September 19, 1968: Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees.
The Tigers had already sowed-up the American League pennant and were leading the Yanks 6-1 in the top of the eighth inning when Mickey Mantle comes to the plate. Mantle had not homered for several weeks. He was tied with fellow Yank Jimmie Foxx for third on the list for most home runs at 534.
The sparse crowd in Tiger stadium cheered Mantle as he stepped into the batter’s box. Everyone knew the future Hall of Famer was due to retire from the game. Tiger catcher Jim Price called time and approached pitcher Denny McLain on the mound. According to Price, McLain said, “Hey, big guy, should I let him hit one?”
Price said that it was a great idea. “Mickey was always nice to me. So, I went back behind the plate,” Price told the New York Times in 2009, and asked Mantle, “Want us to groove one for you?”
“High and tight, mediocre cheese,” the Mick said. Cheese is baseball jargon for a fastball.
According to the Times (July 17), “Accounts vary on how many pitches it took McLain to put it in Mantle’s wheelhouse, but Mantle eventually homered. Mantle reduced the stigma of McLain’s gift by hitting No. 536, his last, the next day off Boston’s Jim Lonborg in the Bronx.”
” ‘What we did was a gesture to a great player at the end of his career,’ Price told The Times. ‘It was offered by the pitcher — it was his suggestion, and Mickey went along with it. We’d already clinched the pennant. I don’t feel that I did anything wrong at all.’ ”
History, baseball history in particular, has a way of repeating itself.
So when Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, playing in his twentieth and final year came to the plate, National League pitcher “Adam Wainwright told about 30 reporters outside the National League clubhouse that he intentionally grooved the 1-0 fastball Derek Jeter slashed down the right-field line for a first-inning double. He did not appear to be kidding. Wainwright bounced the first pitch to Jeter.
” ‘I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,’ Wainwright said. ‘He deserved it. I didn’t know he was going to hit a double or else I would have changed my mind. I thought he was going to hit something hard to the right side for a single or an out. I probably should have pitched him a little bit better.’ ”
When Jeter was informed that Wainwright grooved the pitch, the Yankee shortstop said, “If he grooved it, thank you.” But, Jeter added, “You still got to hit it.”
Baseball has its own legends about such things.
“On May 22, 1963, at Chavez Ravine,” The Times writes, “the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale, a Hall of Famer, supposedly tipped a pitch to his former teammate Duke Snider, then with the Mets and approaching the end of his career, asking from the mound if Snider could still hit the high, hard one and then throwing one right there. Snider, a Hall of Famer himself, homered to right field, then touched the bill of his cap to Drysdale as he rounded the bases.
“Some observers believed Chan Ho Park grooved the pitch that Cal Ripken Jr. hit for a homer in Ripken’s final All-Star Game appearance, in 2001 in Seattle, even though it happened in a scoreless game and it was Park’s first (and last) All-Star appearance. Park never confirmed his intentions.”
However, baseball’s tip-of-the-hat doesn’t always show up for retiring players.
“One player who wished a pitcher had grooved him a fastball, or at least challenged him with one, was Pete Rose, on the day his 44-game hitting streak came to an end in 1978. Gene Garber, the former Atlanta Braves closer, threw back-to-back change-ups to Rose, who struck out on the last one in the ninth inning, ending his assault on Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Afterward, Rose criticized Garber for pitching ‘like it was the seventh game of the World Series.’ ”
And that’s probably one reason why Pete Rose will never make the Hall of Fame.
Nonetheless, not everyone favored Wainwright’s actions.
” ‘If that’s what he wanted to do, that’s fine,’ Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer said of Wainwright’s pitch. ‘I just know that if I’m on the mound, you’ve got to earn it off me.
” ‘He’s one of the best of all time. It’s his last All-Star Game. He should have his moment. If I was on the mound facing him, I want to get him out.’ ”
So was Wainwright’s “grooved” pitch to Jeter ethical?
On an ethical scale of 1 to 100, (100 being Watergate; 95 being steroids in baseball), I would rate this at about 10, in the same category as lying to your kids about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. True, the Tigers were already leading the Yankees by 5 runs when McLain threw his “gimme” to Mantle, and Jeter’s double, coming in the first inning, later became an RBI by Mike Trout, but…
There was something else there… something everyone in the stands saw and everyone watching at home appreciated. The Yankee captain was leaving baseball and it was great to see him get an opening double in one of his last high-profile games.
Do I feel cheated?
No more than when I found out the truth about Santa Claus.