Thank Heaven for Matt Harvey, because without him, the only thing even mildly compelling about the New York Mets so far this year would be their on-again, off-again war with their own part-time outfielder Jordany Valdespin.
Valdespin, who is hitting .246/.292/.439 with three home runs on the year, is swinging a hotter bat than any regular on the team not named Wright, Duda, or Buck, which is more an indictment of the Mets' hitting in general than a plaudit for the 25-year-old utility outfielder. Valdespin was a part-time player for the team last year as well, near the end of the season, and had an impressive spring training. And it was one of those three home runs -- specifically the one coming in the ninth inning of Friday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates as they stomped the Mets, with a final score of 7-3 -- that caused all sorts of grouchy consternation and harrumphing from the usual quarters as Valdespin flipped his bat and paused a moment to watch his dinger off Jose Contreras sail out of the park, making it 7-2.
Ron Darling of the Mets booth got in on it first, responding in a disappointed monotone to the homer that when you're losing, "you don't flip your bat like it's your moment -- there's no moment; you're losing." Terry Collins, the Mets' skipper, chastised his player in the media the next day in response to a question about the showmanship: "Will [the Pirates] throw at him? I have no idea. Fifteen years ago, the answer would have been yes." If you've been around baseball (or any endeavor steeped in tradition) more than ten minutes, you know that any time a veteran talks about the way things used to be, there's an unsaid wistful hint of nostalgia there for the times when men were men and rookies knew their place and all the baggage and nonsense that comes with that.
Collins wasn't about to openly say that he'd be fine with the Pirates throwing at his player, but he communicated loud and clear what he expected the reaction to be, and that he was generally okay with it. And sure enough, when Valdespin was sent in to pinch hit in Saturday's game (also a Pirates rout), the generic Pittsburgh reliever on the mound -- Bryan Morris, he of the combined 14.2 professional innings pitched across the last two seasons -- plunked him with the second pitch of the at-bat.
Now, my baseball career ended with a walk-on tryout in college, so perhaps I didn't play the game at a high enough level to answer this question properly, but: why do Clint Hurdle and the Pirates give a damn? Sure, if it's the Mets up 7-1 and Valdespin decides to bat flip before circling the bases on a meaningless home run, then get angry at the guy and throw purpose pitches and what have you. But if the team's down and he's celebrating a personal accomplishment, how does that reflect poorly on anyone but him and maybe the Mets? You're not suddenly losing the game. You have nothing to prove. You put Jose Contreras on the mound, for crying out loud; if anyone's insulting anyone here, it's Clint Hurdle. I mean, I know the real answer, which is that there's a certain code to uphold and there's nothing more important than the code -- especially when you've got an insurmountable lead (again) and can afford to send another fungible reliever out there to put a runner on base just to make a point.
In fact, were it my team that was being steamrolled to the tune of 17 runs in 18 innings and the opposing team decided to stop doing everything possible to win the game to make playground-level "points" by drilling one of the few guys to show any emotion during the stomping, I might be inclined to get angry -- not at the guy who got drilled, but at the Pirates for not only walking all over my team, but spitting on us on the way by. But the Mets weren't angry, because that's not what was going on: the Pirates were only able to hit Jordany Valdespin with a pitch because the Mets let them.
Collins professed ignorance of whether or not Valdespin would get hit in retaliation by Clint Hurdle's club before the game, and that's probably technically true: it's highly unlikely there was any kind of organized conspiracy to drill the Mets' backup outfielder with a fastball. But what his comments -- which Hurdle undoubtedly heard one way or another -- indicated was that he felt that old-school baseball demanded that Valdespin get a pitch in the ribs, and tacitly, that he'd understand if Clint Hurdle was the kind of guy who played old-school baseball. And I'm not sure there's another manager in the league more easily associated with the terrible, hilarious excesses of old-school baseball than Clint Hurdle, a man who should've been put out to pasture after the Pirates' second-half collapse last season.
So when Terry Collins puts Jordany Valdespin in to pinch hit in a 10-1 game with a no-name Pirates reliever on the mound, Hurdle does what an old-school baseball is going to do: He has his AAA-happy-to-be-here guy drill him. In Collins' defense, there was baseball logic for putting him in -- Collins had already double-switched a few times, leaving Valdespin and Mike Baxter as his bench guys, and of those two only Valdespin plays second. Of course, Collins could always just not double-switch like a maniac to force the issue in a game that's already out of hand, but managers will manage. Collins didn't send Valdespin to the plate to be hit, per se … he was just almost certain it was going to happen and didn't really care if it did. In fact, probably the only guy on the field who didn't understand what was going on until it was too late was Valdespin, which would explain pretty well why the vast majority of his anger was saved until he got back to the dugout. From his point of view, his manager, the guy who's supposed to be both protecting his players and doing what's in the best interests of his team to win, sent him out to the plate to wear one.
I'm assuming Collins thought this was some sort of teachable moment for the young man, but the thing about getting hit by major league fastballs is not that they hurt -- they do, a lot -- but that they can do damage, sometimes a great deal of damage, to the body of the player getting hit. That's generally a bad thing, especially if the player is your fourth or fifth best hitter at the moment (because, again, most of your classy veterans currently aren't worth a damn up at the dish).
The real damage here, of course, is probably to Valdespin's relationship with Collins. Even if Collins didn't send him up there to teach him a lesson in humility, the young outfielder certainly has license to read it that way. It's unlikely the damage is irreversible, or something that couldn't be fixed by the team getting hot for a month or so, but it's ugly, and it should be just as embarrassing for Collins as it is for Valdespin, because he should know better. Mets captain David Wright -- perhaps the only guy in baseball consistently earning that title -- has been running damage control for the past couple of days with a New York media hungering for quotes to bury Valdespin with; he's the person that comes out best in all of this, which is usually the case when it comes to the Mets.
It'll be interesting to see how long Valdespin lasts with the big club and if this affects his attitude at all, but even if he sees the light and turns into a model clubhouse citizen, something will still rub me the wrong way about hitting kids with fastballs to make a point.