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'Embarrassing' episode needs to be stopped

Special to

September 2

Even the folks at the commissioner's office used the word "embarrassment" to describe the farcical theatrics of the Devil Rays in their Burt Reynoldsesque pursuit of Brian Daubach on Tuesday night.

Whether the Devil Rays really believe that Pedro Martinez intentionally threw at Gerald Williams -- which they do -- and no matter what Roberto Hernandez thought Daubach was doing by jumping into a fight to protect his franchise pitcher, all we know for certain is that it was Daubach who sent Massachusetts Gov. Lou Merloni to the hospital. We also know that crew chief Tim McClellan wishes he'd ejected Tampa Bay pitchers Dave Eiland and Cory Lidle quicker and that Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild, not an umpires' favorite, will soon be sent to the woodshed.

Pedro Martinez and Gerald Williams
Incidents such as this one should have no place on a baseball field.

Thankfully, it's over, or at least until the Red Sox go back to Tampa Bay for the last weekend (tango?) of the season. But there are issues raised by this fiasco that had all the dignity of a Monday night football game in Foxboro.

First, the big picture. "If the strike zone were called the way it is written, this wouldn't have occurred," says executive vice president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson. "We wouldn't have had the Carl Everett incident, because he wouldn't have been standing so close to the plate, and players wouldn't be wearing armor up and down their arms. We also wouldn't have such a power-friendly game."

Alderson maintains that over the years the strike zone has moved as far East to West as it has come down from the North. "It's evolved to several inches in on the plate and down and away," says Alderson. "Where strikes are now called are perfect areas for hitters to get full extension. If we go back to calling the inside corner, hitters will get off the plate because they can't get that extension on a fastball in on their hands. Everything in the game flows from the strike zone, and we have to get back to calling it as it's written."

At the end of the season, umpires will begin their first offseason program, similar to what other sports do for their officials. They will go to the Arizona Fall League and one of the issues will be the strike zone.

"The umpires have been very cooperative in everything we've tried to work on," says Alderson, who understands that umpire inexperience -- nearly half the work force in recent weeks have had less than a year's experience -- has resulted in problems. But veteran umpires have taken to quickly helping the young umpires in order to cut down on confrontations and have tried to gather together whenever necessary to try to get calls right.

Second, there is the Pedro issue. Does he intentionally drill hitters? Well, he has intentionally hit Robby Alomar in the past, and he may have clearly nicked one or two others. But in the name of taking back the inside part of the plate understand this: many opposing players believe he does intentionally drill batters, and in this case perception is important. Braves players and coaches watching the Gerald Williams incident before they took the field Tuesday night were loud in their support of their former teammate (Williams) and their decrying of Martinez as a chopmaster.

"That's so unfair and untrue," insists Martinez's valued battery mate Jason Varitek. "Williams was leaning out, the ball ran in. Come on."

Varitek may be right, but one Braves coach heatedly insisted, "he's going to get Nomar (Garciaparra) hurt."

For those Boston yahoos who know nothing about Gerald Williams, this is one of the finest human beings in the business. Rico Brogna confirms that as well, as does Alex Rodriguez. "I saw it and figured this had to be deep-seeded, because Gerald is one of the most saintly people I've ever known," Rodriguez said..

Williams is a man who didn't own a car until this year -- nor even looked into buying a house, which he now does -- because he used his money to help his 13 brothers and sisters and 26 nieces and nephews who, like Gerald, grew up poor in Louisiana and didn't have his gifts or determination to make the kind of money that baseball players do. Williams remembered that game back in May of this year when he led off the contest with a hit and Pedro stared at him with one of those "how-dare-you" stares that intimates, "Don't get comfortable and try that again."

In their last meeting in mid-August-when Pedro couldn't get his shoulder loose, Williams pulled the first pitch of the game hard and deep down the left-field line, though it landed foul. Pedro then stared at him again. Later, Williams reached out over the plate and got a key hit-and-run single as the Devil Rays built up a lead. So when Pedro went away, away and in to start Tuesday's game and then came bearing in and drilled Williams on the hand, Williams snapped the way Jeff Bagwell used to snap whenever Dennis Martinez used to hit him. You have to realize that Williams had his hand broken by a similar pitch in 1997 and at the time thought his career might be over.

But the greater issue than the rights and wrongs of this fight is what happens next -- such as when Pedro faces the Indians twice in critical wild-card race games in mid-September.

"In that first game in Cleveland, I'd tell my pitcher to drill some Red Sox player in the first inning and taunt Pedro to retaliate," says one opposing manager. So, because of this perceived reputation, does taking Martinez out of games now become part of the plan for opposing teams? Every time he throws a fastball inside to some diver --and we see batters spinning and falling from pitches on the inside corner as if they were nearly hit by a runaway truck -- does that batter charge the mound and try to get Pedro ejected? "This could get silly," said a Red Sox player Friday. "I hope that it doesn't happen, but it's something we have to prepare for."

"One good thing is that Frank Robinson has been there and has experienced all this stuff," says Daubach.

Terry Mulholland has a pitcher's suggestion for a rule change. "Anyone who charges the mound forfeits his right to the base he was handed because of being hit. So if you want to charge the mound, you're out. That way, it has to be worth it."

Several players, managers and general managers now support the notion that there should be stiff penalties for any player who either leaves the bench or his position. "Make it one-on-one, and there won't be anywhere near as much of this stuff," said one Red Sox player. "Then you wouldn't have all those Tampa Bay relievers telling us, 'We had to throw at Daubach because Roberto (Hernandez) ordered us to.' "

What happened in the old Thunderdome Tuesday night was an embarrassment that hopefully will end all similar future embarrassments.

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