Thanks to Andy Green, I’ve already let it go, but sometimes I just like to rub dirt. When the Padres lollygagged their way into Chicago last Monday, they were afterthoughts to a Cubs’ dream of a repeat, only moving the meter in the hearts of the most die-hard of the Friar faithful. Mere marks in a land of thieves and manipulators. They left as Christians surviving the den of the Coliseum. Fortune turned in the blink of an eye, by decisions made by men bigger than I. Amongst other things, we learn about character in the crucible of competition. After the events in Chicago, it’s safe to say the Taco Train is in good, if a tad inexperienced, hands. Coming from the lovable Cubbies, on the other hand, is a rancorous odor, arising from the ashes of a World Series celebration gone awry. They’re not experiencing a hangover so far in their middling season, they’ve just gone sour, sour with disease and conceit.
After Anthony Rizzo went out of his way to crash into Austin Hedges on Monday night, the aftermath could have gone two ways. Rizzo could have stood up after the game and owned it, admitted he didn’t take the available path to the plate and apologized for his misstep. Cubs manager Joe Maddon could have PR’d his way through the moral maze, hoping Hedges wasn’t hurt too badly while passive aggressively chiding his player for an improper slide. Men could have been men, accepting responsibility, making amends. Neither happened.
Rizzo stood by his slide, in essence arguing the umps told him to do it. If you watch enough national baseball telecasts, the national pundits would have you believe Rizzo is one of the smartest, sharpest players in the game, a regular straight A student of the National League. Yet here he was arguing the umps had given him license to go after an exposed catcher with impunity. As if politics hasn’t already convinced you, never believe what the national pundits say.
Maddon doubled down after the game too. Regarding the home plate collision, he said he “loved it”, wishing he’d see more plays like that – the bowling into of a totally exposed catcher – that it was perfectly within the rules. Joe Maddon is so used to getting his own way I honestly don’t think he remembers any other way, whether it’s stealing another manager’s job or botching his way through the handling of his bullpen once again. (At least he botches it every time the Cubs play the Padres.) In either case, the Cubs took the low road. It was hard-nosed baseball, no more, no less.
Padres fans wanted revenge, and no doubt Padres players did too. When Green left repercussions in the hands of Major League Baseball and commanded Padres pitchers not to retaliate, it was a shock to just about everyone, players, fans, and media members alike. It went against every eye for an eye code in the unwritten baseball rule handbook. As a result, in the second game of the series, as if an impotent manager portended an emasculated team, the Pads were shut out and lost 4-0. To make matters worse, Green had announced his intentions not to hit Rizzo before the game. Hence, when Rizzo led off in the bottom of the first, assured he wasn’t going to be hit, he swatted a home run, piling on insult to injury. The pain felt by the faithful was visceral. The lions were tearing up the martyrs. The crowd was giving a thumb up.
As an aside, this is how Padres history goes. I had told my girlfriend before Game Two: if we don’t hit Rizzo in the first, it’s a guarantee he will hit a leadoff homerun. It’s like some cosmic law of Padres – nay, San Diego sports – justice, that the worst possible outcome is inevitable in situations such as these. I don’t think Green understands this yet. If he wasn’t going to hit Rizzo leading off the first, fine, I’m at peace with it at this point. But you MUST make sure he doesn’t take you yard, even if it means a walk. But Green’s only been in San Diego for less than two years. I’ve been here since 1970. How could he fully comprehend the cosmic law of misfortune that befalls the Padres? He’ll learn, if he’s half the man I think he is.
Before game two, Rizzo had been reprimanded by Major League Baseball for being in violation of the home plate collision rule. He had in fact been in the wrong, no ifs, ands, or buts. It was official. There would be no fine or suspension, however, just a polite phone call among friends. It helps to be on the in with the Emperor. Rizzo stood in front of his locker prior to the game explaining the niceties of the call without admitting any guilt or remorse. All very vacuous of him. By last report, Rizzo had not done what is common in the world of baseball and apologized to the player he hurt with his illegal slide. No phone call, no message, no sticking in of the head to the opposing locker room to say, geez, I guess the umps were wrong in telling me I should take you out, sorry. Nothing. Rizzo has become one of the faces of Major League Baseball. Along with his teammate, Kris Bryant, they are the two Cubs featured on national telecasts as the representatives of the World Champs. I guess he couldn’t come down from his perch to apologize to a mere mortal like Hedges, who only does more in a single game holding together the Padres’ pitching staff than Rizzo will do all year at first preening around first base.
Things took a turn in game three. It started with Rizzo’s leadoff at bat. The Padres had their Rule 5 pick, Miguel Diaz, on the mound for only his third major league start. Anyone with an ounce of brain matter knew he would struggle. He quickly fell behind Rizzo three balls and zero strikes. Every leadoff hitter without their head up their headlines would have taken the next pitch as Diaz’ first three had been all over the map. Rizzo, having already gotten away with the baseball equivalent of assault and obviously feeling his oats, swung at the 96-mile heater, harmlessly popping it up. You can’t say games are won or lost with the first batter in the first inning, but you can say differences are made. Rizzo set the tone for the whole afternoon, a game the lovable Cubbies would go on to lose by a mere run, 3-2, getting a total of two hits.
