A history of bad blood between the teams was rekindled when the Cardinals' Hector Luna, a second baseman himself, took out the Bucs' Jose Castillo on a slide that seemed hard but fair. Castillo tore up his knee and will miss the remainder of the season.
Possibly in retaliation, former Cardinal pitcher Rick White busted Luna up and in with a pitch the next day. That is the question Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan sought to have answered when he approached White on day three.
While Duncan insists the conversation was between "friends", White was concerned about the line of questioning. "Duncan asked me a question he probably shouldn't have," White told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If Tony had a question to ask, Tony should have come up and asked it. I would have talked to him. Instead, he went through Duncan. Skip (Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon) didn't like it too much, and whatever happened happened."
One can assume without much of a stretch that Duncan was asking if McClendon ordered White to pitch up at Luna. I have to give Duncan the "Duh!" award for that question. Certainly, the answer was obvious. Duncan asking the question would only lead to more trouble. He had to know that, yet he did it, anyway.
And that it did. McClendon stood up for his pitcher, as one might expect him to. The exact words that were exchanged between the men are unclear, but camera crews definitely caught Bucs' and former Cardinals' hitting coach Gerald Perry, living up to his job title. It looked like Perry leaned around McClendon, landing a punch to Duncan's jaw that knocked the latter's cap off.
The resulting sentence from MLB disciplinary czar Bob Watson was fines for all, along with suspensions of eight days for Perry, four for Duncan and one for McClendon.
That punishment caused Duncan to snap all over again. "When you look at the guy, Lloyd McClendon, who seems to think the way to manage a ballclub is to intimidate his players (and) other teams - is to intimidate somebody - and he gets virtually a slap on the wrist," Duncan said. "He's the most responsible for what happened because of the approach he took, because of the way he handled it. ... Lloyd McClendon is an idiot. This guy is off the wall. It was completely different than what he thought happened."
"When I was informed of what (Major League Baseball) had decided, I was shocked," Duncan said. "To think that I had had a conversation with a player that I had previously coached - not a threatening conversation, not a warning conversation, but a casual conversation with a player I had previously coached. And somebody that I considered a friend. And to be confronted and called out by the manager of the opposing team, in front of our team, embarrassed by the approach he took and challenged by him in front of our team. And then sucker-punched by one of his thug coaches. And I get suspended?"
I don't know if "thug" is the proper term, but I cannot defend Perry under any circumstances for instigating physical violence, let alone punching Duncan in the face. If I was Duncan, I would seriously consider initiating assault charges against Perry as a result of his actions.
McClendon, on the other hand, is a manager whom I have always respected. He hasn't been given much talent and when he did, it was traded away. His teams still played hard and he has always defended them.
In the tussle captured in the photo above, McClendon and La Russa engaged in a shouting match last season at PNC Park that put each of the skippers two days away from their respective benches.
Even though it cost Julian Tavarez a ridiculous ten-game suspension, I understood completely why last season, McClendon called out Tavarez for the pine tar he used to keep on the bill of his cap. At the time, McClendon struck me as a man who wanted the game played fairly – an admirable trait.
However, this recent combination of events has completely changed my view of McClendon.
It is well-known that the Cardinals throw at opposing hitters when they feel it is necessary. A traditionalist at heart, Tony La Russa considers retaliation part of the game. If you have any doubt about that, just read Three Nights in August. However, La Russa draws the line at the waist, finding any shots aimed at or near the head as inexcusable. That is likely the motivation for Duncan's question to White.
No one will likely ever know for sure if McClendon is a head-hunter or not. I was certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he felt the need to respond to Duncan's "idiot" comment.
"I recall (Duncan) probably used those same words with Dusty Baker and his staff. Draw your own conclusions," said McClendon.
Maybe McClendon is cracking under the heat of the pressure over the risk of losing his job. After all, in his five years at the helm, the Pirates are 336-446 (.430), including a 55-81 (.404) mark in 2005. At the time of the fight, the Bucs had lost 15 of their last 18 against the Cardinals. McClendon's last-place team is currently 31.5 games behind the Cardinals.
McClendon's contract runs through this season with a team option for 2006, but it has not yet been picked up. The notoriously-thrifty Bucs might decide to go in a different direction despite McClendon's bargain-basement salary. To top it off, their beloved skipper from the glory days, local resident Jim Leyland, has made it clear he wants to manage again.
But, even if McClendon is desperate for his job, it doesn't justify playing the race card. Yet, that is exactly what he did, veiled or not. Instead of taking the high ground, McClendon hid behind his race, trying to bring Cubs manager Dusty Baker, also a man of color, into the fray, ostensibly to support his contention. To his benefit, Baker didn't take the bait.
"That kind of leaves it open-ended," Baker said. "Everyone assumes because we're both black that that's the conclusion. He didn't say that. They can imply what they want. I don't think that's what Lloyd meant. I ain't in it. We have our own problems."
I thought McClendon was better than that, but I was wrong. May he receive what he deserves – a spot in the unemployment line. Maybe that will give him time to consider where that more important line should be – the line between defending your players and team and between becoming himself exactly what he accused another of being.
Dusty sees the world differently, too
After making the above comment, Dusty Baker continued, bringing up past bad blood between his Cubs and the Cardinals. Baker claimed the Cardinals "did say we were a bunch of thugs" last season. "That's a reflection of how some of them feel, I'm sure," he said. "Remember last year when they hit Matt (Clement) in the knee?"
Baker acknowledged there he and the Cardinals had troubles in the past, and said umpires called he and La Russa together before a recent series at Busch Stadium.
"There have been some (problems)," Baker said. "If not, they wouldn't have called us in before the series in July, because they didn't want any mess. . . . They said in their mind, if they thought somebody was throwing at somebody, I was gone, Tony was gone and the pitcher (was gone)."
This is the first time the umpire meeting has come to light. I give Jerry Crawford and his crew credit for nipping the problem in the bud. It is interesting to note that Crawford was the same ump who was working the Pittsburgh series noted above.
It just so happens that the starter for the Cubs in the first game of that series, on Friday, July 22, was none other than Carlos Zambrano. Mr. Zambrano has earned his reputation as both a pitcher who throws at opposing hitters as well as an over-hyped hurler who can get out of control on the mound. Just ask Jim Edmonds, who was the target of Zambrano pitches four times last season, by my count.
Am I the only one who drew the conclusion that Zambrano's volatility was the reason the two managers were brought together before that series?
Gee, I wonder why? Let's hope no one accuses Crawford and his crew of doing that for all Venezuelans.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.