Washington, D.C. has been off of the baseball map since 1969, the year Ted Williams took over as manager of the Washington Senators and led the club to its first winning season in 17 years. Washington literally fell off the map three years later, when the Senators left for Texas. Although baseball returned in 2005 with the Washington Nationals, that team has been nothing to write home, or even to blog, about.
But it is now. A string of solid player acquisitions and the addition of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, perhaps the two splashiest young prospects of this century, have converted the Nationals into a pretty good baseball team and a pretty good story (or “story line,” as journalists would say).
This status was confirmed over the weekend, when the first-place Nationals took two of three games from the mighty Philadelphia Phillies, and ESPN showed up to bring America the final game on its Sunday night broadcast.
The Nats were routed in that contest, but ESPN and its viewers got their money’s worth in the first inning. With two out and no one on base, Phillie pitcher Cole Hamels hit Harper in the backside with his first pitch. Hamels clearly intended to do so, and later admitted it. Hamels explained that he was “just trying to continue the old baseball.” And this is a fair point. The “old school pitchers union” would not have allowed the ballyhooed Harper, who developed a reputation as a bit of a show-off in the minor leagues, to get off to as good a start as he has had in the majors without one of its members throwing at him. With the Nats having beaten the Phillies on Friday and Saturday, the first inning on Sunday was a good time to plunk the kid.
But Harper appears to be old school too. After being plunked, he raced from first to third on a single by Jason Werth. Then, as Hamels became pre-occupied with keeping Werth from getting a big lead, Harper took a massive lead and stole home on a toss by Hamels to first base. That’s just how the young Jackie Robinson would have made the pitcher pay for hitting him.
Later Harper stretched a bloop single that barely made the outfield into a double. The Nats were trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning at the time, so Harper’s base-running could be considered a bit reckless. But Harper had the play in front of him and he made it work. Again, shades of Jackie Robinson.
After the game, Mike Rizzo, Washington’s general manager, blasted Hamels:
I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball. Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough. He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.
This is great stuff. I think it’s fair to say that all three of these guys – Hamels, Harper, and Rizzo – are old school.
UPDATE: Major League Baseball has suspended Hamels for five games. Because Hamels is a starting pitcher, the suspension means he will, as a practical matter, miss one game.
Intentionally hitting a batter in the backside is not a huge deal. In fact, Hamels was hit by a pitch last night, probably in retaliation for hitting Harper. But once Hamels admitted that he intended to hit Harper, Baseball had no choice but to suspend him.