TORONTO (May 15) — A confluence of adventure just before 6 p.m. Eastern on Sunday would suggest the majority of TV watchers in this city — perhaps nationwide — missed the fallout from last October’s playoff struggle between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers. On Sportsnet, the Rangers finally took exception to Jose Bautista’s legendary bat–flip in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Simultaneously, most eyes were likely tuned to TSN for the waning moments of the Toronto–Miami NBA playoff decider at Air Canada Centre; fans of the Raptors rejoicing in a 27–point annihilation of the Heat.
I happened to be watching the ballgame when Texas reliever Matt Bush drilled Bautista in the left hip with the first pitch of the eighth inning. There was far–more baseball than basketball drama, as the Blue Jays had coughed up a 6–3 lead in the 7th, and were now trailing the Rangers, 7–6. The Raptors were in cruise–control at a delirious ACC — moments from advancing, for the first time, to the final four in the NBA playoffs. Bautista took first base while jawing at Bush. Two batters later, Justin Smoak hit a routine grounder to veteran Adrian Beltre, who flipped the ball to Rougned Odor at second base for a force–out. An angry Bautista plowed into Odor with a blatantly–illegal slide. Odor got up; glared at Bautista; pushed him hard in the chest and then landed a right–hook to the jaw that would have floored most heavyweight boxers. All hell broke loose as the dugouts and bullpens emptied at Globe Life Park in Arlington.
TV SEQUENCE ON SPORTSNET OF TEXAS SECOND–BASEMAN ROUGNED ODOR TAKING EXCEPTION TO JOSE BAUTISTA’S ILLEGAL SLIDE AND TAGGING HIM WITH A RIGHT–HOOK TO THE JAW.
Back on TSN, my old pal, Jack Armstrong, was positively gaga. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this, Matty,” he crooned at broadcast partner Matt Devlin, “but I cannot wait to visit downtown Cleveland in the spring–time!” For decimating the Heat, the Raptors go up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference final. Game 1 is Tuesday night (8:30 Eastern) at Quicken Loans Arena (speaking of brawls, Quicken Loans is the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention this July, where, barring a last–minute coup, Donald Trump — double–gulp! — will be anointed the party’s presidential nominee).
The basketball revelers at Air Canada Centre and across the country on TSN were missing the fireworks in Arlington. The initial donnybrook lasted for seven or eight minutes before Bob Davidson’s umpiring crew could restore order. It included Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who emerged from the visiting clubhouse after being ejected earlier in the game by plate umpire Dan Iassogna for arguing balls and strikes. Odor and Bautista were thrown out of the match, along with Josh Donaldson and Rangers’ bench coach Steve Buechele. In the bottom of the eighth — as fully expected — Toronto reliever Jesse Chavez buried a fastball in one of Prince Fielder’s fleshy thighs. Chavez was immediately gonged by Iassogna, who had warned both dugouts after Bush plunked Bautista. The plate–ump escorted Fielder to first base with Jays catcher Russell Martin in lock–step, bouncing up and down like Cassius Clay in his early–60’s prime. Fielder just smiled.
PRINCE FIELDER, AFTER BEING HIT IN RETRIBUTION BY CHAVEZ, MEANDERS TOWARD FIRST BASE IN THE SHADOW OF RUSSEL MARTIN… AND THE DUGOUTS EMPTY FOR A SECOND TIME. SPORTSNET
On the Sportsnet baseball telecast, announcers Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler made a number of salient points about the long–simmering feud between the Blue Jays and Rangers. Both men wondered, somewhat oddly, why Texas would wait until encountering Bautista one final time this season to exact revenge for the playoff bat–flip (the Jays and Rangers do not meet again). Gibbons later called it “gutless.” But, to me, it made perfect strategic sense. Bautista has regularly proven an ability to take out frustration against opposing pitchers at the plate. He crushed a long home run early last season in Baltimore off nemesis–reliever Darren O’Day. When aggravated by the silly seventh inning of Game 5 against Texas last October, Joey Batts famously launched a series–clinching three–run homer to left–field off Sam Dyson. While standing at home plate, he demonstrably flipped his bat sideways in the air — a showy act the Rangers sought to avenge seven months later. Why would Texas annoy Bautista earlier in the weekend, knowing he’d come to the plate multiple times? I, too, would wait until the last–such opportunity of the season.
Adding to the drama was the Rangers’ choice to drill Bautista while clinging to a one–run lead. Texas had plated four in the bottom of the seventh to erase a 6–3 deficit. Under normal circumstances, the last thing a pitcher would do is deliberately hit a batter leading off the next inning. But, this situation was the antithesis of “normal.” On the Sportsnet telecast, studio–analyst (and former Major League catcher) Gregg Zaun proved again why he’s the network’s baseball MVP. Hardly ever bowing to “home team” allegiance or pressure; in no way a typical broadcasting “cheerleader,” Zaun spoke like the combative player he was.
“Baseball guys don’t forget,” he told studio partner Jamie Campbell. “As long as Jose Bautista maintains that flipping the bat against the Texas Rangers [in the playoffs] was okay, there’s going to be bad blood. I don’t imagine he’ll wave the white–flag and say ‘y’know what guys, I’ve changed my mind and I don’t like the bat–flip anymore.’ He should have been expecting what happened to him today. You can’t just go up there; swing for the fences; throw your bat all over the field and expect that everyone’s gonna love you for it. That doesn’t happen. Eventually, someone will take exception and go looking for their pound of flesh.
“I’m not sure if [the pitch today] was on purpose or not. It came at a pretty suspect time. There are very few guys that I would expect to say, ‘I don’t care about a one–run lead; I’m gonna smoke this guy if I want to and then I’ll get three outs.’ Typically, in today’s game, it’s the manager who tells a pitcher when to do something like that. In my opinion, if someone has the guts to go smoke Jose Bautista in a one–run game and put the tying run on first base, I would call that the opposite of gutless. That’s how guys that I played against pitched. They didn’t care if it was a tie ballgame. If it needed doing, they did it… and then got three outs. Pitchers like Roy Halladay [and] Roger Clemens. And, Pedro Martinez (Zaun could have added sneering Hall–of–Famer Bob Gibson, who might have aimed for Bautista’s head rather than thigh).”
GREGG ZAUN: TELLIN’ IT LIKE IT IS — AGAIN — EARLY SUNDAY EVENING ON SPORTSNET.
Concluding his argument, Zaun spoke convincingly of yesteryear. “You don’t see the game played like that anymore,” he told Campbell. “Guys are out there hugging and kissing around the batting cage and everybody seems to be friends. But, at the end of the day, this is professional baseball; it’s the big leagues. You’ve got teams beating up on one another to try and get to the promised land. To try to win that [World Series] ring. Being friends with one another is fine — after the game, at the restaurant, or over a couple of beers. [On the field], it is serious business. This, today, was the way the game is supposed to be played.”
THE START OF IT ALL: JOSE BAUTISTA’S BAT–FLIP LAST OCTOBER AT ROGERS CENTRE.