Drawing the Line

By Robbie Knopf

Yesterday there was a controversial incident in Cactus League play in Arizona when Ubaldo Jimenez hit his ex-teammate Troy Tulowitzki in the elbow with a pitch in an Indians-Rockies spring training game, and after Tulowitzki yelled at Jimenez and Jimenez apparently motioned back, the benches cleared and afterwards Tulowitzki left the game with an elbow injury. The intent of the pitch was questionable, but Jimenez did have bad blood against the Rockies after they refused to give him a long-term extension like Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and subsequently traded him. This brings up an important question: where do we draw the line in terms of rivalry and competitiveness in baseball, especially in spring training?

When I first heard about this play, another play of a similar nature came to mind. On March 8th, 2008, the Rays were playing the New York Yankees in a spring training game when Elliot Johnson rounded third base in an attempt to score but after the throw beat him to home plate he barreled over Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli and ended up scoring, breaking Cervelli’s wrist in the process. In that circumstance, Yankees manager Joe Girardi called Johnson’s play “uncalled for” while Rays manager Joe Maddon approved of it as “hardball.” What’s the difference between that play and this?

The circumstances were completely different between the Johnson play and what occurred yesterday. Johnson was fighting to make the Rays’ Opening Day roster while Jimenez and  Tulowitzki are both integral pieces of their respective teams. But the motivation could have been very similar. People have said that the Johnson-Cervelli collision was the moment that people knew that something was different in the Rays’ clubhouse in 2008 and that they really meant business in the AL East. We appreciate the play, no matter whether we consider it “dirty” or not, because it signalled a time of transition after years of losing as the Rays embarked on their magical 2008 run. Was it dirty? Maybe. Was it necessary? A lot of people would say yes. But that’s looking at the situation too narrowly. It wasn’t just that the Rays wanted to make a statement- Johnson himself needed to make a statement to his coaches. What would Joe Maddon and the Rays’ coaching staff had thought if Johnson had conservatively attempted to slide around Cervelli’s tag, with Cervelli smothering home plate, and was tagged out effortlessly? Maybe if he doesn’t barrel over Cervelli, he doesn’t make the team.

What happened today, if it really was intentional, was nonsense. There was no reason for any of that to happen. Ubaldo, if you want to show the Rockies you were worth a long-term deal, how about this for an idea: go out on the mound and start pitching like dominant starting pitcher you believe yourself to be.