The stench got worse in this one. In the top of the 5th, Padres relief pitcher, Craig Stammen, came barreling around third, headed home for the Padres’ first run. As he began his slide, Cubs’ catcher, Willson Contreras, stuck out his left leg ever so slightly, blocking Stammen’s path to the plate, sending Stammen tumbling. Stammen fortunately was both safe and uninjured, but only by the grace of the baseball gods in both cases. More dirty baseball from the Cubs which went unpunished. (Where were the umpires this series, anyway?) In the bottom half of the inning, Contreras led off and smashed one to deep center. He flipped his bat a la Jose Bautista, posed for the cameras and began his home run trot. Up 2-1, victorious the first two games of the series, his team having already gotten away with multiple counts of assault, Contreras’ true nature emerged. He was going to take his triumphant, glorious lap around the bases. Hail Maddon. Hail Caesar.
Uh, not so fast. Not only did the ball not clear the fence, but Padres uber-rookie, Franchy Cordero, raced it down at the warning track, making a remarkable catch before slamming face first into the ivy-covered brick wall. Score one for the saints. The Padre relief corps, every one of them no doubt hungry to get a piece of Rizzo, instead sucked it up and didn’t allow a Cub base runner the rest of the game. San Diego completed the comeback when another Rule 5 player, Luis Torrens, walked with the bases loaded after Maddon had remarkably intentionally walked Luis Aybar to load the bases. Oops, Joe, there you go again with your baseball strategy. Including the three-game sweep of those adorable Cubbies at home, the Padres had taken the season series 4 to 2 from the World Champs. Not bad for a bunch of “soft” turn the other cheekers.
I was ruminating on all this while reading the sports section of the Tribune the following day, a section which had not one but two lengthy articles of Green’s decision not to retaliate against Rizzo, after having two lengthy articles the previous day as well. The town was fired up. It was the number one topic on all the sports radio stations, in a town where the Padres, despite being the only major league team left in town, have trouble getting airtime. Steve Hartman of 1360 was crying for blood with such passion he was clearly suffering from ratingsitis, arguing that “an eye for an eye” was the fundamental law of the land, probably forgetting for a moment (or maybe never agreeing) that Jesus had turned the page on that commandment by turning the cheek, at least for those who turn turn turn in his direction. Anyway, I digress.
While flipping through pages, I noticed in the news and notes that the wife of Addison Russell, the Cubs’ young star shortstop, had filed for divorce. It was then I remembered his wife of one year had accused him of cheating on her while a third-party friend of his wife had accused him of “mental and physical abuse”, of hitting her in front of their kids. They’re still sorting out the mess, but for whatever reason, the wife has found the situation unredeemable. The Cubs, along with MLB, are “investigating”. Hmmm, I thought to myself, what the heck is going on with these lovable Cubbies? Dirty slides, holier than thou attitudes, inability to apologize face to face, flipping bats on harmless fly outs to deep center, tripping up relief pitchers as they score their first run since Doubleday invented the game, accusations of spousal abuse (as yet unproven) …it’s all quickly gone to Chicago’s head, that much is clear. Maybe they’re not hovering around .500 due to a World Series hangover, maybe they’re hanging around .500 ’cause their heads are so large you must take an uber to get from front to back. As of this writing, the Cubs have gone on to win two of three from the Marlins and at any moment could reel off 10 in a row. Indeed, they’re a very talented bunch, though their starting pitching is suddenly in question. But there’s a smell coming off the shores of Lake Michigan and it’s because of an ego spill, not an oil one.
It remains open to debate whether Green’s non-action was correct or not. He took Jesus’ maxim, “turn the other cheek” and applied it to baseball. It remains to be seen how that’ll work out in the world of hardball, where its application basically is an experiment. Headed into Sunday’s game, San Diego has won three in a row, so the boys have responded. The espirit de corps is alive. Still, on Saturday, Cordoba got hit with a pitch high and tight, Myers got entangled with a runner running inside the baseline and hurt his wrist (yes, we’re holding our breath on that one) and Hedges misplayed a throw on a tight play at the plate where it seemed maybe he had visions of the Rizzo play running through his mind as he muffed the play. It could all be coincidental, but maybe not. The story has yet to be played out. I believe in Green though. He’s a singular character in a homogeneous world. I think he has what it takes. He shouldn’t have revealed his intentions to not hit Rizzo prior to the game, but hopefully he’s learned that lesson. The Taco Train marches on. With three Rule 5 players, a catch can starting pitching staff, a creaky 34-year old shortstop, and all the rest, we’re leaving the Phillies and Giants behind, gaining on the Reds and a host of others, and more or less holding our own. Green is doing more with less than just about any other, including Maddon. We’re not even halfway through and there’s a surprise at every turn. More awaits. Nestle in and enjoy the ride, heaven is waiting for us down the line. We just got to keep on battling through.