SAN FRANCISCO — Sorry, but Major League Baseball had to suspend Ryan Dempster for throwing at Alex Rodriguez. Yankee manager Joe Girardi correctly noted that it would have been “open season,’’ on A-Rod if baseball did nothing. The message of a non-response from the league would have been, “Yeah, we hate him, too. Take your shots.’’
Certainly many fans would have been just fine with that, but as much as everyone hates A-Rod, it’s not OK for pitchers to have diplomatic immunity when they throw at the Prince of Loathe.
Hitting A-Rod Sunday gave most of you a tickle. It felt good. It was like unleashing a wild elbow in a crowded elevator of Sabermetricians, Jets fans, and folks wearing bicycle shorts. Anybody remember Dave Cowens taking a linebacker run at flopping Houston guard Mike Newlin and then declaring, “Now THAT was a foul!’’? Everybody loves a little frontier justice and nobody likes A-Rod, but gleeful Sox fans should remember that on Sunday night Rodriguez was standing in the same batter’s box where Tony Conigliaro was hit, on the exact same date 46 summers earlier.
Dempster and Sox manager John Farrell are sticking to their preposterous-but-necessary story that Dempster was merely pitching inside, trying to take back the inner half of the plate. It’s an important weapon when you pitch to Rodriguez. Ask Rick Porcello. Ask Bronson Arroyo. Ask Dempster. If you don’t take back the inner half, A-Rod can own the outer half and the baseball ends up in the center-field bleachers.
But we all know Dempster was sending some sort of message. With the bases empty he threw the first pitch behind Rodriguez. Dempster acknowledged that had he been watching from his couch, the fan in him might have thought the first pitch was suspicious. Dempster threw two more inside, then plunked A-Rod with a 3-and-0 fastball. This happened just a few days after John Lackey and Jonny Gomes had gone public with their objections over Rodriguez being allowed to play while appealing his suspension. It happened on the night of the “60 Minutes” bombshell that A-Rod had ratted out other players (including one teammate) when the walls started to close around him in the Biogenesis scandal.
There was even a third theory — a Junior High School theory — that A-Rod had once snubbed Dempster at a social or charity event.
Not true, Dempster claimed Tuesday afternoon before leaving AT&T Park to begin serving his five-game suspension.
“He’s never snubbed me,’’ said the Sox righthander.
Dempster is not appealing his suspension, even though it would have produced some delicious irony — a guy pitching during his appeal after hitting a guy because he didn’t think the hitter should be allowed to play during his appeal. Dempster’s acceptance of the sanction is a tacit admission that he threw at A-Rod, but it also makes sense because the Sox have a day off and Boston’s other starters can proceed, in turn, with no disruption. The unintended benefit is that we won’t see Dempster Saturday against the white-hot Dodgers.
“Just taking my suspension and putting it in the past,’’ said Dempster. “No point carrying on the appeal process. We have other things to worry about.’’
‘”It was Ryan’s choice not to appeal,’’ said Farrell. “We want to get the process underway and get this behind us and focus on tonight.’’
I submit that hitting A-Rod Sunday was one of the few instances in this season in which the Sox were not thinking about the game at hand. Dempster was not “focusing on tonight” when he made his 90-mile-per-hour statement.
Farrell disagreed with my theory.
“At the time, that was not in my mind,’’ said the manager.
The Sox were leading the Yankees, 2-0, when Dempster hit Rodriguez to start the second. It wound up being a two-run inning and it lit a fire under the Yankees. Rodriguez wound up going 3 for 4, including a long homer off Dempster and the Yankees rallied from a 6-3 deficit. The Yankees stayed hot Tuesday, sweeping a doubleheader from the Blue Jays, 8-4 and 3-2.
Dempster is the Sox player who most closely resembles a Bruin, and not just because he’s Canadian. He is grizzled, tough, and gets the most out of his ability. He is a team-above-self guy. He typifies the likeable, lunchpail, overachieving Red Sox of 2013. He takes care of his teammates and isn’t immersed in personal glory. That’s why Sunday’s demonstration was unfortunate. As good as it felt in the short term, it was one of the first times this season that the Sox got entrapped in a peripheral issue.
Hitting A-Rod was not about winning. It was about sending a message.
Like Farrell, the pitcher rejected my theory.
“I always put my team first,’’ maintained Dempster. “Everything I do between starts and everything I do between the lines is about putting the team first. I thought I was throwing the ball really well until that sixth inning. I just didn’t complete my job. If I had done a better job, it would have been a non-issue.’’
Boston’s play over the balance of the season will determine the lasting legacy of the episode. If the Sox win the American League East, Dempster’s drilling of A-Rod might be considered a galvanizing moment much like Jason Varitek’s mitt to the face of A-Rod in late July of 2004.
But if the Sox finish second, or lose a playoff bid by one game, Sunday’s feel-good purpose-pitch could go down as Dempster’s Folly.
Monday’s 7-0 bounce-back victory in the most beautiful ballpark in America was a good start for Dempster and the Red Sox.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.