today," he said. "With all the injuries and stuff coming out on concussions and player safety and star players being lost, it's not the same game. It's hard to compare that type of ball with what's going on today. They don't even want guys sliding into the catcher. Where it used to be you were expected to take the catcher out, try to knock the ball loose to score a run.
"You didn't think about if you hurt a Buster Posey and he's out for the year, how does that affect a team and the popularity of the league. Really, it's comparing apples and oranges."
In Gibson's 1994 autobiography, "Stranger to the Game," he said he "despised" hitters and that the inside pitch was "my warhead." And Gibson was unapologetic if that meant somebody happened to get hurt in the process.
"[Duke] Snider was an excellent left-handed pull hitter, and I pitched him away even though the Los Angeles Coliseum had a short left field," he wrote, citing one such occasion. "When he saw what I was doing, he reached out and poked one over that friendly left-field fence. That was fair enough, but the next time I was still pitching outside and I noticed he was edging out that way, daring me by venturing too close to the plate. So I threw the next one tight to brush him back. He was still expecting the pitch away, and leaned into it.
"The ball broke his elbow. As far as I was concerned, though, he had named the tune and there was no need to apologize. I saw Snider later and ... he understood.
"These days, there is a more neighborly air between the pitcher and the hitter. Modern trends have made them allies in many important respects. Many share an agent. They play golf together and consort in business affairs. ... Meanwhile, they are well aware that their confrontations on the field will be closely monitored by the umpires, and consequently one has no reason to regard the other ... as an immediate threat to his livelihood. ... The rules promote this sort of congeniality."
That may be true, but there remains a general understanding that, within limits and under certain circumstances, there's nothing wrong with a pitcher throwing at a hitter. Just as long as he doesn't admit to it afterward.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Jason Beck, Mark Bowman, Carrie Muskat and Mark Sheldon contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.